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.

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Dead Star

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.

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Xerox Astronomy and the Nebulous Object-Image Archive

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:


Blendie

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.)

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Fair Weather Forces (water level)

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.

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Buttons

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.

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Great Encounters

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

Sponsored by:





The excuse for my visit to Paris was SmartCity, a conference organized in the frame of the festival Emergences. Emergences is an 'international festival of electronic cultures and new art forms'. However, one must accept that in a city like Paris the word 'international' doesn't necessarily that tacit rules will be respected and that the activities and conferences will be held in any other language than french. That's probably why i enjoyed the event so much. While both the issues discussed and the quality of the speakers invited to the panels were definitely of international relevance, the festival had a homely feeling with an audience ready to participate and dialog, un-refrained as they were by any lack of knowledge of the ubiquitous english.

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The conference focused on urban activism and artistic interventions in public space, a theme which offered a splendid contrast with the venue of the conference: the very chichi Maison Internationale at the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris.

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Perfect venue to discuss alternative uses of urban space

There were some good moments but the one that got me glued to my seat, pen in the hand and eyes on the screen was the presentation of mOmentoMoNUMENTO, a joint project by Brazilian collective Coloco & French experimental architects of Exyzt whose pavilion at the Venice architecture biennale of 2006 i had enjoyed so much.

Exyzt's works engage mostly with temporary interventions, ephemeral constructions and the presence of diversity in urban space. They have recently joined forces with Coloco to submit to the institution Cultures France a project that will be part of the official programme of the French Year in Brazil (February-July 2009).

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When located in urban centers, skeletons provide opportunities

The final project stems from a research started in 2001 by Coloco.
The Brazilian collective observed, analyzed and documented a phenomenon called 'skeleton dwellings': in big cities, groups of people decide to occupy then inhabit buildings which were left unfinished and abandoned because of economic crisis, ups and downs of the estate market, war, cataclysm, etc.

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Result of the dead-end of the estate market

The desire of these people is to live in the center of the city, close to the services. They organize the general functioning of the building: bathroom and garden for the collectivity are installed, trash collection is organized, spaces on ground levels are reserved for the elderly, etc. Sometimes, the dwellers are kicked out of the building but in some cases, they manage to reach an agreement with city officials (conscious that the abandon of the center of a city for the suburbs is a growing problem) and their dwelling become permanent and 'legitimate'.

Coloco came to consider that these inhabited skeletons of buildings give way to an unexpected collaboration between the construction industry and invention prompted by necessity. This idea is at the origin of the skeleton dwellings: a safe and assembled structure is supplied to a group of inhabitants-builders. It can be improved according to the needs and resources of its occupants, who contribute their labor, advised by professionals.

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Prestes Maia (Sao Paulo): This building has been abandoned 20 years ago. Its debt in taxes almost equals its value

The skeleton dwellings derive from a logic of opportunity, being easily inserted in dense urban areas and diversifying the supply of low-cost urban housing.

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Building their dwellings, recycling these abandoned structures

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Neighbours organize themselves informally

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Prestes Maia (Sao Paulo): Each family lives in roughly 20 sqm

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Gloria, Rio de Janeiro: Even after renovation, some facades can't hide their history

Meanwhile, Exyzt is also working on the rehabilitation of disused spaces and on alternative and cheap forms of dwellings.

A first project they presented is République Ephémère where 450 architectural students from Europe were given some rudimentary tools and materials to organize for 2 weeks their life as a big community in the enclosed space of the two wharehouses?

The challenge took the form of a one-to-one scale construction game that doubled as a laboratory of architectural and social research. The conceptor team built the main collective equipment (kitchen, washrooms, a hotel) beforehand. The rest would be a village autoconstructed and automanaged by its inhabitants.

Each student was untrusted with a survival kit, including a construction manual and security instructions, and a defined quantity of scaffolding and textiles. Geometrical problems could arise, as this amount of scaffolding, sufficient to build one cubic room could then be combined with others: for example, 2 kits put together could give rise to 3 dwellings.

Video:

The affinities and exchanges between the participants were gradually translated into architectural terms. More complex, personalized structures were developed over time. The implantation looked like a cross between an organic. medieval village and a refugee camp. It kept transforming itself, not only on the level of the individual sphere, but also on the level of the collective organization.

The second project Exyzt spotlighted was an intervention inside and outside of the Palast der Republik, a gigantic relic of the communist era, now demolished and about to be replaced by the (very tacky imho) reconstruction of its predecessor, the Berlin Stadtschloss.

