Between the years 2000 and 2030, design collections held by museums consisted predominantly of physical objects—isolated from the systems that gave them their initial value. During this era, the lifespan and experience of the physical world, and its objects, became increasingly dispersed coinciding with the rapid uptake of social and mass media, and the circulation of images associated with these fields, via online networks. Considering this shift from objects circulating physically, to images of those objects disseminated online, the ‘static’ and object-focused mentality of the majority of museums concerned with collecting design seems all the more contradictory. There is evidence that some museums did identify the circulation of images via digital media as having or adding value, yet this value went largely underutilised (or was considered too ephemeral) to those museums that still had physical objects as their main point of reference.

This text was written in 2020, therefore it is a fiction. Our proposition is to utilise fictional approaches to reflect on the current condition of design, and the collecting of design within museum collections, through the lens of mass, social and digital media. Fiction as a narrative form can open up space for both criticality and experimentation. In choosing contributions for this website we use the year 2070 as a departure point. We have invited (established, aspiring and emerging) experts in the field of curating, design and digital culture to contribute by publishing, and reflecting upon, how the design discipline is currently understood and represented within the context of the museum in this 21st century—through a collaborative, multi-media essay.

This project was initiated by Delany Boutkan and Mikaela Steby Stenfalk, with the kind support of Stimuleringsfonds NL. Many thanks to Domitille Debret and Quentin Creuzet for the design and coding of the website and Michael Bojkowski for editing and continuity.

The phantom of design and the design of a phantom added by Joannette van der Veer on 11.11 at [15h05]
A Garden of Forking Images-Links-Objects added by Katía Truijen on 01.10 at [10h20]
Contributors
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  • Katía Truijen
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Delany Boutkan

Delany Boutkan received her Master degree in Design Curating & Writing at the Design Academy Eindhoven (NL). She writes and produces public research programs based on her fascination with the economic systems design is produced in, related to popular media. In 2019 Delany has embarked on a long-term collaboration with the Research & Development Department at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam (NL). Delany and Mikaela Steby Stenfalk share an interest in the influence of social media on objects in institutional spaces since they first met in 2018.

Domitille Debret

Domitille Debret questions how web structures and features can be used to make sense of cultural data. She works with databases, digitised collection and archives, trying to find relevant formats to display the specific content of each. She recently graduated from the Master’s program at the Design Academy Eindhoven (NL) majoring in Information Design. In 2015, Domitille and Quentin Creuzet founded F451, a web design studio trying to deconstruct the idea of the templated web in the age of the universalized UX design.

Joannette van der Veer

Joannette van der Veer is an independent design curator and writer based in Rotterdam. She is currently working on various projects for Onomatopee as ‘design activism catalyst’. Curiosity, criticism, collaboration, and conviviality are the core principles of her hybrid creative practice that spans across the field of art and design(ed) cultures. Previous projects and institutions include Robotanica, Robot Love, Transnatural Art & Design, Roodkapje Rotterdam, Showroom MAMA, and Get Me. She holds an MA in Design Cultures from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and is currently a member of the advisory committee for visual arts at the Municipality of Rotterdam

Katía Truijen

Katía Truijen is a media theorist and musician based in Rotterdam. Since 2014, she has been developing research projects and public programs within Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Research department. Her current research focuses on the politics of contemporary video culture (For the Record / Set Stage Screen). She was assistant curator for WORK, BODY, LEISURE, the Dutch Pavilion at the 16th Venice International Architecture Biennale in 2018, and co-editor of Architecture of Appropriation: On Squatting as Spatial Practice (2019).

Michael Bojkowski

Michael Bojkowski is a writer, designer and educator with an interest in where story telling and design research intersect. Michael has been a regular contributor to Grafik magazine and is an avid self-publisher, under the banner of ‘Linefeed’. Currently completing the Critical Inquiry Lab MA (formerly Design Curating & Writing) at the Design Academy Eindhoven (NL) and lecturing in editorial design and typography at RMIT University in Melbourne (AU) (time permitting).

Mikaela Steby Stenfalk

Through sculptural pieces, architectural spaces, exhibitions, texts and films, Mikaela Steby Stenfalk reflects upon reproduction and archival processes in the age of the internet, as well as our growing relationship to digital landscapes and the ties to public life. Mikaela holds a double-diploma in Architecture from KTH Royal Institute of Technology (SE) and Man & Communication from Design Academy Eindhoven (NL). Mikaela and Delany Boutkan share an interest in the influence of social media on objects in institutional spaces since they first met in 2018.

Quentin Creuzet

Between design and development, Quentin Creuzet considers websites as an editorial matter, looking at the web as an ever-changing archive container. He strives to find a balance between automation and contextualization of data. He holds a diploma in Type Design from École Estienne (Paris, FR) and a diploma in Digital graphic design from ESAAT (Roubaix, FR). In 2015, Domitille and Quentin Creuzet founded F451, a web design studio trying to deconstruct the idea of the templated web in the age of the universalized UX design.

Object and Image
A collaborative essay from 2070 as written in 2020
By Delany Boutkan and Mikaela Steby Stenfalk
Last update 11.11 at [15h05]
In the years between 2000 and 2030, design and the histories of design—as it was addressed within museums—existed predominantly as physical objects isolated from the systems that gave them their value, held in collections, within archives.
Museum collections were previously seen as static. These collections—often originating in the 19th century—classified and ranked their objects according to categories such as ‘location’, ‘culture’ or ‘population’. With these terms, the taxonomies within the museum captured an object in a specific time and place. Museums fell short in acknowledging an object’s existence across different locations, types of ownership or appearance over time—there was no ‘in-between’ state. Isolation and rigid classifications were the norm, even though objects—by their nature—do not inhabit linear time frames.
During this era, the lifespan and experience of the physical world, and its objects, became dispersed through the rapid uptake of social and mass media and the associated circulation of images via online networks.
Considering this shift from objects circulating physically, to images of those objects disseminated online, the ‘static’, object-focused mentality that was predominant in most design collections, seems all the more contradictory. Social media extended the circulation of these ‘objects as images’ from the domain of a print-based publication (magazines) or museum exhibit, to every person with a social media account and internet connection. The rise of social media resulted in a rapid increase in the iteration and circulation of images.
Through our analysis of a variety of museum practices operating throughout the early decades of the 2000s, we found evidence that some institutions had been reflecting on how to incorporate circulation and movement in their static collections.
One of the museums to look through this lens in order to better understand its collection was the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, an applied arts museum in Hamburg, Germany. Their 2018 exhibition ‘Mobile Worlds’ is a good example of this. Dr Sophia Prinz, with Roger M. Buergel, curated a portion of the museum’s collection according to movement and migration—acknowledging value in the circulation of objects through time and space as well as the relationships those movements conveyed, rather than the objects’ uniqueness or condition. The display of this collection reflected on an age of migration and perpetual exchange.1 This form of movement and exchange did not only happen in the physical world via trade or migration—as the exhibition suggests—as much as it did via the internet and non-material means.
Historically, the circulation of objects and images of objects via mass media had a profound effect on the value that some objects were given within design discourse and museum collections. One prominent example was located in The Netherlands where, in the 1990s, the ‘Dutch Design’ movement (and its successors) were firmly attached to designed objects that gained value through their mass exposure. Objects that, essentially, did not have a function outside of their representational purpose within a showroom, often had value assigned to them, and became known, through their images circulated via mass media.
Images of design objects were increasingly ‘utilised’ within mass media outputs, more than as the material objects that existed outside of them. Consequently, decisions made within the production of ‘physical’ designs were defined by similar values to those circulated via mass media. Since the introduction and integration of Instagram within a designer’s process, we could argue that the labour within design production also happened on social media platforms—to an increasing degree than during the production of the physical product. This is inline with what architecture theorist, Beatriz Colomina, stated in her book (1994) ‘Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media’ when she describes the transformation of architectural production sites. These production sites are—according to Colomina—no longer located on the construction site but are displaced into the immaterial sites of architectural publications, exhibitions and journals.2 Meaning that the true site in which 20th-century architecture is produced and directly engages with, was mass media.
Around the same time as architecture production moved from object to image, so did design.
The phantom of design and the design of a phantom
By Joannette van der Veer
Last update 11.11 at [15h05]

