Everything becomes a nail when one philosophizes with a hammer. For many media theorists since McLuhan, everything is a medium; cultural theory is biased towards framing everything as being cultural constructed; for designers, every problem in the world tends to be a design problem.1

With the exceptions of speculative design and design fiction,2 design nowadays means concrete intervention into spheres: public and private, human and non-human. Designer’s interventions are, in other words, not symbolic or figurative but literal. The systems of contemporary design and of contemporary art therefore seem to have drifted apart. Contemporary art is now more narrowly defined - by (Osborne) and others - as a particular “post-conceptual” school and discourse of art rather than a generic signifier for current art practices. “Post-conceptual”, in this context, means that conceptualism remains the point of departure for contemporary art, not that contemporary art had left conceptualism behind. So contemporary art has aligned itself to the reflexivity of critical theory while using its own media and modes of thinking. Most contemporary art interventions have, out of critical caution, become symbolic,3 with reflexivity as their safe space.

In a public discussion on the relation of contemporary art and Critical Making practices at the art space West Den Haag, an audience member gave a striking example of the above: When the 2015 Berlin Biennial invited the Occupy movement to squat the entrance hall of its central venue, this intervention was widely seen as real life invading art. In reality, it still remained symbolic, because the occupation ended with the biennial.

Such modesty and politeness wasn’t common in the arts when reinventing culture via direct social intervention was still within the scope of its ambitions - from the Arts and Crafts movement, via early 20th century Russian constructivism, Surrealism, lettrism, Fluxus, Situationism to the Otto Muehl commune as perhaps the ultimate utopia and dystopia of interventionist art.4

It seems as if only sarcastic-melancholic conclusions could be drawn from the ruins of this history, such as the dictum that “totalitarianism and art don’t exclude each other” of the NSK/Laibach collective. In 2006 and 2007, NSK’s creation of an “NSK State” with an NSK passport took an unexpected turn from a performance to a social intervention when, as (Arns) recalls, there was a “substantial number of requests for citizenship, especially from Nigeria”. Many Nigerians had expected the NSK passport to grant them immigration to Europe. The passport had thus, against the intentions of its creators, become a social design project. Arns’ article in the e-flux journal, the top-tier medium of contemporary art, salvaged the project into its originally intended context.

From the dreams of Russian futurism to the nightmares of the Otto Muehl commune, one might label interventionist art as “modernist”, because later, more skeptically reflexive positions in contemporary art can excellently be described as “incredulity towards metanarratives”, Jean-François Lyotard’s philosophical definition of “postmodern”.5

Yet this would boil down contemporary art to a Eurocentric concept, bound to a profoundly Western historical-political experience that concerned non-Western countries to the degree to which they were colonized and forced into Western political conflicts. Lyotard’s definition leaves little room for alternative concepts, periodizations and sites of history - aside from leaving little room for less binary notions of credulity/incredulity and narrative/metanarrative. Finally, when “post-conceptual” contemporary art can be so smoothly mapped onto the postmodern condition as defined by Lyotard, this leaves - by implication - design as the naturally left-over heir of a utopian modernism thas has been abandoned everywhere else.

Still from Love Camp (1981)

Still from Love Camp (1981)

If the radical commune experiments of the 1970s can be taken as moments where credulity and incredulity, metanarratives and micronarratives divided, then it would be worth re-reading them, in their whole range across real-life art practices (which included, next to the Muehl commune, the 1970 Monte Capanno commune experiment of the American countercultural artist David Zack), cult practices (the Manson Family, Children of God, Jim Jones, the Rajneesh movement) and their reenactment in movies (Fernando di Leo’s “Avere vent’anni” [1978], Umberto Lenzi’s “Eaten Alive” [1980], Christian Anders’ “Love Camp” [1981] and Lars von Trier’s “The Idiots” [1998]). Here, the grand metanarratives boiled down, in everyday life practice, to micronarratives. Accordingly, revolutionary art ended up as social design, for example in the computer-generated “fuck list” of the Muehl commune that made sure that nobody would have sex twice with the same person so that no couple structures within the commune would emerge. Here, a revolutionary grand narrative became folk politics.6

When real-life transformation became handed-down to design, this reinforced the problematic dualism of “art” and “design” (that is no less Eurocentric than that of “modern” versus “postmodern” conditions).7 Neither “Critical Design” nor, as a design practice, “Critical Making” can overcome this issue.

Another problem haunting design is materiality. In 1988, avant-garde filmmaker and critic Peter Gidal described this issue as follows for the practice of hand-made analog filmmaking of the London Film Co-op:

“The fetishization of process, related to involvement with the 16 mm Co-op developing and printing equipment, became a major detour for some structural/materialist film, largely via the misappropriation of a materialist aesthetic to a positivist reading of the filmic apparatus. An ideology of process was evidenced as a fetishization of process finding its way into the profilmic (that which the camera is aimed at). Hence one can oppose, at an initial stage, this fetishization of work/process/technique to the concept of necessary labour, processing something into something other. Process must be brought back into the vocabulary minus it[s] fetish meaning.”8

Process, under such conditions, just becomes another thing, a commodity even. The emancipation of contemporary design from classical product design to service design and social design (which catcjes up with the shift from object production to performative practices in late-20th century art) therefore turns out to be less radical than the words suggest. (Even less so when the ultimate manifestations of Critical Making and of Critical Design are devices and things respectively, such as Fiona Raby’s and Anthony Dunne’s Huggable Atomic Mushroom.)

