CONTAINER onwards

Inspired by the 1960's cult publication, Aspen, the original idea for CONTAINER was to push the concept of a magazine beyond any constraints of its printed-book format, to embrace and explore the single element of a regular magazine that is always sacrosanct: its physical structure. 

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To me, the idea was simple: take the basic notion of a magazine — varying content from different contributors around a specific theme — and express it through the language of physicality, rather than words and pictures. What could be more complicated?

Well, it seems, a whole lot. I know from a lot of conversations that any reference to magazine sets up an immediate expectation of a book and another, even more powerful expectation of a price. And that association is very powerful. 

Now, it might be that I've been a victim of some of the very same intuitive psychological mechanics that I've been exploring with ARTOMATIC – namely, the framing association of a magazine and its anchoring of low price-expectation. That CONTAINER shares more similarities with art multiples — against which, CONTAINER is an absolute bargain — proves the other human tendency that initial understandings are very hard to shake. More fool me.

However, I'm taking another look at where to take CONTAINER and while I'm clear it should move away from a magazine association, it could go in a pop-culture ephemera kind of direction (think Visionaire, Gasbook etc) or more in the direction of Art (multiples etc). I've put up a survey to ask these questions and emailed all the CONTAINER subscribers for their views. If you'd like to take part, please do so here.

Or if you'd like to add any random thoughts, please do so here.

Gutenberg's direct legacy to 3D printing: transform the world, starting with an exhaust pipe

Rightly so, a lot of people are getting in a lather about the possibilities of 3D printing and the chance to make a nylon thingumajig for their broken washing machine (or a gun).

3D printing burst into the wider public consciousness when a working gun was produced

3D printing burst into the wider public consciousness when a working gun was produced

But, the true future of 3D printing poked its head above the horizon this week, when bonkers supercar manufacturer, Koenigsegg, announced their latest invention, the Agera ONE:1 (so called because it has a one-to-one horsepower-to-kg ration with 1000 bhp and 1000 kg kerb weight). In amongst the mouthwatering (if you're into that sort of thing) specifications is a 3D printed titanium exhaust tip.

The Koenigsegg Agera ONE:1 features a 3D printed titanium exhaust pipe tip — not a world-changing product in its own right but indicative of a world-transforming technology

The Koenigsegg Agera ONE:1 features a 3D printed titanium exhaust pipe tip — not a world-changing product in its own right but indicative of a world-transforming technology

Only a handful of the Koenigsegg Agera ONE:1 will be made, so high-tech low-volume manufacturing techniques feature heavily

Only a handful of the Koenigsegg Agera ONE:1 will be made, so high-tech low-volume manufacturing techniques feature heavily

Up until now, 3D printing had always only used plastic — usually SLS nylon — to make accurate and enchanting three dimensional objects. When I produced the GPS for James Bridle for CONTAINER #1:Hot&Cold, I worked with Nick Allen of 3D print UK and asked him about other, more durable, materials and he was dismissive, saying he didn't think metals would be available for the foreseeable future. But, here on a product you can buy now (if you've got a spare £880,000), is a part printed in a very durable metal. 

So, what's the significance of this, other than for super-rich petrolheads?

Genius Johannes Gutenberg

Genius Johannes Gutenberg

Prior to Gutenberg, a book was a very precious thing, costing the equivalent to a small farm in the early fifteenth century. But it was the improvement in accuracy — drunken scribes impacted mistakes in a literary version of Chinese whispers — as well as the reduction in cost that had the transformative effect on mankind, society and culture.  Prior to printing, books were elitist, mystical and unreliable. The invention of printing — to name but a few of its legacies — created: scholarship and learning, advancements in science, the reformation, democratisation and restructuring of self-governing nation states, advertising and media, childhood, mass-literacy, intellectual property and mass-manufacturing.

Within a generation of Gutenberg, there was a local print shop, usually family run with a master printer and a few apprentices, in every small town in western Europe. So perfect was this set-up that printing was entirely untouched by the industrial revolution; indeed Gutenberg had already created mass-manufacturing two hundreds before Arkwright and four hundred years before Henry Ford. This was local manufacturing, meeting the communication needs of any local town — posters, leaflets, booklets etc. Indeed, this model still survives and thrives today — I produce John Willshire's Artefact cards at Axminster Printing, a family-run local printer for a small market town.

The local medieval print-shop was a perfect local manufacturing hub and still survives today

The local medieval print-shop was a perfect local manufacturing hub and still survives today

Mass manufacturing is based on a simple rule: Make The Same Thing Time And Time Again (MTSTTATA) — tool up and create economies of scale to make specific goods from one or a few locations and then ship them to markets around the world, any time disadvantage of shipping is irrelevant as the goods are the same, so can be held in warehouses and shops as inventory for instant access . This is world we know.

