Pervasive Monuments

What I've Been Doing for the Past 16 Months

The other day while making myself a cup of tea next to a meeting here at BRIG (which is where RIG and ADG make their home during working hours) I was mentioned as "...and Jim does mass graves..." to which I too quickly and smarmily added "But wait! I also do funny aware novels as well!" and then kind of scurried off uncomfortably like I do every other time I talk about what I've been doing. I've written some things about this project before, but don't think I can or could write enough, now or ever - mainly because it was the hardest thing I've even done in my life. I have been 'doing mass graves', officially for the past year and a half with Horizon Digital Economy Research, but have actually been doing this work for a whole lot longer. I started the project in 2005/2006 at the Royal College of Art where I wanted to see if you could design a mobile monument. It didn't look anything like what it ended up being, which is basically a museum audio tour in the woods, where you call up a mass grave.

What started as a arty-farty, unrealistic, RCA design project became a promise to a dying man and then finally, somehow, actually became (21 June 2011) something real. I guess this is what's made it the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, turning an incredibly difficult topic layered on top of decades of bad blood with loads of hare brained "design thinking", into a real thing. It involved battling through the DMZ of academia, presenting in an EU hearing, getting vaccinated for yellow fever, almost getting the Pervasive Monuments project kicked out of Rwanda, going with 80 year old ex-guerillas to see where dozens of families were liquidated to spending months and months figuring out how you make something a 14 or 80 year old can use on their phone in the woods.

A lot of times, reading account after account of the utter barbarism and savagery of what we as humans can do to each other, was the easy bit. While I've spent a lot of time the past couple of years imagining what it was like - to be 17 or 18 years old being stripped naked in a blood-soaked forest about to be put to death for a your ideas vs. someone else's ideas -  I came closer to losing it thinking and worrying if I could ever make this thing happen.

So it's over. For now. Maybe the EU will come in with some support as a lot of fingers across institutions and borders are crossed, and maybe they won't. Maybe this thing will just sort of wither away or fade into the background as something interesting that someone did with a story and a mobile phone once.

Maybe it was all worth it though. Maybe it just was all worth it for just for one day somehow getting a busload full of teenagers into the woods to start to question themselves about what their history and even their country means and and wanting to talk to their families about it. Maybe it was worth it if this thing I do called design can make you think for even a split second what it means to be human.

Years ago when I started this, my secret brief to myself was that maybe I can do this thing, whatever it ends of looking like, and maybe one random kid from Kranj (Slovenian city chosen at random) might change his mind about things. I hope one of these amazing kids might have been from Kranj.


Hvala vsem.

Ati, Lojzi, sem delal kot sem obljubil.

Brussels or Bust: Making it Happen

If you would have asked me just even a year ago if I would be addressing a public hearing in European Union Parliament, I wouldn't have even understood the question I don't think. To think that what basically began as an idea, and a not even a terribly well thought out one for that matter for a school project five years ago, would become more and more of a real thing is still quite unfathomable.

Rolf Wiesemes and I, at the invitation of our partners at the Study Centre for National Reconciliation in Slovenia and the Hungarian presidency of the EU, were invited to present our work with Spomenik and the Pervasive Monuments project. Surreal wasn't even the word for it, especially when I used the headphones like you see on TV while French flurried about periodically. Well it is Brussels after all.

Basically, this was way more interesting that any design conference ever could be, and I think its because of this idea of making things happen. Governments, believe it or not, make things happen. Businesses make things happen. If you're like Laszlo Tokes, you're used to making it happen. Before he was vice president of the EU, he was an ethnic Hungarian pastor in Romania who kicked off the revolution that got rid of Ceaușescu. You don't make plans for it and hope somebody sorts it out for you.

With design, no matter what anyone tells you about on-demand manufacturing this and 140 character instantaneity, things that matter don't happen overnight. They take long, hard slogs, countless hearings and subcommittee working groups on resolutions of condemnation and countless iterations. What most people would call design that I've done on this project has taken me about an hour in the past year. The rest of it has been everything from managing an international project, to hanging out with 80 year old ex-guerrillas looking at mass graves to spending years tracking down lists of dead people. I guess it's all design too in some way. Putting it all together, making it happen.

Presentation at European Parliament

What Do Young Europeans Know About Totalitarianisms? Rolf and I have somehow managed to have been invited by none less than a vice president of the European Union Parliament to speak at a Public Hearing in the EU Parliament  called "What Do Young Europeans Know About Totalitarianisms". Aside of course from the widening of what we're doing in terms of it being European vs. just a little research project turned sort of a real thing, and this being pretty insane for yours truly, it already brings up a lot of questions about what happens after we're done.

We're going to be presenting our work on Spomenik and I imagine expanding the notion of what it is in a European context. So this means basically we're looking at what we're doing in terms of a platform, and not just a thing.

One of the original ideas of Spomenik and to an extent, the Pervasive Monuments project is that its a system, and systems are generally things you can apply to other situations. Recently while in Slovenia at the 2nd Anniversary of the Opening of the Huda Jama Mass Grave, I was asked "couldn't you make this just as easily for the Partisans and Tito?" Yes we could. Its a system.

What we're looking at with this project is memory and and remembrance, and try to cobble this into a system means you open it up for interpretation and recontextutalisation. You could make it for other situations. We've talked about Bosnia, been asked about Spain, and of course we're working already in Rwanda.

The thing for me and this in design and well, just being someone trying to do the right thing with what they've got, is that a lot of times what you do is a lot bigger than you ever think it is, or could be. Most of the time, designers make their pretty little pictures, and I've done it myself loads of times, and then you're done with it, without thinking of how you could make something really mean something to someone's lives. If for some strange reason I was asked to tutor or teach somewhere I would make my students get out in the real world and try to get at least one real person to use their thing for real. Well hopefully when we're done with this whole Pervasive Monument thing for now, maybe some random kid in Kranj or Kigali will, without us giving it to them and watching, and actually remember, commemorate or just contemplate for a second.