BOOM, the work in progress show at the Royal College of Art in London is on until February 11. Run to Kensington Gore now. You won't regret it. Architecture and Animation reserve some excellent surprises. And so does the Design Interactions department.
Under its rather unassuming name, The Toaster Project is probably the most ambitious project of the show. It is also a clever and humorous reflection on today's most burning issues such as sustainability, industrialization, mass consumption, child labour, DIY culture, etc. Its author, Thomas Thwaites is trying to make an electric toaster, from scratch. Beginning with mining the raw materials. And yes, that means extracting oil to make plastic and even processing his own copper (to make the pins of the electric plug, the cord, and internal wires), iron (for the steel grilling apparatus, and the spring to pop up the toast), mica (around which the heating element is wound) and nickel (for the heating elements! The end result (which will hopefully see the light of the day for the RCA Summer show in June) will be a fully functioning toaster.
The extraction and processing of these materials happens on a scale irreconcilable with that of a mass product that Argos sells for a few pounds throughout the UK and that performs the very mundane task of toasting your bread every morning. The result of Thwaites's endeavour might not be as neat and clean as the Argos model. But maybe i'm being unnecessarily bitchy here. See for yourself what the designer is exhibiting now:
The installation re-creates the first attempt by the designer to melt mineral and turn it into iron using hair dryers. He later tried with a leaf blower and then used his mother's microwave and china to finally obtain iron. And here is the original toaster model:
In the designer's own words which i pasted below:
The point at which it stopped being possible for us to make the things that surround us is long past. To redress the balance I'm making a mass produced object by hand - creating a domestic product on a domestic scale.
This faintly ridiculous quest to make a toaster from the 'ground up' serves as a vehicle through which questions about economics, helplessness and life as a consumer can be investigated. The outcome will be a toaster that I imagine will bear a very imperfect likeness to the ones that we buy - a kind of half-baked, hand made pastiche of a consumer appliance.
Commercial extraction and processing of the necessary materials happens on a scale that is difficult to resolve into the humble toaster. This contrast in scale is a bit absurd - massive industrial activity devoted to making objects which enable us, the consumer, to toast bread more efficiently. However, this ridiculousness dissipates somewhat when you consider that life pre-toasters required stoking the fire when a piece of toast was desired.
Part of the project consists of going to the places where it's possible to dig up these raw materials. Mining no longer happens in the UK, but the country is dotted with abandoned mines, some having been worked since before the 'UK' existed, but all currently uneconomical. We shot some footage at Clearwell Iron mine in South Wales before Christmas. It had an output of thousands of tonnes a week up until the end of World War 2 when it was closed. It is now run as a visitor attraction by Ray and Jonathan, a father and son team. Ray (who originally worked as a miner at Clearwell) was of the view that mining on the huge scales seen today (for instance in Australia) reduces humans to ants, with no understanding of what they're doing. His son Jonathan is more pragmatic, pointing out that it is the scale of modern industry that gives more of us access to toasters. Their points of view are not incompatible; the question becomes 'Are toasters worth the inhuman scale on which they're produced?'
The only known deposit of Nickel in the UK has long since been exhausted. In Finland however exploitation of a huge deposit has begun. I'd very much like to go and bring back a lump of nickel ore from this remote industrial area, and make it in to an element for my toaster. I'm also trying to negotiate a helicopter ride to an oil rig in the North Sea to collect some oil from which I would try (and certainly fail) to make plastic.
The point at which it stopped being possible for us to make the things that surround us is long past. For example, my first attempt to extract metal involved a chimney pot, some hairdryers, a leaf blower, and a methodology from the 15th century - this is about the level of technology we can manage when we're acting alone. I failed to get pure enough iron in this way, though if I'd tried a few more times and refined my technique and knowledge of the process I probably would've managed in the end. Instead I found a 2001 patent about industrial smelting of Iron ores using microwave energy. Microwaves are so much more convenient and so I tried to replicate the process using a domestic microwave. After a bit of careful experimentation through which I realised I was unlikely to blow the thing up or cook my insides without realising, I got the timing and ingredients about right and made a blob of iron about as big as a 10p coin. I'm rather proud of it, though it's only enough to make perhaps one bar of the grill to hold the bread. Still, it's proof of concept.
