Within the current context of critique and practical artistic activity, predominantly based on now well entrenched mechanisms of expression pivoted on subversion, destruction of rules, rough and direct exposition of the violent attacks against both the artistic and social status quo, French-born 27-year.old interaction designer Mikael Metthey, structures his own critical speech along wider periphrases.
He in fact harnesses his profession’s very specific procedural mechanisms, combining them with his artistic intelligence. The outcome is artworks, projects which investigate the development and interaction between new technologies, science and design. It is equation of relationships in which human behavior each time embodies the unpredictable and unavoidable variable which defines each result.
Concretely, Mikael Metthey’s artistic practice consists in the creation of interaction design products, those being not just merely functional to the critical speech but ‘work’ integrally, from the productive as well as from the artistic point of view. Poxteddy for instance, Metthey’s university final project realized in 2007 when he graduated from the Royal College of Art in London, is a teddybear with a built-in capsule in which is possible to inoculate chickenpox virus. That way that children while enjoying playing with it would get infected by the virus ‘naturally’, thus avoiding the shock of vaccination and the risk of catching the disease in adult age, during which the damages caused by the virus would be extremely more serious.
In The Minutine Space, instead, being diseased has become the ultimate frontier of entertainment in a hypothetical future where virus threat has been completely defeated. In such future, whoever would want to experience the thrill of malady can select a virus to be infected by and then arbitrarily decide when to be ‘healed’. The language and mechanisms in Metthey’s works are very simple yet very complex. He involves the observer, poses questions plays on the use of the ambiguous ethics entailed in each of his project.
In the subtle rhetoric of this artist’s work, the transmission of contents happens ‘indirectly’, arising an emotional complex state of reflection. Such state is indeed centered on and endorsed by the element of disturbance, but is not merely directly referring to it..
Henriette Vittadini: You graduated as Interaction Designer from the London Royal College of Arts in 2007, During this period you started you artist activitiy up to exposing some of your works in London. Amsterdam and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2007, “Design and the elastic mind”, exhibition already mentioned before in Digimag 34 May 2008 – http://www.digicult.it/digimag/article.asp?id=1158).
Your works, prototypes or concepts of hypothetical interaction design projects, are meant to explore the relationship between design, science, technologies under development and culture: questioning the visitor about his own role among these relationships. What drove you to start all this? What did your first works consist of?
Mikael Metthey: In my first works there has been a time of gradual understanding what I really wanted to do because my first interest was in graphics, digital media which is the course I first did and this led me to gradually absorb science and technology in a new light that attracted my mind because of their potential impact on society. Then it was a kind of logical progression towards what really interests me, which is the role of science in society and how we apply science in our everyday lives and how science makes us really different from all other species on hearth.
So I guess my work has this constant balance, this tendency to overlap in three main aspects of modern society which I believe are very important and these three axes are health, science and design.
The early work was perhaps less rooted in realism and tangibility because it was purely graphic or aesthetic and it kind of matured gradually towards things that are a bit more anchored in reality and have a bit more realism in the way that they can be either implemented or you can imagine to have them implemented in a relatively close future.
There is a certain way of seeing design in these days which is trying to absorb it in a different light or trying to see it in a different way which is how to see design not as a source of aesthetic consideration, but rethinking some aspects of design and how this kind of things merge with art because they raise questions; so how do you design to ask questions?
How do you design for debate? Are your questions raising the right issues and pushing for the right discussions, those discussions that we should be having right now because technology is advancing and our perception of it is lagging behind.
Henriette Vittadini: Which was the first project you felt as truly significant within this philosophy?
Mikael Metthey:My first work, the one that really got me going in first place was my graduation project called Poxteddy (http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2008/elasticmind/index.html#/209/), and that was when I graduated at the Royal College of Art in 2007. It is a product, a medical device to expose children to chickenpox at early age and to kind of commodify viruses as means to an aim which in this case is to build up immunity to chickenpox at early age by a different method.
A method that some parents already sometimes use to deal with chickenpox is to arrange chickenpox parties and these parties would be arranged to make children exchange the virus and therefore to give the social aspect to an immunity program, in a sort of way- a kind of social vaccination.
