‘Head On’, by Cai Guo-Qiang

Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, Germany
2006

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Euthanasia Coaster

In the past 3 months, I’ve probably shared this particular work with more people than any other creative work in the past year. The intersection between art and design is a blurred divide. Richard Serra and many others have said, “Art is purposely useless.” I don’t agree with that; however, I’m not posting this to spur on an age-old debate as to whether or not art has a purpose, or even whether or not it can be defined. I am interested in design as a field of creative possibility. And I think philosophical questions in the realm of what we think of as ‘design’ tend to surprise people, maybe even offend people, more frequently than questions that pertain to ‘art’.

When Julijonas Urbonas engineered the design for a roller coaster that was built to euthanize a human being, it created a stir. The coaster, provides a steady 2-minute lift to the top – a time during which its rider may ponder his or her decision to die. Following this, the rider experiences a 500 m drop followed by a series of seven loops. As the rider is forced through these loops, he or she experiences a centrifugal force of up to 10 g. Blood is drained from the rider’s head and a euphoric state comes over the passenger. The brain is starved of oxygen until the person falls asleep, never to wake up again. The roller coaster has not been built, and it has no plans for future construction. But I think the genius in it, the art, is that it provides a scientific solution to a controversial question. Moreover, the solution just happens to be, grandiose, unnecessary, expensive, and entirely possible. These are characteristics of a design that I think tend to make people respond in our present time. Urbonas’ coaster is not useless, but does it provide a function that we necessarily desire?

Urbonas, having spent a lifetime in the carnival industry, has invested his time in creating other designs that probe social expectations as well. His ‘Emancipation Kit’ comes face to face with eating disorders. ‘Talking Doors’ draws our attention to the meaning of the door and its auditory potential. ‘Objects for Arithmomaniacs’ calls our attention to not only  obsession, but the need to study it. Cheeky.

Admittedly, I feel compelled to study Urbonas’ work because somewhere in the midst of it all, we see humor. But it’s thick, and dark. Don’t let me ruin a good joke by analyzing it to death though. Discover his work for yourself, and once you’ve had a good chuckle, consider the less extraordinary, but serious alternative: design for the sake of purpose, and art for the sake of nothing.

Helvetica

An excerpt from the documentary, Helvetica by Gary Hustwit. This quote is better heard than read; I enjoyed this segment so much though that I had to keep a permanent record for myself. Michael’s monologue begins 25 mins in:

“I imagine there was a time when it just felt so good to take something that was old and dusty and homemade and crappy looking and replace it with Helvetica. It just must have felt like you were scraping the crud off of filthy old things and kind of restoring them to shining beauty. And in fact, corporate identity in the 60s, that’s what it sort of consisted of. Ya know. Clients would come in and they’d have piles of goofy old brochures from the 50s that have shapes on them, and goofy bad photographs. They’d have some letterhead that would say ‘Amalgamated Widget’ on the top in some goofy, maybe a script typeface. Above ‘Amalgamated Widget’ it would have an engraving showing their headquarters in Paducah, Iowa with smoke stacks belching smoke. And then you’d go to a corporate identity consultant, circa 1965/1966, and they would take that and lay it here and say, ‘Here’s your current stationary and all it implies, and this is what we’re proposing’. And next to that, next to the belching smoke stack and the nuptial script and the ivory paper, they’d have a crisp bright white piece of paper, and instead of ‘Amalgamated Widget: Founded [in] 1857’, it just would say ‘Widgco’ in Helvetica Medium.  Can you imagine how gracing and thrilling that was. That must have felt like you just crawled through a desert with your mouth just caked with filthy dust and then someone’s offering you a clear refreshing distilled icy glass of water to kind of clear away all of this horrible burden of history. It must have been just fantastic! And you know it must have been fantastic because it was done over and over and over again.

So, this is what I’m talking about. This is Life Magazine 1953. One ad after another in here just kind of shows every single visual bad habit that was endemic in those days. You’ve got zany hand lettering everywhere. Swatch typography to signify elegance. Exclamation points, exclamation points, exclamation points! Cursive wedding invitation typography down here reading, ‘Almost everyone appreciates the best…’ This was everywhere in the 50s. This is how everything looked in the 50s. You cut to… this is after Helvetica was in full swing, same product. No people. No smiling fakery. Just a beautiful, big glass of ice-cold coke. The slogan underneath: ‘It’s the real thing. (Period). Coke. (Period).’ In Helvetica. Period. Any questions? Of course not. Drink Coke. Period. Simple.”    (Michael Bierut, Graphic Designer)