In Conversation with Ilona Gaynor and Boris Anthony

Patrick Pittman (PP), co-editor of The Alpine Review, sat down with the pair to talk about the benefits of a criminal mind, unconventional modes of understanding, and design and materiality.

Ilona Gaynor (IG) is a designer and artist from London who runs the Department of No and Boris Anthony (BA) is an independent advisor and consultant from Berlin who works in strategic design.

PP: Can you introduce yourselves and talk a bit about what you both do?

IG: I'm a designer and artist from London. I also run a company called the Department of No, which basically makes its money from lying to people and I'm okay with that.

BA: I'm originally from Montreal and now living in Berlin. I've been doing design and web stuff for too long, about twenty years. Right now I'm looking at what in some circles is called strategic design and systems thinking.

PP: You were at Nokia last year?

BA: Right, I was there for five-and-a-half years as the head of mobile experience, figuring out how to design and make a suite of apps across five different operating system platforms.

PP: Ilona, what do you mean when you say lying to people?

IG: I split my practice as an artist and designer. I've trained as a police officer with the LAPD and also worked as a cleaner in a downtown LA bank. I also have a private detective's license which I got online, which I have to say was surprisingly easy to get. The Department of No splits itself into two areas, one of which is consulting for governments. I've worked for the US government as well as the government of Pakistan, India, and China. And then I maneuver those strategies and sell them as movie scripts to film companies to make feature films out of. I also consult on TV shows.

PP: How do you manage to work with governments at the same time that you're lying to people?

IG: I graduated from the Rural College of Art about five years ago and the project I graduated with involved the planned kidnap of a woman in Arizona. I paid someone to follow her for about six months. I spent my student loans paying a private investigator to follow this woman around based on her credentials. I looked through the Forbes rich list and selected a woman of choice. She had to have a series of very particular constraints: she had to have children, she had to have plastic surgery, and so on.

It's a piece of art but it was also written about in a lot of financial journals. The project investigates the price of someone's death and how that influences the stock market and insurance contracts. A terrorist act, despite obviously the moral heinousness of it all, is quite a creative yet destructive act. It's essentially turning the tables on something that you might not necessarily presume to be possible.

BA: I can see how that might be a project you'd give to a designer and say, “Okay, how would you do this with a formal design process?” In the end, these kinds of acts are designed. Somebody has a view of what they want to achieve and they figure it out, and then go and do it.

PP: I think that's a really interesting way of looking at it, that there's an inherent creation behind something that's impossible to understand.

IG: Critics write that the origin of design was a man molding a clay pot in order to drink out of it. That may be the case, but if you go back through history you'll also find the first man or woman to have built a trap in order to capture an animal. It's a really clear-cut form of design, and I don't mean the trap itself—the bits of wood and the nails, the springs and so on—but figuring out what your prey likes to eat, where the victim would go in the trap, and where its natural habitat is. That's a form of infrastructural design that's occurred since the beginning of time. Police and stockbrokers do exactly the same thing. Design is no different than being a pickpocket or a surgeon. It's having a deft hand of some kind. A magician with a sleight of hand does exactly the same thing.

PP: You hear a lot of people saying everything is design, but it's not as simple as that either.

IG: No, lots of things are badly designed.

BA: There's an Italian design theorist and professor, Manzini, he just released a book called Design, When Everybody Designs. He says there's design that everybody does and then there's professional designers. His point is that the role of a designer now becomes a coordinator of collaboration. We're also starting to see this idea in systems thinking where we might say, “It's not just about this table in front of us. It's about the larger context.” There is a responsibility to coordinate all these different perspectives. You don't have a lone genius sitting there going, "Oh I'm going to figure all this out." You have to be an orchestrator.

PP: Design is not necessarily just the process of an artisan. It's a mode of understanding.

IG: In my work, I deconstruct something in order to understand it, and then put it back together again in a new form or a new understanding.

BA: If you approach a topic or thing from a point of view of inquiry and put moral boundaries aside you're talking basically about a criminal mind. I could say I have a criminal mind because I'm constantly wondering how I can undo the system. How can I get around the situation or finagle it to my advantage? To me, that's straight up design thinking.

IG: Criminals are progressives, there's nothing wrong with that.

PP: Private investigation is a really interesting jumping-off point. Recently I was speaking to documentarian Errol Morris, who was also trained as a private investigator. It's that idea that you can't accept everything that's presented to you. You need to understand the multiple truths that go into that thing. It's not about arriving at a single point of truth, it's about understanding all of the context, even if it's a kaleidoscope.

IG: Yeah, it's understanding the rhetorical mode in which the image is being used. That's something not a lot of designers often do. They think it's something just for artists or photographers.

PP: Do designers get caught up with this question more than anybody else?

BA: I've had a lot of people say, "What's wrong with designers? You're always questioning this or that." What is design if everybody's designing? It's a question worth asking. I'm a designer but I take things apart and figure them out and build them anew, with a view to change something. I also design charts, plan dinner parties, plan events. That's all planning and design. I've got a notion of the future and I'm going to do some type of work to arrive there.