I was directly attracted by the idea that people are capable of this kind of behavior which seems very irrational at first but it’s rooted in a very rational idea which is to immunize their kids against a really serious disease. So when you step back from that, you realize there’s a whole opportunity for you to design in this whole field about how do you use modern technology to improve people’s lives, to carry the message that technology can help doing things differently, in a more controlled way.
Poxteddy, I think it was a good starting point for exploring the idea that in the future viruses will not be treated as this devastating lethal power, but they will actually be tamed and used for more positive purposes. The objects were these figurative prototypes that were tested by confrontation with the public and they were a kind of stimulation for the public to respond to, they were aimed to stimulate a debate about this technology, whether it was ethical or outrageous. So this project was interesting because it was a probe into what people think, it was a way to tease people into give their opinion about science and medicine, so whether they would trust medicine or whether they wouldn’t.
I am not looking to upset people with this projects but more to stimulate a reaction and in this case I did get some reactions that were maybe not directed straight to the product itself but more toward the idea of infecting your children on purpose or to use viruses as a commodity. The product itself doesn’t make such a point, the idea is that society seems to be split in two branches when it comes to chickenpox: the ones who believe that vaccines are efficient and trustworthy and the ones that don’t, and the ones that don’t would doubt everything and in a way by offering this product they will doubt even more because it’s a manifestation of science and engineering and it is in a way providing a kind of tangible thing to criticize.
Obviously a certain amount of the aim of this project was to stimulate discussion, so it had to shock, it had to be something that people would feel strong about.
They might love it, they might hate it but as you can see I’m not giving them the answers, I’m just creating a product that raises questions. I’m not answering anything, I’m just putting issues in front of people, delimiting a certain area of discussion and it’s up to people to decide where they stand and wether their opinion can change, grow, evolve into something different because of their perception of life and science. So you could say this is an art piece where the message is not included inherently to the device, the message comes out of people. And this is quite recurrent in my work.
Henriette Vittadini: There is also another project, Vaccination Playground, in which you address the issues of viruses and children’s immunization through alternative methods but in this latter case it is more targeted at the children’s point of view. How did you start the project? How did you start developing the idea?
Mikael Metthey: Vaccination Playground is something more than that because it deals with something that is kind of personal to me as well as many other people which is when you are a child and you have the compulsory vaccination at school it is usually quite a traumatic experience, which is quite brutal, because it’s a mechanical nearly industrial way of vaccinating kids; so I was looking at this from my own perspective thinking ‘why hasn’t this been enhanced?’, since it can create some tensions and frustration for many kids. So my idea was to design experience in that case, to facilitate the vaccination process and to make it be much less invasive emotionally.
The idea is a playground by which when kids interact with the devices in it they get the vaccination, so imagine it a bit like the today’s playgrounds, but where the playground is designed to receive one kid at a time and by direct contact with the devices the kids would get administered the right vaccines at the right quantity through microneedles specifically designed for hypodermic transmission of vaccines which are so tiny that you can hardly feel them, so in a way that children don’t realize because ultimately they’re just playing games and having fun, which is the whole essence of the project.
I believe the process should be evolving as our technologies are evolving, we shouldn’t be stuck to ancestral ways just because we have been doing it for so many years before and they have proved to be efficient enough, I believe we need to go forward.
When I was vaccinated when I was a kid, the pediatrician was actually trying to distract me, to completely divert my attention by some silly ways that worked, and that reminded me that you don’t need much to divert the attention and therefore to brake these kind of false expectations of vaccination which are not necessary, I believe. We have the technologies to erase them and I don’t see why we are not doing it.
Henriette Vittadini: In your work you are often addressing the issue of technological development and how one can make use of it (without abusing of it), but there is also a backdrop dealing with prejudice and behavior culturally generated toward science and technology, things that might affect our way of looking at the new technologies currently in development. Is it legitimate to say that your works are meant to make us more conscious of mentioned prejudices and a step forward toward, a better relationship within the scientific-technological milleau?
Mikael Metthey: Much of my work is about the perception that you have of science. A few years ago, when I was in the RCA we were actively engaged with the world of the nanotechnology, and at the time Prince Charles made this incredible comments about how he sees nanotechnology as this very potentially dangerous, evil technology and giving his reservations about new science, because effects of such technologies are relatively unknown.