The project won't be a 'how is it made?' industrial promo or an anti-industry tirade either. It's about scale, the total inter-reliance of people and societies, the triviality of some (anti-)globalisation discourse, what we have to lose, and DIY.
All images courtesy of a href="http://www.thomasthwaites.com/">Thomas Thwaites.
I've posted 28, 237 pictures on flickr so far. Most of them fal into oblivion as soon as they are uploaded. Other generate an insane amount of 'favorite' tags. The latest in the band is one photo i took at the Fondazione Re Rebaudengo which is currently showing one third of the Turin Triennale. Proper report will follow. All i feel like saying right now is that it is a good art event. In a clinically clean sense. All is tasty, carefully selected, i just wish there were more surprises. Wait! i wish there were surprises. But i guess that no surprise is better than bad surprise.
Alll that blabla to say that one of the most popular photos i made at the Triennale is the one of the Keyboard cemetery by Paul Chan. It is a physical referent to Alternumerics, a work on fonts that explores the relationship between language and interactivity by transforming the simple computer font into an art form that explores the fissure between what we write and what we mean. By replacing individual letters and numbers (known as alphanumerics) with textual and graphic fragments that signify what is typed in radically different ways. Alternumerics transforms any computer connected to a standard printer into an interactive artmaking installation.
The Torino Triennale runs until February 2009 in various venues.
LABoral, the art center we have come to associated with new media art, has recently opened an exhibition dedicated to new, audacious and thought-provoking forms of design. Curated by Roberto Feo and Rosario Hurtado (El Último Grito), Nowhere/Now/Here aims to challenge the perception of design by questioning our relationship with the environment. Taking the viewpoint that our environment has become part of us rather than us being part of it, as its point of departure, Nowhere/Now/ Here encourages us to see design as an integral component of the world-shaping process.
Nowhere/Now/Here features more than 60 works that challenge the conception we might have of design. Some by designers you may have met in these pages before (Dunne & Raby, Troika, Auger-Loizeau, Eelko Moorer, David Bowen, Pablo Valbuena, Marei Wollersberger, Yuri Suzuki, Noam Toran, etc. ) and in many other publications (Tord Boontje, Assa Ashuach, Paul Cocksedge, etc.)
The design of the exhibition itself reflects the explorative approach of Nowhere/Now/Here. Conceived like a 'mental adventure' and relying on colourful graphics on the floor that guide visitors through the space, it was created by Patricia Urquiola studio and the graphic image and vision of Fernando Gutierrez.
The catalogue of the the exhibition Nowhere/Now/Here, Investigating New Lines of Enquiry in Contemporary Design is gorgeous and its cast is stellar: there are interview with Ron Arad, Javier Mariscal and other important figures of design, essays by Marti Guixe, Santiago Cirugeda, Matt Ward, Dunne & Raby, a description of all the participating projects, loads of photos and beautiful graphics. Almost 300 pages, in both spanish and english for a mere 35 euros. The online shop of LABoral seems to be a bit under the water these days, so until the situation is fixed, the easiest way to get your hands on the precious volume is to write LABoral and ask if they can send you a copy.
The curators of the exhibition are Roberto Feo and Rosario Hurtado. Ever since they founded El Último Grito back in 1997, the designers have kept away from preconceived definitions and prescribed design paths. A perspective that didn't prevent them from teaching at the most prestigious colleges of design and working for renowned companies and institutions: Mathmos, Selfridges, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Lavazza, Budweiser, Style, Metalarte, Hugo Boss, Southwark Council, Arturo Alvarez, the Lighthouse, etc.
I caught up with the Berlin/London-based duo to discuss Nowhere/Now/Here:
How did El Último Grito land on the LABoral spaceship? How did two famous designers end up curating an exhibition 'that challenges the perception of design by questioning our relationship with the environment. Taking the viewpoint that our environment has become part of us rather than us being part of it, as its point of departure, Nowhere/Now/ Here encourages us to see design as an integral component of the world-shaping process' ?
