Niels Schrader interviews Alice Twemlow
Design and the Deep Future
Sifting the Trash
It’s usually me doing the interviewing but in this case I had the pleasure of being interviewed for Novum magazine by Niels Schrader, a colleague at the KABK and former participant in my Research Group. We chatted about my role at KABK, the differences between different variants of research, and my own research into deep time, trash, and salvage.
Alice Twemlow is a writer, critic and educator whose work focuses on graphic design. Her interest in material culture started at a young age when she accompanied her antique dealer parents to auctions and junk stores, where she would be given a bit of money to acquire treasures. Once she found a set of vintage Mickey Mouse Christmas tree lights, which she sold, using the proceeds to buy a Casio calculator watch. Her values have since changed, but her interest in designed objects and their afterlives remains. Niels Schrader met Alice in Amsterdam to talk with her about the new, post-design ideas she is exploring.
Niels Schrader: Alice, how do you see your role as a design “lector”?
Alice Twemlow: There is a big divide in the Netherlands between the places where design as a practice is taught and the places where research is conducted. So in the educational context, a lector is appointed to link the applied academies with the more theory-based universities and coordinate (applied) research. In that role, I’m trying to establish a dynamic research culture at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague which includes highlighting the kinds of research already going on in the educational programme. In addition, I try to find ways to connect it to what is happening at Leiden University where I am an associate professor of artistic research. Examples include enabling tutors to conduct individual research, experimenting with teaching tools, facilitating interaction between tutors in theory and practice, and disseminating knowledge through a yearly research symposium. At the centre of the lectorate is a research project titled “Design and the Deep Future.”
NS: What is the “deep future” of design and how does it look?
AT: During my PhD in Design History, I was trying to understand how design had been evaluated, criticised and interpreted over time by looking at five particular case studies from different time periods. From this investigation, I learned that the recurring theme in all these specific moments was in fact trash or, more specifically, the landfill. Design criticism tends to focus on the perfectly designed product coming off a conveyor belt without attending to what happens to its use, let alone what happens after its period of usefulness is over. As a result, I got more and more interested in the infrastructure of trash and the transformation of a product to trash.
By understanding the ideas behind the circulation and the physicality of trash, I realised that everything is centred around the concept of time—or, more specifically, geological time. Its scientific name is “deep time,” a concept which was developed in the 18th century by Scottish geologist James Hutton. It introduces a new magnitude of scale that puts the present time in a different perspective. We design products with lifecycles much longer than our own. So with the concept of “deep future,” my goal is to create an exploratory lens through which we can start looking at urgent design problems like digital detritus and space junk, engage with the ethical and cultural significance of the Anthropocene, expand the idea of design in the public perception beyond that moment of newness, and show how design decisions we make today have these incredibly long-lasting implications.
NS: Can you tell us more about your book Sifting the Trash?
AT: Sifting the Trash provides a perspective on design history from the 1950s onwards and it focuses on critique of products rather than the products themselves. Back then, criticism rarely dealt with the transformation of a product over time but rather encouraged addiction to consumption. The book also aims to capture the wider social, political and economic context of design critique as well as the lived experience of the critics themselves. The book advocates for a design criticism that acknowledges the full life cycle of a product rather than solely the basic consumer cycle.
NS: Is there a difference between artistic and design research?
AT: If there is a difference, it manifests itself mainly in the external reference points. Artistic researchers can dwell quite happily in their own worlds, contemplating the nature of identity, the way of being, etc. Designers on the other hand respond frequently to the world around them. They consider issues of social, political, and economic urgency, and offer their own interpretation or reaction. However, since in my work I prefer to focus on the methodology rather than the subject, the differentiation does not matter to me in practice. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if my interest in “post-design” is not just in the sense of the repair, reuse and decomposition of products beyond their box-fresh state, but also in the sense that the very word and concept of “design” itself as a differentiator in research may be becoming less relevant.
NS: What are you most interested in at the moment?
AT: I recently visited the Shipwreck and Beachcombing Museum Flora on the island of Texel in the north of the Netherlands. It is entirely devoted to the many thousands of objects found on the beach, washed up from shipwrecks—things like headless dolls, shoes, fishermen’s thick rubber gloves, car licence plates crumpled like paper, buckets, tennis balls, and construction helmets. They are stacked floor to ceiling in this bizarre museum and seemed to me to be the dark underbelly of a design museum—visual testimony of mass production’s hollow triumph. Here distinctions of value, function, leisure and labour have all been washed away by the sea. A plastic truck, that would have once had smooth plastic surfaces, which were now worn away to something like a fabric, seemed to seek a return to its hydrocarbonic state. A 45-year-old slab of synthetic rubber, cracked and mottled as a piece of limestone, was on its way to becoming sand. I found all this absolutely fascinating, perhaps because I grew up by the sea in Devon, where I would often beachcomb myself, but also because of the texts I’m reading at the moment by thinkers like Donna Harraway, Timothy Morton and Isabelle Stengers, about the increasingly blurred divisions between object and subject, nature and culture. Because of all of this, I feel that the concept of salvage will be my next area of inquiry.