When I was at Nokia, I very purposefully took the word design out and called it experience architecture. Keeping in mind that I had a reputation as the guy who would introduce himself in meetings as, "I'm Boris Anthony and I'm a fucking poet." They're like, "What are you doing here?" We break things down, abstract them, figure them out and try them on, and that's our process. I can actually fill that in for any design process you might have learned in any design school. I would go in and have a meeting with the presidents, VPs, or head of engineering for some product, and it's like, “I'm in the room here with you because we've got to figure something out, and we're going to figure it out together.”

PP: Is there something about the culture of Nokia that was allowing for that kind of space?

BA: The section of Nokia I was part of was the black sheep of the company. Berlin was hated, and our design org was completely disconnected from the Nokia design organization. I was one of the few threads that bound them. I can't really speak of the Nokia culture in terms of my everyday experience at Nokia. To answer your question, and not to sound egotistical about it, I had to create that space. I had to fight like mad to have that possibility, and it only lasted a short time anyways. After a while they were like, "Oh man, you're taking us apart here."

PP: That's interesting in and of itself. So how do you take that approach and push it on a certain organization?

IG: For me, it's important that there's a material output. I don't mean reports or infrastructures thinking, I'm talking about actual material I can design and craft. Craft is something that I appreciate as a designer. I don't do work I don't like. I established that rule a long time ago, and I'm all right with it. There always has to be a material form in my work. I make that a part of my contracts when they're written. My work for the past five years is trying to figure out how to trick the mind into believing you're telling the truth when you're actually telling a lie. I do kids workshops on beating polygraph tests at various museums around the world. It's nice.

PP: Is it easier for kids?

IG: It's easier to teach kids how to lie. As long as you make someone believe that they were in the place that they gave in their alibi, you're onto a winner. With the kids, we workshop these spaces and get their mind to map out the various textures, details, rooms, doorknobs, etc., that they've interacted with. At the same time, they have to leave enough out that the lie isn't obvious. The architecture has things missing. There's no ceiling, there's no floor, there's no trapdoor. It's plot points of various places they believe they've been in.

BA: The most important lesson my father ever taught me was to be honest. Honesty is your best policy. My mother, however, taught me how to be a really good liar. The combination of that is the realization that the best lie is made only of truths.

IG: Exactly. I went through a really extensive Scientology screening once in California. I wanted to understand how they go about converting people. I went through the test and spent about a week there. I was never going to be recruited to become a Scientologist, but I wanted to understand and learn the methodology.

They have this questionnaire where they ask you one hundred questions and they hand you a copper pole attached to a box with a few blinking lights that are completely fake. Then they maneuver you through this infrastructure of questions. The questions start out positive and gradually become more negative. They ask things like, “Do you have a good relationship with your father?” If you answer no, then there's this snowball effect of making you feel depressed for the next one hundred questions. You're depressed by the end of it, and I was very aware of what was going on.

Then they basically say, “We can offer you a solution to climb out of this infrastructure or web of lies that we've handed you, if you pay us. We can make your life positive again, based on that split-second moment of 'Oh I feel really depressed about my circumstances right now.'” It's very, very interesting and is essentially maneuvering people in a designed way.

PP: When you were going through that process of figuring out the right way to beat the polygraph, you're not doing it because the client in that case wants to know how to get away with lying. It's about wanting to see what's broken in the system, isn't it?

IG: Professionally it's called “red teaming.” Essentially what happens is someone builds a wall with parameters—it could be an infrastructural wall or a security system—and your job is to find out where the cracks are. You can only find the cracks by systematically taking the whole thing apart. If you think of a burglar, the architect builds the building and then the burglar deconstructs it. That's their job. So it's the equivalent of being a burglar.

PP: The organizational outcome is pretty obvious then as well.

IG: Yeah, so this allows us to say, “Here's where your problems are. Here's some possible solutions.” They have to be domestic, down-to-earth solutions. I'm not a security scientist. They could get a parade of security scientists to come in, or risk analysis managers and so on. But the reason they don't is because the people that are able to penetrate these systems aren't those kind of people, they don't think about these things in the traditional systematic ways.

BA: With a criminal mind.

IG: Yeah, exactly.

PP: Do you see this happening in commercial spheres as well?

IG: Yeah, things like message communication delivery for a government for instance. I was asked to make a jihadist film that would look like a real jihadist film in order for the jihads to spread it. It would immediately have to look like a film that one of them had made in order for them to maneuver it around their social networks.

Pakistan was introducing anti-bombing legislation. I basically made a terrorist film in my friend's house in London. The film was made in Urdu with various special effects technicians working on makeup and whatnot. Sometimes I have a really straightforward mandate: what is the anti-message for something and how do we communicate it on the same level that they communicate their stuff? Exactly the same ways, really really simple, down-to-earth, gritty ways of putting out messages. How can we do the same thing without looking like the assholes?

PP: It's not just emulation is it? When you're talking about the lie detector test and all of that, it's not just figuring out how to do the same thing. It's about understanding it as well, isn't it?

IG: No, it's about developing a new language that they can use to communicate to a diverse range of people, like a jihadist terrorist group that believes in bombing civilians for whatever they're interested in.

BA: I suspect that part of the work is understanding their rationales for that?

IG: Yeah, it also comes back to materiality. Understanding the very basic material spectrum in which it's going to be used. Shooting it on an iPhone will be much more appropriate than shooting on a four thousand dollar camera, for example, or doing it handheld. Why get a scientist who deals with warfare to work on it when you can get someone that understands material and communication? Makes much more sense.

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