LABoral contacted us to curate and exhibition on 'experimental design' (what ever that means) so for us it was a question of trying to define what experimental meant to us.
We explored different areas of work and try to define a strategic approach for each of them, which lead designers to challenging design's status quo. We identify three basic areas with their accompanying strategies
Material_Intervention: projects that explore material innovation and new material applications, new production techniques, technology, genetic engineering, graffiti,...
Cultural_Resistance: Projects and designers that position themselves in confrontation with the dominant culture, both in terms of the design outcomes, but also in terms of practice within the culture of design.
Psychological_Exploration: projects that analyse the psychological and sensorial experience of the object or that act as triggers of emotions and sensations. And psychological objects that carry the essence of the psychological experience.
This worked for us as a starting point, which provided us a basic structure to classify the researched works. But for us it became apparent that were many other connections between the works, and that such a classification would not allow you to understand. When we started recombining the works in a more intuitive way, for us suggested conceptual connections between really different areas of work. We also felt that this allowed the viewer to find his or her own entry points into the exhibition.
Our intent was to present a collection of objects that would allow you to understand the thinking process of the artists behind them. Presenting them as thinkers who can not only reshape their own particular worlds but that show the potential to transform, re-interpret and re-think industries, production processes, communication strategies, political systems, etc. Challenging our preconceptions of what design can do.
What did this curatorial experience teach you?
It has been a very interesting experience. It has given us the chance (or luxury) to dedicate proper time to lo closely to the work of many other peoples, to understand their motivations and their intentions. And interpret them in relation to each other (including our own work). Creating a bigger pictured that talked about the fantastic potential and diversity of design approaches.
That it's why we treated the exhibition as a project itself, rather of plain review of design today. So in a way is not so much an exhibition on experimental design as much as an experimental exhibition on design. We wanted to create a moment where different aspects of design would collide in a space and something would come up from this experiment. Which in a way has already happened among the participating artists and designers, in terms of friendships and collaborations. But above all, the most incredible feeling is one of 'togetherness' and true interest in each others work, which has become unusual in such competitive world. This is very uplifting and makes us believe that something major is happening within the design world.
Also, it was very interesting to work on the edition of the catalogue, in which we collaborated intensively with Fernando Gutierrez who carried out its design. In a way the catalogue becomes almost more important than the exhibition itself, they have a life beyond the exhibition, so we wanted that the catalogue would be a space that you travel like the exhibition. It follows the same structure of the show, with the works presented according to the six groups created from word associations that connect to the works in an intuitive way:
TYPOLOGY / MUNDANE / ANECDOTE / FICTION / MYTH
The works, texts and interviews have been grouped in order to create moments. Images and stories for the visitor/reader to find their own point of access to the ideas around the works. Very much following the idea of a 'trafalmadorian' book, from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse V:
"Billy couldn't read Trafalmadorian, of course, but he could al least see how the books were laid out- in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams. "Exactly", said the voice. "They are telegrams?" "There are no telegrams on Trafalmadore. But you're right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message-describing a situation, a scene. We Trafalmadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time."
The catalogue is an assemblage of works, described by the designers and artists, essays from some of the participating artists, which although often linked to personal projects, are surprisingly useful to understand everyone else's work, and interviews to four of our all time heroes: Ron Arad, Javier Mariscal, Daniel Weil and Gaetano Pesce; which contextualise the work of this younger generation of designers.
You didn't seem to have selected any of your own works for the show. Why not? And if i asked you to point us to the work you developed that best reflects the theme of the exhibition, which one would it be?
Well, for us the exhibition itself is a piece of work, a project that is the result of the collaboration with everybody involved, from the LABoral team, to all the artists, writers and advisors.
There are two video projects that we feel worked well within the themes of NOWHERE/NOW/HERE.
