"PBJ-14" (Jones, 2006)
Interview/Article by Jonah Brucker-Cohen
In the multifarious world of consumer electronics and fetishistic objects, designers and corporations attempt to create products that evoke some kind of emotional or aesthetic connection to their users in order produce forms of "gadget lust" and indoctrination to keep people buying more. Taking this credo to an extreme is London-based artist and designer Crispin Jones. From his compelling efforts as a graduate student at the Royal College of Art's Computer-Related Design MA to his professional art-meets-product-design collaborations and solo projects, Jones' work examines the tumultuous and playful side of consumer devices and their connection to human civility, physical thresholds, and creative methods of automizing repetitive tasks and actions.
Gizmodo caught up with Jones to discuss his approach to design, products, and how technology should be customized to our state of mind and location of use, rather than a single device for everything. Images and interview after the jump.
Education: MA in Computer Related Design, Royal College of Art, 2000; BA(Hons) in Fine Art (Sculpture), Kingston University, 1996.
Affiliation: Independent Designer, Director of Mr Jones Watches, Partner in Robson & Jones.
Exhibitions (selected): On Time, Museum für Gestaltung Zürich (Zurich, 2007), Designersblock (Milan 2007), NABABOOM (Milan 2007), British Design Day (Milan 2007), 100% Design (Tokyo, 2006), Traveling Apothecary (London 2006), ISEA (San Jose 2006), Electrical Fantasia (Yokohama 2006), Bank Art Life (Yokohama 2005), Touch Me, V&A Museum, (London 2005), This is Today (Milan 2004), DAF Tokyo (Tokyo 2003), CG-Arts Festival (Tokyo, 2003), Prix Ars Electronica (Linz, 2002).
GIZMODO:"PBJ-14" is an Ultra Mobile Portable Computer (UMPC) or tablet PC commissioned by the Japanese company "PBJ" intended to foster a feeling of emotional attachment between user and device by becoming a "PC for Poets." Why was this connection important to you? Do you envision this approach becoming an integral element in the future of personal electronics?
CJ: Well, the context of this commission was that PBJ are a company who distribute tablet PCs in the Japanese market. They do not currently have any of their own models, they buy and brand generic models from Taiwan and then distribute them in Japan (mostly in the B2B market, rather than directly to consumers). I was asked to design a model for them as a first pass at what a PBJ own-model pc could be. I thought it was quite important to have something that was distinctive and aimed at a wider audience than their normal business market.
I took an approach thinking about how we could make a machine that had a more human quality, specifically I was thinking about the ways in which we use a single computer for both business work and also personal things. I always thought it was a bit strange to look at family photos on the same screen/machine which one also does business work on. I thought that there could be a space for PBJ to make the machine that is specifically for personal activity (also the constraints of the UMPC—no keyboard, small screen etc mean that it isn't a great fit for doing regular work on). I was thinking a lot about looking at photos with friends and family—it seems to me incongruous that we take more photos than ever before with digital cameras, but we seldom seem to share them. I remember (and this isn't exactly a long time ago!) people used to have their photos printed out and then look through them with friends.
One of the main activities we thought the UMPC would be good for is organizing and sharing photos with friends—you can pass the device around because it's quite small and maybe get back that experience of looking at photo together with friends (rather than simply emailing a few images). In a way I think the current situation where we have a single machine for all our activities—everything from writing letters to loved ones to filing tax returns is analogous with the emergence of domestic food processing equipment. Historically one would buy a motor to which various attachments could be attached (blender, whisks, cleaning brushes etc), eventually these specific functions were separated out into different devices and I think there is space to do this with the computer; so I think there will be more single use devices, rather than the current ambition towards a single unified device which does everything.
"Prudens: The Discretion Watch" (Jones, 2006)
GIZMODO: With "Prudens" you've created a watch encased in opaque material meant to hide the time from those who are not its wearer. Instead of a face, the watch displays the correct time to its wearer by delivering a "pulse" to the wearer's wrist when they rotate their arm in a "non-discreet" manner in order to avoid making its wearer look "rude" or "rushed" when accompanied by others. Why did you decide on pulses as an information transmission method and how easy was this for its wearer to learn? Did you feel as if this watch achieved its desired goal?
CJ: Well, the pulses were a simple way to transmit haptic information so that it would be invisible to other people. To give a bit of background to the project - I worked on the design of this watch with Graham Pullin and it arose from our dissatisfaction with watches available to blind people—these generally fall into two camps: the traditional form has a hinged face on a conventional analogue display—you lift the face and feel the position of the hour and minute hand with your finger tips. The modern form has a button you press and the watch speaks the time to you. We felt that both of these solutions to be quite unsatisfactory (the first is a rather lazy adaptation of watches for the sighted, the latter is impossible to consult discreetly), so we tried to create a time-telling mechanism that could be consulted discretely and without relying on sight. "Prudens" works, it's not a perfect solution by any means, but you can learn to read it . Our intention with the project was to create a proposal / exploration rather than a final product and in those terms the project did fulfill its aims.
