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French-born 27-year old interaction designer Mikael Metthey, harnesses his profession's very specific procedural mechanisms, to produce artworks which investigate the development and interaction between new technologies, science and design. It is an equation of relationships in which human behavior each time embodies the unpredictable and unavoidable variable, which defines each result.
Concretely, Mikael Metthey's artistic practice consists in the creation of interaction design products, those being not just merely functional to the critical speech but 'work' integrally, from the productive as well as from the artistic point of view. The language and mechanisms in Metthey's works are simple yet complex. He involves the observer, poses questions, plays on the use of ambiguous ethics entailed in each of his project. In the subtle rhetoric of his work, the content transmission happens 'indirectly', arising an complex emotional state of reflection. Such state is indeed centered on and endorsed by the element of disturbance, without directly referring to it. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mikael about his work, visiting the studio where he lives and work in Dalston, London.
You graduated as Interaction Designer from the London Royal College of Arts in 2007, During this period you started you artist activity up to exhibiting some of your works in London, Amsterdam and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Your works, prototypes or concepts of hypothetical interaction design projects, aim to explore the relationship between design, science, developing technologies and culture: questioning the visitor about his own role among these relationships. What inspired your first works?
In my first works there has been a time of gradual understanding of what I really wanted to do. My first interest was in graphics and digital media was my undergraduate degree, which led me to gradually absorb science and technology in a new light. This attracted my mind because of their potential impact on society. Then it was a logical progression towards what really interests me, the role of science in society and how we apply science in our everyday lives and how science makes us really different from all other species on earth. So I guess my work has this constant balance, this tendency to overlap in three very important aspects of modern society; these three axes being health, science and design.
There is a certain way of seeing design today, which is trying to absorb it in a different light, namely to see design not as a source of aesthetic consideration, but rethinking some aspects of it and how such things merge with art because they raise questions; so how do you design to ask questions? How do you design for debate? Are your questions raising the right issues and pushing for the right discussions, the ones we should be having right now, because technology is advancing and our perception of it is lagging behind.
Which was the first project you felt as truly significant within this philosophy?
My first work, the one that really got me going in first place was my graduation project called Poxteddy in 2007. It is a product, a medical device to expose children to chickenpox at early age and to kind of commodify viruses to build up immunity to chickenpox at early age by a different method. A method that some parents already sometimes use to deal with chickenpox is to arrange chickenpox parties to make children exchange the virus and therefore to give a social aspect to an immunity program, a kind of social vaccination. I believe the process should be evolving as our technologies are evolving, we shouldn’t be stuck to ancestral ways just because we have been doing it for so many years and they have proved to be efficient enough, we need to go forward. When I was vaccinated when I was a kid, the pediatrician was trying to distract me, to divert my attention by some silly ways that worked. That reminded me that you don't need much to brake these false expectations of vaccination which I believe are not necessary. We have the technologies to erase them and I don't see why we are not doing it. Poxteddy was a good starting point for exploring the idea that in the future viruses will actually be tamed and used for more positive purposes. The objects were these figurative prototypes, tested by confrontation with the public, a kind of stimulation for them to respond to. They were aimed to stimulate a debate about this technology, whether it was ethical or outrageous. The product itself doesn’t make such a point, the idea is that society seems to be split in two branches when it comes to chickenpox: the ones who believe that vaccines are efficient and trustworthy and the ones that don’t, and the ones that don’t would doubt everything. In a way, by offering this product, they will doubt even more because it’s a manifestation of science and engineering and it is providing a kind of tangible thing to criticize.
It had to shock, it had to be something that people would feel strong about. They might love it, they might hate it but as you can see I'm not giving them the answers, I’m just creating a product that raises questions. I’m not answering anything, I’m just delimiting a certain area of discussion and it’s up to people to decide where they stand and whether their opinion can change, grow, evolve into something different because of their perception of life and science. So you could say this is an art piece where the message is not included inherently to the device, the message comes out of people. And this is quite recurrent in my work.
The question on what defines normality and reality is also the pivotal concept of another exhibition you participated in. Niet Normaal, was held in Amsterdam from December 2009 to March 2010. The projects exhibited were aimed to explore the boundaries pertaining to the definition of normality as we receive it from our cultural heritage. Could you tell us a bit more about this work?