One is 'LINE' which is a video consisting of a horizontal line where words appearing above and bellow. As the words change, your interpretation of what the line is also changes, and as you keep watching you find yourself adjusting your interpretation of the space and the way of seeing it. This is one of the three pieces, dealing with the idea of perception, which we have used as an introduction to the show. There other two are Grao by Pedrita, which reproduces a photographic image using traditional untreated ceramic tiles, to substitute the pixels of the image; and Marc Owens 'Avatar' film, which he reshot as a walkthrough the exhibition, the piece is fantastic as it is always playing with how you perceive reality.
The other video is 'NOWASTEEUR, a laborious poem'. This video is a new direction in terms of documenting our work. We started using video to try to document our installations, as we felt that just by keeping a photographic record of the event, did not reflect our ideas about the nature of the work that we call 'design performance, performing design'. But then we realised that the video itself could even had another narrative which would give it an identity of its own and not just being a document of the work. 'NOWASTEEUR, a laborious poem' was conceived as part of a public sitting commission during ARCO at IFEMA. The idea was to utilise all the packaging materials that are thrown away during the setting up of the fair. We came out with the idea of big bags in the shape of letters that would be filled up with all the waste materials. NOWASTEEUR are the ten letters that you need to write NO WASTE and RE-USE which was the main message that we wanted to put across. After that we elaborated a short poem using those letters (plus M which you get out of turning around the W), which you see forming in the video while all the action of the installation is being recorded:
NO WASTE_RE USE_ANSWER ME_NOT US_USER WON'T_WEST_EAST_RAW WAR_NOTE RUSE_USE ART_STEM NEW_SOME ONE TO STEER_SURE MUST EASE TEARS_MEET TEAM NOW_USE _RE-USE_WASTE NOT.
'NOWASTEEUR, a laborious poem' is shown as part of the film program, which runs at the exhibition's design cinema (the cinema sitting is a commissioned piece by Nic Rysenbry)
David Bowen's Remote Sonar Drawing Device, and Pablo Valbuena's installation Augmented Sculpture Series, have been exhibited in the past in purely artistic contexts. What made you think that they fitted the exhibition's objective to 'encourages us to see design as an integral component of the world-shaping process'?
Design is an integral component of the world-shaping process. Only because design takes many forms, sometimes we 'can't see the forest from the trees'.
In NOWHERE/NOW/HERE we tried to investigate (like the sub title says) 'new lines of enquiry in contemporary design'. Showing a diversity of work, which presented the different ideas and directions that designers are exploring today.
In the case of David Bowen, we find really interesting his work, where both technological research, and robotics collide with the questioning of the nature of drawing. His design translates movement into drawing. He has deliberately chosen make his machine draw 'marks' (like young children when they start drawing and are just interested in leaving their mark) by translating the movement recorded into impulses, which connect with the idea of representation, so central to the idea of drawing. So in fact, is that drawing purely a mark or is it a representation of the circulation of people? Is that drawing artistic or scientific? Is it both? But it not only raises questions in the nature of drawing as a human activity but in the nature of technological research and its applications.
In the exhibition his piece is in conversation with by Javier Mariscal's hand made wooden drawing of a 'VESPA' (2007), one of the surprise little homage's to the 'maestros' object of the interviews in the catalogue.
With Pablo Valbuena, we saw his work at ARCO and we fell in love with it instantly. The way he uses light and video to transform the perception of space and the materiality of the build, it is simply fantastic. In his case, it is obvious that the content of his work comes directly from his training as an architect, and his research into the qualities of space. So his work is very much design, but its materialization and dissemination is through the art market.
These two pieces, like indeed many others within the exhibition are providing a different point of view on how thing are around us. This helps us understand that there is always more than one answer and that by no means we should accept what the market or the designer or the politician or religion or science tell us. There are always alternatives. Most things are not the way they are because of some force of nature that is beyond our control. Things are the way they are because someone decided at one moment that this or that was a good idea, or make them lots of money or be good for humanity or the environment or ... there are no ultimate truths, just proposals that became 'real' and these could and do change.