“Everything-as-an-object died its permanent death the minute the Web came along.”(1)

Currently—and more than at any time before—the duration of an object’s life is extended indefinitely and multidimensionally by means of (digital) sketches, scans, photographs or virtually 3D rendered images. These can all be considered tools for extending an object’s life both on and offline—both backwards and forwards in time, and both physically and immaterially. In a way, we could say that designing an object in the 21st century equates to designing immortally, since its material outcome and digital afterlife will most likely outlive us. It may be hard to imagine, but design used to manifest itself merely physically or materially. Throughout recorded history, design has evolved from mere physical object-based tools towards a wide variety of not-so-physical design.

Oldowan choppers dating to 1.7 million years BP, from Melka Kunture, Ethiopia. Source: Didier Descouens (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Think, as an example, of the 2-million-year-old Afro-Eurasian tools within the Oldowan classification. Oldowan tools were long considered to be the oldest stone tool industry in existance and one of the earliest signs of cultural behaviours enacted within human evolution. (2) Early humans, or homo habilis, created so-called “choppers” which are best described as stones with sharpened edges that were used to chop, cut or scrape another material. You could call them the ‘gadgets of prehistoric technology’. For a long time objects, or designed cutting tools, within the Oldowan classification existed without having 2D surrogates such as drawings, written descriptions or photographs to support them; let alone a digital (after)life. Since then, these tools have been collected, (re)stored, documented, analyzed, described, and photographed. Perhaps photographs of some of these tools have even been digitised, or 3D scans made to create virtual renders of these objects. Now, if we take an Oldowan cutting tool as a metaphor of the past, what metaphor best describes the designed objects and tools of our time?

Different from the Oldowan tool, we now live in an era where the 2D or 3D representation of a thing will most likely outlive the thing it represents; if a ‘thing’ was made at all. With the digital tools of the late 21st century, almost everything can be made by everyone—at least in the digital realm. Let me explain this further… Where the Oldowan tool has had a long physical life and a rather short (digital) image-based life, the opposite counts for most of the objects or tools designed in the past few decades. Many a prototype or sample is initially rendered digitally before it comes into physical existence. Most digital objects never even get to that physical stage, whether intended or unintended. Some objects were created exclusively for the digital realm and, thus, they live a mostly digital life.

“The triviality of […] utensils is rather a guarantee for transience than an appeal to preserve it as extraordinary heritage.”(3)

When looking at some of the developments within design and tools used at the beginning of this century, we might be able to get a better grasp of what I would like to call “the phantom of design”. A design’s phantom is everything but its physicality: its aura, its phygital (i.e blending of digital and physical experiences) remnants, its mental imprint, its diaphanous character and its spiritual relic.

Phantom OS screenshot for 17 Oct 2019. Source: Dmitry Zavalishin (CC BY-SA 4.0).

In reflecting upon how designed objects came to be what they are today it seems rather strange to delve into an operating system that is already over 60 years old and left the realm of computing and programming long ago. The Phantom Operating System (Phantom OS) was created by Dmitry Zavalishin back in 2009—an era in which we were first introduced to Lady Gaga, women still wore leggings as pants, and in which we transitioned from flip phones to touchscreen smartphones. These trends (as the word suggests) were not built to last. The primary goal of the Phantom OS, however, was to become immortal. With Phantom, powering down a computer would not cause running programs to change state because it accomplished automatic state preservation. It did so by snapshotting system memory onto disk. Now, years and years after Phantom OS shifted away from the market and our screens, it appears it is not the actual operating system, but its legacy, that lives on in expected ways.

We could say that the Phantom OS, as a way of thinking or as an approach, is still among us yet more on a human rather than digital scale. Whereas before we were limited by the basic intelligence within our human brains—caused by the conditioning of our minds by the powerful idea that things need to be physical for them to be real—we now know that we can do much more with much less. The act of snapshotting has become our main way of consuming things, objects, thoughts and ideas instead of acquiring the actual, physical, ‘in-the-flesh’ object. Going to sleep (mode) does not necessarily mean we will forget the objects present in our daily lives or in our memories. Although we are still waiting for the possibility to actually ‘save’ what is stored in our brains, the human brain and its neural networking have undergone a tremendous transformation over the past couple of decades, making the recent past seem like a tale from olden days.

“Studio PMS - In Pursuit of Tactility - Collection Animation”. Studio PMS. YouTube.

At the beginning of the century, many museum curators were worried about the preservation of textile garments which were especially prone to decay after decenniums of inertia within collection depots. They questioned whether digital photographs, scans, or even virtually rendered images would be able to transpose the tactile sensation of the actual garment. In 2018, Utrecht-based design collective Studio PMS launched their ‘In Pursuit of Tactility’ collection: a collection that explored what fashion could be(come) in the digital realm. In response to crippling fashion industry systems that suffered from overproduction and excessive waste, Studio PMS proposed an alternative that mitigated overproduction and overconsumption by creating a collection of digitally rendered fashion pieces. In order to achieve a sense of tactility, they had to rediscover physical characteristics of fabrics and fashion such as composition, texture, movement and touch. Back then, this project served as a future-forward anticipation of what fashion could be in the digital realm. Today, it’s hard to imagine a world of fashion in which the material garment or object is preferred over the digital sensation and consumption of a product. Especially given the fashion industry’s former toxic character and the ecologically and ethically disastrous consequences that arose from this.

