Rapid Response Collecting At The V&A from 2014

It is possible to stand back and select from the vast numbers of products, objects and technologies being made throughout the world, a certain few that are significant; or have the potential to have a major impact on our lives as global citizens?

Well, the V&A has created a new display within the context of its contemporary design department called ‘Rapid Response Collecting’. With the eye of an Anthropologist, Curator Corinna Gardner and her team behind this new exhibition, have selected certain objects that they hope will reveal deeper meanings about the nature of our 21st Century lives, beyond their functionality. To examine and promote debate about the implications of each item; for example in terms of their social, environmental and economic impact.

Their strategy has been well thought out. Whilst the objects are on display temporarily, the exhibition is permanent. In this way, there will be a constant shift in meaning, dialogue, and new connections made.

The current set of objects explore a wide range of themes and issues:

Engineering potential in the form of the KONE UltraRope; a light lift cable, able to raise lifts a 1000 metres in a single run. This will be a key component in allowing skyscrapers to be constructed even higher.

‘The Liberator’ is a gun produced by a 3D printer. It illustrates the complex social problems that accompany many new technologies and the necessity for us all to individually consider their pros and cons.

A worthy inclusion, touching on the politics of shelter and private/public spaces, is a display of the studs used to deter people from sleeping beside buildings. These have produced very passionate responses from wide sections of the population, highlighting the many deep divisions in our society.

Certain exhibits are included to provoke thought about the acquisition and storage of our personal data: by whom for the benefit of whom? The ‘Nest’ thermostat collects information about all aspects of the home and the habits of its occupiers. This is communicated across the net to allow remote house management. Convenient in many ways, but with what consequences?

A direct connection with the people who produce our cheap products is made through the display of a pair of Primark cargo trousers. Made in Bangladesh, they are a commentary on the recent Rana Plaza disaster. Do we consider enough the origins of the cheap products we buy? Or how it’s possible the manufacturers keep costs so low?

All of this made me consider how these items; selected and isolated, must look to outsiders. How would they understand their function without any foreknowledge of what they were for or the contexts in which they were created? One of the exhibits was a pair of cosmetic eyelashes of the kind favoured by Katy Perry. What would an alien, or indeed even our recent ancestors make of all this? Would they understand our propensity for vanity and the need to identify with a popular archetype?

There’s a great bit in Walter Tevis’s ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ in which the alien Newton’s seemingly mundane pill dispenser is analysed and found to be made not of card or tin, but of Platinum and engineered with the precision of a microprocessor. Having been sent to Earth in search of resources rare on his home planet but common on ours; his advanced society provided him with items that mimicked the Earth objects they saw via the interception of our television pictures, in order for him to ‘fit in’. Of course, they had no idea that the materials presumably common on their world would be rare and precious on ours. In a similar (perhaps rather obvious) way, just imagine the look on a face of someone from the 19th century, if shown a smartphone. To them it would likely appear to be almost magical even unfathomable.

In Conclusion, I enjoyed this exhibition and felt it to be a really clever and significant addition to the mission of the V&A. It will be interesting to see how it evolves over time and change.

(C) Gideon Hall 2014

(This article was first published in Femalearts Magazine in 2014)