ID Fuel Interview with Maik Armstrong

Globalization has been one of the defining catch-phrases since the 1980′s, and its influence has been acting for much longer than that. A new art project created by Istanbul-based photographer Maik Armstrong explores this force of homogeneity. By morphing crowds of faces into one “child” Face of Tomorrow gives the world a look at it’s future face – one city at a time. The results are startling: beautiful, smooth, and not nearly as homogeneous as we might have feared. We talked to Maik about what he had learned through his work, and how he felt the inevitable sharing of ideas around the world would effect art and design as the face of tomorrow became the face of today.

Q. So Maik, tell us a little about your background, and particularly, how that background lead you to pursue The Face of Tomorrow. What gave you the idea for the project?

A. I grew up in apartheid era South Africa with all the baggage that that entails. At 15 my family moved to Australia, one of the most pro-actively multicultural societies in the world. I went to university in London and Los Angeles and I have traveled constantly since my late teens. Growing up in South Africa meant a complete denial of identity. At the time South Africa (rightly so) was a pariah state for its racist policies. There was nothing about such a country that one could be proud of or identify with. So I grew up identifying with a global culture and as a result feeling at home in any place. At the moment I live in Istanbul and even though I only speak a little Turkish I still feel completely at home here. As far as work goes, my background includes studying art at Goldsmiths in London in the 80s and architecture in Sydney and UCLA in Los Angeles. I worked for Mark Mack in Los Angeles in the early 90s and since the mid 90s I had my own company, Morehuman, which amongst other things collaborated with Marc Newson on the design of an apartment building in Brisbane, Australia. It was at this time in the late 90s, early 00s that I was traveling more and more extensively between London and Sydney when I probably had a clear moment of departure for the project. I remember the moment one day on the London underground when as I looked around I was amazed at the sheer diversity of the place. People from Somalia, Ukraine, Mexico, the whole planet all jostling for their place in the metropolis. And I thought to myself what does it mean any more to be a Londoner? A few weeks later I found myself in Istanbul and looking around this ancient city which was once the capital of three different empires, I realized that in some way I was looking at the future of London. Like London, Istanbul too had been a magnet for migrants from all parts of the world – Arabia, Central Asia, Rome, Greece, Russia, North Africa — yet looking around the city today, the population is fairly uniform. I thought if you could mix all the people in a city right now, you would be looking at the future face of that place.

Q. Globalization is a huge issue for designers, not only because we are increasingly asked to design for a more global audience, but because more and more styling-type design is being outsourced to the east, while still being sold in the western world. Where do you think globalization will take us as artists and designers?

A. I don’t think we have anything to fear from globalization. People often assume that globalization is a homogenizing force leading to a bland McCulture all over the world. In fact this debate has been going on for the past 150 years — Marx noted it as one of the defining aspects of capitalism, and for him it was one of the many negatives of global capital. I personally find it empowering, allowing me to connect with people from many different parts of the world who share a global culture. This global culture is not completely effacing of all differences as Marx had feared, but instead allows a thousand new flowers to bloom. In Istanbul, where I live, we have Turkish pop, Turkish rap, Turkish techno as well as the traditional Turkish styles of music which have not died but have found new fans through the distribution methods of global capital – CDs, television, filesharing etc. So instead of having a narrow definition of “Turkishness”, we have now have a vastly expanded one. These same forces are taking place in Brazil, in Nigeria, all over the world producing an overwhelming variety of new forms and styles.

Q. In your website bio, you talk about the value of cultural differentiation, and the superiority of some cultures to others. Has your work given you any insights into preserving this diversity, despite the pressure of post-modernism and globalization?

A. I don’t think we ever actively need to pursue diversity. Diversity just happens. It’s the way of nature to just keep expanding — to keep filling every evolutionary niche. People often talk about cultures or languages being under threat — this is just a natural part of development. Things change, adapt, evolve, mutate into a thousand new forms. Take language – for every language that is dying there are probably ten new versions of English being born – we have Turklish, Singlish and all the argots of rap culture, business culture and so on. The same applies to cultures.

Q. Computerized visual morphing is a relatively new technology, but new developments in computer-based design and evolutionary design are progressing quickly. What do you think about the implications using similar technologies to combine designs of products? For example, one could create the child of a Corvette and an Audi TT. Or the descendant of Sony’s last 50 stereos.

A. In photography this research goes back over a hundred years to the work of Francis Galton, so it is certainly not new. I think the main implications moving forward will be dealing with machine intelligence and the idea of human ‘originality’ and uniqueness will be challenged. You talk about the child of a Corvette and an Audi TT. This may seem like an original idea but a computer can quickly extrapolate that into every possible combination – an Audi TT with a Nokia 6600, a Nokia 6600 with a giant squid and so on. The computer will be able to fill in all possible permutations and maybe the only ‘human’ part of the creative process will be selecting what we find interesting or beautiful.