Sunday, 31 January 2016

Ode to the Monument of Failure

One of our collaborators, the author and journalist Oliver Burkeman, explores the counter-intuitive notion of a negative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity and uncertainty. The following is an excerpt from his 2013 book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking.

"In an unremarkable business park outside the city of Ann Arbor, in Michigan, stands a poignant memorial to humanity's shattered dreams. It doesn't look like that from the outside, though. Even when you get inside – which members of the public rarely do – it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to what you're seeing. It appears to be a vast and haphazardly organised supermarket; along every aisle, grey metal shelves are crammed with thousands of packages of food and household products. There is something unusually cacophonous about the displays, and soon enough you work out the reason: unlike in a real supermarket, there is only one of each item. And you won't find many of them in a real supermarket anyway: they are failures, products withdrawn from sale after a few weeks or months, because almost nobody wanted to buy them. In the product-design business, the storehouse – operated by a company called GfK Custom Research North America – has acquired a nickname: the Museum of Failed Products.
This is consumer capitalism's graveyard – the shadow side to the relentlessly upbeat, success-focused culture of modern marketing. Or to put it less grandly: it's almost certainly the only place on the planet where you'll find Clairol's A Touch of Yogurt shampoo alongside Gillette's equally unpopular For Oily Hair Only, a few feet from a now-empty bottle of Pepsi AM Breakfast Cola (born 1989; died 1990). The museum is home to discontinued brands of caffeinated beer; to TV dinners branded with the logo of the toothpaste manufacturer Colgate; to self-heating soup cans that had a regrettable tendency to explode in customers' faces; and to packets of breath mints that had to be withdrawn from sale because they looked like the tiny packages of crack cocaine dispensed by America's street drug dealers. It is where microwaveable scrambled eggs – pre-scrambled and sold in a cardboard tube with a pop-
up mechanism for easier consumption in the car – go to die.

The Museum of Failed Products was itself a kind of accident, albeit a happier one. Its creator, a now-retired marketing man named Robert McMath, merely intended to accumulate a "reference library" of consumer products, not failures per se. And so, starting in the 1960s, he began purchasing and preserving a sample of every new item he could find. Soon, the collection outgrew his office in upstate New York and he was forced to move into a converted granary to accommodate it; later, GfK bought him out, moving the whole lot to Michigan. What McMath hadn't taken into account was the three-word truth that was to prove the making of his career: "Most products fail." According to some estimates, the failure rate is as high as 90%. Simply by collecting new products indiscriminately, McMath had ensured that his hoard would come to consist overwhelmingly of unsuccessful ones.
By far the most striking thing about the museum, though, is that it should exist as a viable, profit-making business in the first place. You might have assumed that any consumer product manufacturer worthy of the name would have its own such collection – a carefully stewarded resource to help it avoid making errors its rivals had already made. Yet the executives who arrive every week at Sherry's door are evidence of how rarely this happens. Product developers are so focused on their next hoped-for success – so unwilling to invest time or energy thinking about their industry's past failures – that they only belatedly realise how much they need to access GfK's collection. Most surprising of all is that many of the designers who have found their way to the museum have come there to examine – or been surprised to discover – products that their own companies had created, then abandoned. They were apparently so averse to dwelling on the unpleasant business of failure that they had neglected even to keep samples of their own disasters."

This piece raises issues that we plan to explore in the Hub. A failure may seem just that until you reframe and repackage it, in this case by making a collection of consumer flops, resulting in a novel, useful and successful project - the Museum of Failed Products.

Human failures of mind, body and circumstance, such as mental health problems, physical illness, and relationship breakdown can also be harnessed positively. Artists regularly draw on trauma and distress creatively, resulting in inspirational and aesthetically stimulating works of art. An exhibition of light boxes in East London is testament to this. Letting in the Light showcases the work of 35 artists, all of whom have experienced mental health issues. Located in a neglected section of fast-regenerating Stratford, an area marked for ambitious growth post 2012, the work illuminates a strip of the High St that includes ubiquitous betting, fried chicken and pound shops.
Letting in the Light. Image: Andrew Whittuck (c) 

The most recent project by Bobby Baker's Daily Life Ltd, at first glance Letting in the Light appears simply a pop-up exhibition of interesting and colourful artwork, until you read the text accompanying each piece, for example:
'In recovering from the depths of depression, I experienced 
a spontaneous outpouring of creativity, resulting in over 3000 abstract digital paintings to date'.

'This piece symbolises that there is a way out of the depth of despair into the world above, where there is light and hope'.
Oliver's piece is also a reminder that by focussing on the future and obsessing on past successes or failures, we neglect the present. This is surely a reason for the surge in popularity of mindfulness-promoting activities such as adult colouring-in and meditation.

The huge potential of complex and often messy human experience, socially constructed as success or failure, lies at the heart of what our project will explore. I declare our intention to build a monument to failure - by learning from what works.

No comments:

Post a Comment