That clearly defines the conservative way of thinking in general whereas there is a period of fear which is inevitable because you are crossing new horizons and you don’t know what’s going to happen, and with his notoriety he raised those issues with the media and I think in that way he refrained some of the advance that could have been popularized much faster if he hadn’t made these comments.
I think in general the way science and technology are perceived and developed, make you end up to deal with problems or opportunities that shake the established rules and by doing so you obviously upset people and by upsetting people you create debate and putting ideas forward you create new ideas, which people absorb and get used to the idea that we are not a stagnant species and I think technology is a tool that makes us face the reality of things which is that we are an evolving species in terms of how we perceive the world..
I still believe in science as relatively free from human emotions, because science speaks by itself, science is what you can try, what you can see, what you can test. However emotions and opinions and frustrations and all this kinds of human emotions react to new technologies and science asking if it is socially acceptable or not to implement these new aspects of science in society and what is the good you get by doing it.
For example, what is the good of improving plastic surgery techniques? It’s kind of advocating for the superficiality of men’s ways but it all started out with medical purposes; we created plastic surgery to repair soldiers that came back mutilated from the war or for people that had terrible accidents that force them to live a reclusive life and science and technology permitted to these people to live a decent life.
Then obviously the maturity that we gained in these techniques kind of surpassed us in the way that we are now capable of enhancing ourselves with them, and now comes the question that can be applied to nearly all sciences which is: are we taking the sciences into human scale getting the advantages that we are supposed to get?
Is it worth it to bring science in this kind of direction or is it completely stupid and insane to want to improve yourself as a person? So I say that clearly the rule of technology in my work is always about these questions, that is wether or not we should implement the new in our daily lives and wether it could improve our lives or not and make a difference for better or worse.
Henriette Vittadini: In another work, Augmented Reductions, you created some devices with the task of providing “relief” from the stress of an excessive sensorial and physical efficiency obtained through a genetical reprogramming, possible in a hypothetical future. Where will our continuous, compulsive search for optimization take us? Will we be capable of developing ourselves into technological beings without losing our “humanity”?
Mikael Metthey: One of the pivotal points about what I do is this questioning on wether we need technology or not and in Augmented Reductions this is projected in a further future where biotechnologies have become predominant, so where through genes manipulation we can improve our bodies and enhance the qualities we already have like senses, or intelligence or memory or physical abilities… and the issue here is: for you to develop such an ability at that time, you would have to be born with a genetic code assembled in accordance to the purpose, so for example my parents would have to decide from the conception of my DNA what do they want to enhance in me.
Now, the ethical implications, as you can imagine, are immense because as I grow up to be special and in some way distant from normality, I inevitably become this kind of freak of nature because I have been fitted with this special “kit” that allows me to perform something better than anyone else, which in a way develops my status -my ego- but also destroys my integration capabilities. Therefore, is it right for parents to be able to impose this kind of things to their children?
The scenario I’m giving is a moment in time where the persons that have been engineered realize that this is not what they want to be in life, they want to be normal, and that’s where the design comes in, and creates the structures and the tools to allow you to level yourself to normality by therefore also making a strong statement to the others: that you are making an effort to hinder your qualities so that you would be able to fit in.
Henriette Vittadini: In this work the prototypes you designed have a much more aggressive “looking”. Does this sort of visual violence represent the violence we can address against ourselves in our quest toward optimisation?
Mikael Metthey: There’s a bit of this aspect of self-mutilation in the way in which you to prepare to make drastic changes to improve yourself, as plastic surgery for example, where you can decide to completely change the image of yourself to the others; in another way you also have the clear distinction of yourself by performing these acts, by wearing these devices that look quite brutal, as you said, and make a bold statement about your wish to become normal and in this strange act you are communicating the very basic aspect of the project which is ‘what would it take for me to be normal and what do I have to tell to others so that they think of me as normal?’.
Henriette Vittadini: The question pertaining to what defines normality and reality is also the pivotal concept of another exhibition you participated to : I am obviously talking about Niet Normaal, held in Amsterdam from December 2009 to March 2010. The projects exhibited were meant to explore the boundaries pertaining to the definition of normality as we receive it from our cultural legacies. Could you tell us a bit more about the work you prepared for this exhibition?
