I wouldn't dream of trying to condense three days worth of multimedia presentations into a potted and easily digestible format (that would be far too much work and I'm not nearly succinct or witty enough to make a go of it, anyway). What I will do, however, is share with you my impressions of the value and limitations of Design Indaba in general, and point you in the direction of the highlights from 2017 that merit further exploration.

What's the point of going?

Someone said to me the day before the conference began that they didn't enjoy actually attending Design Indaba, they "just find out who the good speakers are and google the shit out of them afterwards”. If that's what you're after, jump forward a few paragraphs to the bold bits and the hyperlinks. Fair enough, it's always a mixed bag, and I find myself asking what one gains by being there physically (especially given the hefty price tag and the downward spiral in the quality of the catering.) That is, besides the obvious social-slash-networking component and the experience of engaging with the subject matter communally; because I have to admit that over the years I have not had many profound interrogations of the talks during the tea breaks.

I could say that there is the opportunity for casual discussions with the actual luminaries themselves in the coffee queue, on lunch, or at the parties afterwards — and indeed there are — but I rarely take advantage of those opportunities because I don't want to come across as a raving fan. So for me, the benefit is more to do with the fact that I can and will concentrate in this environment — much like watching a movie in the cinema as opposed to at home. It is a sacred time that has been allocated for this purpose, with fewer distractions. There is always some awe-inspiring work. It is always a rare treat.

But is it an echo-chamber?

We can all agree about the values of sustainability, addressing gender, racial and income inequality and the other progressive principles that everyone in this audience holds dear, but in the age of social media “activism”, which so often exorcises people's outrage without actually achieving anything, we should all be wary of espousing values and then feeling satisfied that we are therefore contributing to them or even living by them.

A glaring example of this kind of disconnect is the environmentally catastrophic catering at the Indaba, where every day 1500 lunch bags were handed out to delegates by the sponsor Woolworths, containing numerous individually packaged processed items — frequently in unrecyclable plastic. And while the organisers' idea of handing out refillable water bottles instead of disposable cups or plastic bottles is laudable, the idea was foiled when the bottles were so poorly designed that they leaked all over people's bags and were mostly discarded. More cheap disposable junk to throw into the landfill.

At its best, Design Indaba serves as an annual reminder to aim higher, think bigger, and have a social conscience. We all need to take responsibility for whether we rise to this challenge. But I think the organisers and sponsors should take some responsibility, too. I'm sure that Ravi Naidoo doesn't want to look a gift sponsorship in the mouth, but if one were inclined towards cynicism about whether any of the corporates that make up most of the audience will ever put their money where their mouth is, this travesty of over-packaging confirms this jaundiced reading.

I'll start with the lowlights that were far outweighed by the good.

Every year there is a substantial smattering of naive and earnest graduates who believe they are the first person to think certain profound thoughts. Sometimes great work is presented in an uninspiring way. Sometimes a skillful raconteur leaves one ultimately underwhelmed at the actual substance of what they are selling. Yet what I find the most pointless and alienating is when people hide behind Serious and Political subject matter without actually saying anything.

For example, the artist Robin Rhode who stormed around the stage, breathing raggedly and shouting “ONE: CHARCOAL! TWO: CHALK! THREE: OIL CRAYON! FOUR: SPRAYPAINT!” over and over again; darkly and vaguely alluding to apartheid, doing some half-baked impromptu sketches on temporary walls, and occasionally showing off his very rudimentary mime skills of — wait for it… an invisible wall. Groaning under the weight of its own self-importance and, to my mind, utterly pointless. And in the thoroughly unscientific survey I conducted afterwards, I couldn't find an audience member who defended him.

Then there was Jabu Nadia Newman, creator of the utterly cringeworthy web-series The Foxy Five, which apart from being completely unwatchable with its dialogue consisting entirely of didactic feminist jargon, does nothing but reinforce the stereotypes about black women that it purports to subvert. (And in case you are questioning my feminist credentials, I didn't shave my armpits for the whole of the nineties). As someone who is pathologically dependent on an external brief, I'm thoroughly impressed when a student — or anyone, for that matter — gets it together to actually film something and put it out there, but I'm afraid that this kind of self-righteous drivel should not be encouraged. This is where Design Indaba as an institution is in danger of being a self-congratulatory echo-chamber.

There were, as always, some not very memorable talks, which I won't bother to mention.

And then there was the line-up of fabulousness:

Simple. Original. Hilarious.

Probably the most entertaining was the hilarious presentation by Dutch artists and filmmakers Lernert & Sander. Their talk, entitled “Copycats,” was cleverly constructed around work of theirs that has been co-opted, primarily by the advertising industry. Given the high percentage of advertising people in the audience (including me) the message was a sharp rebuke about the frequent laziness and shameless copying that so often occurs in our world.

Studio Lernert & Sander X De Jeugd Van Tegenwoordig 'Manon'
Studio Lernert & Sander X De Jeugd Van Tegenwoordig 'Manon'
Image: Lernert & Sander

Despite their constant refrain of “we are not bitter,” they named and shamed (as if they were crediting them, complete with headshots) the individuals responsible for ripping off their work. Their work is stylish, irreverent, unexpected, hilarious and thrillingly simple. It is consistently injected with their playful sensibility: from the TV idents featuring a chocolate bunny meeting its maker in a variety of gruesome ways (iron, infra red lamp, hairdryer) to the 'Lost and Found Collection' where they themselves were the models for a fashion shoot comprised entirely of clothes that had been left behind in a local gay club dark room, to a delightful music video 'Manon' with cats “we thought: cats, internet, maybe it works.”

