3 May 2024

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”

Decades of writings, dialogues, and attempts to practice green-eco-good-better design, and yet here we are: not a snowflake’s chance in hell of keeping below 1.5º to say the least.

I’ve decided to lower my ambition: instead of trying to do good design, how about at least design that does no harm? So I’ve decided to make a car, that’s ‘harmless’.

Harmless: To all things, for all time. Harmless in its manufacture and its use. What a dream! But giving it a seconds thought – impossible. Impossible things can be revealing though.

The Harmless Car is work in progress. It currently has a ‘space frame’ type chassis, designed with the assistance of Prof. Jun Wu at Delft Institute of Techology, woven from coppiced willow; the least harmful material in world. It has large low pressure tyres (eventually to be made from dandelion rubber) so that should it run over a small snail (or any other creature) it will leave it unharmed. I am exploring options for harmless power… An impossible work in progress.

The Harmless Car as at Zone2Source

The Harmless Car is an object from a world with different design criteria, a different value system, a different calculus of harm from our own. It cuts to a formulation of design as a means of creating objects to transfer harm from one person, place, time or species, to another. Every design decision is political, because it contains this intrinsic calculus of harm: us or them, now or later?

If it’s inevitable your design will harm, on who or what is it just for that harm to fall? On yourself, your own family and lifestyle? Those most able to bear the harm? Those distant to you in time and place? If you could choose where to place your harm, where should it go?

Everything is connected. 

(so it’s impossible to) 

Do no harm.

The concept for the Harmless Car was developed during my participation in the Machine Wilderness residencies at ARTIS Royal Zoo, which Zone2Source organised with FoAM in Spring 2022. Further work was done during my solo show at Zone2Source in summer 2023.


Car weaving workshop, with help from Piet Hein at vlechterij.nl

Visiting Toon Wortel, the last Dutch wagon maker. Wheels are complex.

Photo: Marjolein Vinkenoog for Zone2Source

Photo: Marjolein Vinkenoog for Zone2Source

Photo: Marjolein Vinkenoog for Zone2Source

12 December 2018

Video Triptych
The Design Museum London
(2016, Commission)

I was commissioned to make a film on the subject of design and sustainibility for installion in the permanent collection gallery of the new Design Museum in South Kensington, London. I created nine episodes, a twenty minute long film across a triptych of projections. This involved shooting interviews with key figures in the sustainibility field, such as Steve Howard, Chief Sustainiblity Office at IKEA group in an IKEA living room store display, travelling to the largest open cast mine in the United States, and presenting a timeline of the earth’s atmosphere and human history from the year 20,000BCE to the present day.

In the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, in which he predicted that the economic problem of subsistence for his grandchildren’s generation, that is us, would be solved. We wouldn’t have to work because the world would be seven times richer. We are indeed seven times richer, yet we still work. Keynes failed to predict that as our wealth increases, so too do our desires.

Voodoo Economics is a rotational moulding machine running on tracks, which is used to produce little hollow plastic figurines on pedestals. Each pedestal has a phrase embossed on its pedestal, associated with some fundamental concepts from economics: participants in the economy are “led as if by an invisible hand” to provide goods for society, “a rising tide lifts all boats” including those represented by the homeless figurine, we (including our city traders) are rational animals, “Homo Economicus”.

The pedestals on the statues become muddled. The homeless man becomes “Homo Economicus”. The city trader is led to enrich himself. The invisible hand becomes drowned. The figurines are relics of a faith that is passing.

The project was commissioned for the Saint Etienne Design Biennale 2017.

As installed at CID Grand Hornu, Belgium

5 August 2017

In collaboration with Sioban Imms
Commissioned by Abandon Normal Devices 2017

In a few hundreds or thousands or millions of years, what trace will remain of our post-industrial industries, and its not-so-post industrial pollution? Digital culture is often discussed in immaterial terms, but it depends on material substrates: mineral ores, mined from seams, processed and purified. Given enough time all this knowledge, the cat gifs and the culture stored in disks, drives and tapes will sink back to become a smear in some rock somewhere.

We tried to connect the vastly different timescales of digital and geology: petaflops and epochs. To revel in the thought that the beat of our fast digital culture will inevitably fall back in to the slow drip of water in cave.

We set out to re-order a set of digital storage media according to their elemental materials. Instead of being organised according to date, dewey decimal or other criteria, we tried to return the organisation of the object to a more elemental state.

