Origami Can Save Your Life: The Work of Dr. Manu Prakash

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In my post yesterday, I referred to how there’s a strand of justice running through art and design. That’s demonstrated pretty effectively in the work of Dr. Manu Prakash. A Professor of Bioengineering at Stanford University, he has become well known as the inventor of the ‘foldscope’ and the ‘paperfuge’. These are ultra-low-cost microscopes and centrifuges, designed for use in tackling medical emergencies in poorer communities around the world.

They’re made out of paper.

Paper.

There’s something about this that inspires the young MacGyver fan in me. The idea that you can make a working, medical microscope out of paper, a microscope that effectively costs 50 cents to produce, is revolutionary. It’s taking an ancient art form, origami, wedding it to engineering, and getting it out into a world where almost half a million people die every year from malaria.

No – where half a million people die because they don’t have adequate medical facilities or a reliable electricity supply.

Then there’s the paperfuge. At 20 cents it’s a bit cheaper than the foldscope. This uses paper and other simple parts to create a working centrifuge that doesn’t require electricity. Centrifuges are expensive pieces of kit, but they’re essential in analysing blood and identifying pathogens. Again, the paperfuge is inspired by toys and origami, but is a working tool that can save lives in off-the-grid communities with no infrastructure. Prakash calls this “Frugal Science”. I call it “awesome”.

It’s not just about medicine though. It’s about accessibility. It’s about inspiration. It’s about art and science intersecting in such a way that provides more equitable access to resources and ideas and, as a result, allowing people from all backgrounds to interact with the issues facing their communities and identifying workable solutions. It’s about creating young scientists and supporting old doctors. It’s about origami. It’s about justice. It’s about hope.

Dispatches From The Ploughshares Factory

There are times when it feels that we’ve turned some of the most powerful, beautiful themes of Christianity into empty cliches, pious memes that are gutted of their ability to change the world just at the moment we need their power the most. So we talk about something as radical and transformative as beating swords into ploughshares and make it a nice, utopian promise for a future world rather than something that could upend the violence that underpins our society in the here and now.

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So I wanted to recognise the times and places in which Isaiah’s great prophecy has been put into practice. Because these are places where the Kingdom breaks through. Sometimes that’s literal – the picture to the left is of workers at RAW Tools turning a rifle into a farm implement. RAW takes seriously the words of Isaiah and Micah, and sees them as a way in which a society scarred by gun violence and mass shootings can start to pursue a more peaceful path. That’s not just through engineering – it’s through giving people the metaphorical tools they need to reject violence. After all, if the only tool you have is a gun, the answer to everything starts to look like a target. We need better tools.

But this isn’t just about getting rid of our guns, not just about the repurposing of weapons. There are other kinds of violence, with the internet becoming a breeding ground for violent words, violent attitudes. Much of this is aimed at women, where what should be simple disagreements and debates end up being accompanied by misogynist language. To our shame, this is often the case among Christians; we fail to disagree well.

So when writer Rachel Held Evans found herself on the receiving end of some pretty unpleasant emails, she resolved to take this ugliness and turn it into something more beautiful. Using the art of origami, she turned hate mail into swans and cranes and ships, and in doing so it led to fellowship, freedom and forgiveness. Because when we reject the weapons and words of hate and replace them with creativity and imagination and peace, they can begin to heal.

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These examples are faith-based, but that’s not always the case. Germany, like many other European countries, has seen a resurgence in racism, tensions within communities metastasizing into far-right violence and racial abuse. Swastikas have started to reappear, spray-painted in urban spaces, old wounds reopening. Street artist Ibo Omari is fighting back, not by painting over the graffiti, but by transforming them into something more positive, something more beautiful. And so, thanks to the Paintback campaign, strangely angular plants and animals have started appearing where there were once ghosts of a dangerous past, because even when our swords are transformed, they can still help us reclaim ground that was once lost to those with darker agendas.

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Meanwhile, somewhere in Shropshire in the UK, there stands an angel born of knives, 100,000 surrendered weapons transformed into art and beauty and memory. The sculpture was made by artist Alfie Bradley, using knives confiscated by over forty police forces across the UK. Britain doesn’t have much of a gun culture, but knife crime remains a lethal problem. The angel stands as a monument to lives lost, a beautiful sculpture, yes, but also disturbing, reminiscent of something from Game of Thrones or Doctor Who. Somehow that’s appropriate; we can reject the tools of violence and war, turn them into things of beauty, but maybe the sharp edges that remain remind us where the art came from, reminds us that peace in a broken world is an ongoing process, an ongoing battle rather than something to take for granted.

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Because peace is something worth fighting for; after all, it’s so easily taken away. We saw this back in February, when a white supremacist gunman opened fire on worshipers at a mosque in Quebec. Six people were killed.

But following that, rings of peace surrounded Canada’s mosques as people stepped forward to defend the right to worship without fear. “Houses of worship are sacred and must be protected,” said the organiser, Rabbi Yael Splashy, but they’re sacred because they’re full of people made in the image of God. We need to protect that inherent dignity rather than allow us to be consumed by demonised language, dehumanising rhetoric.

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Of course, dehumanisation is an attitude born out of seeing people as problems to be ‘fixed’ rather than individuals of intrinsic worth. Just look at how much money is spent on keeping the homeless at bay rather than helping them; defensive architecture is big business. In Manchester, spikes were placed in a doorway to deter rough sleepers. Humanity wins through, however and the spikes have now been removed because locals kept covering them with cushions. A similar thing happened in Liverpool, when an anti-homeless ramp was turned into a tea stall. I see that and I see hope, but I also remember the Homeless Jesus statue, and hope and apathy in an awkward dance.