Local manufacturing is very different: it has to meet the disparate needs of all of its customers and has to be able to offer the goods at least as cheap as the mass-produced alternative. Since it can't predict exactly what they'll want and can't keep stock of endless possibilities, it needs to manufacture on-demand and with service levels that come close to picking things off the shelf (this is the biggest challenge). Your local print shop, like Axminster Printing is already doing it — they'll produce a bespoke poster for your garden fete (not anybody else's) on-demand from a series of basic materials (e.g. gloss coated paper). 

The 3D printing version of this would be no different: a series of basic materials (plastic, metal etc) would be used to create an endless range of three-dimensional goods for all sorts of different utilities.

But, once established, a network of local 3D print shops could have a revolutionary effect —  every bit as far-reaching as Gutenberg's invention — since it will render the mass-production obsolete. It could:

1. Reverse the industrial revolution and eliminate the need for large, location-specific factories

2. Dramatically reduce the environmental impact of goods shipped across oceans

3. Foster mass-creativity (just as printing fostered mass-literacy) and the possibility of an explosion of grass-roots human invention.

4. Create goods and products for genuinely individual needs and foster a new highly individualistic culture

5. Negate the advantage of big corporations vs small — every local 3D print shop's market would be constrained by the convenience of driving to the next one.

6. Negate the advantage of deployment of capital, creating a radical democratisation of finances and a new post-capitalist economy

7. Erode the political and economic differences and advantages of developed vs undeveloped nations

Plus, no doubt many more...

This could be a thing of the past

This could be a thing of the past

Ironically, many of these ideas have been hinted at as consequences of the internet — e.g. social media and The Arab Spring etc — but the internet is ultimately only an information distribution medium and its transformative powers will be dwarfed by a transformation of the production of physical objects. Because the ultimate value of information is nothing (Information Wants To Be Free), its power lies in what it allows us to do physically. We are, after all, physical animals living in a physical world.

Gutenberg's legacy was immense and it will directly inform an equally bigger transformation of mankind's existence — and the future can be seen in the exhaust pipe of an outrageous Swedish sportscar. 

OgilvyOne - Putpockets

OgilvyOne have produced "a hard hitting integrated campaign" for Crimestoppers UK, the crime-fighting charity. The campaign is essentially a leaflet hand-out, but with a difference. 

Based on the insight that people are complacent to the risks of having their valued possessions lifted from their bags and pockets, Ogilvy's idea demonstrates how easy it is to remove a valuable object from a bag or pocket by placing an object in a bag or pocket. Using ex-pickpockets to do the dipping makes it authentic and, no doubt, more news-worthy and it comes with the obligatory video, social media and cross-media activation. 

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However, what I'm intrigued with is the nature of the physical communications they used. The targets for thieves are increasingly smartphones and tablets as well as purses and wallets. These are treasured possessions that their owners are intimately familiar with. Using real smartphones and iPads was obviously out of the question, and they could have used simple square-cut leaflets with the message on... but didn't.

A piece of card shaped like a wallet references a wallet in a split-second intuitive encounter

A piece of card shaped like a wallet references a wallet in a split-second intuitive encounter

In the split-second that this idea needs to really hit-home, it needs to trigger primitive responses — enough to get the victim's attention. So, they used printed cards cut into the shape of wallets, smartphones and iPads to momentarily baffle and perplex.

Even though the shaped cards weigh nothing like the real things, their shape and stiffness are enough of a reference to confuse people's primitive instincts — the simple, immediate mental processes that are there to alert us to danger.

This is a perfect example of what Daniel Kahneman describes as our two processing systems — System 1, the primitive, immediate, quick-and-dirty, intuitive reflex that's there to alert us to danger and give us a quick summary of an unfamiliar situation — and System 2, the slower, cognitive process that we employ to actually think. For this communication to work, it has to employ both: the 'victims' need to be momentarily nonplussed when they reach into their pocket and feel something that doesn't belong there — a piece of card is less likely to be in their pocket than a piece of paper — but the alert provided by System 1 is enough to draw the attention of System 2.

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As Kahneman pointed out, System 1 is a crude radar-like way of processing information; it works through a series of short-cuts — heuristics —to provide a quick-and-dirty snapshot of the world around us. Because it's fast and crude, it's easily fooled. 

What I find so intriguing with this communication is what it took to fool System 1. Physical objects speak to these primitive systems, whereas words and pictures speak to our intellect — System 2; what we think about.