Working with Dr. Frank Mair, who is based in the Chemistry Lab at the University of Manchester, we partially dissolved some computer disks in acid. Then drawing on concepts from column chromatography, a technique used to sort and separate mixtures, we created Chromobytes: artificial stalagmites precipitated with the metal ions from discarded hard disc drives … A kind of geology made from digital technology.

Chromobytes was also shown as part of the Bioart and Design Award show at MU Musuem, Eindhoven.

With special thanks to Dr. Frank Mair and the School of Chemistry at Manchester University for their invaluable knowledge and development of the project.
26 July 2017

Living History is a 360º virtual reality ‘documentary’ film from the future, about the present. Film from the earliest days of cinema is magical: grainy moving images of people working in fields, or men in ornate hats walking along streets crowded with animals. These scenes were mundane everyday sights at the time, yet just over a century later they’re full of pathos; the ‘earliest surviving images of a bygone era’. Living History tries to take a perspective on our present, from some future. What will the people of two centuries hence think when viewing the images we’re creating in these early days of virtual reality? I made Living History while doing a residency at the Asia Culture Center, Gwangju, South Korea. You can watch it on the MilkVR Platform on the Samsung Gear Virtual Reality headset, or on an old fashioned flat screen here (use your ‘mouse’ to look around)..

360º still frames from Living History

The specifics of our beliefs will have been forgotten. The details of our wars and triumphs, will be of interest only to academics, or will be reduced to sweeping generalisations made about ‘the peoples of the late Holocene’… Our most advanced technology will be yellowed by age, in glass museum display cases. Probably. Or perhaps in two centuries the world will be such that no person will be interested in the ruins of our civilisation. But we have to hope that one day, someone in the future will wonder about us.

As installed at Asia Culture Center

On location at a Korean dairy farm.

I tried to become a goat to escape the angst inherent in being a human. The project became an exploration of how close modern technology can take us to fulfilling an ancient human dream: to take on characteristics from other animals. But instead of the ferocity of a bear, or the perspective of a bird, the characteristic most useful in modern life is something else; being present in the moment perhaps. Anyway I ended up in the Alps, on four legs, at a goat farm, with a prosthetic rumen strapped to my chest, eating grass, and becoming a goat. I wrote a few paragraphs about the project. I sent them to Princeton Architectural Press, who said if you write the rest of the project up, we might publish it, and lo and behold, a book! My second book in fact. I’m pleased with it, but krikey, I’d forgotten how difficult writing is! Anyway… some links: Amazon (US) Princeton Architectural Press (Publisher) Barnes & Noble (US) IndieBound (US) Amazon (UK) Abrams & Chronicle Books (Europe) Waterstones (UK) Books at Manic (Australia) Amazon (Canada) Chapters (Canada) Oh yes, once again thank you to the Wellcome Trust for supporting this project.

5 April 2015

I wrote a plugin for Adobe Illustrator that lays out a daily calendar on to rolls of wallpaper, showing every day of the week (and highlighting the weekends), for whatever time period you specify.

A calendar for a wall about two meters high can be made to comfortably extend 2oo years in to the past and 200 years in to the future. The wallpaper shows every day of the year for 400 years (about 146,000 days, depending on leap years).

So you can see every day of your expected threescore years and ten lifespan, laid out day by day: it forms a not particularly thick or remarkable band on the wall. Also the lifetimes of other generations, your parents and your children say, overlapping through the years.

The intention is a memento mori effect, and to connect with the continuum of history…

400 year-to-view calendar installed at Akademie Schloss Solitude

Stairs Installation

26 July 2014

In the 21st Century BC, Nebo was the Babylonian God of wisdom and writing. He determined the lives of every human being by writing their story on to sacred clay tablets, and thus was responsible for the ultimate fate of mankind. Now in the 21st Century AD, Nebo has been resurrected in a new guise, to free each of us from false choices and false aspirations. Together with Nebo, we will determine our own fate once again. Nebo is an online service and range of objects that employ some of the techniques of marketers and advertisers not to make you buy things, but to make you lead a more fulfilling and happier life. Nebo is advertising that influences you to act in your own best interests. Nebo will come to know you better than you know yourself. This project is a ‘tech start up from the near future’. It was progressed while I was one of the Design Museum’s Designers In Residence 2013.