Niet Normaal was focused on the questions of normality and who decides what is normal and what's not. My take on it was trying to give people a space in which they could imagine a world where medicine and technology have eradicated all diseases from the surface of the earth, therefore eliminating all kinds of fears and catastrophic scenarios about health. If you set that as the ground rule of the space, you can imagine that people would want to experience what it was like to have a disease, to remember it as some kind of nostalgic act, as something they would want to physically re-live. The space itself was delimited in five devices that would project different strains of influenza viruses as you were passing in front of them.
You could basically choose to focus on a Poxteddy very specific strain, depending on how mortal or virulent it is and also see the popularity of these viruses: would people choose the one that smells better, would people choose the one that killed the most people, or would they choose the ones that have a special meaning to them such as an emotional connection, maybe one of their grandparents died of this disease and they want to see how it felt like.
This is the core theme of another of your works, The Minutine Space, where the same route of infection is applied for a purpose which is essentially recreational, but in this case the disease is experienced in a common viral area where individuals can enjoy experiencing the disease in communal space (the viral area is also provided with a central basin where one can vomit when feeling sick). How do you see this sort of paradox, turning a biologically event usually lived in isolation into a social event?
When you get a disease by definition you have to confront a whole lot of etiquettes; you can either be isolated, you can be integrated, attract the emotional attention of your surroundings. In this very case I think the grotesque in the project comes from the way in which it is banalized, in the way that you can just catch a virus, better ways to detect rapidly infectious organisms. They were designing specifically for hospitals, but as soon as we got in contact with them we realized that their work was ultimately going to be spread in the commercial world and the use of this technology would probably be global, because they were designing devices that could let you know at anytime, anywhere, whether you would be surrounded by dangerous organisms: how much risk do you have to face when you go toward a specific context or place.
Collaborating, we had to be more grounded in reality, interpret their research; they had to be flexible enough to understand we will not be bound to hospitals only. So, from that we decided to explore the notion of the Pathogen Hunter, which is a role, a job designed by a governmental system, dedicated to assessing risk and the dangers associated with infectious organisms in the city environment, in high density population. The concept itself is simple: it's kind of a forecast institution for viruses and bacteria, but the form by which you communicate that, is relatively new and unheard of. In some ways the objects act as a placebo: they are a way for the government to express to you that they are actively doing something for your health; it's a bit like enjoy it and then get rid of it as easily as it has been caught. My critique here is that when you make something not dangerous anymore, people would want to recreate the sensations, even if it's completely artificial. It's a little bit like bungee jumping, I think it's the search for the adrenaline kick and the way in which people are desperate for these sensations that make them feel like their life is in danger and feel the thrill of being able to confront death.
Should we reach a condition where all diseases and menaces are defeated and all the barriers imposed by our biological nature be overcome, what situation would this condition of disconnection from any compulsory bond to the environment lead us into? What would we be left with?
I think you are always left with questions. I think we are in a kind of desperate race to answer as many questions as possible to create what I think is an illusion of control, because we are essentially clueless about what the future holds for us, so by controlling these aspects of daily life we think we gain more security, thinking that we will be able to deal better with the future.
Merging with technology is already abundant around us, whether it's for prosthetics or even wearing a peacemaker, these are all tools that allow you to improve or extend your life or live it more normally. The point is that with maturity, technology at some point surpasses us, becomes something that takes us again out of normality into special stratospheres of human beings. That is something that is very recurrent in my works as well: how is the body connected with technologies? How do we perceive ourselves? I want to put a mirror in front of people's face, saying "look at the technology you have, look at the power you have, are you responsible enough to make use of these things in a positive way?". My primary concern is to explore the extremes: see how diverse we can get and see how our behaviors are going to interfere with technology, how we are going to create new behaviors, become new people, not only because technology but because our understanding of it.
