by Paola Antonelli
Whether they use the skins and shells of objects as an interface or animate them from within, artists and designers are set on a path that will transform the world into an information parkour and enrich our lives with emotion and motion, direction, depth and freedom. It is a revolution that started several years ago, but technology – a wide word whose submenu for artists’ consumption could read information, digital, nano-, bio-, and any other prefix that inspires a trip to the lab – is today available to a wider range of thinkers and doers, and sophisticated enough to be modulated with the lightness and precision of a laser (thirty years ago a hatchet would have done the trick). Artists and designers have also matured beyond the first moments of irrepressible and immoderate enthusiasm for the new mediums, and learned to control their touch and to wear technology, instead of letting technology wear them. To experience the works in this book – a highly distilled sample of today’s best design and art production that uses technology in creative and unexpected ways – is to know how wonderful our present age can be.
Indeed, there is a touch of wide-eyed wonderment in every project, along with a friendly competitive feeling and the desire to share in the joy of discovery that is typical of communities of ninja-geek tinkerers who share unrequited passions. The great John Seely Brown, often considered one of the historical enablers of this technology transfer, calls it ‘thinkering’, to emphasize the high intellectual and innovative benefits that come from it. Indeed, in the hands of these brilliant artists, technology becomes a way to rediscover human nature, to push our most traditional buttons and also new ones we did not know we had, to make humans tick in a novel way. It sets us on the course of creation, collaboration, communication and construction that has become an impellent necessity and the only way to real future progress.
Paola Antonelli is Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. In 2004 she was recognised as one of the top one hundred most powerful people in the artworld by Art Review.
Paola has curated several architecture and design exhibitions in Italy, France, and Japan. She has been a Contributing Editor for Domus magazine (1987-91) and the Design Editor of Abitare (1992-94). She has also contributed articles to several publications, among them Metropolis, the Harvard Design Review, I.D. magazine, Paper, Metropolitan Home, Harper's Bazaar and Nest.
From a crystal chandelier displaying SMS messages, electronic mirrors made of wood to a tooth implant that allows for near-telepathic communication, the work of a new generation of artists and designers rethinks technological innovation, by exploring the potentials and impacts of new and creative technologies on an aesthetic, formal, social and psychological level.
Whether mass products or experimental devices, immersive environments or custom made one-offs, these intricate pieces blur the boundaries between established genres and disciplines, redefining both their contexts of use and modes of distribution. They consistently avoid any attempt to categorize or label them, the ‘field’ having been variously called new media art, digital art, techno design, technocraft or physical computing, yet they are the imaginative products of non-linear thinking, where technology is re-invested with subjectivity and play and triggers thoughts just as a book or a film can do. These highly inspirational, technology-infused works have started to grasp the collective imagination and are already extensively relayed online. With hubs in the USA, Japan and Europe, this movement is gaining momentum every day. The work of those artists and designers is not only relevant in our increasingly technology-driven society but can also shape the way we think, interact and engage with what is becoming the dominant vehicle of cultural experience.
To try to understand the emergence of this movement, we need to outline briefly the context in which it appears. At the end of the last millennium we saw the transformation of the world into an information society, enabled by the digital revolution, and whose cultural production is heavily mediated by and through electronic technology. This has been associated with complex, far-reaching paradigm shifts at the heart of society and culture, correlated with a dramatic increase in speed and dematerialization into data. The impact of digital technologies, with their capacity to deal with information and perform cognitive functions while being interactive, is unprecedented. Consider, for instance, how mobile telephony has changed our daily lives, the way we do business, interact with our social networks or organize our time. Note the emergence of online communities that freely share knowledge and information among people with common interests, unlimited by geography. Observe the rise of internet dependency syndrome. Technology is truly everywhere, its impact is profound and it mediates
our entire existence.