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Der Berg (image southwarklido)

Under the menace of a demolition act, Raumlabor, one of the most brilliant group on the German architecture scene, decided to occupy and open the monument to the public. They called Exyzt to give them a helping hand.

Der Berg (in german: the mountain) is an artificial mountain, a surrealist architectural performance built to react to the absurdity of making a tabula rasa of a part of Berlin's history in order to build the replica of a long disappeared building.

This collaboration resulted in a 20 meters high triangulated structure made out of scaffolding and fiber glass textile. The installation invaded the theater, while another team made it spread through the roof and onto the front porch of the building. Der Berg became a monument inside a monument.

Movie:

After this introduction, Exyzt and Coloco focused on mOmentoMoNUMENTO, the project they are working on for the official programme of the French Year in Brazil (February-July 2009). The idea is to follow on the steps of the French tradition to 'offer' monuments to foreign countries (think of the Statue of Liberty). This monument, however, is already on site. Well, sort of. The architects have obtained the help of the city of Sao Paulo to spot one of the many skeletons that have been standing for years in the city center, waiting to be reconquered by Exyzt and Coloco.

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Saõ Paulo: an apartment building for the wealthy overlooks a favela, ironically called Paraisópolis (Paradise city). Photo: Luiz Arthur Leirão Vieira (bigger view)

The building they've set their sight on was built in 1965. It is the first building with a facade entirely made of glass. Occupied at some point by the federal police it has now been left to decay. The main problem the architect have to solve is that living inside the building is almost un-conceivable without air conditioning which has been dismantled in the meantime. The whole electrical setting has to be re-installed as well (especially if one wants to have access to the top floor by lift.)

The project responds to Sao Paulo government's desire to find new solutions that will inject life back into the center of the city: inhabitants have moved to the edge of the city, leaving many abandoned buildings and a thick infrastructure of roads behind them.

The building is left at the disposal of the architects for one year. If at the end of the project, the result is deemed good enough by the city, it could become a space left permanently occupied by cultural organizations, art galleries, artists residencies, etc.

Exyzt and Coloco want to make the rooftop (originally planned as a landing spot for helicopters) accessible to the public.

The project is currently self-funded. Any help and feedback would be most welcome.

Related: Global Cities, The Morrinho Project at the Venice Biennale and Juan Freire - From the Analogue Commons to the New Hybrid Public Spaces.

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Self Replicating Machine, by Dr Adrian Bowyer and Ed Sells in lab

Good old Turin is currently hosting the third edition of C.STEM. The theme this year is Breeding Objects - Computational Design: from Digital Fabrication to Mass-Customization and while the spotlight is still on generative systems, it is, in many respects, very different from the first edition. This time, the main protagonists are designers, not artists.

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Although, i have taken the habit of running swiftly in the opposite direction when i hear the word 'design,' i have to admit that the programme this year is remarkable. Especially because it brings that innovative focus i had hoped to see more widely explored in the schedule of the Torino World Design Capital. C.STEM showcases projects anticipating future developments in design process and technologies. What happens when domains such as design, creative coding and digital fabrication meet the new scenarios of mass-customization?

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C.STEM conference on Sept. 20th: Where were the ladies?

The exhibition and conference explores the way design is currently re-considered and shaped through the lens of information society and, more generally, new technologies. The work of young designers today involves a crucial paradigm shift: not only do they use the digital tools provided to them but they also invent, modify and produce new instruments themselves.

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Dendrite by Nervous Systems (Jessica Eve Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg)

Another important characteristic of the new design production involves digital fabrication processes such as laser cutting and 3D printing (a few examples in the posts Rapid Products 1 and 2). The impact of digital fabrication is far from marginal: instead of churning out identical products, objects are created which, while they undeniably belong to the same family, are all different from each other. Beyond the creative process and fabrication, the digital tools and new design processes have also the potential to radically modify the marketing of design products and the way consumers engage with the creation of objects. Two projects presented in the exhibition, Nervous Systems and Fluid Forms (see below), have already been launched on the market and as such, exemplify new business possibilities.

C.STEM conference is over but you can still see the exhibition until September 27 inside an Ex Methodist Church. If i were you i'd run there, you don't see a show like that every year in this region country.

Located in an ex-Methodist church in the center of Turin, the exhibition illustrates what is the state of the art of computational design through a series projects that range from everyday objects you can buy online to sweatshirts weaved with newsfeeds, and a 3D printing machine able to 'prints' most of its own components (not the original one but maybe even better, a version fatta in casa by ToDo design studio.)