When things and processes boil down to fetishes - commodity fetish and “fetishization of work/process/technique” -, they equally contribute to what (Pickard) called “the crapularity” in 2011:

“3D printing + spam + micropayments = tribbles that you get billed for, as it replicates wildly out of control. 90% of everything is rubbish, and it’s all in your spare room – or someone else’s spare room, which you’re forced to rent through AirBnB”.

Under close inspection, the crapularity is an update of an older (not-yet-automated) phenomenon that was first described by Steely Dan guitarist Walter Becker in 1996: “G.A.S.”, the “Guitar Acquisition Syndrome”. (Becker) illustrates it as follows:

“All horizontal surfaces are covered by guitars - acoustics, electrics, lap steels, old ones, new ones, weird little ukulele-like things with no proper names - and, as I sit strumming the last treasure to be produced for my delectation, my pal disappears out of the room asking if he’d ever showed me his Delvecchio which I gather is some sort of Brazilian rosewood dobro - and mind you this roomful of strings and frets are only the ones that he has sitting around the house and ALMOST NEVER USES AT THE GIG”.

Soon after, the acronym “GAS” became more broadly defined as “gear aquisition syndrome” and applied to the obsessive collection and accumulation of all kind of things: wood and metal work tools, photographic and astronomic equipment, for example. Describing the collapse of impulse control, “GAS” is a catchy for addicted consumption (such as the massive amounts of eggs consumed by Miss Edie in her interaction with the Eggman in (Waters)’ Pink Flamingos). GAS has, in the meantime, become subject to academic and journalistic study.9 The contemporary internet subculture of “unboxing” on YouTube - videos that show nothing more than the video maker receiving a product and taking it out of its package - is intrinsically linked to GAS.

As an effect of product design, GAS is a perfect example of commodity fetishism as Marx had defined it for the industrial age. The crapularity, however, describes a 21st century post-apocalyptic condition caused by newer types of products along with newer types of design: media design (3D printing and spam, in Pickard’s example), service design (micropayments, rents), architecture, social design (the “sharing economy” of Airbnb which was begun by a group of designers as a community project).

In the crapularity, design becomes the cause of wicked problems.10 This sharply contradicts the commonly-held belief of design thinking as the way of tackling wicked problems. The very definition of “wicked problem” stems from a design theorist, Horst Rittel, a professor at the Ulm School of Design and later in Berkeley. In a paper co-authored with urbanist Melvyn Webber in 1973, Rittel names eight criteria of wicked problems: (1) lack of a “definitive formulation”, (2) lack of a “stopping rule”, (3) solutions are “good-or-bad” instead of “true-or-false”, (4) lack of an “immediate” or “ultimate test of a solution”, (5) lack of “opportunity to learn by trial-and-error”, (6) lack of an “enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions”; finally, the facts that (7) “[e]very wicked problem is essentially unique” and can (8) “be considered to be a symptom of another problem”.11 While GAS still might have a “definite formulation” and a simple “stopping rule” (namely, of stopping to acquire gear), the crapularity amounts to a more complex, non-linear and indeed wicked problem, mostly because of its far-reaching involvement non-human actors.12

In his application of Object-Oriented Ontology to design, Ian Bogost algorithmically generates “Latour Litanies” of human and non-human things (randomly picked from the titles of Wikipedia articles), such as:

Emergency medical services in Iceland, Oklahoma State Highway 71, Prince Masahito, Virginia Gay, 28th Test and Evaluation Squadron, 1991 Tokyo Indoor, Occidentarius platypogon13

Bogost’s Litanies potentially amount to a crapularity of things that can “replicate out of control” just like (Pickard)’s “tribbles […] in your spare room”. Most importantly however, the crapularity ends every abstraction, or even physical separation, of design from production. This violates a major taboo of the today’s consumer economy. Apple, for example, still maintains a platonic Western (if not white-suprematist, in the two most literal meanings of the words) paradigm of being “Designed in California” but made, without any attribution to either the specific place nor the material sphere in general, in China’s Shenzhen special economic zone:14

In the age of GAS and the crapularity, the manufacturing zone revolts by eventually taking over design and production:

Both types of design-production15 end up in various crapular economic feedback loops, only that Apple covers this up with a design fiction of individual product value.16 These feedback loops include GAS consumption, bottom-up globalization such as the multi-storey specialist electronics shopping centers in Shenzhen and Guangzhou that serve African traders who export the goods on tourist visa to their home countries, the global economy of AliExpress consumption, their links to the human/non-human zombie armies of shadow banking, fintechs and crypto currency mining,17 resulting in whole batteries of mutually interwoven, meta- and super-wicked problems from financial system bubbles to post-democracy and the environmental apocalypse.18

