Waste Age: What can design do?

It’s been almost a year since I’ve ventured out to a museum exhibition, and more than two since I had the chance to catch one in London. But with delayed research projects on salvage and upcycling kicking off again, and a small but very welcome early career grant from the University of Southampton’s Humanities Faculty, February seemed like the time to take another trip to the Design Museum to visit its exhibition on ‘Waste Age: What can design do?’

The highlight of the exhibition is certainly the early sections, which use easy-to-understand graphics, bold colours, and cleverly designed displays to educate guests on the history of waste, in particular plastics. Even as someone who has studied design histories of waste and salvage, it was enlightening and sobering to see the waste crisis laid out so powerfully in visual form. This section also showcased audiovisual installations and arts-design activist interventions which made the waste crisis seen, heard, and felt in various ways.

Ibrahim Mahama’s ‘Fadama 40 – an exploration of e-waste’, A profile on iFixit and its repair manifesto, and work by Kate Darby Architects on Croft Lodge Studio (architectural salvage and revaluing ruin) were of particular interest to me.

I couldn’t help feeling a bit let down as I walked through the later sections of the exhibition, however. Here the tone takes a slow turn from beautifully designed but sobering exhibits, sharing histories and calls to action, to what was more like a World’s Fair-style project showcase predominantly featuring designers from the global north (overwhelmingly from the Netherlands!) and exhibition sponsors. Projects like Low-tech Magazine’s solar powered website and Studio Drift’s Materialism, while interesting and engaging in their own right, did not really leave me convinced that design alone can help us out of our current dilemma. Even those projects like Dutch designer Christen Meindertsma’s Renoleum and the Fairphone company, which had clearer links to the more activist aims from early exhibition fell a bit flat in this context. These companies and artists are all involved in ‘Waste Age’ design, to be sure, and many care deeply about the issues at stake, but the exhibition might have been more explicit in articulating what this work is actually doing (and what it is not) in the face of waste and climate crises. This culminated in an entire final room dedicated to Sony’s ‘Life from Light’ installation, featuring ‘some of Sony’s creative efforts with examples of environmentally sustainable materials it has developed’. This semi-interactive projection of a nighttime forest is a pretty affair, but its representations of a virgin landscape left me feeling more distant from the mountains of waste pictured in the first part of the exhibition. Ultimately it felt more like advertising than education, and more like a feel-good finish than a meaningful part of a coherent exhibition on waste crisis.

How much of the burden should really be on consumer goods and creative arts, which governments and international coalitions can point to as evidence that the problem is being worked on, at the expense of more systemic legislation and change? As the early exhibition shows, international legislation has played a crucial role in the changes that have been possible so far. Given the emphasis that this earlier section of the exhibition had placed on the pressing issues facing us, and the solutions that have worked historically, I was surprised that this second part of the exhibition was so placating and self-congratulating. Particularly given its initial emphasis on the global north’s complicity in both climate change and the accumulation of waste the exhibition highlights, and the global south’s position on the frontlines of this crisis as a result.

I am still hoping to get my hands on the exhibition catalogue, which includes some additional essays and information and will hopefully change my opinion. All in all, my first London exhibition in two years certainly left me with some food for thought. I just wish the impression I had been left was a little less neat and pretty, and a little bit messier and angrier!

Read more about ‘Waste Age: What can design do?’ on the Design Museum website.

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