The list of projects exhibited is online. Here's just a selection:

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Ebru Kurbak and Mahir Yavuz' NewsKnitter project comments on the manipulation by the media in Turkey. Live data streams of information are used as an unpredictable base for pattern generation. Web-based information is either gathered from the Turkish daily political news or according to a theme that pervades global news. The data is analyzed, filtered and converted into a unique visual pattern for a knitted sweater. The system consists of two different types of software: one receives the content from live feeds while the other converts it into visual patterns, a fully computerized flat knitting machine produces the final output. The pieces of clothing are not for sale right now but the designers are working on that.

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Radiolaria by Nervous Systems

The jewelry designed by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg of Nervous System, on the other hand, is up for grab. The design is both heavily tech-mediated and inspired by organic forms.

Using two custom-made computer applications --one mimics branching dendrites, and the other the movement of particles--the designers generate forms for bracelets, pendants, and earrings.

The Radiolaria line, for example, is named after the plant cells whose structure was a source of inspiration for Buckminster Fuller. Jewelry from the Dendrite collection takes its cue from the aggregate growth of coral. The Dendrite algorithm both controls the aggregation and allows consumers to participate in the design process

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1 of 1 studio tissue collection

Way more beautiful in real than on pictures, 1 of 1 design studio creates one-of-a-kind, made to order apparel. For The Tissue Collection, designer Cait Reas worked together with C.E.B. Reas. The artist generated the Tissue images by defining processes and translating them into images with code and software. Cait used a digital textile printing technique to apply the patterns to fabric.

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theverymany contributed as consultants for the [C]space pavilion in London

In case you'd worried that this blog is turning into a geeky version of Harper's Bazaar, i'll have to mention that the best moment of C.STEM for me was to listen to Marc Fornes from theverymany. It's the second time i attend one of his talks and i'm still not sure i understand most of what he says but his work is so awesome that it doesn't really matter.

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Aperiodic_vertebrae

His presentation addressed failure. For example, he detailed how the Aperiodic_vertebrae structure that theverymany developed for Generator x - Beyond the Screen (a workshop and exhibition which highlighted the creative potential of digital fabrication and generative systems) in Berlin taught him that while computers facilitate many of the design processes much of the assembly still has to be done by hands. The Berlin version of the Aperiodic Tiling counted some 530 panels and nearly as many connecting components.

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One of the many options studied for R&Sie's Loophole bridge

The core of theverymany approach is therefore to use computer to generate, not just many parts, but a logic between these parts. They applied the concept to the woven pedestrian bridge that Francois Roche from R&Sie is building on the boundaries of Poland and the Czech Republic.

My images from the event.

About the 2006 edition of C.STEM: C.STEM conference, Part 1 and Part 2.

Related entry: Generator x - Beyond the Screen, a workshop and exhibition which highlighted the creative potential of digital fabrication and generative systems.

Spaces showing and/or supporting contemporary art which engages with digital and electronic media have started to pop up all over Europe. Very. Slowly.

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[plug.in] is one of them but i see at least two reasons that makes [plug.in] stand out from the thin crowd of media art spaces.

First, the Basel gallery exists for much longer than most (it opened in 2000). Second, and more interestingly, its programme is one of the most appealing i've ever seen in the field. [plug.in] exhibits and often commissions new internet, sound, interactive and software art; organizes events on media art and digital culture; offers visitor a library and a bar.

So far i had been following their programme through the newsletter, but when i read that [plug.in] was hosting the first solo exhibition in Europe of Tokyo-based artists Exonemo, i decided it was high time to go up North and visit the gallery.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

The main piece is an installation which unfolds over two floors:

UN-DEAD-LINK explores questions of digitized and symbolized death between the physical and virtual world. The audience can see, feel and hear the effects that a symbolic death in a computer game can have in the physical exhibition space.

You're welcome in the gallery by a bunch of objects the artists found on flea markets in Basel. An old sewing machine, a piano, reading lamps, a paper shredder on top of a mountain of paper ribbons, a turntable with a plastic dog sleeping on a spinning disk, an old recorder playing crap music, etc. Each of them is animated by an invisible actor.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

0aaplugutooton.jpgThe explanation lurks downstairs in a dark room. There, soldiers on a screen do what they are supposed to do: they run after each other, they shoot and sometimes they kill. Each time one of them is killed, its death is given an almost tangible echo upstairs by one of the devices: more paper is shred, a light goes on, the sewing machine makes a few stitches. When visitors push the red button in front of the screen, all the avatars die and upstairs every single device seem to 'scream.'

