«We recognize design processes to have an effect and determination, a form of transparency. I am a globalist when it comes to ideas» – Joseph Grima in conversation with Formafantasma
FF Formafantasma (Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin)
JG Joseph Grima
IK Ibrahim Kombarji
IK Transparency comes from trans – ‘to go beyond’ – and parere – ‘to appear’. In both your practices, the processes behind the physical outcome is key. Can you give us more context on Ore Streams (2017) in the case of Formafantasma?
FF In Ore Streams (2017), many people interpreted the objects we did as the outcome of the research – while instead we used the making of the objects as a way to get in contact with producers. A sort of Trojan horse to venture in a system that often is not transparent in their processes. It was a way to unpack those complexities. When we were first going to recyclers, we were not able to explain to them exactly what we were doing. What we did in a way is use their own language. We did videos of the disassembling of electronics as a way for us to speak with them. When seeing the videos, they started to explain to us the processes of recycling electronic waste.
IK The format of the video became a tool to open up arenas of dialogues and visualize processes.
JG The question of transparency in this context, is also about representation, who and what is part of a specific project. It’s always been central to my interests, and to the kind of rationale behind Space Caviar as a studio. One of the first projects that we worked on was Landgrab city for the Hong Kong Biennale of Architecture in 2009. We were asked to come up with an installation in a public square of Shenzhen. We proposed to represent the city using simple satellite views. The installation is comprised of two parts: a map of one of the city’s dense downtown area, home to approximately 4.5 million people, and a plot of cultivated land divided into small lots. This land is a representation, at the same scale as the map, of the amount of territory necessary to provide the food consumed by the inhabitants of the portion of city sampled in the map. Creating a kind of imaginary new city, that is a representation of not simply the consumptive geography but also the productive geography that was necessary. One way that modern or late capitalist economies are set up is as much about hiding things from your consciousness as it is about representing and making connections. We always talk about Globalisation as sort of connecting everything together. It is just as much about removal. You could think of the city as a stage, a theatre where you can get this concentration of information. It is actually about removing all of the other geographies that are necessary.
IK In a way to render visible an adjacent reality?
JG Indeed, it is the city as an artifice.
FF This makes us wonder, if this is also an outcome of colonial practices, where the creation of sectional responsibility, made sure that the people in Europe were never feeling responsible for the atrocities happening abroad. This idea you mentioned about what is hidden reminds us of when we were designing the furniture for Ore streams (2017). It was sort of a bizarre request for us, while dealing with electronic waste to design furniture pieces. We got obsessed with the idea of the cubicle, this object that defines where and what you do in this space. It is constructed in a way that makes it difficult to exchange knowledge between different people. We realized that with the research for this project, different actors that could make a change, simply could not speak with each other. We worked with a brand that had their design department in Milan, the material finished in London and their production happening in Taiwan. It was impossible to induce diagonal and systematic changes because they had to keep it within their own department.
IK These are the transnational issues that you, Andrea and Simone, look into within the Geo-Design department at the Design Academy in Eindhoven. It is captivating to think that the terminology was first generated by Joseph, the term then kept evolving and stretching.
JG This is the nice thing about ‘Geo-Design’, it is that everybody has their own idea of what it is and the way it should be. From my perspective, what is interesting to offer is some sort of channel for all of these processes upstream that are removed from our awareness and our consciousness, to give them a channel to influence the final input. We recognise these processes to have an effect and determination, a form of transparency. I am a globalist when it comes to ideas, information, knowledge and culture. In more material terms, I am an anti-globalist. In attempting to resolve some of the fundamental questions that we are grappling with today, I do not think we need to become more efficient at moving stuff around. Instead, we need to allow territories to become self-sufficient, to find a differentiation, where we are not idealising the global availability of goods. We should design a world that is more autonomous in a local sense, but that is still connected.
IK The work we do today as architects and designers has larger implications often beyond our life times in a sort of extended planetary time scale, when we think of notions such as carbon accountability. How do you see this moving forward?