Amandine David (@amandine__david), ‘Atlas of the Lost Finds’. Source: Project initiated by Unfold Design Studio (@unfoldantwerp). 3D scan provided by Museu Nacional 3D lab ‘LAPID’.

Another example of how transient digital utensils made way for a (re)interpretation and elongation, of an object’s life was Unfold Antwerp’s research project ‘Atlas of the Lost Finds’. This project invited a selection of designers to collaborate on creating tools to reanimate and dematerialise objects lost during a fire that ruined most of the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2017. Felideo became the first case in the ‘Atlas of Lost Finds’ project. An original stirrup vessel, produced by the Chimú in Peru, was located in the archives when fire raged through the museum and destroyed around 18 million other artefacts. Amandine David, one of the participating designers, wanted to investigate how physical information is lost and recreated and how each step within this process transforms the initial design. In an attempt to reproduce the piece, both traditional and digital craft techniques were employed that explored the value and implications of this act of rematerialising this object from its ‘data ghost’. The project resonates with the ways in which we view visual culture today, and how lost material treasures are being preserved within our endless virtual and imagined wunderkammers.

Going back to the question asked at the beginning of this essay, I wonder what can be considered a metaphor that would best describe the designed objects and tools of our time. The digitalisation and ASMR-ification of visual culture in the first two decades of the 21st century made us turn to more adaptive and sensorial digital crafting tools instead of mere physical ones. We now can imagine life without objects, something that was impossible at the beginning of the century. In opposition to the process Oldowan tools went through, nowadays our virtually created 2D and 3D objects no longer need a physical or material surrogate. Beforehand, what we thought we could make was dictated by the physical things or tools available around us. Now that the physical outcome is merely a possibility and in itself no longer a necessity, the possibilities to create ‘things’ directly from our brains is endless.

To conclude: any previous (digital) sketches, scans, photographs, or virtually 3D rendered images of objects can be considered as “phantoms of design”—representing physical things albeit, without physicality. However, today we can also consider (digital) sketches and prototypes, mock-ups, or virtually 3D rendered images, without material surrogate, to be creators of a phantom of a design. If we are confronted with an image of a thing, we can automatically think of that thing as existing physically, therefore making the physical production of a design redundant. The only tool we need to convert the mortal physical thing into an immortal phantom, and vice versa, is our brain. Is it then our endless imagination and immortal dataset of intermingling memories, images, texts and clips—the never shut-down brain as a Phantom OS—that can be considered the ungraspable tool of our time?

References in this text:

  1. Comment by user tidux, on osnews website, https://www.osnews.com/story/130792/what-is-phantom-os-about/, (accessed October 2020).
  2. https://anthromuseum.missouri.edu/exhibit/oldowan-and-acheulean-stone-tools
  3. Heiden, K. and de Niet, M., ‘Design en vormgeving in het digitaal archief’, Boekman 93 (2012), pp.74-80.
  4. On Phantom OS: “Russian rides Phantom to OS immortality. The iPhone that never dies.” by Ted Dziuba. The Register, February 2009, https://www.theregister.com/2009/02/03/phantom_russian_os/, (accessed October 2020)
  5. “The Phantom Operating System”, via Github, https://phantomdox.readthedocs.io/en/latest/, (accessed October 2020)
During these years, design mass media shifted from being primarily focused on print-based magazines and publications to online distribution of similar content (Text and image still being the preferred medium of journalists and publishing houses). With this development, images increased their potency within the language of communication. This shift in the condition of design seems to have gone largely unrecognised within the museum profession at the time which contributed to an underdeveloped discourse around this event. ‘Digital cultures’ (digital platforms and their forms of communication) were collected by various ‘museum of the internet’ initiatives. As well as the artistic interpretations that were being collected within museums and similar institutions for ‘born-digital’ and digital art. However within the design discourse the effects of digital culture and digital media were largely discarded or considered too ephemeral.
There is evidence that design museums (or museums collecting design) managed to identify the circulation of images through digital media as having or adding value. Nevertheless this value went largely ‘officially unrecognised’ as those museums still had physical objects as their main point of reference. Following the increased circulation of images, during the period from 2000 to 2030, museums did initiate various attempts to digitise their collections. Digitalisation often took the shape of archived collections of images manifesting as files or 3D scans. These collections were essentially ‘born-digital’ copies of the museums’ physical collections; relocating their content within large scale server farms miles away from their museal buildings where their physical archives were housed. While, in the meantime, these artefacts would remain in storage, behind closed doors, out of view of audiences.
The reproduction of objects as images became important for museums in raising the status of their physical collections. In the publication ‘Copy Culture - Sharing in the Age of Digital Reproduction’, first published in 2018, Anaïs Aguerre and Brendan Cormier introduced reproduction as a currency and value; the larger the online presence of reproductions and images, the more visitors would be inclined to visit the original object; thereby increasing its value.3 In an attempt to follow their audience onto social media, museums started to share their digitised collections openly online, with the aim of expanding their online presence and bringing in more visitors from a larger outreach.
Despite museums’ dedication to online imagery and social networks, institutions often seemed preoccupied with circulating their existing collections online. Instead of allocating time to understanding the influences inherent to social media that occurred when objects came into contact with them. Many museums disregarded how the digital life-span of objects
A Garden of Forking Images-Links-Objects
By Katía Truijen
Last update 01.10 at [10h20]

1. Images: no results

Julia Weist, Reach, 2015. Billboard in Queens, New York.

“This is where I came to be alone. We’re here together now. It’s a place we built, the both of us. Sometimes I think that there’s nowhere that hasn’t already been carved up and carved out, although I didn’t used to feel that way. … I guess that’s partly why I come here. I bought this place, or else I founded it, because there was nothing. That’s how—for a time—it remained.” (1)

For a few weeks, a billboard in Queens in New York included the word “parbunkells”. A word that, until recently, did not appear in any search engine results, and was essentially absent from the internet. Artist Julia Weist had blown up the word (in plural) in a well-trafficked area, and observed what the object set in motion. Googling “parbunkells” lead to a webpage featuring the mysterious text shown above, and a lamp in Weist’s home turned on each time the page was visited. The word soon appeared on Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and many other places. There was even a Twitter handle created for “parbunkells”, without Weist’s knowledge. (2)

She found the word in the rare-book room of the New York Public Library, in a volume that dated back to the seventeenth century. It was one of few terms with no Google search results. According to Weist, the project somehow highlighted a microcosm within the life cycle of the Web. It could be read as a portrait of the Internet. “If you create a void and suggest that there’s value in the Internet not being there, the Internet is going to show you why it should be there.” (3)

2. Links: hypertext fictions and stories of interest

Julia Weist, Reach, 2015. Google search results for “parbunkells”.

Back when the billboard was first installed by Weist, there were no web pages, indexed by Google, connected to “parbunkells”, except for the one created by the artists herself. Today the word has quite a few more search results (3300).