Recently, you displayed your work also at the Impact Exhibition (London, 16-21 March 2010), where graduates of interaction design at the Royal College of Arts cooperated with a team of researchers from the Engineering and Physical sciences Research Council. Your work which was translated into a video presenting the role of the Pathogen Hunters, individuals in charge of collecting and monitoring the “infectious organisms”. This project is different from some of your previous works due to a closer link between the future you are postulating and the present reality but also because it is your first collaborative project. How did you relate to the project and with the team?
This project was very different because the grounds were in current research and me and my colleague from the RCA, Susana Soares were working together with researchers from Newcastle University, who have a grant from EU to explore the policeman in the street just walking the pavement: a statement that they are working for your safety. You could argue that this is a kind of enhanced version of the Big Brother where it would be in your advantage to be within this system -the best way for Big Brother to be around us is for us to want it-, that's how you can see this more as a symbiosis where the state is taking information about you but in exchange they are providing more health, maybe guaranteeing more health.
The system of Pathogen Hunters is based on a sort of “biological communism” in which each organic detail of every individual is taken and analyzed from a central organization, responsible for storing and exploiting this information for computing statistics and predictions to be then divulged through public bulletins. This implies a progressive integration of the individuals into symbiosis with a state-directed body, a thing that in the kind of future imagined here would be necessary and desirable. So in this perspective the control of the pathogen agents performed through this “preventive body inquiring”, sounds a bit like a control over the individuals.
Totally! UK has the biggest bank of DNA in the world and is actively collecting DNA of individuals for legal purposes. They are tailoring surveillance to be even more close to the individuals they are looking after or for; so creating this surveillance, system that is in your advantage, creates this strange relationship where you need the government to be there. You can choose to opt out but then you will lose your privileges. We were trying to give supporting aspects to the system, whereas they would truly be engaged in trying to make society better and aware of the risks of living in high density. But as in many of my works, it is up to the visitor to interpret the project in an optimistic or pessimistic way.
How do you approach a new project?
I like to start for example from an interesting piece of statistic or a fact I haven't come across before and I want to know more about. This is the case for the chickenpox project where before coming to the UK I had never heard of chickenpox parties and as I did I thought that this was the weirdest behavior I'd ever heard of and that kind of commanded a reaction. So it basically works that I make a discovery, something that really grabs me and then I make a response to it and I tend to add layers of technology to either tangibilize it or to put something really light touched in it, depending on the project. And then I don't want to come forward shouting my opinion as loud as I can, I don't pretend to know what's right or wrong. The way in which I produce is that I want to absorb things, understand things and I want to be able to translate them in a new way. I don't really set out to be grotesque or burlesque or irrational; I try to surprise people with what they already know, giving it into a form that they haven't seen before. I am really happy about my projects when I can see that I have kind of educated someone in a new perspective and I learn something from the project too.
Are you currently working on a new project and/or is there something about which you would like to work?
There are a few projects that are quite interesting to me at the moment which are about the advance of biotechnology and the way we relate to our fragility. For example about regenerative medicine and on how maybe in the future you could lose an arm and you wouldn't be too bothered about it because you would know you could re-grow it and how is that going to influence our behaviors with our own bodies and the risks we're prepared to take for example performing dangerous tasks since we do not see the danger in the way we did before we had these kind of 'spare parts'. Another more down-to-earth project would be the exploration of the ethics of telepresence: the way American troops have been bombing Iraq with remotely controlled planes, the way in which American pilots control planes from Las Vegas bombing in Iraq, and the extremely curious case of a soldier who wakes up in the morning, brushes his teeth, say bye to his children and goes to work, which is to act for the safety of his country, to do these terrible things. Then he goes home to his wife and children, has dinner and watches TV as if nothing happened, because telepresence can detach you from the reality of the situation, which is that you are bombing people. I'm interested in this emotional relationship between the person controlling the machine and the machine that performs these really dark acts.
AN INTERVIEW OF MIKAEL METTHEY BY HENRIETTE VITTADINI
ARTICLE COURTESY TAKEN FROM DIGICULT'S MONTHLY
MAGAZINE DIGIMAG 55/JUNE 2010,
FOUNDED AND DIRECTED BY MARCO MANCUSO
Published in the Digitalarti Mag #3.
Digitalarti Mag, the international digital art and innovation magazine.
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