These symptoms make the crapularity a present-day reality, not only a piece of (tongue-in-cheek) futurology as which (Pickard) wrote his coinage in 2011. Therefore, we are are already past “living in apocalyptic times of ecological breakdown, the biogenetic reducation of humans to manipulable machines and the total digital control over our lives”, as Žižek wrote in 2010.19 In the crapularity, the post-apocalyptic condition has already begun. Camae Ayewa of the afrofuturist Black Quantum Futurism collective sums this up as follows: “The end of the world has already happened and it’s okay. […] We already hit the Doomsday. It didn’t look like what they said, but we did it. What the fuck are you going to do now?”20

For designers, it could mean that they acknowledge and embrace the design of wicked problems, rather than thinking of design as the solution.


Arns, Inke. “The Nigerian Connection: On NSK Passports as Escape and Entry Vehicles” e-flux journal 34 (2012): http://www.e-flux.com/journal/34/68336/the-nigerian-connection-on-nsk-passports-as-escape-and-entry-vehicles/ Web. 28 July 2017.

Becker, Walter. “G.A.S. Attack.” Guitar Player (1996): http://www.steelydan.com/gas.html Web. 27 July 2017.

Bogost, Ian. “Latour Litanizer.” 2009. Web. http://bogost.com/writing/blog/latour_litanizer/ Web. 29 July 2017.

Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. MIT Press, 2013. Print.

Fleck, Robert. Die Geschichte der “Mühl-Kommune.” Köln: König, Walther, 2003. Print.

Gidal, Peter. Materialist Film. 2nd ed. London ; New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Herbst, Jan-Peter. “‘Gear Acquisition Syndrome’ – A Survey of Electric Guitar Players.” Popular Music Studies Today. Springer VS, Wiesbaden, 2017. 139–148.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984. Print.

Osborne, Peter. Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art. 1 edition. London ; New York: Verso, 2013. Print.

Pickard, Justin. The Crapularity, in: Raford, Noah, John A. Sweeney, and Justin Pickard. Alternatives to the Singularity. https://web.archive.org/web/20120916123714/http://www.scribd.com/doc/62056338/Alternatives-to-the-Singularity, 2011. Web.

Poet, Paul. My Talk with Florence. 2015. Film.

Rittel, Horst W. J., and Melvin M. Webber. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences 4.2 (1973): 155–169.

Sherman, Jeremy E. “Gear Acquisition Syndrome: Lustily Buying More Tools Than You Need.” Psychology Today. 18 Oct. 2011. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ambigamy/201110/gear-acquisition-syndrome-lustily-buying-more-tools-you-need Web. 27 July 2017.

Sherman, Maria. “Moor Mother Is Just the Hardcore Poet We Need Today.” TrackRecord. http://www.trackrecord.net/features/articles/moor-mother-profile/7035, 27 July 2017. Web. 29 July 2017.

Srnicek, Nick, and Alex Williams. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work, 2015. Print.

Trier, Lars von. Epidemic. 1987. Film.

Wallace-Wells, David. “When Will the Planet Be Too Hot for Humans? Much, Much Sooner Than You Imagine.” New York magazine. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html, 9 July 2017. Web.

Waters, John. Pink Flamingos. 1979. Film.

Žižek, Slavoj. Living in the End Times. London ; New York: Verso, 2010. Print.

  1. This is what the slogan “Design Can Do” implies.

  2. (Dunne and Raby)

  3. A good example is performance in contemporary art which for the most part no longer conforms to the idea that performance art is not a theatrical act, but an existential experience, as Marina Abramovic defined it for her own brand of performance art, but also for most of her peers in the 1970s.

  4. On the history of the Muehl commune, see (Poet) and (Fleck).

  5. (Lyotard, XXIV)

  6. To use a term by (Srnicek and Williams).

  7. A split which Arts and Crafts, Russian constructivism, Fluxus and the Situationist International had fundamentally questioned and refused.

  8. (Gidal, 36)

  9. Among others in (Herbst) and (Jeremy E. Sherman).

  10. Not unlike the pest doctor who realizes that he is the cause of the plague in Lars von (Trier)’s film Epidemic.

  11. (Rittel and Webber)

  12. As opposed to the limited agency of things as mere totems in GAS.

  13. (Bogost)

  14. in factories equipped with safety nets to prevent workers from committing suicide by jumping out of the windows

  15. in the latter case, of photographic consumer equipment

  16. For which some of its Chinese customers sell their kidneys.

  17. Which, in the time when this article was written, resulted in a global shortage of high-end graphics cards because of their capability to speed up Ethereum and Bitcoin mining.

  18. See (Wallace-Wells)’ article for New York magazine that was hotly (no pun intended) debated everywhere in the world at the time when this article was written.

  19. (Žižek, 331)

  20. Quoted in (Maria Sherman).