Manipulation as Opportunity
Art and design aren’t just witnesses to our creativity; they also contain knowledge. But in order to advance innovation, we have to turn the world upside down.
In «The Origin of the Work of Art», Martin Heidegger describes thing, equipment and works of art. 1 A thing can be any object without appreciable benefits, such as a stone fig. 1 that we perhaps found on the street, whereas equipment refers to commonplace objects or tools whose shape suggests a utility, such as a hammer which functions by striking something. Heidegger designates works of art as artistic works in their various forms. Now, the potential of a tool is certainly inherent in a stone (such as a hand axe) and even a work of art. Leonardo already saw the sculpture in the marble and carved until he set it free, so it’s said – but in the end, there are neither firm boundaries nor different stages of development through which something must pass between thing, equipment and works of art. Rather, Heidegger’s cardinal terms deal with the categories we use to evaluate and take a stance on what confronts us. They help us question how we view objects, how important their function is for understanding, and how a work of art comes into existence.
If we stay with our example of a hammer and stone, we can apply different interpretations: equipment is shown most clearly in use, but artwork only arises from manipulation by the artist. A hammer itself only presents its material properties; it takes a stone to turn a hammer into a tool, because you can use it to strike a rock. fig. 2 In using it, we put its usefulness to the test. However, if we configure the hammer and stone with each other so that the hammer is unusable, new perspectives arise. fig. 3 It becomes a completely different piece of equipment, perhaps an idol of an imaginary miner’s society.
It is no longer possible to use it to work with stone, but rather, an extraordinary compilation of new perspectives from which we can view the hammer are opened up. In order to see a thing as something else than a mere thing requires use or artistic intervention. It is the artwork that reveals the manifestness 2 of the thing in a new way, which leads to the ability to create a new relationship with it.
Similarly, Marcel Duchamp’s «Fountain» fig. 4 is not as much a work of art because it is exhibited in a museum, but because its orientation (a position 90° from its normal position of use) allows us to look at the urinal as something fundamentally different than what it actually is. Not only is it located in an utterly different space than the bathroom; it is also installed in such a way that conventional use and viewing are altogether impossible. The signature, R. Mutt 1917, which is close to the water inlet and should supposedly shed light on the authorship, has actually always enticed viewers to develop a huge variety of interpretations. These various ways to interpret the object and to learn lessons from it are concentrated in Duchamp’s work. It is inexhaustibly packed with them.
The thingly character of an object lies in its material or its materiality. Its toolness lies in its use, which is at its greatest when the object’s materiality that serves its purpose becomes invisible. Only by using it do its qualities become revealed. Reading Heidegger’s remarks on the usefulness of the tool, 3 you would think you could almost hear Dieter Rams’ voice, who calls to mind one of the Braun brand business philosophies at the time, «a device must be like an English butler – at your service when you need it, otherwise in the background.» 4 Jan Tschichold also had already noted in one of his essays that «the noblest virtue of any script is not to be noticed as such.» 5
Design, however, can be more than simply useful. Opportunities for innovation arise from the manipulation and misuse of tools. The avant-gardists of the early twentieth century – Tristan Tzara, publisher of the magazine Dada, for one example – radicalized design by exhausting the technical possibilities of printing presses. They found their expression therein, in order to express themselves and talk about society. Detached from subtle philosophical discourses, whether art or design has a higher value, space for experimentation opens up where art and design overlap.
In «Designing Design» Kenya Hara analogously writes that the creation of art – just like design – employs the manipulation, one way or another, of objects perceptible by our sensory organs. 6
His exhibition Re-Design: Daily Products of the 21st Century gathered manipulations of everyday objects such as matches and toilet paper, inviting the viewer to view them with a different lens. Namely, as if seeing them for the first time. In this way, 32 of the leading architects and designers of Japan moved the peculiarities of everyday design into the consciousness of the viewer.
For example, Shigeru Ban transformed the typically round core of toilet paper into a square for the exhibition, leaving the visitor to contemplate form, logistics, use and waste.
The more of an object’s facets that we consciously perceive and understand, the more opportunities we have to imagine changing it and the world around us. One of the highest trump cards we can play is to show that design is not just a completely regulated activity, but allows for manipulation and stirring up mischief.