In the catalogue we refer to Martin Scorsese's film The Departed quoting Frank Costello, the mob boss, who while describing his neighbourhood says 'I do not want to be a product of my environment, I wasn't my environment to be a product of me'. For us this has a resonance within design and acts as a reminder that it is possible to change the rules of the game.
On the other hand some of the works selected openly dialog with the art world (for example The Macguffin Library and cinema). Which are the characteristics that indicate that these works belong strictly to the field of design and not art? And is the difference always strict anyway? Or is there a conscious desire to keep the boundaries as porous as befits the purpose?
We guess that the answer would be in how do you define each one of them. From our point of view everything is design.
A few weeks ago we read a short interview with Vito Acconci where he was asked a similar question regarding the design/art argument and he was saying that a big part of the problem came from the fact that 'art' is the only discipline that is defined by a qualitative appreciation. We share that point of view and we think that the word art would have to be left for any kind of work that excels in whatever area of human activity. Who is to say that the work of Ferran Adria is less art than that of Jeff Koons? Or that a Frank Lloyd Wright building is less or art than an Andreas Gurski photograph? Or that Leonardo's flying machines is less art than his Monalisa?... What are the grounds for comparison and how or why would you do it? This is the eternal argument, from our point of view is easier as we see no boundaries. Maybe this interpretation of design might be confusing or unacceptable for some people who do have a very clear idea of the boundaries of between the two.
The 'McGuffin Library Collection' by Noam Toran and Onkar Kular obviously lives in the edges of what is traditionally accepted as design, and I guess it raise questions in both directions. As they explain, McGuffin is a term invented by Alfred Hitchcock to define an object within a film, which somehow acts as a devise to carry the narrative of the story. In terms of the story, the design of this object becomes, so its conception is a design exercise on its own. For Onkar and Noam this works perfectly well to explore further their ideas around the use of design as a medium that is central to their work. In this case they wrote 14 synopsis for imaginary films for which they designed an object. These objects are primarily talking about the role of objects as mediators in our understanding of the world (in this case of the story). In a second layer, they are talking about the world of technology, production and design. The objects are produced in rapid form directly from 3D computer models. The objects are not unique necessarily unique as they are printed very much like you would do with a computer document. Is that a banal use of technology, design and engineering just because thy are not pursuing 'the grater good' or the commercial enterprise? Would that make it art? For us what makes them good design and good art is exactly the same thing, they are able to broaden and challenge our preconceived ideas of what things are, while being moving and engaging.
Most of the works exhibited in Nowhere/now/here come from Europe. Is that a curatorial choice or is it merely because this way to engage with objects is still confined to our continent?
It was not a particular curatorial choice. We tried to select people and works that we found interesting and that helped us illustrate the ideas behind NOWHERE/NOW/HERE. It is true though, that still Europe is the main centre for design in the world, with some of the most prestigious and influential design schools in the world (RCA, Eindhoven, Domus,...) so it is unavoidable that a lot of the designers (although not necessarily European themselves) who are doing interesting work would come from them.
Like with any other project there are many reasons that contribute to the final decisions and results (most of them are usually quite mundane)
For NOWHERE/NOW/HERE we tried to work with people with whom, despite working in very different areas, we found an affinity and a complicity in pushing the boundaries of what is accepted in design.
Why did you ask Patricia Urquiola to take care of the exhibition design? Why not do it yourself? Did you hand her a list of requirements or did you give her carte blanche? How much did you collaborate and how did her vision of the exhibition influence yours?
With Patricia Urquiola and Martino Berghinz we were very lucky that we could take advantage of their relationship with LABoral, and were very happy when they decided to participate in the project.
We always had the idea that whoever did the exhibition design we would like it to be or feel like one more piece in the exhibition. So our brief was very open, we showed them the six groups of works which we had assembled and asked them to give us six permeable spaces where you could experience the groups as a one thing and at the same time you would be aware or attracted to the works of the other groups, so that the visitor could break away from the structure and find their own way to navigate the show.