JG In a few weeks I will be participating in a forum at the University of Toronto entitled Thinking like a mountain, the subtitle evolves around the idea of decarbonizing. During one of the pre-conversations we had with the other panelists, emerged ideas around the kind of politics of the word decarbonization. The word is quite complex and needless to say, is encapsulated in a sort of typical syndrome of the left of just trying to complicate everything and cause divisions in words. I do not necessarily agree with being too pedantic about the word. On the other hand, there is a problem with associating all our crises with carbon. Carbon is a part of it, for sure but the problem is a bigger problem. It is a more conceptual problem of not taking into account the consequences of our actions. In this present moment in History, it turns out that carbon is the main indicator of that problem. We need to think in a similar way to the indigenous American mantra of thinking ‘seven generations into the future and thinking seven generations into the past’. Unfortunately, the way that our economy is set up is such that it heavily disincentivizes long term thinking. Quarterly earnings report are the main sort of metric of whether we are working properly or not. In architecture, this is a huge problem. There is this idea that you make your building efficient, and you are being sustainable. In many cases, the last of the problems is making building efficient thermally. In a way, Sustainability is a difficult word to use, we have to use a much bigger one. It is about taking responsibility and I think transparency is a fundamental part of it. If we could see carbon, probably we would not be where we are now.
FF We should start to look at our action in a much more long term manner. We are trying to do so with the students. We always speak to them about short, medium and long term in their research projects. Long term is the most difficult one to think about, because most of the time you get into speculation. On the other side, you cannot just propose solutions, because solutions are not unique. Also, in our practice and because we are a commercial design studio, we also have to work with projects that start today and end tomorrow, and we accept the limitations of this. Independent design research projects, supported by cultural institutions, are ways for us to open up the possibilities of our practice. And education is a way to turn some of the questions raised in the studio to become transgenerational. We also have the feeling that sometimes our thinking is much more radical than what we can achieve. This also implies that we have to make our own processes even more transparent to others, to share what we learn as well as the processes we end up working with as a way of creating a flow of knowledge and responsibilities.
IK Do you see this happening with your Geo-Design students?
FF That is our aim, of course. It is a process. We hope that students will appropriate some of the questions raised and that they are going to be much more radical and intense with their work; than what we have been able to achieve so far. A lifetime is extremely short in a way, to think about structural problems. When you start to think about a different time scale, inevitably you also face your own limitations as a human.
IK I remember reading an early piece by you, Joseph, on Buckminster Fuller who you describe as ‘a great believer in the power of collaboration, which Fuller theorised as the science of synergetics‘. Where does architecture and design stand today as a practice? Both of you instil this collaborative aspect in your practices. Can you give us some more context on this.
FF In our work, we do not want to show that design can take care of everything. Rather that design should enter in conversation with other forms of knowledge. Only in this way we can try to break the lack of transparency that we are all facing. The collaborative part is key to us, so we credit everybody that was involved in the making of a project in the studio. This is much more common in architecture, but in design, it is still too much about the figure of the designer, that often does not really clearly show the process of description. We have to be more transparent on the price, the commissioner, what was the request, who participated. It is beneficial for our own practice, to be more transparent, in a way for others to better contextualise what we do.
JG Both our practices are driven by kind of existential questions of looking beyond the product, the bigger picture that surrounds it. This choice of not simply being a commercial service provider, but attempting to hijack the commercial processes in order to conduct research and to converse questions is something that is really important. This allows us to have the opportunity to work, for example, with cultural organisations, such as the V-A-C Foundation in our case and in your case with the Serpentine Gallery. From there, we were able to reach out to a broader network of people who can think collectively, like a kind of a hive mind around these ideas. This is a model of design studio that is not particularly new, but it is powerful and maybe more relevant now than it ever has been before.
FF If you think about it, some years ago, companies like Olivetti had different branches, such as social teams but also research teams when it comes to product development internally. And this is not happening anymore. Let’s be honest. Today a lot of the companies spend their money on marketing. We hope this is slowly changing and we are starting to see it in some design companies.
JG Indeed, the conditions within which design studios work are more and more constrained. Every line item of the budgets has to be justified. Also, being able to access larger budgets where you can invest, without having a clear idea of what that output will be, is quite tricky. On the other hand, our generation is privileged and lucky to have a lot of cultural institutions that maybe previously did not exist, to give us the possibility of being speculative in terms of thinking about what is needed.
