1 The plans for a painter’s ladder were drawn
2 They were given to eight woodshops, who were commissioned to construct the ladder as a piece of furniture
3 The plans contain as many blind spots as the viewer wishes to see
These were the instructions that appeared on the temporary exhibitions’ wall when I entered MATE – Mario Testino’s museum in Lima, Peru.
In this beautiful townhouse in the Barranco neighborhood that was originally built in 1898, there are few spaces dedicated to art exhibitions. Testino, a Peruvian fashion and portrait photographer, widely regarded as one of the most influential and well-known of our time, opened MATE with a mission to bring Peruvian artists and culture to worldwide attention.
In one of the spaces dedicated to art, stood eight different ladders with the instructions above. At first glance, all the ladders look the same. It is only when you start observing and getting into the details when you start noticing the differences.
I guess that oftentimes, we enter these types of exhibitions wondering about the artworks, their meanings, and why they were created in the first place. Nevertheless, it is those types of exhibitions that reinforce the way I perceive art – as a space of exploration, where reflection takes place and opportunities and possibilities could arise. Literal, the exhibition by the Argentinian artist, Maya Ballen, is a result of the artist’s experience commissioning a piece of furniture – a ladder in this case. Ballen handed the same precise plans to different carpenters. The plans are detailed and include sizes, distances, shapes, and materials. Eight carpenters fabricated eight ladders that supposed to be a materialization of the identical plan. Yet, a closer look at the final product reveals variances: some chose different types of wood; some used nails to attach the pieces, others chose screws; some focused on the aesthetics of the ladder, others just got to work and fabricated it; majority followed the exact rules of its shapes, one decided to give it a twist. Now you are probably reading and asking what’s the link between an organization and wooden ladders, right? That’s what I thought as well, but then I started to reflect on products and services companies develop. The engineers and designers are working day and night to develop a product we might need and ask for. They plan, shape, tweak, and then produce and send it to the real world. They give us, the users, the plans and instructions and hope these plans will anticipate reality – the way we will use it. The plans and instructions are supposed to help us think about the product, see its potential and control it. Yet, the way it is being used is not the exact way companies anticipate. Just as Ballen’s anticipated finished ladder was not the precise materialization of the plan she handed. Just like each carpenter used the plan differently, customers using the handed product as they want, and as they need. Not as they expected to. It is their interpretation, an exercise of transfer, a consequence.
Customers start to hack.
Hacking happens in physical as well as digital products. Communities like IKEA Hacks that explore new uses for the famous Swedish furniture are flourishing. In the digital sphere, hacking is taking place as well. 27% of gen Z (born 1997 and on) said they had hacked an app to do something that isn’t usually feasible. I would assume you hacked Instagram in the past. Think about the last time you wanted to upload a few pictures in one image to Instagram. Most likely, you downloaded a collage app, created the collage, and then uploaded it.
If that is the case, why do companies expect us, humans, to behave according to the instructions they hand to us? Is it possible that this expectation is relevant when working with algorithms, but not with humans? Humans are complicated creatures; they have their perception of the world and their interpretation of what products, or services, might be.
In her exhibition, Ballen explores the distance – both long and short – that exists in the design process between the plan and the object; the drawing and the real furniture. Just like Ballen, it is beneficial for companies to explore the distance between the prototype and use of the product; the instructions and its interpretations; the closed lab, and the real environment of the customer.
Ballen’s work suggests thinking of the plan as a text, as something possible to read and interpret. Can companies do the same with their products?