Had it been a printed leaflet with a message on — to System 1 — it would merely be a piece of paper. As a physical object, it would have no intuitive resonance; it would require reading and thinking about and the reality is that it would probably be ignored. Printing it on card and cutting it into a shape is enough of a reference to tell our primitive brains that this is an object referencing something familiar — the essence of what you need to know without you having to think about it.

The object-reference speaks directly to people's intuitive responses — causing the necessary split-second, momentary confusion to make people pay attention to the written message. A perfect example of Kahneman's Systems 1 and 2 working in concert and of a communication designed to exploit it. 

Images c/o OgilvyOne, The Drum, CabralGoat

In The Making exhibition review

In The Making at the Design Museum is an intriguing prospect that both illuminates and frustrates. It sheds a rare light on manufactured objects by showing them in their part-manufactured state, but misses a trick in not explaining the simplicity of manufacturing — an oversight made worse by putting it next to an exhibit of The Design Museum's permanent collection (of chairs and angle-poise lamps) that did actually promise to say something about materials and processes.... but didn't.

In The Making shows the magic of manufacturing by showing otherwise familiar objects in an unfamiliar part-manufactured state

In The Making shows the magic of manufacturing by showing otherwise familiar objects in an unfamiliar part-manufactured state

In The Making is a part of the modern genre (trend?) of curator-shows — put together by product design duo Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, who delightfully and modestly only included one of their own creations out of a total of 24 objects. 

The idea is exquisitely simple — intervene in the mass-production process to show the familiar object in an unfamiliar light.

Perhaps the most pleasing process (on film) was the hand-moulded glass marbles, which included the health-and-safety-annurism-inducing process of shaping the white-hot molten glass with old newspaper.... and no gloves!

Perhaps the most pleasing process (on film) was the hand-moulded glass marbles, which included the health-and-safety-annurism-inducing process of shaping the white-hot molten glass with old newspaper.... and no gloves!

Now, that light — a single powerful spot light on each object — as well as making photography very difficult, makes for a crudely fetishistic display, shone as it is within a blacked-out room with the objects placed heroically on black plinths. This felt unnecessary as the items were beautiful enough on their own and the lighting put them in an unfamiliar context, so the comparison between their raw and finished states was harder to make. 

The hero-lighting made photography almost impossible and didn't add anything to understanding the objects

The hero-lighting made photography almost impossible and didn't add anything to understanding the objects

A nice conceit was the quantification of the interruption in the production process — the caption gave a percentage of how far the object presented had progressed in its journey from raw material to finished object. What was missing was any explanation of how that figure was arrived at — time? Number of individual processes? Money? It would have been nice to know.

The percentage of manufacturing figure seemed pretty arbitrary when this printed sheet of bank-notes was quoted as being 50% complete, yet by the caption's own admission, all was left to do was cut it into notes

The percentage of manufacturing figure seemed pretty arbitrary when this printed sheet of bank-notes was quoted as being 50% complete, yet by the caption's own admission, all was left to do was cut it into notes

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The exhibit included before-and-after photographs of all the items, which seemed a bit odd, as the difficult bit was obviously obtaining the part-made pieces; the finished things would be readily available and it seemed a shame to not get the chance to compare them like-for-like as physical objects. Perhaps more successful was a series of informative videos showing the things being made in various factories, which had a nice BBC-esque public-information feel to them. The videos were also silent, and this allowed you to watch all three screens at once, switching your attention from each key-process and skipping the bloke loading it into the machine or pushing it around on a pallet truck — a big bonus for those of us with cat-like attention spans.

But, my biggest gripe was that there was an obvious story to this exhibition that they failed to tell: the simplicity of manufacturing. Like Shakespeare's theory of dramatic narrative, there are only a few basic types of manufacturing — cutting, bending, sculpting etc.  — and this show superbly demonstrated, but didn't explain, the fundamentals of these processes. It seemed to be glaringly omitted, almost as if that would be revealing too much.

A complex object like a football boot is made of simple die-cut shapes of flat material, bonded together.

A complex object like a football boot is made of simple die-cut shapes of flat material, bonded together.

That said, it was still a triumphant celebration of manufacturing. Set as it was in the Design Museum, it put the factories and the skills of the craftsmen and women who make this stuff centre stage. The exhibition design, by Build, was clean and simple and the curators did a superb job of finding a truly eclectic range of objects, mostly from the UK.

Most intriguing was the gas-injection-moulded chair, which was interrupted before the liquid plastic had fully formed the chair.

Most intriguing was the gas-injection-moulded chair, which was interrupted before the liquid plastic had fully formed the chair.

As it claimed, it showed familiar objects shorn of their familiarity; making you look more attentively (hence why it didn't need the theatrical lighting) at their form to appreciate their innate beauty and the power of adding value to raw materials to create products of genuine worth — politicians take note.

