1-on-1: Martina Huynh

Experimental designer Martina Huynh was encouraged to attend Design Academy Eindhoven by several teachers in her native Switzerland. We recently became so intrigued by her Basic Income Café project, that has been developed during her time there, that we had to get in touch with her to find out more…

You seem to be aiming for socially conscious design, especially utilising science, such as with your A Call for Living Infrastructure. Could you speak to us a little bit about these ecological experiments?

In this project I was exploring our current relation to both technology and nature. Inspired by the intricate systems of communication present in fungi and the way they connect whole forests, I began to question why we’d have to dig up and destroy the complex networks already present in the soil in order to place our own cables and wires in the ground. Why this antagonism between technology and nature? Could we not try to collaborate instead? What if our human internet and electricity networks could merge with the ones created by fungi?

When researching fungal networks, it was important to experience the matter first hand, so I grew mycelium under constant influence of 5V (would it affect the fungi’s growth?), in heavy, metal contaminated soil (would it improve the mycelium’s conductivity?). I also put mushrooms in between (or as components in) electric circuits connected to an Arduino to see whether it changes the stream of data.

It was an attempt to design with a non-human perspective in mind and find compromises together.

We came across you via your recent work, the Basic Income Café. For people that might attend this café, what can they expect to experience?

In Basic Income Café I use the flow of coffee as a metaphor for the flow of money in two different basic income economies. Every visitor entering the café is entitled to one free cup of coffee a day (your basic income) that is pumped out of an oversized, transparent Bialetti. While enjoying the invigorating effects of your cup of basic income you can observe where your basic income came from, where your taxes flow to etc.

There is also the option of drinking more coffee, but then you’d have to “go to work” (grind coffee beans) in order to earn your coffee. Using the ground coffee you can make another cup (extra salary) for yourself, although parts of the coffee generated flows as income tax to the Bialetti, so that others may continue to enjoy a cup of basic income.

It is a small economic system, where social dynamics can be tested, i.e. if a lot of people drink coffee, but not many people work, we’ll run out of coffee. How do people react then?

During this whole time, a performer is present chatting with visitors about their view on basic income and the future of work, using the processes around as a conversation starter. And at the end of the performance, visitors are kindly asked to clean their own cups – sparing others from doing extra work.

Are there ways this new relationship between people and things, which Basic Income Café discusses, could be applied to other activities and consumption?

Basic Income Café discusses our changing relations to income and how a basic amount of money could feel unconditional, simply being granted to everyone as their right to exist.

The introduction of a universal basic income would naturally also question how we relate to work. Right now income is strongly tied to work. But how do we attribute value to different types of work? At the moment, the higher the monetary compensation the higher the incentive to do one type of work, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect the most urgent societal demands. Nor is work compensated through money the only valuable, meaningful type of work, think care work.

What if instead of working for our coffee/income, we first receive a coffee/income that enables us to work? I would imagine that the types of activities that would follow would form a more open interpretation of what value creation can be. So I think it’s time to redefine the concept of work together.

The free cup of coffee offered to everyone in the café is a small taste of what it feels like when something is given out unconditionally, basing it on trust that the other person will use the extra energy in a way that they see best fit.

It’s a project you’ve developed at the Design Academy Eindhoven, and you recently took it to Milan Design Week. How has that experience been?

It was really great! The project was shown in the Design Academy Eindhoven’s “Not for sale” exhibition, which tried to explore the true value of design in context. And so all projects were integrated and adapted to various shops and places in a regular Italian neighbourhood. This offered me the great privilege to actually set up a whole café!

It was fantastic to see the project applied and tested in the real world, to see people interact and be able to simply offer them a cup of coffee. And since much of my project is about facilitating and hosting conversation, I had the great pleasure to meet and talk to a large number of very different people – from the typical design crowd to curious locals.

How do you find people usually react to your work?

Many saw it as a welcoming and relaxing space. Some thought it was just a café and only realized later that it was also a project, some pointed at the large coffee pot contraption with wonder, some really seem to enjoy my explanation/demonstration and the economic aspect, and many participated in the accidental performance that comes along with the installation and appreciated a more interactive and social experience during the Salone del Mobile.

Do you think alternative and progressive design ideas have ways to go ‘mainstream’, and if not, are there any ways people and organisations could implement these ideas in their day to day lives?

Yes! In fact I think it’s very important for “alternative and progressive” design ideas to go mainstream, because even though movements like speculative design opened up the definitions of design and prompted designers to think more about alternatives and questions instead of only solutions, it’s still by making them real and having people engage with them in a casual daily context that the ideas and values embedded in the designs take shape and manifest themselves out there in the real world.

My second graduation project Augmented Mundanity OS investigates how operating systems were to be designed differently if they treated us more as citizens instead of “users” (and consumers). I find it hard to believe that there are about 3 or 4 operating systems out there that have the whole market, and at the same time how remarkably similar they are. We are living in a time where alternatives are much needed, esp. in the ‘mainstream use’ than only as an intellectually stimulating exercise.

In that sense the best way for a design to be successful is by making it work in a real life context, and design them so that as many people as possible want to engage with its ideas.

Headline Photo by Nicole Marinati