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.