One amusing detail was the catalogue: GF Smith had kindly donated the paper, and Hobs Reprographics the printing, but obviously nobody stepped up for the binding. So, someone had the bright idea that the punters should bind it themselves, resulting in a kind of information-sheet-all-you-can-eat-buffet of pages on each of the objects. Binding rings were supplied for everyone to break their fingernails on putting them together. But, I guess, conceptually, this was a brief experiment in DIY manufacturing.

The printed version of an all-you-can-eat-buffet

The printed version of an all-you-can-eat-buffet

Based on the sample of people I saw trying to make this work, a large percentage were baffled by them.

Based on the sample of people I saw trying to make this work, a large percentage were baffled by them.


Objects are human

I did a talk at Start JG at the beginning of December and rather than go back to my last deck, I thought I'd take the time to revisit the structure and think about it further — to see if anything new or interesting came to light.

My first Slideshare presentation, which has racked up over 50,000 views thus far, was about the value of objects within the context of printing. The second was about objects in general (not printing), but there seemed to be an element missing — that it was more about how objects speak to people, but not so much as why.

So, in going through it again, I remembered something that had come up in an earlier talk at LBi, that we pepper our everyday language with the word things. And looking up the word things in a dictionary provided the clue: one of the many definitions was:  An action, event, thought, or utterance: matters (“things have changed”), characteristics (“they had one thing in common”), abstract patterns (“the latest thing in retail”). In other words, any other separate entity.

Or more specifically, the use of the word things is actually applied to quite abstract and nebulous concepts, ideas and notions that are anything but self-contained entities. Indeed, the application of the word is indicative of what's going on in our minds — we are mentally objectifying concepts in order to make them fit and aid our understanding. At which point, I remembered that Baudrillard in his book The System Of Objects had observed that all human infants learn to relate to objects as a stepping stone to relate to people — the beginnings of their process of understanding themselves as separate entities — the self.

This seemed to be a breakthrough thought — if human infants' initial encounter with objects informed their fundamental understanding of the world, then that understanding would be central to all human understanding of the world. Objects are what we learn first and objects are second-nature to us. 

Aside from the fact that this infant experience is universal — all human infants stuff inanimate objects in their mouths, not because they're hungry, but because they have more nerve endings in their mouths than anywhere else — it means that the connection with objects and people is fundamental to the human condition. Objects are the same as people. 

Now, perhaps thirty years ago, this would be of little relevance, since aside from the mental convenience of thinking of things, all of our encounters would be with distinct, separate entities. However, with the advent of digital communications we are growing increasingly reliant on a technology that doesn't exist in neat, self-contained entities (though the false objectification of digital elements into folders, apps, icons etc. are all testament to the need to make them appear familiar). Digital isn't like us; it's alien (anyone who's experienced that feeling of being immediately bamboozled by web developers will appreciate this).

For people and organisations faced with the task of communicating complex or hard-to-understand concepts and ideas — especially digital ones — turning those ideas into something that fits the human understanding or the world will make them easier to grasp.

That objects are the same as us is a real benefit. Digital technology isn't the same as us; it's actually a whole interconnected maelstrom of code and numbers that isn't separated into neat separate entities.

Furthermore, digital is an incredibly efficient way of distributing words and pictures (an improvement on printing, but no different) that all have to be thought about. Digital is a predominantly intellectual medium — you have to think about the content in order to understand it; intuition plays little part. Yet, the explosion of digital media forces a primitive human response to any complex situation — to make us rely more on intuitive judgements; to think less and feel more.

So, a paradox is developing. Technology dishes up vast amounts of information we have no time to process, forcing us to become more intuitive, but at the same time, confronts us with a media experience which intrinsically has no intuitive interaction. Thus we crave a different way of understanding — something more real, more intuitive; something more emotional. 

Physical objects, in being like us, might be a very natural way of bridging a gap in our communications. Quite ironic, given that they're the very oldest form of communication. 

CONTAINER - maybe not a magazine after all

I'm quite used to creating things that are new and within that, I accept that their point might not always be obvious. I also accept that I probably don't help matters by explaining them in an overly complicated or misleading way. But, over the years, I have learned that in such circumstances, it's best to just re-think it and explain it in different terms.

So it was that when I left the Magazine conference last month, I came away thinking while CONTAINER might be a magazine conceptually, the specific association – magazines are printed book – set up irresistible comparisons that undersold CONTAINER. Magazines are rarely over £10

CONTAINER is a collection of ten original and exclusive (i.e. you can't buy them anywhere else) conceptual art objects within one handy package. And it probably makes more sense to refer to it as what it actually is, a box of objects, rather than what the idea behind it is. 

Anyway, here's a film that explains it...