“Since the collapse of the Icelandic financial system and ongoing similar trends around the world during the last decade, many designers and other creative people realize that some have even been working with a feeling of guilt,” says Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon (Goddur), professor at the Icelandic Academy of Arts. Guðmundur has rounded up acclaimed designers—Jerszy Seymour from Berlin, Siggi Eggertsson from Iceland, Winy Mass from the Netherlands and Ilka Suppanen from Finland—to discuss the designer’s role in this time of changes.
We called up the renowned and aforementioned Jerszy Seymour and went on to have a fascinating conversation with him involving everything from “the life paradox” to his ideas on an “amateur utopia.” Jerszy studied engineering at South Bank Polytechnic and industrial design at the Royal College of Art. His work has been exhibited all over the world, from the Palais De Tokyo in Paris to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
You will be giving a lecture called, ‘A New World Adventurers Guide.’ Can you give us a small preview of what to expect?
I’ll talk about my work, which begins with the understanding that the volcano is a metaphor for the human psyche. That means the chance release of the subconscious libido and instinctual forces, the idea of the controlling forces of the ego and the superego, and this becomes the guide for navigating the world.
Essentially we live in a life paradox. In the beginning of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ he talks about the worst of times and the best of times, the time of good and the time of bad, and then he says, ‘yeah, it’s a time pretty much like it is now.’ So in a way I say we live in the life paradox, which is between a lot of extremes, like life and death, existentialism and determinism, holy and profane. In fact, it’s not about trying to find the right or wrong, but trying to find the way to deal with this paradox.
Some of your past projects deal with what you call an ‘amateur society’. Can you explain what it entails?
When I talk about ‘amateur,’ I define amateur as lover, appassionato and nonprofessional as a way of being. The amateur projects in a way used museum space to say, let’s look at the whole of life construction. To give a chance for a new thought, let’s cut out from capitalism. I think capitalism is essentially the market and the market is just one of the things that exist. It’s not really right or wrong in itself.
The amateur is more about a belief in a libidinal and instinctual energy. And modernism is about rationalising and quantifying everything. That’s where we all become part of the mechanism rather than actually looking at the forces inside. In the amateur project I talked about ideas of doing, sharing and being as things to overlay on the current context. But I think it is finally concerned with how to safeguard the individual in a world that becomes more socially connected and dependent.
The amateur is this person that discovered that the energy of making things and doing things was actually something very important.
Do you think its possible to achieve an amateur utopia? Can it coexist in a capitalist or socialist system? How do the values differ? Is it to be taken literally?
I think everybody is an amateur in their life. In fact the amateur is not a system. The utopia is coming from the ‘no place.’ I try to describe amateur not as a system. I mean we have to get the capital system right, it’s the system that looks after the market and the social system looks after the society and these are two things that have to be taken care of. Perhaps the amateur is more of a navigation of how to deal with these two things.
What I meant by ‘utopia’ is a provocation because it’s a very well understood word, but it is also a project that was finished in modernist time, but actually the utopian thinking finished in capitalism or socialism. The next step I talk about is the ‘everytopia’. Rather than dealing with a grid, a construction of society, it’s more like growing a plant – growing plants and town planning.
The problem of trying to achieve a constructed grid, you always have the danger of falling into dogmatic thinking and you’ll finish into dictatorship or market dictatorship, which is what we have. The question is how to build things that don’t become broken immediately or dogmatic immediately. When you put doing and production together, production is one of the areas of society, they are similar things, but being is a very different idea. I made a reinterpretation of a Marx quote, put the means of production in the hands of the people and put the fulfilment of the production in the hands of the people.
I don’t think an ‘amateur utopia’ will be achieved because it has no sense of achievement. It’s a really great thing not to have to worry about. If it has to achieve it will already be a dogma in a sense. The idea of the amateur is not so much a system as an energy source. I think it will just flow.
Iceland is going through a tumultuous time of change. In many ways it is a symbol of the global financial crisis and a failed model. What would you prescribe as we move forward?
Moving forward, I think we need A) a collect and fair social regulation of the international financial system, B) global equality and the equivalent of human rights, including a global minimum wage and welfare, and C) the end of national borders. That’s for the world, and then for Iceland, until the above things happen, create as much autonomy as possible and speculate as little as possible.
Your role as a designer in the times of change?
I can’t work on an ideal society; there will always be some injustice, but what we can do is make some things brighter, making the value of human life as much as possible and celebrating that.
Catch his lecture at Tjarnarbíó on March 24 at 10:00.