"As a designer, you don't just make a product, you design various contexts through the choices involved" (Johanna Seelemann)
Photo credit: Johanna Seelemann
Design, concept, production: Johanna Seelemann Forms and design development collaboration: Daniel Rauch Car clay modeler support: Simon Badstübner, Sabrina Kraus, Benjamin Werner
Design, concept, production: Johanna Seelemann, 2021 Picture credits: Johanna Seelemann, Ronald Smits (exhibition views) Production assistance: Christoph Born, Marie-Luise Jesch
Photo credit: Johanna Seelemann
Johanna Seelemann (b. 1990, Leipzig, Germany) is a conceptual designer, developing products, exhibitions, videos and working in interdisciplinary collaborations. Her works explore the mystification of everyday-consumed products, as well as commodity journeys along their supply chains. Unearthing these hidden contexts of these products that enable today’s everyday life engenders drawing alternatives and future-scenarios.
Manifested in works such as ‘Banana Story’, a series of propositions for extended ‘made-in’ labels, which was recently exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. In 2019, Johanna and her part-time collaborator Björn Steinar got selected amongst the ‘Icon Design 100 Talents to watch’. The ‘Willow Project’, a collective work together with 6 Icelandic designers, has gained a wide audience and has been presented in ‘Earth Matters’, curated by Lidewij Edelkoort and Philip Fimmano for the TextielMuseum in Tilburg.
She teaches at both the Product Design Bachelor and Design Master: Explorations and Translations at the Iceland Academy of the Arts and the Studio for Immediate Spaces at the Sandberg Instituut. She further realizes projects in interdisciplinary collaborations such as ‘Disaster Studios: Designing Resilience’ with disaster risk manager Uta Reichardt.
Can art foster social change - and what role can artists and their work play in this? Is there room for them to take a leading role?
I believe that artists and designers can take a leading role concerning the communication and narration of social change. This concerns the execution of aesthetic languages for the depicted issues, which highly influences their outreach and legibility. Within art and design there's also space to explore the non-rational, non-data and not purely functional based aspects such as senses, tactility, symbols, rituals, emotions, identity and many more, they can further put given values into question, make an antidote, explore and propose other views. However I believe that art and design can act like an antenna for fostering change but need the collaboration with other fields like the sciences and politics, while using widespread platforms like social media, protest, museums or TV to truly foster change.
In the face of the radical upheavals and crises of our time, can we still hope for a better future? And what impact might "narrative" have on this future's construction process?
We can always work towards a desired future, that's not a matter of hope but a question of the kind of future scenarios we design. It therefore seems important to me to understand the narratives we construct - whether they're utopian or dystopian, desired or not. It is also relevant to question certain widespread narratives. For example, we are starting to understand that a universal paradigm of what progress, technology and modernity is may not work. We need other types of ideas and other paradigms which can manifest themselves as narratives and creative works, but also in long-existing technologies. Narratives can challenge the longevity and reliability of the high-tech solutions that society is currently seeking, compared to nature-centric alternatives. Narrative can actively help us rethink and re-imagine our relationship with, for example, manufacturing, products, how we live, how we consume and what we consume.
What might be the premises of a transdisciplinary dialogue (between art, culture and other disciplines) capable of triggering social transformation? In your own work, what expertise or practices could go in the direction of such a transdisciplinarity?
The premises can be an exchange of perspectives and expertise, in a way, it’s as if the disciplines all use a different set of tools and language and the collaboration aims at exchanging them. In this way, for example, the arts can communicate complex topics, as learned from science, in a tangible manner that is not tied to an academic paper. Or, creative thinking techniques and imagination can help launch new scientific explorations.
In my work as a product designer, I often look at all the fields that bring a product to life, such as the problems, rituals, and possibilities associated with it. This starts with the science and knowledge of a specific material used in an object, as mundane as it may seem, it is rich with the expertise of many people: how it’s grown or mined, harvested, processed, transported, distributed, stored, why it’s the way it is and who uses it in which way. This journey touches on everything from materials science, geo-location of origin, supply chains and logistics, social contexts of production and use, labor involved, marketing and brand identity, legal and illegal trade, life after death. So as a designer, you don't just make a product, you design various contexts through the choices involved. Hence I like to seek to learn from all the fields associated with mundane objects and give alternative scenarios and proposals in return, for what might be a desired alternative.
Assuming it is possible to build a better world on the ruins of the old one - what do you think it might look like? What would you wish for a better world?
I’m interested in finding healthy ways to design, produce and consume. This means looking for solutions that allow us to celebrate life, culture, style and experiences in the same way we do today, but with responsible and logical use of the resources we depict for it. Answers can come through locality - how long are our supply chains, can we rethink natural materials for the future, or find site-specific answers, can we recognize types of systems and very specific indigenous technologies for where we are designing? Or through surface mining, the reuse of previously mined materials that can now be extracted from objects that are no longer used. If we're talking about recycling, how short or long are these cycles? A future I could well imagine also takes into account the decay of things we once claimed and the respect for the species we share the planet with, a future in which they have certain rights. In this sense, I don't think that we need a global collapse to start over from scratch, but we do need imagination and power to examine and change the systems we’ve already created.
It's often said that artists (and creative people) have this unique ability to endlessly search for the new, to start from scratch over and over again. When you start a new project, what strategies or rituals do you personally use?
I usually try to build on previous projects by further developing the core explorations and questions. I enjoy questioning the seemingly most mundane objects and materials around me and their relation to where I am (cars, bananas, aluminum cans, straw...), exploring their origins, history, contemporary contexts, and pathways. This investigation often offers fascinations for one idea, which are based on concepts such as substitution, aesthetic evolution, adaptation, transformation, resilience, or nature-centered technologies. I usually stumble upon these ideas and can't let go. I then associate them with individual materials, which then serve as my narrators, such as aluminum, cod, industrial plasticine, glass, corn, and loam. Of course, depending on the specific qualities of each of them, experiments with materials and practical work also play an important role. So do the specific aesthetic languages they can offer. Even if I explore a theme and wish to point out certain issues, the main objective of my project usually remains an optimistic suggestion, a proposal, a counter-proposal or a possible alternative scenario to the one I’ve explored. Further, I like to collaborate with people from my field or from different fields, such as a disaster risk researcher or a car designer, ideally someone who often takes an opposing viewpoint in the process and has different expertise. Confrontation and debate lead to the most interesting outputs.
The interview was conducted in November 2021.