In January 2015 a chapter I wrote about the PlayPump, the subject of my PhD work, came out in the book The Gameful World on MIT Press. I enjoyed the opportunity to write about the PlayPump from the perspective of game-play and ‘the ludification of society’. You can download a near-to-final proof of the chapter here.
In September 2013 I delivered a lecture at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town titled ‘Design Fiction’, in which I explored design (especially designed objects) as a story-telling medium. From the festival programme: “Contemporary design projects are often a form of story-telling, used to communicate narratives to users and audiences. Ralph Borland explores examples of where design, for better or worse, acts as a form of fiction that is sometimes at odds with its intended purpose”.
I opened my presentation with a photograph of ‘Blikkiesdorp on Ocean View Drive’ – the architect Carin Smut’s home in the upmarket area of Seapoint in Cape Town, which was graffitied with a disparaging message (since lovingly preserved by the architect) because of her use of corrugated iron in its design. ‘Blikkiesdorp’, literally ‘tin can town’, is a reference to a bleak shanty town on the outskirts of Cape Town. I used this anecdote as a talking point around how even simple materials can have strong communicative and symbolic properties, and particular connotations for viewers – here residents were unhappy about a ‘shanty town’ material used in an upmarket area.
I moved from there through a range of examples of objects which can be ‘read’ in particular ways – like our propensity for seeing faces in objects – through the role of objects in narratives (knives in Cormac McCarthy or Borge’s work for example) and objects deliberately designed to be characters in a wider story (such as critical designers Dunne & Raby). This set up a discussion of the role of ‘objects in development’, the subject of my PhD thesis, centred around the PlayPump.
Omar Feisal, a Reuters photographer based in Somalia, won the Daily Life Single category at the 2011 World Press Photo awards with this picture of a man carrying a shark through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. Photograph: Feisal Omar/Reuters
Many make the most of minor subjects: Feisal Omar’s picture of a Somali carrying a man-size shark through a devastated Italian colonial street is the most extraordinary, otherworldly image in the book; Marco di Lauro’s image of a Nigerian meat market conjures Hieronymus Bosch. Daniel Berehulak’s images of the Pakistan floods, by contrast, are efficient documentary shots of a traumatic, “big” news subject, but lack the streak of visual experimentation or surreal commentary that would give them “artistic” punch. Some images, such as Javier Manzano’s Mexican murder victims, have absurdity and bleak beauty to spare, but only regional resonance. The form’s tilt in favour of experienced photographers and “artistic” work enables an escape from any suggestion that juries sit in judgment over suffering humanity. Yet it also validates the photojournalist’s cliche, that their skills “bring attention to” far-flung subjects. “Attention” is a very blunt instrument, more effective locally than from afar, where it produces mostly helpless perturbation.
Nevertheless, viewers can hardly object if the pictures of pain displayed in their shelters arrive dressed up for the marketplace of their sympathies; to the extent that they do, they may need to learn to be perturbed in finer, bolder ways.
This description of ‘awareness’ as a ‘blunt instrument’ bears out the description in my thesis of the PlayPump’s ‘awareness-raising’ as limited, in that it doesn’t help to inform the viewer of the complexity of the water problem in the developing world, just of its own ability to solve it.