Design, Wit, and the Creative Act
The New York design world was the victim of a conceptual-art prank at "Design, Wit, and the Creative Act," last Friday's Core77 event held at the Art Directors Club in Manhattan. Never content to be conventional, designer Tobias Wong, scheduled to speak at the event, was nowhere to be found onstage. In his place, there was an impostor who in no way resembled the artist but mounted the podium and spoke with surprising authority about Wong's work, personal history, and mission. Moderator Ze Frank and the other panelists--Cornell professor Kelly Dobson, Kidrobot founder Paul Budnitz, and design historian Steven Heller--treated the knockoff as though he were the genuine article...whether through cluelessness or complicity, I can't say.
Who was this clean-cut Wong wannabe? One design website claims it was "a fellow designer"; an associate of mine says she heard it was Wong's boyfriend. Both or none of these could be true. My attempts to contact Core77 about l'affaire Wong have been unsuccessful.
I don't want to let the no-show steal the show, so I'll move on now to discuss those panelists who actually appeared. First up was Dobson, whose technological creations, showcased in a series of short videos, evinced a wildly offbeat wit that was at odds with her timid persona. Though she spoke in a rapid mumble that could barely be understood, her videos showed her climbing onto a table while loudly growling in harmony with a blender rewired to imitate her vocal pitch and timbre, among other exhibitionistic acts. Of all her inventions, the "ScreamBody," one of her many "wearable body organs," may be most revealing of her personality. Intended for use during those moments when you want to scream in a public place without anyone knowing, the "ScreamBody" has a soundproof polyurethane shell that attaches to the torso with shoulder straps. Wearers scream into the shell, and a built-in recorder preserves the screams for playback in privacy. Funny, yes, but also an apt metaphor for the crafty ways in which artists and other socially unsure people manage their emotional pressures.
Steven Heller followed Dobson with a short visual catalogue called "20 Things That Make Me Chuckle." Included in the eclectic roundelay were Homer Simpson, Mother Teresa Breath Spray, Mickey Mouse, and "anything with f--k in it."
"Tobias Wong" came next, then Paul Budnitz closed the presentation portion of the afternoon. Budnitz laid out some of the techniques he employs to keep the wit at Kidrobot fresh and flowing. He talked about the need to "kill the ego" in order to recapture the innate creativity of childhood. I discerned a little of Tobias Wong's impish spirit in Budnitz's slogan "Nostalgia Is Death." Rather than the backward-looking inertia of "remembered emotion," Budnitz explained that Kidrobot practices cultural appropriation, transforming pop iconography by "adding our own creativity to it."
After the individual presentations, the panel (including the Wong impostor) fielded questions from Ze Frank and members of the audience. Frank struggled a bit to bring cohesion to the conversation, which was understandable given the broad topic(s) chosen by Core77 and the motley participants, not to mention the ringer on the panel. Nevertheless, more useful nuggets emerged than can be transcribed here.
The definitive quote of the afternoon came from the estimable Heller, who, after Frank pointed out that several of the presentations prominently featured "buttholes," remarked, "Buttholes are universal. Everyone has one." Later, Heller talked about how humor can enhance a design concept, saying, "Humor sells; people like to laugh. Even totalitarian regimes always go for humor. Humor undercuts abnormality."