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There are other examples I’m sure; the world’s crying out for peace, and the Kingdom will break through like green shoots from pavement cracks. We need to look out for them, we need to encourage and build them and take them seriously, because these aren’t neutered cliches, they’re moments that point to a different, greater, better world. And those sounds you hear and the beauty you see are swords being turned into ploughshares; they’re signs that another world is possible, another world is breaking through.

Enchanting the World Through Cosplay

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I was eating lunch outside Derby Comic Con a couple of weeks ago, sun shining on a college car park as conventioneers and Stormtroopers. In a doorway stands a young woman dressed as Harley Quinn from DC Comics. Suddenly, an ecstatic squeal rings out; another, much shorter Harley, probably about seven years old looks at the young woman and shouts “YOU’RE SO COOL!”

“You’re so cool too!” replies older Harley, making the little girl’s day. And meanwhile, just around the corner, a toddler is giving the biggest hug ever to someone dressed as Olaf the Snowman from Disney’s Frozen.

Cosplay has seen a massive growth over the last couple of decades, expanding alongside geek culture from being a niche hobby to becoming, well, a niche hobby that’s a lot more recognised. On its surface we see people dressing as characters from movies and comics and anime, a Halloween fancy dress party that’s broken its boundaries, but dig deeper and cosplay reveals itself to be so much more.

In some ways cosplay is creativity in its purest form – no-one needs to dress up as Batman – but it fires the imagination, it encourages problem-solving, it promotes the development of skills – dressmaking and textiles and model making and make-up and prop design. Cosplay’s about learning through creativity – learning in community, or developing self-taught skills through trial and error. Say what you want about its immediate practical application but the world’s a little smarter because someone figured out how to make a replica Ghostbusters proton pack.

But it’s not just about the nuts and bolts, the needle and thread of it all. Adam Savage, in a TED Talk covering his love of cosplay, talks about clothing as a narrative, an expression of the story we want to tell about ourselves. Cosplay is a step beyond that – it’s a way of interacting with our wider narratives, the modern myths and stories we tell each other and watch on flickering screens, communicating our love for these characters and their adventures. And then those stories are brought to life, momentarily; the world is re-enchanted. Walk past a member of the 501st Legion in a car park outside a convention and, for a second, you’re transported to Tatooine or Coruscant; you laugh but you’re a bit intimidated, and then you laugh some more.

Some might deride this as escapism, but as Tolkien once said “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?” It’s easy to get imprisoned by the world – to watch dreams fade, to imperceptibly transition to being an anonymous work unit, to lock away the attic the stories you wrote and the doodles you drew.

Cosplay can be a momentary escape from that. It gives the shy the chance to be extrovert, it gives reserved the chance to pose, it makes fixed identities malleable, it embodies the fundamental transformation of comic books – the ordinary throwing on a costume and, for a while at least, being extraordinary. The picture above? It was taken when a little boy got lost at a comic convention. He knew he’d be okay though, because Wonder Woman and the Flash were there to keep an eye on him.

Meanwhile, outside Derby Comic Con, a toddler is leading a member of the 501st around by his hand. The grey of the car park seems a little lighter; the colours of cosplay brighten up the world.

The Spirituality of Defensive Architecture

Urban spaces are more complex than we give them credit for. I guess we’ve all had the experience of wondering why a public bench is so uncomfortable, or why we’re stumbling over humps in the pavement. The answer, quite often, is that someone’s trying to manipulate our behaviour.

“Defensive Architecture” or “Aggressive Design” is embedded in the world around us. It’seems not difficult to find photos of nasty looking spikes embedded in a doorway to deter rough sleepers, raising questions of how compassionate the design of our public spaces should be.

In one sense it sounds ridiculous to say that spaces can have a moral quality like compassion. But we build our cities, our civil structures, our open structures. They are designed and created and funded by us, and so spikes in a pavement can sometimes say as much about a society as our greatest cathedral. Sidewalk or sanctuary, there can be something intimately spiritual about public design.

There’s a command, way back in Leviticus, that talks about landowners not harvesting the edges of their fields – the produce there was to be left for the destitute and refugees. Now that’s predominantly an economic command, but there’s something symbolic about it – it reflects God’s heart for the poor and the marginalised, it forces an interaction between haves and have nots (the outcome of the Book of Ruth ties in to this passage) and it forces us to consider how we ‘re using the spaces around us.

This consideration is vital because, as Matthew 25 implies, it’s the things we do for God when we’re not actually thinking about God that can be the real test of our character. How we create spaces for ourselves is evidence of how we feel about other people.

So yeah, homeless spikes send a message. But so does a lack of funding for hostels, or demonising food banks, and a thousand other things beyond rough sleeping – public toilets, wheelchair access, transport networks, benches, all of these have a moral dimension. They all take our spiritual temperature.

There’s an opportunity here for Christians though. Think about all the land owned by our churches: do we need a revolution in ecclesiastical design? Are there ways in which we can transform our public spaces, develop missional architecture, reflect God’s heart for the world around through surrounding our sanctuaries with community gardens or libraries or art galleries or debt counselling, not to replace the heart of our faith, but to recognise that it expands into every corner of human experience. God cares about what we do with the edges of our fields; he cares about our church car parks too.

How do we respond to that?