I had this idea as a reaction to the privileging of design as a kind of perfect idea. It seemed that even when art historians offered critiques of design, that there was an undertone of preciousness, and a silent acceptance of connoisseurship. Discussions of design suggested that some objects achieved an almost Platonic ideal. My own experience in this was writing about a large industrial/commercial building that had been frequently redesigned and re-purposed, often in pursuit of plans that were never completed. What interested me was how each subsequent iteration worked, even when aesthetic factors were derogated.
The idea that I came up with was “kludge theory”. In some ways this is analogous to Barthe’s “death of the author” which gives the source of meaning to the audience. Of course, there are differences, especially as a building is a different text than a book. Books are rarely re-written by audiences to suit themselves. Buildings, especially industrial/commercial buildings are frequently re-modeled. Additionally, buildings are often singular, being made for a specific site, whereas books are produced in numerous copies.


The Motordrome building c. 2008 photo: Adam van Sertima


The Motordrome garage 1929. Photo: Archives of the CCA.

A kludge is an improvisation that is inelegant– the term arose in engineering. Perhaps the most celebrated kludge was the carbon dioxide scrubber that NASA engineers designed from scraps and spare parts to help the crew of the crippled Apollo 13 moon mission return safely home. In that instance, due to damage to the space craft, carbon dioxide built up in the vessel, threatening the crew’s survival. Using only essentially junk (including that ubiquitous tool, duct tape) that could be found on the space craft, over the course of a few hours the engineers on earth assembled CO2 scrubbers that could maintained a breathable atmosphere. The astronauts then duplicated the devices on board their space capsule, and were able to return safely to Earth.


NASA engineers improvise a CO2 scrubber for Apollo 13. Photo: NASA

This improvisational tactic towards things and purposes has parallels with contempoaory design practices. For example, mobile apps are often released, then repeatedly updated. Objects such as furniture or tools often go through an iterative process to improve their function before and sometimes after, they are released to their audience.

I note here that the term ‘audience’ is a conflation of group of spectators, users, consumers and other definitions. Additionally, the assumption of design is that the audience is human. This will become more of an issue later when I begin to discuss some ideas from Ian Bogoste’s Alien Phenomenology: or what it’s Like to Be a Thing(UMP, 2011).

Bogoste’s arguments explore his idea of “unit operations” – the term is drawn from chemical engineering – where units can be something differentiated from another, hence one’s heart is a unit, but your body is also a unit, and your family or workplace yet another unit. I haven’t yet brought Peter Strawson’s arguments(Individuals 1959) to bear on Bogoste’s discussion, but they are treading on similar ontological ground, here.

What is particularly relevant to my research lies in Bogoste’s discussion of the ethics of spark plugs. He provocatively asks if there are ethical implications between the spark plug, the piston and the gasoline, beyond the human actions that assembled these things, and the pollution and energy their interaction unleashes(Bogoste 2011 p.75).
How does ethics of an interactive device play out? Do I owe ethical consideration not only to other players, but to the system of play devices? How should  consider this when I am explicitly exploring human interaction via what could be described as toy systems?

Bruno Latour explores this sociologically, for example when he says a man and a gun become something different when a human brandishes a gun.