Sembo Kensuke and Yae Akaiwa from Exonemo modified the game Half-Life2 and connected the mod to the piano upstairs. The electrical objects are connected by midi/dmx (protocol) with custom devices.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

The work is extremely uncanny: Seeing and hearing the 'consequences' of a virtual death in the real world gives them a sinister weight. It's more disturbing then seeing a real war massacre on television, probably because today tv death seems almost as virtual as the death of an avatar.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

[plug.in] is also showing DanmatsuMouse, a sort of geeky snuff movie in which computer mouses (or should i write 'computer mice'?) are happily destroyed using all sorts of tools on hand: the mouse gets fried in a pan, another one is swirled and crushed in a blender, etc. But something subsists beyond the death of the plastic mouse: its cadaver (a couple of tortured mice were exhibited in the gallery) and the cursor, or rather the data. The motions of the mouse and the cursor were recorded simultaneously by a video camera and a computer programme.

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A DVD, available in the gallery space (did i mention that they also have a shop selling artists' editions and electronic gadgets), allows you to play back the sinister event: the movie of the mouse murder unfolds in parallel with the movements of its cursor that takes over the ones of the cursor on your own desktop.

exonemo - UN-DEAD-LINK is on view until September 14 at [plug.in] in Basel, Switzerland.

Previously on exonemo channel: Interview with Exonemo, MobLab presentation - Transmediale, Origami bus pattern, their installation at Synthetic Times, Ryota Kuwakubo, exonemo and ressentiment in Liverpool, etc.

I first heard about the Swiss Architecture Museum one month ago while i was visiting the Contemporary Art Space in Castellon. Reactivate!, the exhibition which closed yesterday had in fact been curated by the SAM. That day, i made a mental note to add a ride to Basel in Switzerland to the agenda.

Architecture-wise the trip started really well. I found a nice hotel which happened to have the most striking parking space i had ever seen:

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But as far as the SAM is concerned the building itself looks nothing short of ordinary. The programme and the design of the exhibitions, however, are outstanding. Apart maybe from the Netherlands Architecture Institute, i can't think of any other place which curates and presents such stimulating and intelligent exhibitions dedicated to architecture. The one currently on view should give you an idea of what i mean.

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Installation view © Tom Bisig

Curated by Oliver Domeisen and Francesca Ferguson, Re-Sampling Ornament comes exactly 100 years after Adolf Loos wrote Ornament and Crime, an essay which claimed that ornamentation of objects and architecture was a waste of time and a sure way to make buildings obsolete.

Re-sampling Ornament takes a first step towards tracing its re-emergence at the heart of architectural practice.

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Manuelle Gautrand: Interior view of 'C_42' Citroën Flagship Showroom, Manuelle Gautrand, Paris, France (2007). © Philippe Ruault

The exhibition demonstrates how the development of construction and manufacturing processes (think 3D computer modelling, rapid prototyping, CNC milling, laser cutting, etc.) have enabled the rise of a new culture of ornament. One which is not only innovative and aesthetically stunning but also economically viable.

Domeisen's research into the history and contemporary application of ornament in architecture has helped articulate the exhibition around associations and groupings that can identify vital traces of ornament in current practice, delineate its boundaries, and place it into a historical perspective.

A crystal clear example of how much some of the contemporary high-tech ornaments allude to past experiments is Evan Douglis Studio's Helioscopes which gives new twists and turns to the 18th century French Rococo style.

Computer-aided design allows him to push to the extreme the organic forms and artifices of an invasive ceiling.

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Evan Douglis Studio LLC, Helioscopes, Los Angeles / Chicago / New York, (2006-2007) © Michael Moran

Equally ingenious and astonishing is the facade of the Gantenbein Winery, Fläsch. Bearth & Deplazes Architects designed the project, and invited Gromazio & Kohler to create its façade.

An innovative robotic production method, developed by Gromazio & Kohler at the ETH in Zuerich, ordered the 20,000 bricks according to programmed parameters, at the desired angle and at the exact prescribed intervals. Seen from afar, the bricks look like pixels, each of them reflects light differently and plays with the viewer's location and the position of the sun over the course of the day. Besides, the masonry acts as a temperature buffer, filtering the sunlight and allowing daylight to enter the hall through the gaps between the bricks.

