I recently got the chance to give a tour of Rapid Response Collecting at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, South Kensington. Rapid response collecting is a quite new addition to the V&A, it was opened to the public in July 2014. The items in this gallery are collected to record notable events in recent history, so Rapid Response is composed of the most topical, contemporary items in the V&A’s collection. In my view, it’s kind of a physical timeline of our society.
The unusual idea of collecting items that represent the present time came from an initiative at the Design Society at Shenzhen, which is a part of the V&A. This is why most items initially displayed at Rapid Response were from China. This remains true even today as many products are manufactured in China although they are designed and sold in different countries.
The collection is based in quite a small area, around the hallway connecting two galleries on 20th-century design. Due to its modest budget, the objects are placed in metal frames and the descriptive labels are simple print-outs pasted on magnets. This plain set-up allows for constant change of objects. Unlike other collections at the V&A, items at Rapid Response need not be displayed for extended periods, which is what makes it so exciting and unique.
Although I couldn’t help but notice that most items were a little aged, some were 4 years old. Thankfully, a much-needed renovation of the gallery is on the horizon. The objects are going to be replaced with more recently collected ones and the setup is likely to get a makeover as well.
During the tour I gave at Rapid Response Collecting, I focused on 3 items that are most interesting to me. As an architecture student, the first object I was drawn was a tile from ‘A House for Essex’. designed by the artist Grayson Perry and the architecture firm FAT. The house belongs to a fictional character called ‘Julie Cope’ from Essex and the whole house is a shrine for this deceased everyday woman. Julie’s story is that of an ordinary woman who lived from 1953 to 2014. As Grayson states, this temple of a home could be for anyone, could be for your mother, your sister, or even for yourself.
Grayson is an Essex-born British artist known for his tapestries and cross-dressing. He has a female alter-ego that makes an appearance on his vases. So A House for Essex is a total manifestation of Grayson’s art, it’s his biggest artwork to date.
The architects, FAT, unfortunately broke up right after completing this project. In architectural terms, the house is described as the `ultimate decorated shed`, which means that decoration is applied outside of the function; the form of the house is somewhat ordinary but the building is made extraordinary through a surface treatment.
The ornamented exterior of the house is made of 2 thousand handmade tapestries and the tile at Rapid Response is one of the dark green tiles. It depicts a goddess-like Julie with her nude, strong body holding up the columns. The tile also contains some symbols, like the shields of Essex. Along with these green tiles, there are white tiles that cover the facade of the house, which also contain symbols of Essex and Julie’s life there.
The interior of the house is just as ornamental as the outside, it’s full of decorations and objects: there are nearly no white walls. The walls are covered in paintings and sculptures all depicting Julie’s life and death. Included in these paintings are Julie’s wedding to her first husband, her divorce, her life with her second husband and her death. She gets hit by a curry delivery moped, and the moped that killed her is hung atop the main living space.
The design of the house is a combination of a church and a home. The structure of the house is basically like that of a Russian doll. It’s like 4 houses with increasing scale stacked behind one another. The visitor enters the house from the smallest scale piece which is designed to be most homely. The first two sections contain ordinary programs such as the bedrooms and the kitchen. As the visitor moves through the house, spaces become bigger and more dramatic. The final section is the shrine, a chapel-like living space with Julie’s goddess-like sculpture in the center and the moped hanging above.
The house is meant to allow the visitor to experience the world through the eyes of a fictional character. By laying out a fictional life so well constructed that it almost feels real, the artist wants to make the visitor question their own life: to think about love, divorce, and death under the gaze of Julie. Just like being a spectator at Julie’s life, the visitor gets to take a step back and glimpse at their life story as an outsider.
Overall, this fictional house transports the visitor into another dimension, a non-existing reality. Thus, there’s a sense of escapism to this artwork. It’s creating its own history, it’s a moment in time that only existed in the artist’s imagination, yet it becomes reality in our physical world. So in my opinion, the tile on display at Rapid Response is a testament to how art has progressed in our society today.
The second object that attracted my attention at the collection was a phone so archaic looking that it took me back to my childhood when my parents used to carry around just as bulky devices. Although this Ghanaian phone looks like it’s from the early 2000s, it’s actually currently being used. These phones have a lot of nicknames due to their oddly vintage design. They’re called ‘Ghanaian brick’, ‘the big black phone’, ‘army phone’, but their most popular nickname is ‘power bank phone.’
Power bank phones are rarely what the people of Ghana use for communication. Ghanaians carry this bulky phone in addition to their smartphones for extra battery life. The country is struggling with a severe power crisis, therefore the locals have found the solution in purchasing these massive power banks. It is rumored that the battery in the phone is so powerful that it can even be used to jumpstart a car.
The phones may not live up to the smartphone aesthetics, but they are highly functional devices. They have an LED flashlight (it’s so big, it’s hard to believe the whole thing fits into the phone) and they can store multiple SIM cards. The price range for the phone is around 20 pounds and its main feature is its resilience – it’s a back-up for all the failing technology systems of the city. What’s fascinating is that the market for these power bank phones have been growing so much that the value of the market is expected to reach 11 billion USD by 2020. It’s suspected that other cities prone to power cuts may start demanding these phones as well, increasing the value of the market.
Hence, this ancient looking mobile phone is a testament to the significance of practicality in design over aesthetics. Without a power bank, the thin and light smartphones are not so useful or desirable after all.
Finally, a failed design for a mini-drone by the startup Zano offers some fascinating insight into the current technology industry. This design was a Kickstarter project in 2015, in fact, it was Europe’s biggest crowd-funded project and later became the biggest crowdfunding failure. Although the company raised 20 times their initial goal for funds, they failed in producing the actual device. It turned out to be extremely challenging to design a drone of such small size with an HD camera and smartphone controls at the low price Zano had promised.
The funny side to the story is that the tech news website Engadget shortlisted this drone for its best of CES 2015 award, even though the team could not demonstrate the drone flying at the show. And Popular Science chose it as one of its 100 most amazing innovations of 2015. All of this fame and excitement stemmed from a promotional video showing the drone in operation, which was obviously far from the truth – the drone was not even functional when the video was produced.
Although it’s important to point out Zano indeed made an attempt at producing the mini-drone as promised. They simply lacked the technical know-how, so they were not able to deliver a functional product – the few products that were shipped failed to fly and lacked in the specs previously promised. So to look on the bright side, the project was not a scam, it was a genuine failure – no one got rich out of it.
Due to the failure of this crowdfunded project, Kickstarter had to change the way it functions. For highly technical projects, they now conduct a more thorough investigation and offer technical advice Although Zano failed, another crowdfunded project came out of it and became a success. A card game about Zano with the slogan is ‘Can you make it fly?’ was released. The group that designed this game purchased the original cases made for the mini-drones and shipped their card game in these cases.
Ultimately, the reason why this object is so interesting to me is that it earned a place in this museum although it is a failed product. Zano’s drone represents the inevitable glitches and failures in today’s design and technology industry. With this object, Rapid Response Collecting gives a more true sense of our society, it embraces the bad as well as the good.
Rapid Response Collecting is constantly on the lookout for collecting new items. They’re accepting suggestions from the public for what to collect next. You can share your ideas using #RapidResponseCollecting on Instagram and Twitter.