Google’s Googlebot is a ‘webspider’ that crawls the internet via hyperlinks in order to discover new content, index web pages and cache them within vast databases. Because we quickly became used to them, we tend to forget that hyperlinks are what forms the multitude of distinct pathways that allow us to traverse the web. By choosing routes through texts, posts, pages and by clicking links, we ‘author’ non-linear stories through navigation. Paths are forged that are defined by our interests. (4)

In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges—an Argentine librarian, poet and writer who created stories around the dizzying nature of power—wrote the famous short story The Garden of Forking Paths—one of the earliest examples of ‘hypertext’ fiction—long before the invention of the digital computer. At the heart of this multi-layered story is the contemplation of a wise man named Ts’ui Pên, who wanted to construct both a labyrinth and a novel. The end of the story reveals that the two concepts are actually the same: Ts’ui Pên created a book that is itself a maze. The story follows the same logic as hyperlinks do—as they establish the forking paths on the internet—and permit the reader to experience all possible narratives. In a way, the internet made the fiction of Ts’ui Pên, a reality. (5) Hyperlinks make one travel more or less consciously—from page to page, from list to image, to text to video, to map to form, to ad to gif, and onwards, to another page.

3. Garden: or an endless safari, one image at a time

But we also travel vertically (scrolling) and horizontally (swiping) through visual material and texts that are algorithmically generated for us, within endless streams of ‘new’ and personalised content. The internet perceived as an endless wilderness was initially reflected in the names of early internet browsers. In 1993, ‘Netscape Navigator’ was the most popular browser, Microsoft then launched ‘Internet Explorer’ in 1995, followed by Apple’s ‘Safari’ in 2003. (6)

The social media platforms we are familiar with today are not so much environments of untamed wilderness, but can be understood as distinct gardens, with their own aesthetics, carefully designed paths and shortcuts, open spaces and private corners, and gardeners (bots, users and moderators) who prune some material while allowing others to be circulated and exposed.

4. Object: images of production

Parbunkells Billboard (Mounted for 38 Days at 107-37 Queens Blvd), 2015 - 2016. Vinyl billboard, LED light (programmed to turn on when the parbunkells website is visited), circuit board, wifi-enabled outlet.

The typeface is Apple Garamond, in black on a white backdrop. Is the billboard advertising a new Apple product? The design of the word plays with how we filter, categorise and evaluate the ongoing flow of images, messages, ads and other (audio)visual materials we encounter on a daily basis. On the streets, in our homes, and on our way, we engage with a variety of media attempting to capture our attention.

This billboard, with ‘parbunkells’ printed on it, looks familiar. It uses a typeface that connects to a well known brand in order to expose ‘something’ we recognise as a form of advertisement. But then there is a pause. Because the word doesn’t make sense as the name of a product. And there is no subtitle or image to support or clarify the word.

A few months after the billboard was taken down, Weist created an exhibition of the project in a gallery in New York City, within which she included the printed vinyl fabric of the billboard itself. In the context of the gallery, this object, an object of design, became an image—a representation or even a memory of an object’s initial function, where its strategic location invited passers-by to capture, search, multiply and recontextualise the object, resulting in a widely branched ‘digital life-span’ of the object. Resulting in new narratives, visual materials and pathways being produced. A life this billboard set in motion. But here in the gallery, the vinyl fabric, folded into a square, was an object that lost its primary function. It became an object to be archived.

Next to the vinyl billboard fabric, the exhibition also included an award from the Outdoor Advertising Association of America; an image of the domain name parbunkells.org for sale on ebay (including the comments section); a parbunkells ‘art print’ that can still be ordered as poster, laptop skin, tapestry or hardcover journal via redbubble.com. And finally, the Parbunkells Image Archive, a composition of stickers arranged on the inside and outside of the gallery windows, featuring images retrieved between December 6, 2015, and January 1st, 2016. This collage included social media posts and a varied assortment of the images that had become part of this extensive ‘parbunkells’ network. (7)

Interestingly, the exhibition was still a valid medium through which to expose and grasp the various traces of the project, even if it is a ‘material’ and ‘still image’ representation of the project. Online, ‘parbunkells’ continues to grow, generating interpretations within new contexts as an assemblage of images, posts and pages whose meaning changes over time. When the billboard was first installed in 2015, the word and image of ‘parbunkells’ went viral, rapidly circulating online, reaching social media walls and streams, as well as the readerships of The New Yorker, Vice and other popular magazines that reported the intervention. Today, it has become an interesting example that describes the digital lifespan of an image-object. Is this very text part of the project too?

5. Forking: the digital life-span of objects

Julia Weist, Parbunkells Image Archive (Composition for Inside and Outside) 06/12/2015 - 1/1/2016, UV ink on adhesive vinyl, dimensions variable.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The 17th century word ‘parbunkells’ literally means two ropes that are bound together, with a noose at both ends, i.e. Four loops that merge in the middle. Maybe parbunkells offers a concept to describe the digital life-span of design objects. Images of design objects are stored, requested, reposted—in new versions, because an image that is opened is always a version, never the ‘original’ (8)—in feedback loops of linked files, pages and posts. The physical object and it’s digital counterparts have their own ‘loops’ of circulation, but they also share the same sphere. Images have not so much replaced the object, but the life-span of the object increasingly lies in the online circulation of its images and the links that connect them to other contexts.

What made ‘parbunkells’ go viral is also the fact that the word didn’t exist online yet. Which is something that may be difficult to imagine today. There are rare occasions when we can’t find something, but even in those cases, we often think that a version or image is out there somewhere on the internet. Indeed, even if museums are digitising their collections, with the aim of providing access to these digital copies, many images of design objects remain absent or unindexed.

Reach by Julia Weist could be seen as work of hypertext fiction—just like Borges’ story of Ts’ui Pên who constructed a labyrinth and a book at the same time. This project is both image and object. It exists and grows as long as the word is queried, the story is read, the project reinterpreted, and the paths (links) are activated by our clicks. That’s how—for a time—it remained.