FF And we also have more social media outlets to talk directly to people about the work we do without being filtered by others.
IK Within this dissemination of ideas, Joseph, you have inevitably shaped the global channel of biennales and triennales. How do you see architecture evolving within this channel?
JG There was a moment in History, quite a long period, where architects and many other discipline were bound together by certain channels of exchange of ideas. For a long time, it was through magazines like Domus or Casa Bella. They had an influence on the field and they also carried significant budgets with them. When I was working at Domus, we were always told these stories, while we were flying on Ryanair, about Pierre Restany and all of the critics in the past that use to fly first class flights to wherever they wanted, there was so much money behind that. This later became sort of trickled. But then perhaps with the cost of travel becoming more affordable, biennales kind of went to fill that gap where they became sites of collective reflection, the way that magazines were previously. And the culture simply changed for people, instead of wanting to read about something, they wanted to experience it themselves and be there and have the whole experience. Still today, these major international exhibitions are great, they are one of the most relevant platforms for studios and individuals to be able to conduct research outside of this sort of client relationship. The question now is that we realise that it is not desirable to be incentivising people to be travelling around all the time. We need to find alternatives to that. And I do not yet really know how to do so..
FF Maybe it is about having a biennale for a specific context, seen by that context…But then it can also just become really fragmented.
IK In a way, the humble A4 pages that you, Joseph, used as the exhibition format editor at the V-A-C Zattere Foundation or the format of Formafantasma’s Cambio website, is already looking into these modes of dissemination and arenas of exchange.
JG We tried, as much as possible, to use material that is available to anyone, that can be simply accessible to create new content in the format that is reproducible elsewhere. But still, his idea of how we can meet and exchange ideas is an interesting question, maybe metaverse will fix it.
FF Metaverse is the perfect tool that capitalism always wanted. It is not bound to physicality, you can do whatever and monetize and monetize. Of course, there are physical limitations in the infrastructure that provide internet. As if capitalism is a big God that decides things, this God loves the metaverse because it can become anything…
JG The most liquid form of representation that we can imagine, totally amorphous.
FF We do not remember who wrote this but it was something like ‘you know, human desires are infinite, but materiality is finite’. Suddenly, in the metaverse that limit does not exist. As a studio, we are interested in that limitation. So the idea of limitlessness is uninteresting to us. We still love the limited reality of our bodies and want to protect it in a way.
IK Within this ‘liquid form of representation’, but also with the impact of media and technology on social relations, our realities are rendered highly transparent today. Of course, I think here of the work of Andrés Jaque that looks at UltraClear™glass. He explores this idea of the extreme transparency in relation to contemporary power and environmental justice. How do your practices permeate these dialogues on transparency and opaqueness.
FF There are things on the Planet that we do not know, like, the depths of the oceans or outer space, many things that are still opaque. As humans, we will never be happy with that opacity, because the need to know is stronger even if there is a slight comfort in reaching a certain opacity of not knowing. In terms of design, for instance, sometimes things need to be edited. When you talk about your work the result is a reconstruction of that reality. But it does not mean that the reconstruction is fake or untrue. We always doubt for instance, photographers, that think that they should never be editing photos to supposedly clearly represent something. Reality is different. Sometimes editing helps to give back something more truthful. We learned a lot from fiction, which is not, reality.
JG True, fiction can be a window on one’s reality that is much more precise than the photograph itself. Not everything lends itself in the Human sphere to being sort of rational and understood. There are things that we need to talk about, to be transparent about that are not completely rational. That is where artists form is interesting to look at. So much of artistic practices are driven by a need for being transparent without being rational. In other words, we are all inferior to artists.
Is a research-based design studio investigating the ecological, historical, political and social forces shaping the discipline of design today. Whether designing for a client or developing self – initiated projects, the studio applies the same rigorous attention to context, processes and details. Formafantasma’s analytical nature translates into meticulous visual outcomes, products and strategies.
French architect. Born in Avignon in 1977, but is of Maltese origin, grew up in London and currently lives between Milan and Eindhoven. He graduated in Architecture in 2003, at the Architectural Association of the British capital. Grima describes himself as an architect, curator, researcher and publisher.