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.

Learning How to Talk About Pizza in Kigali

IMG_0349 There are many things I never knew about Rwanda and could have guessed and many others that I could never in a million years guess. One of them is that I've had some of the best pizza I've ever had there. While it sounds incredibly trite, especially considering the extremely heavy and sensitive nature of the work we're doing there, it is a pretty good example of the country.

Like having amazing pizza in Rwanda, its nothing like you think its going to be. For one, I'm still amazed, and practically driven to tears by how astonishingly brave and progressive of a people they are. I don't use these words lightly. Progressive not in the quasi-leftists armchair activist sense, but progressive in the we're officially forgiving a million murderers and want to reintegrate them back into our businesses, neighbourhoods and lives sense. This you would never expect from the Rwanda of the popular imagination. It was very clean, driving was pretty normal and safe and I couldn't have felt more at home. This coming from a blonde haired, blue-eyed white guy who was basically an alien there. It was extremely 'nice' and people treated me even nicer I thought. Nice is deliberate, nice is quiet, and nice usually is about following the rules, not about doing what's right.

Genocide is never a singular or random operation. Genocide, mass murder, crimes against humanity, whatever you want to call it, requires extremely tight organisation and lots of people not asking questions. Whether it be the completely incompetent and impotent UN waiting and sitting on its hands while watching the butchery from the sidelines, or the rest of the world that also sat by as not only one genocide in Rwanda but another concurrent one in Bosnia at the same time, we were just as compliant as the people who were just following orders no matter how inhuman they may be.

Genocide requires loads of compliance. Loads of people not saying anything, and this is an extremely hard thing to start thinking about designing against, as we have to design against something, not for. To start thinking about designing for speaking up and making things known should theoretically be fairly easy, but first you know how to let people speak up.

How to Speak About Genocide

Through countless interviews, many with survivors, we've only managed to brush the surface of things, but started to notice things like the issue of compliance and social structure, and the vocabulary. This was especially fascinating in terms of how things were spoken about and something we've had to learn really quick. People use the words perpetrator, denier, minimiser [1. One who doesn't directly deny the genocide but who minimises its scope, impact or totality], survivor and returnee. There's an agreed vocabulary, and one that the government has a lot of hand in putting in place. This is was not only an issue of social sensitivity, but one of how we have to work. We're going to have to work within these parameters: ethnicity isn't mentioned and the future and prevention are always spoken of.

To be asked personally by a survivor coming to a mass grave of 250,000 to leave flowers to his murdered family to "do make this not happen again," is basically what our brief is in a lot of ways.

This was the biggest surprise for me. There wasn't so much talk actually about even justice, never about revenge, but of prevention. To be asked personally by a survivor coming to a mass grave of 250,000 to leave flowers to his murdered family to "do make this not happen again," is basically what our brief is in a lot of ways.  This is also what I mean by progressive. Dealing with history as best you can and moving things forward today, and working "towards a brighter future" as you often hear in Rwanda. Hopefully we can help them do this.


The Last Thing I Ever Thought I Would Need as a Designer Would be Vaccinations and Anti-malarial Tablets.


View Larger Map So tomorrow is a ludicrously early start to Kigali, Rwanda via Brussels for research work for the Pervasive Monuments project. What started as Spomenik, now has taken on a paralell project looking at public memorialisation and technology in education in post-genocide Rwanda. On top of having been vaccinated for everything from Yellow Fever to Malaria I've been reading We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch, which is nothing less than mind-blowing. If you ever think that you've had it rough, read this book. Being a self-styled semi-expert on the Balkan and ex-Yugoslavia, I thought I might have known a thing or two about people and the politics that divide them. That is until I started reading this.

Rwanda is a fascinating and, from what I hear, a now once again lovely place trying to get back on its feet in amazing ways, from a self-styled Singapore of Africa urbanisation scheme to becoming one of the biggest data centres of Africa. Its going to be amazing seeing how they've dealt with what is probably the most brutal genocide of the 20th century [1. A reported 800,000 people were summarily massacred in a mere 100 days] to working on memorialising this and trying to throw themselves into the 21st century at breakneck speed at the same time.