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Programmed robot building up the brick wall © Gramazio & Kohler, ETH Zürich

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Bearth & Deplazes with Gramazio & Kohler: Vineyard Gantenbein, Flaesch, Switzerland (2006). Exterior view. © Ralph Feiner

Nieto Sobejano Architects have worked in close collaboration with realities:united (quick note: there is a great interview of the Berlin-based architects in BauNetz) to design the spectacular facade of the Espacio de Creación Artística Contemporánea, a new Centre for Contemporary Art in Cordoba, Spain (completion in 2009). They created a 'media façade': the building is cloaked with a semi-transparent membrane of computer-controlled neon lamps that enable the programming and screening of pixellated film sequences. The main facade will act as a dynamic surface that reveals the Center's activities to its urban surroundings and plays with perception. By day the facade, made of concrete panels can be enjoyed for its tactile beauty, by night it turns into a communication instrument made of over 1300 elements of various size.

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Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos in collaboration with Realities:United. Centro de Creación Contemporánea de Córdoba: Pixel Architecture - East by day. ©2006 realities:united

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Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos in collaboration with Realities:United. Centro de Creación Contemporánea de Córdoba: Pixel Architecture - East facade by night. ©2006 realities:united

The East Beach Cafe, by Thomas Heatherwick Studio (you might remember his Rolling Bridge), is a long, thin building without flat, 2D façades. The building is sliced diagonally into rusted and oiled steel ribbons which wrap up and over the building:

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Thomas Heatherwick - East Beach Café, Littlehampton, West Sussex, England (2007), exterior up view. © Steve Speller

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Thomas Heatherwick - East Beach Café, Littlehampton, West Sussex, England (2007), Close up view. © Steve Speller

Danfoss Universe is a 5.5 hectar science museum park in Nordborg, Denmark.

J. Mayer H. designed its most striking area, the Cumulus exhibition building (curiosity center) takes its name from the almost organic and cloud-like roof silhouette, repeated in the 'Food Factory', aka the cafeteria. The building exemplifies a trend where ornament is not just covering a construction but is part and parcel of its structure.

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Juergen Mayer H. Architects, Danfoss Universe: Exterior View of the Curiosity Center. © J. MAYER H. Architekten

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Juergen Mayer H. Architects, Danfoss Universe: Exterior View of the Curiosity Center. © J. MAYER H. Architekten

Francis Soler's work for the French Ministry of Culture and Communication is one of my favourite sights in Paris. The architect unified two existing buildings which each came with a different architectural style by wrapping them in a continuous mesh of steel lace. More images.

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Francis Soler, Frédéric Druot: Ministry of Culture and Communication, Paris, France (2005). Exterior detail. © Francis Soler

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Ministry of Culture and Communication: Exterior View - Ornament connecting old and new. © Georges Fessy

That was just a quick overview of a small number of the projects i discovered at the Museum. If you can't make it to Basel, the Swiss Architecture Museum has published Re-sampling Ornament, a remarkable catalog that explores with more depth the topic and details each of the projects exhibited during the exhibition.

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R&Sie(n) / Roche, Lavaux: Water Flux in Winter, Evolène, Switzerland (2009). © Francois Roche / R&Sie(n)

All my images.
Photo on the homepage: Thomas Heatherwick - East Beach Café, Littlehampton, West Sussex, England (2007), Close up view. © Steve Speller .

On view until September 21 at the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel, Switzerland.

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Roughly one year after my first visit there, i went back to the 798 art district in Beijing.
Everyone will tell you that the quality of art you can see or buy at 798 is getting scarcer by the day and that Ai Weiwei chose to install his studio and gallery even further from the city center, at the Caochangdi Village, making it the new 798. The art district, after all, is now the third most popular tourist attraction in Beijing after the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. How could so much mainstream taste and a stamp of approval from the government coexist with 798's supposed edginess?

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I don't have an answer for that but one thing i know is that the ex-factory district remains a unique and irresistible place. A 2 million square feet place. I doubt there's many semi-legal artist studios left in the area but where else can you have a peek inside small workshops doing car repair or industrial laundry, walk a few meters and enter a commercial art gallery with Maoist slogans still gracing its walls, find that some guy has hung his trousers and a fish in the street to get some fresh air.... and right after that you get slapped in the face by Nike's brand new 'museum', complete with touch ipods as audioguides, sneakers memorabilia, exhibitions and huge screens made of revolving panels on the outside facade and on the ceiling. More images.

