Marta Monge is an Italian product designer who describes herself as having a "keen interest in social and political stuff, especially when design can be used to trigger an otherwise uncomfortable conversation." Enter her latest project, The Every Migrant's Guide to Illegal Border Crossings, an instructional manual for making objects like floatation belts, collapsable ladders, and thermal invisibility cloaks out of everyday objects.
Inspired by airplane "spotter cards" given to civilians during World War II and pamphlets passed out to protesters during the Arab Spring, Monge made a 74-page booklet that has a vaguely retrofuturistic feel, like it's an Easter egg in a Fallout game. Though she doesn't really editorialize in the book, her hope is that by making it accessible and aesthetically interesting, she can spark conversations about why these objects need to exist in the first place. Because they're so ephemeral, people outside of crisis situations have rarely gotten to see that they exist.
"This kind of thing doesn't usually get out of the refugee camp or the border where migrants or illegals are staying for a small period of time before they actually cross the border," she told me. "These objects only have to function for, like, five minutes. These aren't products that have to last for years. They do the job, but it's the opposite of what technically product design should be, which was more interesting in a way."
Here's the rest of our interview, lightly edited for clarity and length:
VICE: What interested you in this subject matter? Do you have a personal connection to it?
Marta Monge: Well, not directly. But I come from Italy, and it kind of started as a research project at the time at uni—I was in the UK at the time, and I was just comparing how Italians were obsessing over the migration crisis while in the UK it was like it didn't happen. So I was listening to Italian news, and that was something that was bothering me—people back home were talking about it while nobody where I was actually living were considering the issues.
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How were they talking about it in Italy?
Geographically speaking, we are in the best position together with Greece to receive migrants coming from the Mediterranean Sea. So this, in 2014 and 2015, was a big issue, so you had especially in the south (I come from the north, in Perino, which is closer to France), but in the south, you literally have people on the shore that are turning into helpers, not every day but almost.
And that kind of conversation was very troubling because [Italians] actually feel a bit like that now, that other countries in Europe are saying, Oh I'm distant from that physically, so if they come to you first that's your problem. They're still trying to find ways to balance it out, but they haven't really fixed it, like countries perhaps in the Balkans are refusing asylum seekers' requests, where there are so many where you accept them or they just leap through the system and get to other countries illegally, so it's like for us it's quite troubling. Especially when the weather becomes nicer and there are so many people who just try to reach southern coasts.
Do you have ambitions for this guide being used by actual migrants, or do you look at it as more of a design project?
At the beginning, I was not even sure, when I started I was trying to tackle the issue from a practical point of view, but I realized that the point of view that I can have is not really believable to get this real change in terms of tackling policies, and speaking to governments, and all of these organizations. And so I kind of realized it was more constructive if I would speak to people in a way that's maybe more engaging to them, because I found that the practicality of being an illegal is so interesting, because you look at what they do and you think, This could have happened to me. And those are concerns I could use, I could get in contact with, so it kind of feels more real.
Some of the text feels a bit sarcastic, like you're lampooning American survivalist culture. But you never get into the political reasons that people are forced to use these objects. Why?
At the beginning, it was very much political, but at the end, I decided to leave it to the people who were looking at the work. I wanted to show how the practicality of it worked: How do you manufacture this specific item to do this kind of action? To take it from point A to point B, with B being another country? I just looked at the way instruction models work, and then try to be really impartial. Even though I have an opinion on it, I try not to express it that much.
Did you base the designs off what you saw migrants wearing in photos? Or did you make things and find approximates of what you had created in photos?
For my graduation project back in uni, I looked at what tools people were using and tried to design a few more that were my own design but inspired by the real items used. And then it was like, OK, I have all of these materials that are kind of interesting on their own, so I put them together with instructions. I invented the process to build them from pictures and testimonies.
Did you learn anything in your research about how people pass down the knowledge of how to make this stuff without something like an instructional manual?
From what I understand, so many people are just gathered at the border, and they're trying this kind of thing for months. For one month, two months, six months, you never know. And sometimes it works, other times it doesn't, and information is just passed over by people looking at other people doing the same thing. I think it's basically how product design works, but just without all the names and processes of actual product design. It's just DYI.
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