Their response was to create a laberynthic exhibition space that creates many small private moments. It broke our idea of being able to experience each group as a whole, but in the other hand, it work very well in the sense that allows you to find your own experience of the show. So we totally respected their proposal and change the concept and create smaller relationships within the pieces rather that the group encounter. For us was important not to step in and allow these and other inputs take their course
And how much do you feel that her intervention reflects the spirit of the exhibition, making it maybe another work in itself that does belong to the show?
We think that their idea of dividing the space from the top by hanging fabrics its a very spatial (and material efficient) solution that multiplies the space by creating a very atmospheric cloud of mini spaces which are all inter-connected.
You are both lecturers in London, Roberto teaches Design Product at the Royal College of Art and Rosario at the Design Department, Goldsmiths College. How much does your teaching practice reflect the concepts and ideas put forward in the exhibition? And more importantly which kind of career awaits students who might want to follow the paths of the designers you've invited to the exhibition? Will they end up working exclusively in the hope that their projects will be shown in art galleries and museums or does the industry realize there is a real need of such visions and will companies therefore welcome them with open arms?
As you mentioned, we have been lecturers at the Royal College of Art and Goldsmith University for the last 10 years, and we are also Research Fellows at Kingston University. For us this experience is central to the development of our own ideas and to understand the concerns and ambitions of new generations of designers.
We would like that the works in NW/N/H are viewed not as the object that you can see at the exhibition, but as the potential that these designers have to translate their knowledge and skill into different outcomes. How these objects are the products of inquisitive minds that give nothing for granted but are also responsible and very thorough in the development of their work.
Many of the designers invited to the exhibition are very successful and work across industries, what they have in common is a non-conformist approach to their practices. These designers are changing the scope of the design practice, elaborating new industries and opening new areas of work. Some of the younger designers are still starting to navigate their way but surly in years to come they will be some of the leading figures in art or design or design-art or art-design or science or film...
At the end the question of where some work lives is purely economical. Today there are more possibilities for designers to find means of commercialisation and dissemination of their work through galleries and exhibitions rather than through the mass market. We have to be aware of the changes to the market and to the industry that we have experience in the last years. And industry is falling behind in attracting talent because it is hard for them to react to new ideas.
We have always worked between the experimental and the commercial, the two running parallel and feeding from each other. This self-feeding process has always been part of our work and we think has enriched it (but we are 'old school' now) and the way we work (or even our drivers) are very different to how our students perceived design today or the kind of work they want to do.
We hope that industry reacts (what ever industry) and tries to be again a leading force in research and creativity. At the end of the day what will determine which avenue designers will follow, or where their work will be show cased is a question of market opportunities and ultimately their cultural influence. At the Design Museum tomorrow, at the V&A in a couple of decade or at the British Museum in a few centuries.
Do you see design meccas like the Salone del Mobile in Milan open up to this kind of discourse?
We do not see why not. There have been times where companies would champion new concepts and ideas. Seeing how markets are evolving industry will have to react and accept that cannot just be playing to an outdated lifestyle ideal.
In Milan you can see lots of the things that are going on right now, but it is hard to see with more than 300 exhibitions in the 'fuori salone'. How would we even know that its even there? In any case, for good or bad, there are many new ways of disseminating design much more economical and accessible.
Is El Ultimo Grito already working on new projects? Could you share them with us?
We are working in a book about our work, which we are looking to publish sometime in April. Apart of our usual combination of self initiated projects and commercial ones, some of which will be presented in Milan next April. A bit of everything, like always.
Thanks Roberto and Rosario!
Image on the homepage: Daniel Charny & Gabriel Klasmer. Sports Furniture.2008, based on a photo version from 2003 (photo Enrique G. Cardenas)
Related stories: If you can't travel to Gijon (there are direct flights from London), i would encourage you to visit Wouldn't It be Nice at Somerset House where some of the designers are exhibiting their works until December 14, 2008.
So if animals laugh, how about technological devices, the species we like to surround ourselves with? That's what an Interactivos? two week workshop held last August at the Centro Multimedia - Centro Nacional de las Artes in Mexico D.F tried to understand.
