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Neshan 40

Design Today-1

Material Non-Material; A Review of Studio Moniker’s Conditional Design Work

Pouya Ahmadi

Using instructions (or rule-based methodology) in order to create a visual piece is not necessarily a new phenomenon in the area of visual arts and design. Conceptual artists in the late 60s and early 70s—including principal figures such as Sol LeWitt—used instructions as their main approach to produce art pieces. Sol LeWitt more specifically completed several small and large scale drawings where he designed the instruction for the piece and used other artists or contractors to implement the final piece. In this process, the role of the artist was drastically changed in that he/she did not create the work directly, and for the piece to be completed the implementor played a crucial part. This very fact clearly places much more emphasis on the idea itself rather than the material piece. 

Studio Moniker, however, has a very particular approach in the area of participatory/rule-based design. The studio was originallUsing instructions (or rule-based methodology) in order to create a visual piece is not necessarily a new phenomenon in the area of visual arts and design. Conceptual artists in the late 60s and early 70s—including principal figures such as Sol LeWitt—used instructions as their main approach to produce art pieces. Sol LeWitt more specifically completed several small and large scale drawings where he designed the instruction for the piece and used other artists or contractors to implement the final piece. In this process, the role of the artist was drastically changed in that he/she did not create the work directly, and for the piece to be completed the implementor played a crucial part. This very fact clearly places much more emphasis on the idea itself rather than the material piece. 

Studio Moniker, however, has a very particular approach in the area of participatory/rule-based design. The studio was originally founded by Luna Maurer, Roel Wouters, and Jonathan Puckey in 2011 in Amsterdam. Shortly after, in 2012, Jonathan left the studio in order to start his own practice, while Luna and Roel continue working together to this date. Moniker is known for their collaborative, playful and process-based projects that engage viewers as participants in order to achieve their desired outcome. What interests the studio most is the process of creating guidelines for the participants (as opposed to shaping the final piece themselves) which, in a few cases, results in variety of happy accidents. However, this is not what it all boils down to. The rules that Moniker defines for each project follow a set of overarching rules that they established early on as their Conditional Design Manifesto. The manifesto provides the studio with more general directions that shape their overall approach to any project at hand. For instance, according to Luna, “In the manifesto we suggest designing these rules or conditions carefully and with logic. Logic and precision are necessary to be able to crystallize an idea or behavior, otherwise you only get noise. We also describe the quality of the input for the process. It has to come from ‘the outside.’ That could be either nature or human behavior, but it shouldn’t be from a computer. A process using generated numbers is not interesting to us. A process based on random numbers would be like a screensaver.” The manifesto reads: “Through the influence of the media and technology on our world, our lives are increasingly characterized by speed and constant change. We live in a dynamic, data-driven society that is continually sparking new forms of human interaction and social contexts. Instead of romanticizing the past, we want to adapt our way of working to coincide with these developments, and we want our work to reflect the here and now. We want to embrace the complexity of this landscape, deliver insight into it and show both its beauty and its shortcomings. Our work focuses on processes rather than products: things that adapt to their environment, emphasize change and show difference.”

Per the studio’s manifesto “Instead of operating under the terms of Graphic Design, Interaction Design, Media Art or Sound Design, we want to introduce Conditional Design as a term that refers to our approach rather than our chosen media. We conduct our activities using the methods of philosophers, engineers, inventors and mystics.” The studio broke down the manifesto into three major parts: Process, Logic, and Input: 

Process:
_The process is the product.
_The most important aspects of a process are time, relationship and change.
_The process produces formations rather than forms.
_We search for unexpected but correlative, emergent patterns.
_Even though a process has the appearance of objectivity, we realize the fact that it stems from subjective intentions.

Logic:
_Logic is our tool.
_Logic is our method for accentuating the ungraspable.
        A clear and logical setting emphasizes that which does not seem to fit within it.
_We use logic to design the conditions through which the process can take place.
_Design conditions using intelligible rules.
_Avoid arbitrary randomness.
        Difference should have a reason.
_Use rules as constraints.
        Constraints sharpen the perspective on the process and stimulate play within the limitations.

Input:
_The input is our material.
_Input engages logic and activates and influences the process.
_Input should come from our external and complex environment: nature, society and its human interactions.”(1)

Despite their emphasis on mainly analogue input/process, Moniker uses technology and programming in order to create tools that allow their participants around the world to gain access to their projects. Luna mentions “Technology allows us to go beyond the approach of traditional media, where you print a flyer or sheet of paper. We try to make use of technology and especially react to the technology that surrounds us.” (2) According to Roel, Moniker always uses new technology as a source of inspiration: “In general, I think the inspiration for topics has mostly to do with the question: How does technology affect how people interact with each other, and how does technology affect our society? Therefore, we are always looking into new technologies or structures, but don’t necessarily immediately embrace them, but try to critically reflect on them.” (3)

Perhaps what makes Moniker’s visual investigations much more interesting is the connection between the digital and material world. “Fungus Series” (crowdsourced sticker installation) is a good example where each participant receives a sticker sheet containing 4 stickers and a simple set of instructions that specify how the stickers should be attached to the surface. Taking part in this exercise gives the user immediate visual feedback. With their simple intervention, the user manipulates the shape as well as the course of the developing installation. “Red Follows Yellow Follows Blue Follows Red” (participatory performance) is another successful example of Moniker’s continuing investigation into crowd behavior and participatory image making processes. During the course of this project, each audience member receives a pair of headphones and a red, blue or yellow cape and is asked to follow the instructions. The instructions invite the participant to move across the stage and interact with other participants in different ways. For example, participants with a red cape are asked to ’follow yellow but avoid blue’, while participants with a blue cape are asked to ’follow red but avoid yellow’. The combined reactions of the participants to the ever changing instructions leads to constantly transforming formations and patterns.

While the majority of Moniker’s explorations investigate participant/audience behavior, a handful of them become reflections on the socio-political environment in which the studio operates. “Click Click Click” (browser-based event game) and “Paperstorm.it” (Mozilla’s airborne leaflet propaganda tool) are examples of such projects. In the former, the studio set up an environment where every action the user takes is tracked and described with a written note directly on the webpage via direct written text on the page, and a voiceover that generates comments on every action the user takes. In the latter, the European copyrights regulations are questioned.

Moniker continues to set the tone for ongoing investigations into the relationship between material and non-material, human and technology in a thoughtful yet playful manner. While automation and smart devices increasingly dominate our current societies, Moniker asks the inevitable question, “to what extent should these environments be automated, and what could be the role of humans in such environments?”  

studiomoniker.com

(1) Conditional Design Manifesto (conditionaldesign.org)
(2) Luna Maurer on being a designer, The Creative Independent, thecreativeindependent.com
(3) Rules of the Game, Studio Moniker, Form magazine, Play, Nº 269, Jan/Feb 2017

Pouya Ahmadi

Pouya Ahmadi is a Chicago-based typographer and art director. He is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago—School of Design—and an editorial board member ​of Neshan magazine focusing on contemporary graphic design and the visual arts. Pouya's work has been showcased by It'sNiceThat, AIGA Eye on Design, People of Print, Grafik, Etapes,​ ​Type Directors Club, Print Magazine, and many others. Pouya holds a MA/MAS degree in Visual Communication from the Basel School of Design in Switzerland and an MFA in Graphic Design from the University of Illinois at Chicago. pouyahmadi@gmail.com

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