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.

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.

Join Us Later at 11:00 For More

So in a couple of short hours, or probably less, last week I've managed to get my work that I'm doing for the Spomenik project on no less than ten Slovenian news outlets, thanks in large part to the brave and media-savvy work of our partners at the Study Centre for National Reconciliation. I've never been on the news and considering that there were a load of people in the room at the commission for the 2nd Anniversary of the Opening of the Huda Jama Mass Grave (in Slovenian but Google Translate does okay for English) have been quite a bit, it was a weird experience. Granted, as of yet, I haven't managed to kick up as much dust as Jože Dežman or anything, but I think that there might be something to this media thing.

Quick breakdown of the situation: Slovenia became independent from Yugoslavia in 1991 at which point most of the former Communist Party decided to rebrand as Social Democrats. They still more or less run things in a lot of scary ways like back in the day and don't like people like us making light of the crimes of their predecessors.

To keep in line with the uncannily recurring theme of 'realness' (without any direct reference to Mob Deep mind you) however a pain in the ass things like this might be, you have to get in touch with the world somehow, and no matter what anybody tells you Twitter, Facebook, etc. aren't the way to get to a lot of real people. Things as unsexy as broadcast television and radio are.

The thing that keeps on creeping up with my work on this massive beast of a project is that a lot of it is about being real. Whether ditching all the iPhone malarkey and sticking with just regular phones or being on the news in a country that SXSW or Facebook probably don't care about, we're trying to design for real people with real problems. On top of that, most of our demographic is literally quickly dying off.

The thing is, is that the best thing we could do is make a big documentary and get it on TV and have kids watch it in schools. This however isn't really our brief with the project as it is supposed to be a pervasive monument and be on technology that is 'everywhere' including out in the woods where these mass graves are. So the realness comes into play I imagine into how exactly you chuck this technology at people. You make it simple and you try to make it relevant, and you try to make it partially for kids who's history book has the big massive hole in it and taking them out in the woods and asking them difficult questions in the classroom and also partially teach them that life is very real, often times very cruel and very messy, but the best way to deal with reality is head on.

Spomenik: for Students

If you're among the few and exclusive who aren't related to me, follow this site and can read Slovenian, here's some links: "Danes mineva dve leti od vstopa v Hudo Jamo" "Štrovs: V Sloveniji od 600 prikritih grobišč ni niti eno urejeno kot vojno pokopališče žrtev komunizma" "Mednarodni simpozij: "Huda Jama je primer genocida iz leta 1945" "Dežman o Hudi Jami: Ne bo več mogoče tiščati glave v pesek" "Dežman: Huda jama - obup titofilnega dela slovenske družbe" "Odgovorni hočejo zločine pomesti pod preprogo" "Huda jama je primer genocida iz leta 1945"