The digital society is also marked by immense paradoxes. It advocates freedom but is control obsessed, and comes complete with all the technological panoply of machines and devices: CCTV, database, iris scan and ECHELON. It is a world that strives by and for technology, and yet is consumed by technological nightmares, fears of genetic modification, nanotechnological catastrophe or nuclear disaster. On the one hand it is safer than ever, but on the other it is marked by bloody conflicts and worldwide terror – which, too, has adopted mobile phones as the main ignition technique for its bombs. The first world, moreover, enjoys a prosperous economic climate and stability, which many suggest are the ideal conditions for a cultural renaissance. Intense consumerism is the order of the day, entertained by extreme political liberalism, bringing both first-class entrepreneurship and a flow or, more precisely, a flood of useless, redundant manufactured artefacts to sustain this frantic consumption. Cheap, bland and insipid, those ubiquitous artefacts represent perhaps the worst of material culture: über-functional gizmos, with in-built obsolescence and with more functions than you would ever need or dream of using, exist as a kind of uncanny misreading of the modernist credo. Quantity seems to be the only criteria that matters. Shortly before Christmas 2006, one of the world’s biggest cargo ships, the Emma Maersk – dubbed SS ‘Santa’ for the occasion – dumped on the coast of England over 45,000 tonnes of toys, mp3 players, phones and other gadgets from China.
The fact is that most of the objects that are supposed to satisfy our needs are not in tune with them any more. In a society such as ours, where all the basic needs are extensively met with a multitude of choice options, the multiplication of practical functions serves no real purpose. Instead, we have reached the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs where we seek more individual, psychological needs, such as self-fulfilment, self-affirmation and intellectual stimulation. This evolution represents a clear shift towards a more discerning consumer, often more affluent or at least better educated. The general lifestyle trend, evident in magazines but also apparent in the rise of more affordable, design-led brands, has contributed to this shift by diffusing and popularizing the culture of art and design. These phenomena are amplified by the rise of the new, influential Generation C, a generation not defined by age or background but by the desire to create, engage, debate and associate, and who flourished with the rise of the internet.
If art has always aimed to fulfil those higher needs, some design disciplines are already tapping into them, creating products with a character, which tell a story, arouse curiosity or stimulate our thoughts. The return of decoration in furniture design, as exemplified by Tord Boontje, is an excellent example of the return of humanism too into design, where magic, wonder and subjectivity represent a clear break with the minimal aesthetic and rational functionalism praised by modernism. Similar parallels can be drawn in architecture, fashion and most other fields of cultural creation, with the notable exception of technological artefacts. Technology is still largely developed in a linear, rational and scientific fashion, mostly for functional purposes and by global electronic corporations. This process, driven mainly by economic parameters and promoted by fine-tuned marketing, often relies on the inherent ability of software to introduce customization. Although this process can yield successful functional products, it has, with only a few rare exceptions, no real bearing on our higher psychological needs. Since technology is mediating our life, it is not too much to ask that it be meaningful and relevant. This is one of the arguments that motivate many of the artists and designers in this book.
This new generation of artists and designers, predominantly in their thirties, born amid the digital revolution speak the language of the machine like natives and understand technology intuitively, and these factors are fundamental to understanding the rise of technology-infused works, as they permit a natural, playful and more subjective development process. These artists were also born during the transition phase when analogue technologies were gradually replaced – the record players, the view-masters – and so they understand the benefits, appeal and importance of the materiality and tangibility of technologies compared with the all-digital and immaterial that prevailed at the start of the digital era. It is a generation that has also been greatly influenced by science fiction, by films such as Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’, novels such as Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’, Ballard’s short stories and the hugely popular ‘Star Wars’, directed by George Lucas, to name but a few. The influence of sci-fi, in both its utopian and dystopian forms, helped build a common imagination, as well as sparking a willingness to think and create in technological terms, finding new avenues and alternative futures. This new wave of artists share, to a greater or lesser degree, an intense fascination with technology itself, its potential for artistic expression and its social and cultural impact. Other notable influences are to be found in kinetic and media art, the counterculture of the 1980s and 1990s – more precisely in DJ culture, which influenced the process in terms of remixing, hacker communities, as in the Berlin-based Chaos Computer Club, street art and graffiti.