They are an inspiration to all of us for the palpable delight they take in everything they do, which is transmitted through their output in the most infectious way. We wanted to be them. We wanted to be their friends.

Incredibly clever

These two are great examples of tech, commerce and social upliftment converging to make the world a better place.

Some people are just so clever. Like Chris Sheldrick who devised what3words, an ingenious solution to the shortcomings of traditional addressing systems, those shortcomings being (lifted from their website):

  • Poor addressing costs businesses billions of dollars and hampers the growth and development of entire nations. 
  • Around 75% of the world (135+ countries) suffers from inadequate addressing.
  • 4-billion people are invisible, unable to get deliveries or receive aid, and unable to exercise their rights as citizens.

So what they've done is divide the world into 57-trillion 3m squares, each identifiable by a unique three word combination. I fear I can't do it justice here, but consider the implications of trying to deliver a package to the middle of Phola Park in Thokoza. Compare Google Maps search with what3words. In what3words every 3sqm is represented by three unique words, making it possible to identify the most remote places on earth, or get specifics inside the most chaotic of informal settlements. 

Also falling into this category is Luis von Ahn who invented that ghastly CAPTCHA that we all have to endure to prove we're not robots. What was astonishing to learn was how the act of CAPTCHA-ing is simultaneously being used to help digitise books through a service called ReCaptcha, which uses humans to translate scanned words that a computer couldn't understand (they're already doing it to prove they're not a robot). Ingenious. He also invented a free language learning app called DuoLingo, which makes learning a language free for anyone with a smart phone. He pointed out that most of the people learning to speak a new language are doing it to improve their employment prospects and uplift their lives, making traditional language learning methods prohibitively expensive. Since his talk, I've been to the app using it to brush up on my Italian, and I can attest to the fact that it's thoroughly addictive.

Innovative staging, great taste

Since the conference moved from the CTICC to Artscape, the organisers have encouraged speakers to explore the theatrical facilities in their staging and presentations. Frequently, this results in somewhat stilted, gimmicky theatrics. However, this year's opening act, Joburg duo Dokter and Misses pulled off a fabulous multimedia presentation incorporating a dance performance by the super-talented Manthe Ribane, in collaboration with performance artist Lindiwe Matshikiza and composer João Renato Orecchia Zúñiga. They thereby avoided the common trap of taking us through a powerpoint of their portfolio, rather showcasing their impressive body of work in a way that shed light on their influences and thought processes, while simultaneously creating a new work of art. It was an auspicious start to Design Indaba 2017, and we felt a collective glow of pride at this unassuming local crew producing such lovely work.

Weird Dreams by Dokter and Misses
Weird Dreams by Dokter and Misses

Music as medicine

Among the speakers whose work can truly be considered visionary and life-changing was Marko Ahtisaari. His work explores non-drug modalities (like sound and music, lighting, and computer games) of treating broad-scale problems (like sleep disorders, stress, anxiety and pain.) He's done promising research into music as medicine in pain management. To check out their customised music for relaxation at Unwind. I tried it. Boring, but I fell asleep before the twenty minutes were up.

Also, he opened his talk with this version of Vivaldi's Four Seasons recomposed by Max Richter. 

Pretty cool

Kenyan musician Blinky Bill: “Don't be afraid to put your work out there. Put love in your work. Don't be afraid to be random”

Marina Miller from Pentagram. A really smart lady took us through her admirable personal project, a feature film about her immigrant father called Red Trees, very resonant in this global climate of xenophobia. Once again half the audience wished they worked at Pentagram, where everyone seems to be actively encouraged to pursue personal projects like this.

For some incredibly ambitious — yet seemingly not always super-practical — architectural inspiration check out the work of Winy Maas from The Why Factory

Refreshingly down-to-earth considering her achievements:

Kate Moross
Kate Moross
Image: Design Indaba

One of the wonderful things about Indaba is getting a window into the processes and personal lives of a diverse range of talents. British Designer Kate Moross was a breath of fresh air as she told us what she earned on her first big paycheck, and walked us through the challenge of being both a boss and a friend. A clear picture emerged of a corporate culture that is egalitarian, honest and open, and her down-to-earth self-deprecating wit is infectious. Plus the range and scale of her work is truly impressive for her mere 30 years. Once again, someone with a strong point of view, a clear artistic vision, an honest, collaborative approach and a winning smile, nudges us to aim higher, be more ambitious in our scale, be true to ourselves, and be nice.

Grand finale

Architect Craig Dykers, co-founder of Snøhetta, took us through some of his gorgeous work and the principles behind it, before unveiling a surprise project in honour of Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu. Nick-named “the Arch for the Arch,” this installation is a wooden archway, to be installed in the Company's Garden, comprising of fourteen strands representing the fourteen chapters of the South African constitution. The mayor of Cape Town, Patricia De Lille, was there to pay her respects. And then to top it all off, the man of the hour himself took the stage, accompanied by a full choir. It was truly moving.

My personal favourite: delightful and profound, philosophical in a way that doesn't alienate the somewhat intellectually lazy (me).

The Arch
The Arch
Image: Gary Cotterell

TL “Tea” Uglow is creative director of Google's Creative Lab. A brilliant, quicksilver visionary whose mind darts through her multiple interests ranging from non-linear, immersive storytelling to quantum physics to the nature of reality, about which she says “your confidence in your reality is very, very misplaced”. It is really worth looking up her body of work, which frequently explores how we can use tech to augment traditional art forms; notably a reimagining of digital books as non-linear and interactive. 

Her closing words were “… maybe between us we can deal with this multi-dimensional, non-linear, information-saturated world,” and out of all the speakers, she left me feeling hopeful that perhaps the future is not a dystopian episode of Black Mirror, and that perhaps, between us, we can.

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