What mechanisms lead to laughter? What are the social and political implications? What happens if we understand laughter as a possible form of communication between humans and machines? Can machines have a sense of humour? How can machines make us laugh? What is a machine or software programme's cultural milieu? How can a machine handle the unexpected? What kind of narratives/machines can be built to provoke various feelings related to laughter?
The 8 projects developed over the workshop use hardware and software tools to create prototypes that explore the relations between machines and humour/laughter.
Participants developed computers that tell each other silly jokes once you've turned your back, images that follow you as you walk, an absurdity tracker, a robot that replies to users with media sampled memories, a machine that likes to be tickled, etc.
I asked Alejandro Tamayo to give us a few details about the workshop:
One of the questions that the Interactivos? workshop wanted to explore in Mexico was ' Can machines have a sense of humour?' Did you find any answer to that demand?
I don't think we found an answer for that, instead we came up with more questions and ideas for future projects to explore. For me it seems possible to create machines that understand human sense of humor, as humor follows certain rules it can be abstracted and implemented into some complex algorithms that machines can follow, but creating machines with their own sense of humor is another thing. If we design a machine with a sense of humor it seemed unavoidable that we will inject our humanity into it because it is the only reference about humor we have in hand. On the other hand, humor and true laughter bring lots of benefits in terms of health to us, i wonder how this can also be applied to machines. But any way, if we were to create machine humor, will we understand it? How would we define it as humorous?
In concrete the projects of Jenny Chowdhury (Catty CPU Cliques), Carla Capeto (Sensitive Water) and Leonor Torres (J.A.-J.A. Jockey Action-Jolly Answer) raised questions related to non-human approaches to humor and laughter.
For Jenny, the idea of machine humor was directly addressed because her office computers were to make fun of their users when they were left alone. At the end Jenny came up with funny jokes, for and about humans, being told by computers.
The case of Carla was different, she proposed an aquarium that would laugh when being touched, so we were all confronted with the question of how water would laugh. There were many approaches to it and many of us suggested different options ranging from timid laughter to hysterical. As a matter of fact, we are starting to discover that we are not the only exclusive animals that laugh, apparently rats do it as well when they are tickled.
Finally, the project of Leonor Torres investigated the idea of a strange piece of metal that responded to tickles. Leonor recorded her own voices and reactions to tickles, so when people touched a rusty piece of metal extracted from a de-mantled car they got the strange reaction of a female giggle.
Leo's project can also drive us to think about the opposite: can we be tickled by a piece of metal? In fact during the planning of Interactivos? we found some early experiments conducted by psychologists in this area: some kind of tickling machine was developed back in 1997, it worked more or less like The Turk: there was a hidden person in a room in charge of doing tickles to other psychology students with his arm and also with a robotic arm. Apparently "the machine" was as effective as a human tickler because the patients couldn't differentiate the robotic arm from that of a human (some kind of a Turing test but for ticklishness!) but there are still some doubts about the way the experiments were conducted because after all there was a human behind.
I followed the workshop from afar by looking at the flickr images of a few friends who happened to participate to the workshop. It seems that there's quite a high dose of sense of humour in Mexico. Can you tell us something about it?
Oh i don't know, i think all starts with the metro safety guards.
A couple days ago, Eyebeam in New York City opened what by some has been called their best show so far. It is titled Untethered, and was curated by visiting fellow Sarah Cook to be "a sculpture garden of everyday objects deprogrammed of their original function, embedded with new intelligence and transformed into surrealist and surprising readymades". Many pieces are from Eyebeam's fellows, residents or affiliated artists while a few external people were invited to participate as well.
The show works well as the open-plan warehouse on Chelsea's 21st Street is being transformed in a wonderland of white plinths with obscure objects on them, many of which invite to be touched, looked at, and discussed about as in all cases, their traditional function has been tampered with in one way or the other.
In Sarah's words: "a show of objects that have been tinkered with, invented, and allowed to be "generative", that is, open to experimentation and other use. Untethered presents a deliberate reference to Jonathan Zittrain's notion of "tethered appliances", technologies, such as iPods, or that contain proprietary software and are tied to single uses or networks."