"Electrophile", (Jones, 2000)
GIZMODO: "Electrophile" is a keyboard meant for fans writing to their favorite celebrities from the website "CelebrityEmail.com." The keyboard is outfitted with metal contacts so that the more words the fans type, the stronger the shock is delivered. Thus the connection between fans and celebrities becomes one that depends on pain thresholds, ie. the longer you can endure the shock, the more "devotion" you have for your celebrity icon. Why should physical pain be associated with celebrity devotion and how successful was the project? What other types of fandom proving apparatuses could you foresee in this scenario?
CJ: Well, Electrophile was on one level a corrective device. I thought it was strange that people would invest so much emotional energy in a relationship which doesn't really exist (the relationship with the celebrity). The keyboard is a way to retrain the fan to get over their obsession. On another level I was thinking about how the typed on-screen word doesn't really have the same quality as the hand written word. I was inspired by a story I remembered reading about three fans of the band Take That who spent an entire weekend writing "we love Take That" over and over on a long roll of paper. I was struck by the way that this activity would be utterly meaningless if you translated it to an email—the traces of the bodily activity would be lost, so on one level Electrophile is a tool for this kind of fan activity in that it brings some physical endurance to the writing of long messages. I'm not sure how successful Electrophile was in terms of an interactive artwork—people encountering it in the gallery space do not tend to be the kind of devoted fans who would spend hours and hours writing to their idols. So generally people would tap few keys to get a shock and then walk on. For this reason I produced documentation which placed the object into a narrative context.
"Katazukue" (Jones, 2005)
GIZMODO: "Katazukue" is a custom built table with conveyor belts that periodically move to ensure that the table always stays clear. Since there is a possibility that breakable items might be on the table, this action introduces a point of tension between physical objects, the spaces they inhabit, and the social conventions they exhibit. What types of reactions did you receive with this device and how successful was it in achieving its goal?
CJ: Well, similar to "Electrophile" the exhibition of "Katazukue" was not especially meaningful to the ideas of the piece. People encountering it in a gallery would not use it as a table, so there was rarely any accumulation of things on the tabletop to be swept off (unless the gallery staff had placed some things on it). Some friends did send me a picture from the opening of a show it was in where someone had placed a glass of red wine on it which was swept onto the floor, so I guess that individual had the full "Katazukue experience". In terms of articulating the ideas behind the piece I was quite happy with it. I wanted to communicate a sense that technology both gives us something whilst also taking something away, so with "Katazukue" you never need to clean up after yourself, but you also run the risk that your possessions would be destroyed.
"ZXZX" (Jones, 2002)
GIZMODO: "ZXZX" consists of a hardware device created to play the 1980s computer game "Track & Field" where instead of a human player pressing subsequent keys one after the other to make the runner "run," you've created a motorized system that presses the keys more quickly than any human could. The result is a method of "cheating" the computer by automating the running process. Why did you decide on using this particular game? How does cheating the computer add to the gaming experience and how could you envision future systems responding to these types of manipulations?
CJ: Well, the selection of "Track & Field" was crucial. I was interested in the way that cheating in events like the Olympics is absolutely anathema to the philosophy of the sport, whereas cheating in video games is central to the experience. On one level of course I wanted to create the visceral experience of seeing something pounding the keys that fast and seeing how fast the character in the game could be made to run (100 meters in 8.29 seconds), one of the disappointing things about conventional cheating devices in games is that they work in an invisible way - you cannot see the lines of code inside them being executed. I made this work around the time that Gary Kasparov lost his chess match against the IBM super computer "Big Blue" and I thought it was interesting that we had reached a stage where man could no longer claim mastery of the machines, so "ZXZX" was a vision of a future where humans were no longer directly involved in the gaming experience, but rather they were simply involved in pitting one machine against another.
GIZMODO: What projects are you currently working on? How are they similar or different than your past projects?
CJ: Some of my time I spend working in partnership with another designer, Dominic Robson. We mainly work on the design and development of interactive objects for museums and other public spaces (we've done things for the Science Museum in London and Tate Modern). At the moment we're working on a bespoke light installation for a company boardroom as well as working on some new donation boxes for the Tate.
"Tengu" (Jones, 2006)
In my independent work I'm working exclusively on things intended for production. I'm trying not to make one-off things at the moment because it seems to me to be unsustainable as a working method unless it's framed within some sort of academic research context (which I'm not particularly interested in). One of the things I'm working on is Tengu, a device with a little LED face that responds to sound (so if you play music he looks like he's singing along). I designed Tengu for Solid Alliance in Japan (who I think are a really unusual and interesting company), I met them a couple of years ago and when I was back in London I decided to create something to propose to them. I developed a prototype, which I showed to them, they liked it and we expect it to be available in the shops in early July.
In parallel to this I am producing a limited edition series of watches. I found a factory in China who would let me produce a relatively small quantity of watches (500 units), so I developed a set of five designs each of which is being produced in a limited edition of 100 pieces, with each watch numbered on the back of the case. I expect to receive the main shipment of watches in early July, but people can currently reserve a specific model online at www.MrJonesWatches.com. I'm quite excited because I have complete control of the project; at the moment I'm learning about distribution and trying to place the watches with different shops.