Object # 1, Gateway Router You begin with Nebo by receiving the Gateway in to your home. It is a computer and wireless router, that ‘over powers’ existing wireless internet connections, becoming the gateway through which the devices in your home connect to the internet. When they connect to the Gateway, Nebo will install itself on to all your households’ computers, tablets and smartphones. In the beginning it’ll just track your patterns and habits, observing what you read, buy, and watch online, where you go and what you do with your phone, as well as gathering login details for the various online services you use. After around four weeks you will start to notice changes in what influences you’re exposed to.

Object # 2, TV Controller Nebo Object # 2 plugs in to your television. It knows what influences you’re currently seeing, and will intervene as necessary. It will change the meaning conveyed by adverts, show you content you need to see and occlude content that is of no benefit to you.

Object # 3, Purse Strings ‘You are what you buy’, so you and Nebo will change what you can buy, when, and where by taking control of your cash and cards. This wallet will influence what you buy, and even won’t let you spend money on certain things, at certain times at certain places.

Object # 4, Resoled Shoes Depending on the changes you and Nebo need to make, you may be required to send us a pair of boots for resoling. We’ll send them back with a GPS tracker and Nebo embedded in the new soles. You’ll be set destinations to wear them to and Nebo will know if you get there.

Scientific knowledge has played a key role in shaping our material world, and especially with regard to genetics, our social, political and spiritual lives also. But how dependant is scientific knowledge on historical accident and chance? Could we have a different, and not necessarily less valid, version of scientific truth if history had played out slightly differently – if certain observations had been made or missed, if individual scientists had been more or less successful, if different accidents had occurred? Or, does the scientific method act to eliminate the effects of historical chance, and our present state of knowledge is somehow necessarily true? Unlikely Objects explores these questions through a ‘Choose Your Own’ history of genetics, and the presentation of some more, or less, likely objects from imagined alternative histories of genetics. Supported by the Wellcome Trust.

Choose Your Own… History of Biology The book accompanying the project takes the form of a Choose Your Own Adventure, allowing YOU the reader to determine the course of biological science. Well that was the idea, but re-writing the history of science proved somewhat more difficult than I first anticipated! A somewhat broken archive of the project website is available here…. The book is illustrated by Nelly Ben Hayoun, with graphic design by Jacob Robinson.

Evolutionary Mythologies The Darwinian revolution never happened, and the focus of biological research, rather than genetics, has been the hormones that control the development of form. In a present where no Darwinian revolution took place, the idea that medical science can and should intervene to direct human evolution wasn’t sullied by the horrors of eugenics and genocide. However, as with all facets of human life, there is some disagreement as to which direction this should be. Certain families have nurtured the belief that the ultimate goal of humanity should be a ‘return to’ an angelic form. Children in these families have their upwards growth arrested to minimise weight, and through judicious injection of hormones that control bone growth, have their arm span greatly increased, and their upper body strength greatly enhanced. The elongated arms provide points for the surgical grafting of attachment points for artificial feathers.

Responsiveness Tester Under the current biological paradigm, known as the Modern Synthesis, the actions you take in your lifetime cannot change the genes you pass on to your offspring. The dogma has been that information flows from the genes to the body, but never from the body to genes. However, evidence is mounting that about ten percent of people have a highly ‘flexible’ genome, where certain traits they’ve acquired in life are passed to their children, through epigenetic mechanisms. These traits are overwhelmingly to do with personality and sociability, and are highly dependant on the environment in which the parent grows up. In an alternative present where the dogma of the Modern Synthesis hadn’t caused researchers to ignore epigenetic effects, society embraces the idea that some people have genes that are effected by the environment, and that these altered genes will be passed on to their children. The state therefore tests the population to determine if someone is of ‘the responsive type’, because the environment in which ‘a responder’ grows up has consequences for society: A nurturing environment and they grow to be highly social individuals, beneficial to society, but a bad environment and they overwhelmingly become criminals. Furthermore, the effects of this environment are passed down to their offspring as well. Therefore the resources of the state are directed towards the responders, with special, well funded schooling, to maximise the positive impact responders will have later in life. A form of ‘intergenerational responsibility’ is also implemented, with parents of responders held partly responsible, and liable to serve a part of any jail sentence, if their offspring grows up to commit serious crime. The Responsiveness Tester is employed nationwide to determine at 18 months, if a child is a responder. It gives them a mild fright, and gauges their responsiveness, by taking a sample of their saliva from the dummy, and measuring the levels of the stress hormone cortisol it contains.