References in this text:

  1. Weist, J. Reach, 2015. http://work.deaccession.org/reach/
  2. Morais, B. (2015, July) “A New Word on the Internet”, The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-new-word-on-the-internet
  3. Morais, B. (2015, July) “A New Word on the Internet”, The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-new-word-on-the-internet
  4. Elmer, G. (2001) “Hypertext on the Web: The Beginnings and Ends of Web Path-ology,” Space and Culture. 10: 1-14.
  5. Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. Nick Montfort, The New Media Reader (Cambridge, Massachusetts: 2003), p. 29.
    https://monoskop.org/images/4/4c/Wardrip-Fruin_Noah_Montfort_Nick_eds_The_New_Media_Reader.pdf
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_browser
  7. Actor-network theory follows how a given element becomes strategic through the number of connections it commands, and how it loses its importance when losing its connections. There is no ‘outside’ to a network, it is simply made of connections. When one describes an actor-network, this explanation becomes part of the network itself, and the division between things and their representations becomes problematic. See: Latour, Bruno. “Actor-Network Theory. A Few Clarifications” January 11, 1998. Accessed July 4, 2020. https://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9801/msg00019.html
  8. Kirschenbaum, Matthew. Mechanisms. New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008).
often contributed to their value, or how the value of the image online contributed to the value the museums gave to the physical object, as represented via their image/s. Wherever these intentions are mentioned, they are frequently reduced to a short sentence mentioned briefly within a small caption.
In 2014, the Victoria & Albert museum in London introduced their Rapid Response Collecting strategy where contemporary objects were acquired on the basis of their connection to urgent, newsworthy events. At the center of the collection lay a question—What are the components that constitute part of an ‘original design’? This was made evident by the acquisition of the ‘Pussy Power Hat’, an example of the many pink hand-knitted hats worn by women world-wide during the Women’s March on the 21st of January 2017. The Pussy Hat Project was initiated by Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh, who asked yarn shop owner Kat Coyle to design a simple knitting pattern that could be spread over social media and inspire women to knit their own hats before the demonstration. Although we could argue that the original design was the published pattern, the V&A chose a more object-based mode of collecting by acquiring one (of many) hats knitted by Zweiman herself instead. In line with the collecting strategy, as stated by the V&A, “…the Pussyhat is a modest material object. Yet it is also a powerfully communicative product of today’s design and digital culture.”4 The hierarchy evident in this statement further substantiates a perspective that gave emphasis to an ‘original design object’.
In 2070, it has been nearly impossible to find a concrete discourse contained within museum archives that relates to design and mass media, that we currently have access to. As we attempt to understand how social and mass media affected the forms of design that we know today, we are confronted with a design history that is predominately based on isolated and object-based models. What would the collection and history of design be like now, if the effects of social and mass media on design processes, that we have uncovered through our case studies, were reflected here today?

1 Jason Farago, “A New Type of Museum for an Age of Migration,” The New York Times, July 11, 2018. Link
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2 Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture and Mass Media (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994), 13-15.
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3 Anaïs Aguerre and Brendan Cormier, Copy Culture — Sharing in the Age of Digital Reproduction (London: V&A Publishing, 2018), 20-21.
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4 “V&A · The Pussyhat.” Victoria and Albert Museum. Accessed March 12, 2020. Link
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Object and Image
A collaborative essay from 2070 as written in 2020
By Delany Boutkan and Mikaela Steby Stenfalk
Last update 11.11 at [15h05]
In the years between 2000 and 2030, design and the histories of design—as it was addressed within museums—existed predominantly as physical objects isolated from the systems that gave them their value, held in collections, within archives.
Museum collections were previously seen as static. These collections—often originating in the 19th century—classified and ranked their objects according to categories such as ‘location’, ‘culture’ or ‘population’. With these terms, the taxonomies within the museum captured an object in a specific time and place. Museums fell short in acknowledging an object’s existence across different locations, types of ownership or appearance over time—there was no ‘in-between’ state. Isolation and rigid classifications were the norm, even though objects—by their nature—do not inhabit linear time frames.
During this era, the lifespan and experience of the physical world, and its objects, became dispersed through the rapid uptake of social and mass media and the associated circulation of images via online networks.
Considering this shift from objects circulating physically, to images of those objects disseminated online, the ‘static’, object-focused mentality that was predominant in most design collections, seems all the more contradictory. Social media extended the circulation of these ‘objects as images’ from the domain of a print-based publication (magazines) or museum exhibit, to every person with a social media account and internet connection. The rise of social media resulted in a rapid increase in the iteration and circulation of images.
Through our analysis of a variety of museum practices operating throughout the early decades of the 2000s, we found evidence that some institutions had been reflecting on how to incorporate circulation and movement in their static collections.
One of the museums to look through this lens in order to better understand its collection was the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, an applied arts museum in Hamburg, Germany. Their 2018 exhibition ‘Mobile Worlds’ is a good example of this. Dr Sophia Prinz, with Roger M. Buergel, curated a portion of the museum’s collection according to movement and migration—acknowledging value in the circulation of objects through time and space as well as the relationships those movements conveyed, rather than the objects’ uniqueness or condition. The display of this collection reflected on an age of migration and perpetual exchange.1 This form of movement and exchange did not only happen in the physical world via trade or migration—as the exhibition suggests—as much as it did via the internet and non-material means.
Historically, the circulation of objects and images of objects via mass media had a profound effect on the value that some objects were given within design discourse and museum collections. One prominent example was located in The Netherlands where, in the 1990s, the ‘Dutch Design’ movement (and its successors) were firmly attached to designed objects that gained value through their mass exposure. Objects that, essentially, did not have a function outside of their representational purpose within a showroom, often had value assigned to them, and became known, through their images circulated via mass media.
Images of design objects were increasingly ‘utilised’ within mass media outputs, more than as the material objects that existed outside of them. Consequently, decisions made within the production of ‘physical’ designs were defined by similar values to those circulated via mass media. Since the introduction and integration of Instagram within a designer’s process, we could argue that the labour within design production also happened on social media platforms—to an increasing degree than during the production of the physical product. This is inline with what architecture theorist, Beatriz Colomina, stated in her book (1994) ‘Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media’ when she describes the transformation of architectural production sites. These production sites are—according to Colomina—no longer located on the construction site but are displaced into the immaterial sites of architectural publications, exhibitions and journals.2 Meaning that the true site in which 20th-century architecture is produced and directly engages with, was mass media.
Around the same time as architecture production moved from object to image, so did design.
The phantom of design and the design of a phantom
By Joannette van der Veer
Last update 11.11 at [15h05]

“Everything-as-an-object died its permanent death the minute the Web came along.”(1)

Currently—and more than at any time before—the duration of an object’s life is extended indefinitely and multidimensionally by means of (digital) sketches, scans, photographs or virtually 3D rendered images. These can all be considered tools for extending an object’s life both on and offline—both backwards and forwards in time, and both physically and immaterially. In a way, we could say that designing an object in the 21st century equates to designing immortally, since its material outcome and digital afterlife will most likely outlive us. It may be hard to imagine, but design used to manifest itself merely physically or materially. Throughout recorded history, design has evolved from mere physical object-based tools towards a wide variety of not-so-physical design.

