Disrupted By – cutting through the art of noise

The term ‘disruption’ has become such a pseud’s staple in recent years that the title and theme of ‘Disrupted By’, the third annual Curated By event organised by the graphics design department at Sheffield Hallam University late last year, was always going to raise eyebrows

Speakers at Sheffield Hallam’s Disrupted By event, left to right: Kelli Anderson, Dominic Wilcox and Daniel Eatock

The term ‘disruption’ has become such a pseud’s staple in recent years that the title and theme of ‘Disrupted By’, the third annual Curated By event organised by the graphics design department at Sheffield Hallam University late last year, was always going to raise eyebrows…

But this is not industry, it’s academia – leave your cynicism at the door. Perhaps when it’s not trying to sell you anything, the word can still unlock doors in young imaginations.

I went in wishing for the best, particularly given the standing of the speakers – Kelli Anderson, Dominic Wilcox and Daniel Eatock (shown above, left to right).

Work by Kelli Anderson shown at Disrupted By


Anderson was first to talk through her work, immediately invigorating the student audience with an array of wit and ingenuity.

The artist and designer showed cut-out skeletons brought to life, paper records that really played (see video below) and functioning, pop-up paper cameras.

Paper Record Player from kellianderson on Vimeo.

When she quoted Carl Sagan – “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch you must first invent the Universe” – one suddenly saw that her work has stars all the way through it: thin sheets of paper sparkling with material history, made glorious because “people expect paper to be boring”.

And here’s the crux of true subversiveness: powerful subversion (‘disruption’, if you must) doesn’t happen through easy gags, it requires effort on a scale to match its opponent.

Dominic Wilcox at Disrupted By, invoking Leonard Cohen

Dominic Wilcox is a familiar name in the design world, most recently for his show-stopping stained-glass concept car (shown below).

Wilcox describes himself as shy, but his work – from fields of shoes to gold-plated skimming stones – displays an outlandish courage of conviction.

He recalled growing up as ‘observer’ in a lively family, playing a clip of his mother and her sisters chatting excitedly and making each other laugh. His father, the prankster, dressed up as Santa – in March.

Stained Glass Driverless Sleeper Car of the Future by Dominic Wilcox. Photo: Sylvain Deleu

“When someone has a lot of ideas they can start to feel like they’ve seen it all,” said Wilcox. “So when a genuinely new thing comes along it is very obvious and very exciting.”

Intuition begins with experience – all those years of subconsciously registering effective ideas. But one must have their eyes open to the world in the first place, and the boldness to follow through.

“Most people don’t go far enough with their ideas, they stop too soon,” Wilcox said. “Keep going. See where it takes you.”

I wondered at what point a visual pun becomes artistic. While superficially similar to Wilcox, Daniel Eatock’s work, for me, lacked its confidence.

Eatock started his talk by ironically ‘rocking out’ on a chair before launching into a slide deck composed of a string of photos pasted into an email window. He even took two phone calls during his talk, as a joke about ‘disruption’.

Daniel Eatock takes a call during his talk

Eatock’s version of disruption seems to be about apparent lack of effort, but that can too easily look like a lack of respect for the audience. And there were some fun ideas: the recursive ‘painting the paint palette‘ exercise; an enormous jigsaw puzzle printed on a jigsaw; a pedal bin the height of a basketball hoop.

Not everything has to be deep, of course, but without an engaging human context or a palpable drive to look beyond the self-reflexive hall of mirrors, these are one-liners.

The best way to change people’s minds is by presenting an alternative, and the better the alternative, the better your chance. The speakers all showed a refreshing fearlessness in using humour as a response to authority, but in the age of selfies, perhaps the most subversive thing a creative can do is to disappear.

Anderson said, “As a designer, you are almost trying to have an out-of-body experience, imagining the experience from someone else’s perspective.”

Ours is a culture of self-reflection, but when the mirrors are set aside, the impact can be profound.

Leila Johnston is a writer, curator and artist and the founder of the creative collective, Hack Circus, which now produces a live show and magazine (issue five is out now), hackcircus.com. Johnston’s website is finalbullet.com. Curated by… is an ongoing set of guest lectures and events hosted by the graphic design department at Sheffield Hallam University. It is open to students and practitioners and initiated by Pam Bowman and Matt Edgar. ‘Disrupted By‘ took place in November 2014.

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