As the range of modifications is wide, here's a few examples and favorite pieces.
Joe Winter, an Eyebeam alumni, has created a beautiful solar system called Xerox Astronomy and the Nebulous Object-Image Archive, which centers around a photocopier. The piece consists of the machine, sitting in a sort of cubicle and several robotic light sources, moving around it. The machine keeps making copies which somewhat resemble a photo of a night sky. For Joe, "the sculpture at once models the movements of distant bodies and presents itself as the the primary object of observation, creating a self-reflexive, self-imaging media production system". A very interesting take on science as narrative and it's dependency on the frameworks that the production of what we consider to be factual knowledge is happening in.
Kelly Dobson of MIT Media Lab is showing her responsive hacked technologies, including Blendie, Toastie and a vacuum cleaner, all of which are part of her Machine Therapy series. It's a well-known project, but it's still incredibly strong in the way that it establishes a link between an arbitrary appliance and its users (and their bodies). Plus the videos are too hilarious not to be watched again:
Germaine Koh from Vancouver presents a work from her from her Fair Weather Forces series. As Eyebeam is at the tip of 21st street and thus very to the Hudson River, she installed a sensor for the current water-level which is remotely linked to a velvet rope barrier in the gallery. As the water changes, the height of the barrier will almost unnoticeably change and act as an ambient display for the natural surroundings of the built environment. (Especially interesting to watch since there was flooding forecast on the night of the opening.)
Sascha Pohflepp's (disclosure: that's me) Buttons is a camera that, instead of taking a photo, takes a moment. It then connects to the web to find someone else's photo that happened to be taken in the very same instant and displays it. The project aims to comment on photography as an increasingly networked practice and uses our trail of data to to create a connection between two strangers on the basis that they did the same thing simultaneously: press a button.
A highlight for me was Michel de Broin's work. His piece Great Encounters consisting of two refrigerators, joined by a single piece of acrylic, results in "their solitudes uniting, through a canal connecting their inside worlds." His work questions the roles that we attribute to everyday objects and in doing so gives them sort of a new personality. The way in which that happens reminded me a lot of Roger Ibars' concise Self-Made Objects. Another piece from the same series, which kind of became the eye-catcher of Untethered, is his piece Dead Star-a sculpture made from household batteries. All at the end of their life-cycle and previously used in all kinds of appliances, they slowly drain until there is no more energy in them. Although not on show in New York, his Shared Propulsion Car from 2005, a pedal-powered car, is great as well.
And there's more. Jessica Banks created an interesting table as part of her Cubed series which is levitating on a magnetic field, there's Thomson & Craighead's Unprepared Piano that plays random MIDI from the web (and has the Star Wars theme as its Hello World), Paul DeMarinis' hacked metronomes Hypnica, JooYoun Paekʼs bicycle disguise made of garbage bags, a chandelier by Ayah Bdeir and again Jessica Banks, Hans-Christoph Steiner's hacked PDA's, Max Dean's self-erasing clock and Nor_/d's reactive architecture-photos of all of which you can find here.
Show's up through October 25th in New York's Chelsea. For more information about the individual works, Eyebeam have also put interviews with all the artists online.
Related: Interview with Sarah Cook
The artist walked around the Conflux area with his Vertical Bed in a suitcase, found himself a nice spot, anchored his prostheses above subway vents or other rigid contact points and stayed there sleeping in an upright position for 40 minute intervals several times in a day.
Concealed harnesses ensure that Jamie didn't fall over. He also wore noise canceling headphones and double-mirrored sunglasses, padded with little cusions to keep his eyelid closed. In case of bad weather, an umbrella clips in the infrastructure for shelter.
The project is designed for the visual performance of an alternate way of occupying urban space, born partly out of fantasies of minimal need and elegant futurism, and partly out of fears of the dehumanization of space. Occupants will absorb the vertical structure of urban architecture into their bodies. The vertical sleeper is in a constant state of readiness, never succumbing to collapse. Homelessness is most often marked by the forbidden act of lying down on the sidewalk, an act that the vertical bed circumvents.