Oldowan choppers dating to 1.7 million years BP, from Melka Kunture, Ethiopia. Source: Didier Descouens (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Think, as an example, of the 2-million-year-old Afro-Eurasian tools within the Oldowan classification. Oldowan tools were long considered to be the oldest stone tool industry in existance and one of the earliest signs of cultural behaviours enacted within human evolution. (2) Early humans, or homo habilis, created so-called “choppers” which are best described as stones with sharpened edges that were used to chop, cut or scrape another material. You could call them the ‘gadgets of prehistoric technology’. For a long time objects, or designed cutting tools, within the Oldowan classification existed without having 2D surrogates such as drawings, written descriptions or photographs to support them; let alone a digital (after)life. Since then, these tools have been collected, (re)stored, documented, analyzed, described, and photographed. Perhaps photographs of some of these tools have even been digitised, or 3D scans made to create virtual renders of these objects. Now, if we take an Oldowan cutting tool as a metaphor of the past, what metaphor best describes the designed objects and tools of our time?

Different from the Oldowan tool, we now live in an era where the 2D or 3D representation of a thing will most likely outlive the thing it represents; if a ‘thing’ was made at all. With the digital tools of the late 21st century, almost everything can be made by everyone—at least in the digital realm. Let me explain this further… Where the Oldowan tool has had a long physical life and a rather short (digital) image-based life, the opposite counts for most of the objects or tools designed in the past few decades. Many a prototype or sample is initially rendered digitally before it comes into physical existence. Most digital objects never even get to that physical stage, whether intended or unintended. Some objects were created exclusively for the digital realm and, thus, they live a mostly digital life.

“The triviality of […] utensils is rather a guarantee for transience than an appeal to preserve it as extraordinary heritage.”(3)

When looking at some of the developments within design and tools used at the beginning of this century, we might be able to get a better grasp of what I would like to call “the phantom of design”. A design’s phantom is everything but its physicality: its aura, its phygital (i.e blending of digital and physical experiences) remnants, its mental imprint, its diaphanous character and its spiritual relic.

Phantom OS screenshot for 17 Oct 2019. Source: Dmitry Zavalishin (CC BY-SA 4.0).

In reflecting upon how designed objects came to be what they are today it seems rather strange to delve into an operating system that is already over 60 years old and left the realm of computing and programming long ago. The Phantom Operating System (Phantom OS) was created by Dmitry Zavalishin back in 2009—an era in which we were first introduced to Lady Gaga, women still wore leggings as pants, and in which we transitioned from flip phones to touchscreen smartphones. These trends (as the word suggests) were not built to last. The primary goal of the Phantom OS, however, was to become immortal. With Phantom, powering down a computer would not cause running programs to change state because it accomplished automatic state preservation. It did so by snapshotting system memory onto disk. Now, years and years after Phantom OS shifted away from the market and our screens, it appears it is not the actual operating system, but its legacy, that lives on in expected ways.

We could say that the Phantom OS, as a way of thinking or as an approach, is still among us yet more on a human rather than digital scale. Whereas before we were limited by the basic intelligence within our human brains—caused by the conditioning of our minds by the powerful idea that things need to be physical for them to be real—we now know that we can do much more with much less. The act of snapshotting has become our main way of consuming things, objects, thoughts and ideas instead of acquiring the actual, physical, ‘in-the-flesh’ object. Going to sleep (mode) does not necessarily mean we will forget the objects present in our daily lives or in our memories. Although we are still waiting for the possibility to actually ‘save’ what is stored in our brains, the human brain and its neural networking have undergone a tremendous transformation over the past couple of decades, making the recent past seem like a tale from olden days.

“Studio PMS - In Pursuit of Tactility - Collection Animation”. Studio PMS. YouTube.

At the beginning of the century, many museum curators were worried about the preservation of textile garments which were especially prone to decay after decenniums of inertia within collection depots. They questioned whether digital photographs, scans, or even virtually rendered images would be able to transpose the tactile sensation of the actual garment. In 2018, Utrecht-based design collective Studio PMS launched their ‘In Pursuit of Tactility’ collection: a collection that explored what fashion could be(come) in the digital realm. In response to crippling fashion industry systems that suffered from overproduction and excessive waste, Studio PMS proposed an alternative that mitigated overproduction and overconsumption by creating a collection of digitally rendered fashion pieces. In order to achieve a sense of tactility, they had to rediscover physical characteristics of fabrics and fashion such as composition, texture, movement and touch. Back then, this project served as a future-forward anticipation of what fashion could be in the digital realm. Today, it’s hard to imagine a world of fashion in which the material garment or object is preferred over the digital sensation and consumption of a product. Especially given the fashion industry’s former toxic character and the ecologically and ethically disastrous consequences that arose from this.

Amandine David (@amandine__david), ‘Atlas of the Lost Finds’. Source: Project initiated by Unfold Design Studio (@unfoldantwerp). 3D scan provided by Museu Nacional 3D lab ‘LAPID’.

Another example of how transient digital utensils made way for a (re)interpretation and elongation, of an object’s life was Unfold Antwerp’s research project ‘Atlas of the Lost Finds’. This project invited a selection of designers to collaborate on creating tools to reanimate and dematerialise objects lost during a fire that ruined most of the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2017. Felideo became the first case in the ‘Atlas of Lost Finds’ project. An original stirrup vessel, produced by the Chimú in Peru, was located in the archives when fire raged through the museum and destroyed around 18 million other artefacts. Amandine David, one of the participating designers, wanted to investigate how physical information is lost and recreated and how each step within this process transforms the initial design. In an attempt to reproduce the piece, both traditional and digital craft techniques were employed that explored the value and implications of this act of rematerialising this object from its ‘data ghost’. The project resonates with the ways in which we view visual culture today, and how lost material treasures are being preserved within our endless virtual and imagined wunderkammers.

Going back to the question asked at the beginning of this essay, I wonder what can be considered a metaphor that would best describe the designed objects and tools of our time. The digitalisation and ASMR-ification of visual culture in the first two decades of the 21st century made us turn to more adaptive and sensorial digital crafting tools instead of mere physical ones. We now can imagine life without objects, something that was impossible at the beginning of the century. In opposition to the process Oldowan tools went through, nowadays our virtually created 2D and 3D objects no longer need a physical or material surrogate. Beforehand, what we thought we could make was dictated by the physical things or tools available around us. Now that the physical outcome is merely a possibility and in itself no longer a necessity, the possibilities to create ‘things’ directly from our brains is endless.

To conclude: any previous (digital) sketches, scans, photographs, or virtually 3D rendered images of objects can be considered as “phantoms of design”—representing physical things albeit, without physicality. However, today we can also consider (digital) sketches and prototypes, mock-ups, or virtually 3D rendered images, without material surrogate, to be creators of a phantom of a design. If we are confronted with an image of a thing, we can automatically think of that thing as existing physically, therefore making the physical production of a design redundant. The only tool we need to convert the mortal physical thing into an immortal phantom, and vice versa, is our brain. Is it then our endless imagination and immortal dataset of intermingling memories, images, texts and clips—the never shut-down brain as a Phantom OS—that can be considered the ungraspable tool of our time?