26 July 2011

Pharmaceutical companies are experimenting with pharming – genetically engineering plants to produce useful and valuable drugs. Currently undergoing field trials are tomato plants that produce a vaccine for Alzheimer’s disease and potatoes that immunise against hepatitis B. Many more plant-made-pharmaceuticals are being developed in laboratories around the world. However, the techniques employed to insert genes into plants are within reach of the amateur…and the criminal. Policing Genes speculates that, like other technologies, genetic engineering will also find a use outside the law, with innocent-looking garden plants being modified to produce narcotics and unlicensed pharmaceuticals. The genetics of the plants in your garden or allotment could become a police matter… Commissioned by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council as part of the IMPACT Project, with the UCL Centre for Security & Crime Science.

Photograph: Theo Cook

Vicia faba (Broad bean – GM) Modified by amateurs to produce the class A controlled drug, Benzoylmethylecgonine (‘Cocaine’). Pollen from the modified plants was traced to a large crop being cultivated within three miles of a commercial farm, thus posing a serious risk of cross-pollination with food crops. Six convictions were made. Helianthus annuus (Sunflower – GM) Highly toxic, genetically modified strain of the common sunflower, causing irritation of the skin upon contact, with seeds that can be fatal if swallowed. Lycopersicon esculentum (Tomato – GM) Genetically engineered to produce high levels of Ebixam®, a patented drug used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. This sample was taken from a pirated clone plant, grown illegally on an allotment in East London. Its pollen was detected by a Metropolitan Police surveillance hive, leading to two prosecutions.

Click for a higher resolution version.

26 July 2010

(2010, Residency project) Myself and Steven Ounanian were offered one of the 7 week-long residencies at the Stanley Picker Gallery, as part of the Louder than Bombs programme.  Over the course of the week we tried to get a bicycle stolen that we’d bought especially for this purpose.  We equipped the bicycle with a hacked mobile phone, hidden in the saddle, which would take pictures and send us its GPS coordinates when  it was moved.  Our aim was to use this slightly uncomfortable situation as a way to interrogate the complexities of theft, and to hint at a future where tracking technologies have become ubiquitous. We turned the gallery into an office, complete with photocopier and coffee machine, where we monitored the situation, and held some talks where we presented our findings. Participating audiences viewed surveillance footage and photographs taken from the bicycle’s on-board camera, video of interviews we conducted with economists, priests and security guards, and debated issues of theft, art and social ethics raised by the planting of our Honeytrap. The bicycle, purchased from the Liverpool St branch of Evans cycles.  The shop assistant Ahmed who said he used to hang out with some bicycle thieves, insisted that this bike was the one to go for as it was a TREK, and had suspension.  Bicycle thieves also like disc brakes apparently, but our budget wouldn’t stretch that far. I wrote an App for the G1 Android phone which caused it to take photos and text us its coordinates when it was moved.  Steven added extra batteries which would keep it running for about three weeks we think, and hid the assembly in the saddle. Java code for the App here. The (quite subtle) hole drilled in the saddle for the camera lens. During our residency, a girls’ rather fashionable Dutch-style bike was stolen from outside the gallery. It was locked just next to our honeytrap. This suggests either we got the thieves taste in bikes drastically wrong, or they had read about our project on the gallery poster

Some photos from the bicycle camera, with their GPS coordinates. We moved the bicycle to the ‘notorious’ estate in Kingston. It wasn’t stolen there either.

Much has been said elsewhere about The Toaster Project, which I’m really pleased about! I’ll not try and reproduce it here, except to answer some questions and criticisms (which for the most part are totally welcome). So, firstly, yes, I realise toasting bread over a fire would’ve been a lot easier. But was a piece of toast (or designing a better toaster) really the point of this project? Secondly, yes I realise I cheated quite a lot! Though I really did naively set out with the intention of only using pre-industrial tools and methods, I soon realised that a) it was impossible, and b) by taking things like trains, or using wikipedia, or even not making my own shoes for walking to a mine, I was already in a sense ‘cheating’. In the end my view is that it’s the cheating rather than slavishly following the rules that make the project more interesting, and lead to discussions of questions other than whether it’s possible to make a toaster alone. Thirdly, I now know about the essay I, Pencil, written from the perspective of a pencil ‘as told to Leonard E. Read’, and I think it’s fantastic! There is a book of the toaster project, published by Princeton Architectural Press, and which has Japanese and Korean editions! The ancient original site for the project is here: www.thetoasterproject.org. I also did a TED talk about the project, and it’s been watched over a million times. Yowser. P1040045-840x630


Korean edition!


Japanese edition!