Manifestations (DDW): We Are All Monsters

Monsters are everywhere. In different sizes and shapes. In disguise or in plain sight. Sweet monsters, evil monsters, adorable and scary ones. There is one common feature: their behaviour is unpredictable and uncontrollable. That’s why we are afraid of monsters. They show us a mirror.

In essence, we humans are the monsters. The worst kind; just ask other animals. But that’s not the point here. Our behaviour is also unpredictable and uncontrollable. Of course, psychology and sociology are coming up with all kinds of theories and studies about our behaviour. They lead to models. But when humans merge with technology, there is no guarantee those models still work. Technology becomes us, or we become technology. We transform into something else.

That’s basic Marshall McLuhan, but still, our society thinks it can predict and control us. It separates humans and technology and tries to use old models to control both independently. We all know how that works out. This year’s theme of Manifestations is Monsters, and it wants to give us a view of the interaction between man & technology and discover the dilemma’s that are associated with technological developments. In short: who is the monster here? Technology? Humans? Both?

Due to the threat of Covid-19, Dutch Design Week (DDW) has been transformed into a fully online event. The heart of the physical festival centre, Strijp-S, hosts thousands of people and turns into a vibrant and creative city part for more than a week. Now, it looks deserted. The Klokgebouw, where usually the main exhibition takes places, is a tv studio now broadcasting talks, lectures and keynotes to mostly professional design enthusiasts. The typical average ‘looking for nice designs’ visitor isn’t a target this year.

Like most other expositions that are part of DDW, Manifestations moved online. In recent years, it used one floor of the Veemgebouw at Strijp-S and was without a doubt one of the most exciting parts of the week to spot cool and innovative critical, discursive and speculative designs. With the current theme, Manifestations continues to ask questions about the future.

In one of the many online exposition tours, creative director and curator Viola van Alphen uses, with purple hair and glittering stars floating around here, the metaphor of Cookie Monster, an adorable and fluffy character from Sesame Street. We are like Cookie Monster: we like to consume, but aren’t able to stop consuming, thus consuming too much, just like Cookie Monster eats too many cookies.

The more than fifty projects in the exposition question the relationship between humans and technology. A lot of them still use the metaphor of the possible distinction between humans and technology as a basis. Others manage to go beyond.

Nazli Inci is a good example. With her project Speed Queen, she won the Young Talent Award, part of Manifestations, yesterday. Her project is about freedom. In Speed Queen she considers religious clothing as a piece of equipment, a technology, and compares wearing a hijab or niqab during driving with the clothing of a professional race car driver. In a way, Inci makes a strong statement here: it’s not (only) the hijab or niqab that others dismiss as an ugly monster, it’s the woman wearing it too because a woman wearing religious clothing can not be reduced to a woman and a hijab/niqab.

Runner-up for the Young Talent Award, Adinda de Kousenmaeker, created fragile, hypnotic objects that respond to movements in its surroundings and suggest to be alive. The project, called Biophilia, tries to bridge the gap between humans and nature (or technology) by triggering empathy and sympathy. Instead of seeing nature or technology as monsters, De Kousenmaekers wants us to get emotionally attached by creating a notion of interaction and, in a way, communication.

GoDigital Babywear shows were a misunderstanding of our relationship with technology could lead to: a double-headed monster. In this project, Saskia Verleg placed a small screen in a baby’s outfit, which can be used as a smartphone. The mother can give all the attention to her social media and, indirectly, to her baby at the same time.

Manifestations 2020 offers interesting experiments that raise questions about our tendency to always see the other (either human, sentient or technological) as the problematic monster and encourages us to think in different metaphors. By using a range of various media – chats, streams, virtual tours, 2D websites, VR and 3D rooms – it offers a lot of ways to engage with the different projects and the theme in general.

Well done Manifestations 2020.

Let’s hope we can meet up offline again next year. Nothing beats a direct interaction with a piece of design or art and a talk with the designer or artist afterwards.

Manifestions 2020 is part of the Dutch Design Week and will be online till 25 October. Make sure to book a virtual tour with artistic director Viola van Alphen. It’s so much fun.

Visit Manifestations 2020 here and Dutch Design Week 2020 here.

By theo

neo-accelerationist (nX) | design and media sociologist | tells stories about alternative futures