References in this text:

  1. Comment by user tidux, on osnews website, https://www.osnews.com/story/130792/what-is-phantom-os-about/, (accessed October 2020).
  2. https://anthromuseum.missouri.edu/exhibit/oldowan-and-acheulean-stone-tools
  3. Heiden, K. and de Niet, M., ‘Design en vormgeving in het digitaal archief’, Boekman 93 (2012), pp.74-80.
  4. On Phantom OS: “Russian rides Phantom to OS immortality. The iPhone that never dies.” by Ted Dziuba. The Register, February 2009, https://www.theregister.com/2009/02/03/phantom_russian_os/, (accessed October 2020)
  5. “The Phantom Operating System”, via Github, https://phantomdox.readthedocs.io/en/latest/, (accessed October 2020)
During these years, design mass media shifted from being primarily focused on print-based magazines and publications to online distribution of similar content (Text and image still being the preferred medium of journalists and publishing houses). With this development, images increased their potency within the language of communication. This shift in the condition of design seems to have gone largely unrecognised within the museum profession at the time which contributed to an underdeveloped discourse around this event. ‘Digital cultures’ (digital platforms and their forms of communication) were collected by various ‘museum of the internet’ initiatives. As well as the artistic interpretations that were being collected within museums and similar institutions for ‘born-digital’ and digital art. However within the design discourse the effects of digital culture and digital media were largely discarded or considered too ephemeral.
There is evidence that design museums (or museums collecting design) managed to identify the circulation of images through digital media as having or adding value. Nevertheless this value went largely ‘officially unrecognised’ as those museums still had physical objects as their main point of reference. Following the increased circulation of images, during the period from 2000 to 2030, museums did initiate various attempts to digitise their collections. Digitalisation often took the shape of archived collections of images manifesting as files or 3D scans. These collections were essentially ‘born-digital’ copies of the museums’ physical collections; relocating their content within large scale server farms miles away from their museal buildings where their physical archives were housed. While, in the meantime, these artefacts would remain in storage, behind closed doors, out of view of audiences.
The reproduction of objects as images became important for museums in raising the status of their physical collections. In the publication ‘Copy Culture - Sharing in the Age of Digital Reproduction’, first published in 2018, Anaïs Aguerre and Brendan Cormier introduced reproduction as a currency and value; the larger the online presence of reproductions and images, the more visitors would be inclined to visit the original object; thereby increasing its value.3 In an attempt to follow their audience onto social media, museums started to share their digitised collections openly online, with the aim of expanding their online presence and bringing in more visitors from a larger outreach.
Despite museums’ dedication to online imagery and social networks, institutions often seemed preoccupied with circulating their existing collections online. Instead of allocating time to understanding the influences inherent to social media that occurred when objects came into contact with them. Many museums disregarded how the digital life-span of objects
A Garden of Forking Images-Links-Objects
By Katía Truijen
Last update 01.10 at [10h20]

1. Images: no results

Julia Weist, Reach, 2015. Billboard in Queens, New York.

“This is where I came to be alone. We’re here together now. It’s a place we built, the both of us. Sometimes I think that there’s nowhere that hasn’t already been carved up and carved out, although I didn’t used to feel that way. … I guess that’s partly why I come here. I bought this place, or else I founded it, because there was nothing. That’s how—for a time—it remained.” (1)

For a few weeks, a billboard in Queens in New York included the word “parbunkells”. A word that, until recently, did not appear in any search engine results, and was essentially absent from the internet. Artist Julia Weist had blown up the word (in plural) in a well-trafficked area, and observed what the object set in motion. Googling “parbunkells” lead to a webpage featuring the mysterious text shown above, and a lamp in Weist’s home turned on each time the page was visited. The word soon appeared on Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and many other places. There was even a Twitter handle created for “parbunkells”, without Weist’s knowledge. (2)

She found the word in the rare-book room of the New York Public Library, in a volume that dated back to the seventeenth century. It was one of few terms with no Google search results. According to Weist, the project somehow highlighted a microcosm within the life cycle of the Web. It could be read as a portrait of the Internet. “If you create a void and suggest that there’s value in the Internet not being there, the Internet is going to show you why it should be there.” (3)

2. Links: hypertext fictions and stories of interest

Julia Weist, Reach, 2015. Google search results for “parbunkells”.

Back when the billboard was first installed by Weist, there were no web pages, indexed by Google, connected to “parbunkells”, except for the one created by the artists herself. Today the word has quite a few more search results (3300).

Google’s Googlebot is a ‘webspider’ that crawls the internet via hyperlinks in order to discover new content, index web pages and cache them within vast databases. Because we quickly became used to them, we tend to forget that hyperlinks are what forms the multitude of distinct pathways that allow us to traverse the web. By choosing routes through texts, posts, pages and by clicking links, we ‘author’ non-linear stories through navigation. Paths are forged that are defined by our interests. (4)

In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges—an Argentine librarian, poet and writer who created stories around the dizzying nature of power—wrote the famous short story The Garden of Forking Paths—one of the earliest examples of ‘hypertext’ fiction—long before the invention of the digital computer. At the heart of this multi-layered story is the contemplation of a wise man named Ts’ui Pên, who wanted to construct both a labyrinth and a novel. The end of the story reveals that the two concepts are actually the same: Ts’ui Pên created a book that is itself a maze. The story follows the same logic as hyperlinks do—as they establish the forking paths on the internet—and permit the reader to experience all possible narratives. In a way, the internet made the fiction of Ts’ui Pên, a reality. (5) Hyperlinks make one travel more or less consciously—from page to page, from list to image, to text to video, to map to form, to ad to gif, and onwards, to another page.

3. Garden: or an endless safari, one image at a time

But we also travel vertically (scrolling) and horizontally (swiping) through visual material and texts that are algorithmically generated for us, within endless streams of ‘new’ and personalised content. The internet perceived as an endless wilderness was initially reflected in the names of early internet browsers. In 1993, ‘Netscape Navigator’ was the most popular browser, Microsoft then launched ‘Internet Explorer’ in 1995, followed by Apple’s ‘Safari’ in 2003. (6)

The social media platforms we are familiar with today are not so much environments of untamed wilderness, but can be understood as distinct gardens, with their own aesthetics, carefully designed paths and shortcuts, open spaces and private corners, and gardeners (bots, users and moderators) who prune some material while allowing others to be circulated and exposed.

4. Object: images of production

Parbunkells Billboard (Mounted for 38 Days at 107-37 Queens Blvd), 2015 - 2016. Vinyl billboard, LED light (programmed to turn on when the parbunkells website is visited), circuit board, wifi-enabled outlet.

The typeface is Apple Garamond, in black on a white backdrop. Is the billboard advertising a new Apple product? The design of the word plays with how we filter, categorise and evaluate the ongoing flow of images, messages, ads and other (audio)visual materials we encounter on a daily basis. On the streets, in our homes, and on our way, we engage with a variety of media attempting to capture our attention.