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But all new openings in 798 have such a blatant and strict marketing aura. Launched a couple of months ago, Yuanfen New Media Art Space is a magnificently restored space dedicated to media art. It used to be a factory where ceramic resistors were produced. The gallery owner, Dave Ben Kay, has kept the original industrial potter's wheel and a Rapido scale. There's also a swimming pool upstairs at the disposal of any artist willing to create some site-specific and aquatic project.

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Hung Keung, BCSL Project (Version III)

As the opening exhibition of the gallery, Mind + Soul | Sensibility x Sensation presented a musical installation and 'sound paintings' of American artist Joe Diebes (video) as well as the interactive artworks of Hong Kong artist Hung Keung (video).

One of Joe Diebes' music installations was particularly impressive. String Quartet No. 2 is an immersive installation of phantom musicians who endlessly reproduce their final performance while the composition itself changes. Diebes recorded each member of a string instrument ensemble. Each gesture became an isolated sound file on his computer. He then composed a computer program that produces in real time the music one could heard in the installation. A set of algorithms controls when a given gesture will be played and what manipulation will be applied to it. A random component generates infinite variations of the piece.

Video showing Joe Diebes and Hung Keung's work at the Yuanfen NMA gallery:


The other new addition to 798 is the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (photo set). The space showcases both contemporary Chinese and International Art, but to be honest with you my main ambition while i was there was to turn the shop upside down and get my hands on one of the little replicas of Sui Jianguo' plastic toy dinosaurs. Alas! i couldn't find any. Just a dinosaur shoulder patch.

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Above the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art shop

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Sui Jianguo, Jurassic Age, 2006. Image from b2tse photostream

Stamped with a 'Made in China' sign, the giant toy creatures are the perfect incarnation of a nation which has become the factory floor of the world. One version of the sculpture has the animal caged in a shipping crate, turning the sculpture into an export itself.

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Sui Jianguo, Made in China (three pieces), 1999. Image courtesy UCCA

The artist has said: "The reason I enlarged the toys to such an enormous size is to highlight the political economic system behind [them]. Dinosaur toys are designed by some company from a Western country, and produced in China, then commercially distributed to the whole globe. It is the result of transnational capitalist production."

No pink plastic Godzilla for me then but there was some consolation waiting in the gallery: prints of Robin Rhode's works.

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Robin Rhode, Untitled, Yoyo, 2005. Image Perry Rubenstein gallery

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Robin Rhode, Table of Contents, 2006

Amelie Gallery was running Memory or Reality, a show focusing on Chinese young artists' nostalgic sentiments. The press release states that this generation has little experience of the hardship of life compared to Chinese artists born in the 1960s-70s whose past was much more intertwined with the country's political or social life. The private memory of the young artists is much more a matter of self-reference, abandoned toys, knocked-down old time cinema buildings, demolished Hutong where they used to play Red Army role-play games.

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I particularly liked HuangKai's woodcuts,

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Ji Qing HuTong, 2008

Next stop was at the Paris-Beijing Photo Gallery which, exactly like last year when i first visited 798 was showing the very popular and charming photos on brick of Wen Fang.

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The Golden Brick: 'What are you looking at? You make me laugh!'

The New Golden Brick installation features portraits of migrant workers as the new terracotta soldiers. The building blocks are the humble support of a country in perpetual change. Unlike those used in ancient buildings, their lives are ephemeral as they are infinitely reproduced and replaced. Each of the migrant construction workers wears the mandatory plastic helmet, each of them is smiling, even if they are often (and rightly so) described in the press as the victims of China's urbanization frenzy.

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Hiroshi Kobayashi's Step into the Mist solo show at the Gallery Artside was populated by toy animals that seemed to be frozen in time. Kobayashi developed his own process where toys are arranged in space and then filmed. The painter then imports the images to Photoshop and Illustrator, adjusts values, fix the contrasts.

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Out of Oasis, 2008

P.S. my visit to 798 was in June, most of the exhibitions i mention are now closed.

And another P.S. I hope you'll forgive me for glossing over the Olympics. Sport on tv has zero interest to me. Except for its current mix of sport and politics. That's the sad thriller of the Summer for me. All my sympathy goes to the Chinese who resist and denounce. Somehow, i manage to gather some optimism for China's future, but i have very little hope for what's going in the country where i'm spending the Summer. Right here, in the middle of Europe, human rights are crushed to the ground and almost no one seems to care.

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