Highly educated, this cross-fertilized generation has assimilated the teachings of post-modernism: the protagonists share an irreverent outlook on the impasse of modernism and a preference for a more subjective approach, while often borrowing post-modern processes – namely the re-appropriation, the re-use and the readymade, the mixing of genres. Yet, fundamental factors separate them from postmodernists: they often have a positive, engaged outlook on life and its meaning, and strive to create a novel language and genuine works. They engage too in constant exchange and debate, sharing knowledge in online communities and adhering to an open-source philosophy often associated with a critical approach. Their process is flexible and associative, pulling together the right competences while sometimes venturing into unorthodox collaborations, as have artist Ben Rubin and statistics expert Marc Hansen for Listening Post (p.86). This phenomenon is visible in the number of collectives represented in this book.
These artists and designers seek, in their practice, beauty, depth, relevance and meaning, often acting in reaction to the standard aesthetic and form and the status quo. They engage with technology to reveal its intrinsic beauty and find its true language, treating it as a tool for discovering new forms or as a raw, upgraded material with which to create their designs. Take, for example, the computer-grown chairs of Laarman (p.24), the mechanical dresses of Chalayan (p.28) or Geoffrey Mann’s (p.46) Flight series, where he uses a combination of cinematographic techniques, CAD and rapid prototyping to create the physical traces described by a bird at take-off, thereby materializing time. Another approach is exploring the interactivity and the possibilities opened up by multimedia and electronics to create immersive experiences and installations rich in emotions and narrative, theatricality and magic. The examples are many, both in the design and in the fine art field, and this book features among others the work of Simon Heijdens (p.60), with his interactive projection of trees that respond to outside winds, or the fantastic installations of Lozano-Hemmer (p.90), McIntosh (p.104) and Kodama (p.124).
These creators also explore the area where analogue and digital intersect, bringing feeling and warmth to an otherwise cold and immaterial construct. This is perhaps most brilliantly represented by the non-reflective mirror series of Daniel Rozin (p.82), but is a common denominator for many of the protagonists of this book. Acting more in guerrilla mode, they use and abuse technology to forge humourous weapons for disrupting the established order or to re-appropriate commercial devices into meaningful, surprising experiences. Theirs is a proactive attitude in a world of bafflingly apathetic quietism. From the Institute of Applied Autonomy’s guerrilla printing machines (p.142) to Altman’s micro device that turns off all the surrounding TVs (p.152), from the hardware-remixed objects of Ibars (p.190) to the hack scanners turned photographic camera of Golembewski (p.170), this irreverent approach is rich in results and consequences. The book also showcases examples of inventions that have gone beyond the prototype stage to engage with the world of consumerism. They are mass-produced and distributed as artistic devices and, stemming as they do from a reaction to the bluntness of commercial electronics, they reach audiences away from the art galleries. Among the best known examples are Hulger (p.196), with their beautifully quirky handsets, and many Japanese artists, whose work forms a sub-movement called device art – see for instance Kuwakubo’s art gadgets (p.212). In opposition to today’s rampant individualism, the creations are often meant to be shared, enjoyed collectively and to develop platforms for change and exchange, as in the installation of Usman Haque (p.64) or the sumptuous public displays by realities:united (p.70). Some of these new artists and designers also engage in a critical discourse to explore the social and psychological impacts of technology and invent artefacts and
experiences that connect with the real, complicated pleasures and states of the human mind often neglected by conventional design or alternatives to the current technologies, loaded with hope and intelligence. The strange products of Dunne & Raby (p.234), Noam Toran (p.230) or the disturbing installations of Marie Sester (p.222) are but a few examples featured here.
We wanted ‘Digital By Design’ to be a testimony to the effervescent energy of this field. We hope the book will entertain, inspire, arouse curiosity and contribute to the debate about the role and forms of these technologies, which are mainly intended here as interactive and digital – including rapid prototyping and manufacturing – electronics and mechatronics. Beyond the technologies themselves, the attitudes and motivations of the artists and designers featured, their search for meaning, quality and personal investment in a world that struggles to provide it, perhaps represent a broader societal phenomenon and the aspirations of the new generation, who, we hope, will contribute many great works in the years to come.