This billboard, with ‘parbunkells’ printed on it, looks familiar. It uses a typeface that connects to a well known brand in order to expose ‘something’ we recognise as a form of advertisement. But then there is a pause. Because the word doesn’t make sense as the name of a product. And there is no subtitle or image to support or clarify the word.

A few months after the billboard was taken down, Weist created an exhibition of the project in a gallery in New York City, within which she included the printed vinyl fabric of the billboard itself. In the context of the gallery, this object, an object of design, became an image—a representation or even a memory of an object’s initial function, where its strategic location invited passers-by to capture, search, multiply and recontextualise the object, resulting in a widely branched ‘digital life-span’ of the object. Resulting in new narratives, visual materials and pathways being produced. A life this billboard set in motion. But here in the gallery, the vinyl fabric, folded into a square, was an object that lost its primary function. It became an object to be archived.

Next to the vinyl billboard fabric, the exhibition also included an award from the Outdoor Advertising Association of America; an image of the domain name parbunkells.org for sale on ebay (including the comments section); a parbunkells ‘art print’ that can still be ordered as poster, laptop skin, tapestry or hardcover journal via redbubble.com. And finally, the Parbunkells Image Archive, a composition of stickers arranged on the inside and outside of the gallery windows, featuring images retrieved between December 6, 2015, and January 1st, 2016. This collage included social media posts and a varied assortment of the images that had become part of this extensive ‘parbunkells’ network. (7)

Interestingly, the exhibition was still a valid medium through which to expose and grasp the various traces of the project, even if it is a ‘material’ and ‘still image’ representation of the project. Online, ‘parbunkells’ continues to grow, generating interpretations within new contexts as an assemblage of images, posts and pages whose meaning changes over time. When the billboard was first installed in 2015, the word and image of ‘parbunkells’ went viral, rapidly circulating online, reaching social media walls and streams, as well as the readerships of The New Yorker, Vice and other popular magazines that reported the intervention. Today, it has become an interesting example that describes the digital lifespan of an image-object. Is this very text part of the project too?

5. Forking: the digital life-span of objects

Julia Weist, Parbunkells Image Archive (Composition for Inside and Outside) 06/12/2015 - 1/1/2016, UV ink on adhesive vinyl, dimensions variable.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The 17th century word ‘parbunkells’ literally means two ropes that are bound together, with a noose at both ends, i.e. Four loops that merge in the middle. Maybe parbunkells offers a concept to describe the digital life-span of design objects. Images of design objects are stored, requested, reposted—in new versions, because an image that is opened is always a version, never the ‘original’ (8)—in feedback loops of linked files, pages and posts. The physical object and it’s digital counterparts have their own ‘loops’ of circulation, but they also share the same sphere. Images have not so much replaced the object, but the life-span of the object increasingly lies in the online circulation of its images and the links that connect them to other contexts.

What made ‘parbunkells’ go viral is also the fact that the word didn’t exist online yet. Which is something that may be difficult to imagine today. There are rare occasions when we can’t find something, but even in those cases, we often think that a version or image is out there somewhere on the internet. Indeed, even if museums are digitising their collections, with the aim of providing access to these digital copies, many images of design objects remain absent or unindexed.

Reach by Julia Weist could be seen as work of hypertext fiction—just like Borges’ story of Ts’ui Pên who constructed a labyrinth and a book at the same time. This project is both image and object. It exists and grows as long as the word is queried, the story is read, the project reinterpreted, and the paths (links) are activated by our clicks. That’s how—for a time—it remained.

References in this text:

  1. Weist, J. Reach, 2015. http://work.deaccession.org/reach/
  2. Morais, B. (2015, July) “A New Word on the Internet”, The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-new-word-on-the-internet
  3. Morais, B. (2015, July) “A New Word on the Internet”, The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-new-word-on-the-internet
  4. Elmer, G. (2001) “Hypertext on the Web: The Beginnings and Ends of Web Path-ology,” Space and Culture. 10: 1-14.
  5. Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. Nick Montfort, The New Media Reader (Cambridge, Massachusetts: 2003), p. 29.
    https://monoskop.org/images/4/4c/Wardrip-Fruin_Noah_Montfort_Nick_eds_The_New_Media_Reader.pdf
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_browser
  7. Actor-network theory follows how a given element becomes strategic through the number of connections it commands, and how it loses its importance when losing its connections. There is no ‘outside’ to a network, it is simply made of connections. When one describes an actor-network, this explanation becomes part of the network itself, and the division between things and their representations becomes problematic. See: Latour, Bruno. “Actor-Network Theory. A Few Clarifications” January 11, 1998. Accessed July 4, 2020. https://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9801/msg00019.html
  8. Kirschenbaum, Matthew. Mechanisms. New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008).
often contributed to their value, or how the value of the image online contributed to the value the museums gave to the physical object, as represented via their image/s. Wherever these intentions are mentioned, they are frequently reduced to a short sentence mentioned briefly within a small caption.
In 2014, the Victoria & Albert museum in London introduced their Rapid Response Collecting strategy where contemporary objects were acquired on the basis of their connection to urgent, newsworthy events. At the center of the collection lay a question—What are the components that constitute part of an ‘original design’? This was made evident by the acquisition of the ‘Pussy Power Hat’, an example of the many pink hand-knitted hats worn by women world-wide during the Women’s March on the 21st of January 2017. The Pussy Hat Project was initiated by Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh, who asked yarn shop owner Kat Coyle to design a simple knitting pattern that could be spread over social media and inspire women to knit their own hats before the demonstration. Although we could argue that the original design was the published pattern, the V&A chose a more object-based mode of collecting by acquiring one (of many) hats knitted by Zweiman herself instead. In line with the collecting strategy, as stated by the V&A, “…the Pussyhat is a modest material object. Yet it is also a powerfully communicative product of today’s design and digital culture.”4 The hierarchy evident in this statement further substantiates a perspective that gave emphasis to an ‘original design object’.
In 2070, it has been nearly impossible to find a concrete discourse contained within museum archives that relates to design and mass media, that we currently have access to. As we attempt to understand how social and mass media affected the forms of design that we know today, we are confronted with a design history that is predominately based on isolated and object-based models. What would the collection and history of design be like now, if the effects of social and mass media on design processes, that we have uncovered through our case studies, were reflected here today?

1 Jason Farago, “A New Type of Museum for an Age of Migration,” The New York Times, July 11, 2018. Link
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2 Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture and Mass Media (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994), 13-15.
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3 Anaïs Aguerre and Brendan Cormier, Copy Culture — Sharing in the Age of Digital Reproduction (London: V&A Publishing, 2018), 20-21.
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4 “V&A · The Pussyhat.” Victoria and Albert Museum. Accessed March 12, 2020. Link
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