This summer, Charlie Evans (2014 BA Design graduate, and currently a Technical Tutor in the Department) is spending two months in Taipei, on a Designers in Residence program for the British Council in Taiwan. Charlie will send us regular correspondence with impressions from his experience; we’re publishing the third of his letters today.
During the interval at an outdoor dance performance by Cloud Gate, I watched thousands of people stretch at the behest of three motivational performers. It reminded me of this video I’d stumbled across earlier in the residency, a news report on Taiwan’s Bureau of Health Promotion promoting a daily exercise routine for office workers:
The best quote is “if you do 15 minutes of healthy exercise you can extend your life by 6.6 minutes”.
Within both of these public acts is something deeply patronising and uninspiring. One of the observations at the center of my work here is that the body is a profoundly personal space and when we begin to invest in it collectively, it becomes a shared object of intimacy. In subtle ways, this is built into the architecture and culture of training facilities. Without this, throwing exercise into the middle of a professional environment produces a miniature context collapse. Similarly, watching and celebrating dancers that inhabit bodies we never will to then stretch our soft limbs collectively, feels humiliating.
At the center of this oversimplified,let-them-eat-cake approach to exercise is a sticky neoliberalism that rationalises its actions numerically, offering them up to an empirical monism. Arguably (and it’s important to note I’m not fully invested in this idea) the contemporary problems we’re facing are structural components within the economic and political architecture of our time. If we’re considering health, instead of observing symptoms and countering them with poorly conceived, topdown exercise regimes, we might instead look for the subtler forces that define our lifestyles.
If we look back to the Prozac boom in early 90s America and Britain, the availability of biotechnology neglected to imagine alternative structural (lifestyle) ways to organise and design our interior mental space, it seemed a simple quick fix. Again, we’re lacking the imagination required to look beyond the immediate, corporeal empiricism of obesity and inactivity. (Maybe we don’t want to be spending all this time in the office. Maybe we need to be thinking about the economic horizons that cap our working weeks at 30 hours.)
The health epidemics associated with stagnation and inactivity that define our times are chronic diseases that respond far less to the rapid technology of modern medicine and will instead be contested on a complex terrain of psychological, behavioural and ideological conflict. This is absolutely where design’s ambition should locate itself, not in the neoliberal machine of statistics and participation figures.
Charlie is also keeping a visual blog on Tumblr.