Mikael Metthey: The exhibition in Amsterdam called Niet Normaal was focused on the questions of normality and who decides what is normal and what is not and my take on it was trying to give people the sense of a space in which they could imagine a world where medicine and technology have become so good that we have managed to eradicate all diseases from the surface of the earth, therefore eliminating all kinds of fears and catastrophic scenarios about health. If you set that as the ground rule of the space, you can imagine that people would want to experience what it was like to have a disease because they would want to remember it as some kind of nostalgic act, as something they would want to physically relieve.
The space itself was delimited in five different devices that would project some different strains of influenza viruses as you were passing in front of them and you could basically choose to focus yourself on a very specific strain, depending on how mortal it is or how virulent and also see the popularity of these viruses, for example would people choose the one that smells better, would people choose the one that killed the most people, or would they choose the ones that have a special meaning to them such as an emotional connection, maybe one of their grandparents died of this disease and they want to see how it felt like.
Henriette Vittadini: This is the core theme of another of your works, The Minutine Space, where the same route of infection is applied for a purpose which is essentially recreational, but in this case the disease experience is faced in a common viral area where individuals can have the pleasure of experiencing the disease in communal (the viral area is also provided with a central basin where one can vomit when feeling sick). How do you see this sort of paradox turning something that is a biologically event driven to live in isolation into a social event?
Mikael Metthey: I think that when you get a disease by definition you have to confront a whole lot of etiquettes as well, so you can either be isolated, you can be integrated, attract the emotional attention of your surroundings, but in this very case I think that the grotesque in the project comes from the way in which it is banalized, in the way that you can just catch a virus, enjoy it and then get rid of it as easily as it has been caught.
My critique here is that when you make something not dangerous anymore, people would want to recreate the sensations, even if it’s completely artificial. It’s a little bit like bungee jumping, I think it’s the search for the adrenaline kick and the way in which people are desperate for these sensations that make them feel like their life is in danger and feel the thrill of being able to confront death.
Henriette Vittadini:Should we reach a condition where all diseases and menaces are defeated and all the barriers imposed by our biological nature be overcome, what sort of situation would this condition of disconnection from any compulsory bond to the environment lead us into? What would we be left with?
Mikael Metthey:I think you are always left with questions, because you can never answer everything and when you answer one question you always open up a million more. I think we are in a kind of desperate race to answer as many questions as possible to create what I think is an illusion of control, because we are essentially slightly clueless about what the future holds for us, so by controlling these aspects of daily life we think we gain more security, thinking that we will be able to deal better with the future.
I think the merging with technology is already abundant around us, wether it’s for prosthetics or even wearing a peacemaker, these are all tools that allow you to improve or extend your life or live it more normally. The society problems, the ethical problems, will be created by our response to new further steps of technology. The point of that is that with maturity this aspect of creating technology to level us to normality at some point surpasses us and becomes something that takes us again out of normality into special stratospheres of human beings. That is something that is very recurrent in my works as well: how is the body connected with technologies? how do we perceive our own bodies?
I want to put a mirror in front of people’s face, saying “look at the technology you have, look at the power you have, are you responsible enough to make use of these things in a positive way?” and I basically want to force people to make decisions. My primary concern is to explore the extremes: see how diverse we can get and see how our behaviors are going to interfere with technology, how we are going to create new behaviors, become new people, not only because technology but because our understanding of it.
Henriette Vittadini: Recently, you displayed your work also at the Impact Exhibition (London, 16-21 March 2010), where graduates of interaction design at the Royal College of Arts cooperated with a team of researchers from the Engineering and Physical sciences Research Council. Your work which was translated into a video presenting the role of the Pathogen Hunters, individuals in charge of collecting and monitoring the “infectious organisms”. This project is different from some of your previous works due to a closer link between the future you are postulating and the present reality but also because it is your first collaborative project . How did you relate to the project and with the team?
Mikael Metthey: This project was, as you said, very different from the previous ones because the grounds were in current research and me and my colleague from the RCA, Susana Soares were working together with researchers from Newcastle University, who have a grant from EU to explore better ways to detect rapidly infectious organisms. They were designing specifically for hospitals, but as soon as we got in contact with them we realized that what they were working on was ultimately going to be spread in the commercial world and the use of this technology would probably be global, because they were designing devices that could let you know at anytime, anywhere, wether you would be surrounded by dangerous organisms and therefore how much risk do you have to face when you go toward a specific context or place.
