Social Distortion

The Design Anarchy of David Bynum

Photo by Pat Bombard

It is the Saturday night before St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah, Georgia. Brick historic buildings house charismatic bars with doors open, bright lights and brighter smiles, eager for the wads of green that tourists are about to unload on their countertops. The sky is clear black and every street from Broughton to Bay blocked off, pedestrians only. They take the advantage. The mass moves like a river through the streets, splitting into channels, following paths and paces less by choice and more by instinct.

They all converge in Ellis Square. Inebriated strangers stagnate on ledges like algae on rocks, open containers in hand. They wear lime felt hats, plastic beads, kitschy t-shirts, sunglasses at night. Drunk frat boys yell gracelessly, high heels falter on cobblestones, and the whole thing reads as some half-baked Dionysian farce in fifty shades of green.

Moving articulately, cutting swiftly through the throng, is David Bynum with his retinagraph.

“Excuse me. Do you want a picture?”

People have to yell over the pop music, eyes wide in the dark. The couple sitting on the bench is skeptical, but the woman says, “Sure.”

“You have to look in here. It’s a new kind of camera.”

“What’s it gonna do, squirt water on you or somethin’?”

“No, no, absolutely not. It’s gonna give her a picture.” He holds up the retinagraph, the lady puts her eyes up to the device, and there’s a bright flash.

“Oh, shit!” she cries as it prints out a message. Bynum hands it to the man and the couple’s friends gather around to look.

“Where’s the picture!”

“It’s in your eyes,” Bynum says. “It’s developing right now.”

He moves on, cutting through the crowd like a shark through schools of lesser fish. He is poised with squared shoulders and windblown hair, scanning the crowd through his glasses, asking politely. “Excuse me, would you like a free picture?”

A frat boy, clearly shitfaced, throws his fists up. “Free pictures!!”

A brunette girl copies him. “Free pictures!”

“This is a new kind of camera though, it takes a picture of your eyes, like a reverse camera,” Bynum explains.

“Is it gonna give me cancer?” the guy asks.

“No, it won’t. Wanna try it?”

“Is it gonna suck my soul out?” the brunette cries as Frat Boy, with a glowing green necklace, leans into the retinagraph Bynum’s holding up. Frat Boy steps away, looking back and forth between the retinagraph and his friends, as if waiting for their go-ahead.

“You just have to look into the eyepiece and smile.”

He does, it flashes, and he leans back, eyes closed. “Woah.”

Photo by Pat Bombard

Bynum’s professional field was born out of the early 20th century urge to combine the tradition of art with the novelty of mass production. Design is, in its most basic form, creative problem solving; industrial design (ID) is the solution of products. The Industrial Designers Society of America defines the purpose of ID as to “optimize the function, values, and appearance of products and systems for the mutual benefit of both user and manufacturer.” Industrial designers synchronize function with form, all in the hopes of making it easier for human beings to exist in the world.

Different schools of ID range from a complete rejection of aesthetics to borderline sculpture. Bynum was educated in the latter, graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design in early 2014. “At SCAD I tried to push my skills into what seems like a typical industrial design skill set,” he says.

“I don’t really fit into that. The idea that we as designers are always trying to improve the world and make things better.”

He found his fit with Chindogu, a Japanese concept of product design that completely rejects consumerism. As the invented word translates, a chindogu is a “really weird tool,” one that seems to solve a common, everyday problem, but would be impossible to actually use. Either it is impractical (a small broom affixed to the toe of a shoe so you can sweep on-the-go) or socially embarrassing (the all-day tissue dispenser: a hat with a roll of toilet paper on it).

“Inherent in every Chindogu is the spirit of anarchy,” reads rule no. 3 on the official website. “Chindogu are manmade objects that have broken free from the chains of usefulness. They represent freedom of thought and action: the freedom to challenge the suffocating historical dominance of conservative utility; the freedom to be (almost) useless.” It is ID anarchy.

“I’m not a political anarchist, but I think I’m a social anarchist,” Bynum says, “manipulating the sociality of an environment.” He spent the last ten weeks of college investigating “the dark side of design.” His purpose: to challenge unspoken codes of conduct, to disrupt the flow of the everyday mundane — essentially, to burst your personal bubble.

Photo by Pat Bombard

That is how an awkward encounter begins: with a destabilization of the social order. Picture yourself in a café, calmly clacking away at your computer with your mocha latte frappe venti double shot whatever. If a stranger plopped down in your lap and started petting your hair, you’d be a bit put off, wouldn’t you?

Bynum wants to be that stranger. But first, he needed to learn how social awkwardness works. Disguising his study as a human factor survey, he built a working prototype for a hyperphallic soap dispenser. The user grasps the device and pumps the mechanism to eject foamy soap from the top. Awkward.

Upon realizing how the soap dispenser worked, one guy, whom Bynum describes as a “dude-bro male” type, “just got really weird, he got all, he got chichi, and he wouldn’t look me in the eye anymore. He receded inside of himself, and I’m just sitting here.” Passive regulation of an awkward encounter means simply sitting and allowing the awkwardness to fade, resulting in a heightened sense of time. If Dude-Bro Male wanted to alleviate the tension, he could have made a joke about it: active regulation, laughter. Instead, he steeped in social mortification.

It gave Bynum an idea. “If you insert yourself into these situations and start making these changes, you realize, ‘Oh, wait. I have control.’” Part of that control is the ability to embed information — specifically, visual information. Advertisers do it constantly, and this kind of subliminal messaging has always interested Bynum. He wants to see if he can embed information through product design, and in doing so, distort the social order.

The retinagraph. Photo by Pat Bombard.

Bynum’s retinagraph is essentially a Polaroid camera, a thermal printer, and a viewmaster. Inside, there’s an Arduino program and a 70 ground number of camera flash circuitry. Think of an afterimage — a bright picture flashes and when you close your eyes, you still see it afterward. That is what the retinagraph does to you.

I ask if I can try it. We’re outside, in a café courtyard, and the daylight is broad. It may not work as well, since my pupils are small and letting in little light, but Bynum says at night it would make an imprint lasting at least ten minutes. We’ll see.

I put my eyes up to the viewmaster part, looking into blank screens. Bynum presses a button and a bright light flashes in my eyes.

I see it. A triangle, a circle, a square, and some lines in between.

“Now if you close your eyes-“

It’s blue — then it’s purple —

The retinagraph prints something out of its Polaroid component. “Not sure if it prints very well outside,” Bynum mumbles. He hands me the receipt-paper printout. You are the circle. North is the triangle. Go to the square.