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Serial Things

Royal College of Art, 2016-17
Nicola Koller & Tom Greenall

Writing a studio brief is hard. It takes us ages. All summer in fact. Now in our sixth year of teaching together, it isn't getting any easier. We start by sending each other articles, papers, images and references that interest us and then we meet up week after week to chat about our thoughts. The trouble is we get distracted. We start doodling, watching YouTube, or more recently, watching an episode. Before we know it we have watched the whole season of Stranger Things. What is it about this form of cultural consumption that we find so easy to participate in? Why can't architecture (briefs) be this forthcoming? And What can we learn from watching television? 

"I hate television. 
I hate it as much as peanuts.
But I just can't stop eating peanuts."
~ Orson Welles

In America last year 113 pilot television series were made, 35 of those were chosen to go to air and just 13 of those were renewed for a second season. The cost of these pilots was somewhere between $300m and $400m a year. That's a huge amount of money with no guarantee of success, popularity or longevity. In this we see a similarity with the construction industry in which a large number of new pieces of architecture (as distinct from buildings) are conceived as prototypes, one-offs or indeed pilot projects. 

While cities around the world continue to be burdened by unsuccessful, ill-conceived and expensive pilots, the world of entertainment is adapting to the contemporary desire for on-demand services. Despite only launching in the UK in 2012, Netflix now represents 20% of all UK internet traffic. Combined with Youtube, these two video streaming sites use up more than half of the internet's bandwidth. Cities are being dug and and telecommunications infrastructure redesigned to cater for this level of demand, demonstrating that technological innovation can emerge out of a desire for amusement. 

Clearly the success of the Netflix model--releasing the entire season at once--proved one thing: people want control over how they consume culture. The current expectation for on-demand access--anything, anytime, anywhere--has been well observed in other sectors and industries, including transportation (Uber), food (Deliveroo) and accommodation (Airbnb). Theorist Benjamin Bratton discerns that these "contemporary digital platforms are now displacing, if not also replacing, the traditional core functions of states, and demonstrating, for both good and ill, new social and temporal models of politics and publics".

This year, ADS4 explored the new publics that might emerge from these current forms of cultural consumption (in particular binge watching television series) and how the serialisation of everyday life might relate to the broader field of serialism in art and architecture. Might the consideration of design as a serial process help people participate more actively as consumer citizens? Might the impact of media culture on contemporary life be as profound as the introduction of mass production after World War II that led to the emergence of serial production in art and later architecture? And might we revivify the critique of representation and mimesis that has historically been the core motivation of serialism?

ADS4's continued obsession with media culture not only formed the departure point for the studio's research; this year it also provided the framework for the academic year. The three terms were structured as three parts (or three acts, let's say). These parts adopted a typical narrative arc used in storytelling or scriptwriting" Part One saw the set-up of the project, in Part Two we explored the project's conflict or dilemma, and Part Three led to the resolution of the project. 


© Thomas Greenall