Collaborating with them we had to be more grounded in reality by basically interpreting their research and they had to be flexible enough to understand that we will not be bound to the hospital only. So, building on that we decided to explore the notion of the Pathogen Hunter, which is a role, a job designed by a governmental system and is dedicated to assessing risk and assessing the dangers associated with infectious organisms in the city environment, in high density population.
The concept itself is simple: it’s kind of a forecast institution for viruses and bacteria, but the form by which you communicate that is relatively new and unheard of and I think in some ways the objects act somehow as a placebo because they are a way for the government to express to you that they are actively doing something for your health; it’s a bit like the policeman in the street just walking the pavement: a statement that they are working for your safety.
You could definitely argue that this is a kind of enhanced version of the Big Brother where it would be in your advantage to be within this system -the best way for Big Brother to be around us is for us to want it-, that’s how you can see this more as a symbiosis where the state is taking informations about you but in exchange they are providing more health, maybe guaranteeing more health.
Henriette Vittadini: The system of Pathogen Hunters is based on a sort of “biological communism” in which each organic detail of every individual is taken and analyzed from a central organization, responsible for storing and exploiting this information for computing statistics and predictions to be then divulged through public bulletins. This implies a progressive integration of the individuals into symbiosis with a state-directed body, a thing that in the kind of future imagined here would be necessary and desirable. So in this perspective the control of the pathogen agents performed through this “preventive body inquiring”, sounds a bit like a control over the individuals.
Mikael Metthey: Totally! The UK has the biggest bank of DNA in the world and is actively collecting DNA of individuals for legal purposes. They are tailoring surveillance to be even more close to the individuals they are looking after or for; so creating this surveillance, system that is in your advantage, creates this strange relationship where you need the government to be there. You can choose to opt out but then you will lose your privileges. We were trying to give supporting aspects to the system, whereas they would truly be engaged in trying to make society better and aware of the risks of living in high density. But as in many of my works, it is up to the visitor to interpret the project in an optimistic or pessimistic way.
Henriette Vittadini: How do you approach a new project ?
Mikael Metthey: I like to start for example from an interesting piece of statistic or a fact I haven’t come across before and I want to know more about. This is the case for the chickenpox project where before coming to the UK I had never heard of chickenpox parties and as I did I thought that this was the weirdest behavior I’d ever heard of and that kind of commanded a reaction. So it basically works that I make a discovery, something that really grabs me and then I make a response to it and I tend to add layers of technology to either tangibilize it or to put something really light touched in it, depending on the project.
And then I don’t want to come forward shouting my opinion as loud as I can, I like people to make their own opinions about things, I don’t pretend to know what’s right or wrong. The way in which I produce is that I want to absorb things, understand things and I want to be able to translate them in a new way. I don’t really set out to be grotesque or burlesque or irrational; I try to surprise people with what they already know, giving it into a form that they haven’t seen before. I am really happy about my projects when I can see that I have kind of educated someone in a new perspective and I learn something from the project too.
Henriette Vittadini: Are you currently working on a new project and/or is there something about which you would like to work ?
Mikael Metthey: There are a few projects that are quite interesting to me at the moment which are about the advance of biotechnology and the way we relate to our fragility. For example talking about regenerative medicine and on how maybe in the future you could lose an arm and you wouldn’t be too bothered about it because you would know you could re-grow it and how is that going to influence our behaviors with our own bodies and the risks we’re prepared to take for example performing dangerous tasks since we do not see the danger in the same way we did before we had these kind of ‘spare parts’.
Another more down-to-earth project would be the exploration of the ethics of telepresence: the way American troops have been bombing Iraq with remotely controlled planes, the way in which American pilots are controlling planes from Las Vegas and bombing in Iraq, and the extremely curious case of a soldier that wakes up in the morning, brushes his teeth, say bye to his children and goes to work, which is to do acts for the safety of his country, to do these terrible things.
Then he goes home to his wife and children and has dinner and watches TV as if nothing happened, because telepresence can detach you from the reality of the situation, which is that you are bombing people. So I’m interested in this emotional relationship between the person who controls the machine and the machine that performs these really dark purposes.