How dare we look to young people for hope? (STIR World)
The last time I visited Dutch Design Week was in 2015. I remember the Design Academy Eindhoven show in particular: it fizzed with possibility. “The problems of the world are so deep, so profound, that thinking of solutions will not help us,” said Thomas Widdershoven, the creative director at the time, in his welcome address. “If you narrow down a problem to solve it, then you have a narrow mind, and it will not be profound enough to come up with real alternatives. What I see my students do is sometimes clumsy, sometimes funny, sometimes nonsense, and sometimes spot on, but they address social issues.”
Eight years on, I can’t remember what the pressing issues of the day were, but I do remember graduate projects that included a light-hearted reflection on the social media-driven popularity of the monstera plant (by Daniela Treija and Sara Sturges), a Willy-Wonka-inspired reinvention of the popcorn maker (by Jolene Carlier), and Simone Post’s multi-layered, multi-coloured glass pendant lamps inspired by the drawings of a seven-year-old boy. Of course, there were also more serious projects addressing topics such as migration, unemployment and premature birth, but the tone—as Widdershoven indicated—was light. The projects did address the issues of the day, but they did so with a sense of optimism.
The majority of this year’s BA graduates started at DAE in the autumn of 2019. COVID reached the Netherlands on February 27, 2020, when the country’s first case was confirmed in Tilburg. To date, almost seven million people have died worldwide. In May of the same year, 44-year-old white police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black American man, in Minneapolis, prompting a global reckoning with historical racism and police brutality. Within a year, 229 more Black people had been killed by the police in America.
In 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that human activity is changing the climate in unprecedented and irreversible ways and within a year, the oceans and 28 countries had all experienced their warmest year on record. Russia launched a military invasion of Ukraine in a steep escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War, and there are currently major armed conflicts in seven separate parts of the world, including in Gaza where the death toll has already eclipsed that of Ukraine.
In 2022, ‘Roe vs Wade,’ the 1973 landmark case after which abortion was made legal across the US, was overturned, and more than 60 countries have criminalised consensual same-sex activity. Still, more have laws and policies that threaten the very existence of members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Widdershoven described the world problems of 2015 as “so deep, so profound.” I am not sure what he would have to say about the issues this year’s DAE graduates have been grappling with, but their show felt anything but clumsy, funny or nonsense. Instead, there was a real sense of heaviness that feels hard to shake off even as I write this two weeks later.
Nico Neves’ work, After the Pyrocene, was an imagined landscape of burnt trees—a ‘scorched forest made of digital textures’ to highlight the impact of digital technologies on our relationship with the natural world. The project draws on his own experience of having to watch his grandmother’s village in Portugal burn via his mobile phone and news footage. It aims to evoke ‘solastalgia’—the emotional distress caused by environmental change—in those who engage with it.
The Columns of Cardboard Boxes by Gabriel eszo Richard were totem-like piles of discarded cardboard boxes he had collected on the streets on Eindhoven and covered in black illustrations to depict ‘how much is experienced in daily life.’ With images that include grotesque faces piled on top of one another, trees grouped into dark forests and a person lying in bed, underlined eyes fully open, next to an alarm that has stopped ringing, the experience of walking among them was overwhelming to say the least.
Audio projects such as Louis Möckel’s Sonic Footprints added to the feeling of claustrophobia and rising panic. He investigated the environmental impact of industrial sound emissions, treating them as ecological footprints. A mass-produced PVC toy dolphin affixed to a vinyl record playing recordings of all the sounds that had been generated during its manufacture and transportation demonstrated their disruption to ecological systems.
There were of course more optimistic projects and some brilliant ideas offering real alternatives, but many projects felt like an expression of very personal pain—a cry for help rather than an optimistic vision of the future.
With the rise of youth activism, and figures such as Greta Thunberg, Mikaela Loach and Clover Hogan gaining prominence, it can be tempting to think the next generation has taken on the challenge of resolving the problems we face, but as Thunberg said to world leaders at a UN Youth Summit in New York in 2019, “You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” I couldn’t help but hear her words echo around my mind as I walked around this show—a 44-year-old adult looking to the next generation for inspiration; for hope.
Perhaps it’s about time we, as leaders in business, in government, in our own damn lives, started to take genuine action. Maybe it’s time the grown-ups offered some real alternatives and provide these young people with some hope rather than looking to them to fix the messes we have made.
Despair is not the soil in which creativity thrives. If we really want the help—and respect—of this emerging generation of designers, we need to take the pressure off a little, give them back the freedom to explore, to respond to the reality we have built for them in clumsy, funny, nonsense or serious ways. Perhaps some of them will show us the path to addressing social and environmental issues, but they should be free to do so without bearing the weight of the assumption that these are their problems to fix, when, if we are really honest with ourselves, we know they are ours.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)
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