You know how survivors of a car crash sometimes say that they experienced the few seconds before and during the collision as a stretched period of time and how cinema often depicts road accidents in slow motion? You might experience a similar feeling in Newcastle right now. The main difference is that the car crash is taking place over the course of a whole month.
A white VW Golf is currently hitting the wall of a shop painted entirely in white at the pace of seven millimetres per hour. So slowly you don't really notice that anything is taking place. You can enter and see the collision from up close during the opening times of the shop/gallery or watch the crash 24/7 from the street.
The car was emptied of any fuel that might spark an explosion and installed on hydraulic tracks that push and crush its front end against the wall.
The piece is a perfect match for the ongoing AV Festival which theme this year is As Slow As Possible. I'll blog a full report of the festival as soon as i've received more images from the press office. The ones i took are unfortunately as lame as usual. Besides i've deleted half of them by mistake. Hurray!
Time lapse footage of the first week of the collision:
Slow Motion Car Crash was commissioned by Locus+, a Newcastle-based art production agency for the AV Festival that takes place in Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland throughout the month.
Tim Miller has devised 101 ways to use a trailer. Yes, a trailer, that mundane, strictly utilitarian object no one would ever waste a glance on. The designer, however, sees the trailer as a blank canvas that has the potential to become a tool for the realization of collective as well as individual dreams. You can use trailers for anything, you can reinterpret them, you can use them to manipulate the world around you or better said you can 'pervert' trailers according to your desires and needs.
Miller has already put some of its 101 ways to use a trailer to the test:
- Trailers are routinely used as a rapid deployment devices that generate a zone of exclusion or control. The police turn trailers into mobile surveillance tools by mounting them with CCTV cameras. The military uses them as walls. Inspired by these practices, Tim Miller designed a trailer that emits a pink light that would deter teenagers from any area where the object is left. The choice of colour is not arbitrary. Pink lights have already been used in a Nottinghamshire housing estate because the colour is seen as 'uncool', emphasizes acne and as such rely on any personal insecurities young people might have.
- A film screened at RCA's work in progress exhibition showed another function for the trailer: the vehicle was used to simulate and film car driving in a similar way to the studios of Hollywood.
Pervert Trailer was exhibited at the Work in Progress show a few weeks ago at the Royal College of Art in London. Only 99 more ways to use a trailer to go!
Pervert Trailers was developed at Platform 13, in the Design Product department. The platform, which is by far my favourite in the whole department, is headed by Onkar Kular and Sebastien Noel. Together they look at how design can contribute to alternative models of living and production by engaging with, commenting on, and addressing issues currently beyond the usual scope of design - political, social, technological or ecological.
Utopia Forever - Visions of Architecture and Urbanism. An inspirational exploration of utopias and radical approaches to city planning. Edited by Robert Klanten and Lukas Feireiss (available on amazon USAand UK.)
Everything in this book is orderly and rational. Clean and clear design. Project neatly presented: title, name of the architects, envisioned location and envisioned completion date. Followed by a brief summary of the context for the project and a few paragraphs that describe its principles and the way it works.
Five themes govern the selection of projects. Great Scapes examines proposals of living in inhospitable spaces: deserts, caves, online, up in the sky, etc. As its name suggests the chapter Rising Tides is all about projects that responds to rising sea levels. Ecotopia Emerging presents projects that have distinctly (and at times, extreme) eco-conscious ideals. Technology Matters highlights the impact of innovation on the way architects envision utopia. The last section, Sky's the Limit engages with vertical architecture.
The dozens of projects presented in the volume are accompanied by six essays that vary from the pragmatic to the humorous: Dan Wood and Amale Andraos walk us briskly through architectural utopia of the 1960s and 70s while Geoff Manaugh offers a tongue-in-cheek but also remarkably spot-on game that would help you build every possible scenario of utopian architecture.
Everything in this book is orderly and rational. Everything but the subject of the monograph of course. But no matter how 'conceptual' and outlandish the works presented in the book might appear, they come with irony, lucidity and a desire to focus on society/the planet's most pressing needs and as such, they provide valuable food for thought.
Some are mere exercises in speculations while others almost have their feet on the ground. Some are strangely seducing, others will give you nightmares.
Of course you will find in this book what any respectable book about utopian architecture should offer: pods of all sorts, vertical farms a gogo, mobile living spaces, cities built in the air, on the water, in the water and of course flooded cities. But there were also a few scenarios i had never heard about:
David A. Garcia has a couple of exciting projects in the book. My favourite is the Quarantined Library located on a cargo ship. Its mission is to collect infected and radioactive books, a robotic arms that engraves secrets on wooden panels infected by termites, and historically censored books. I couldn't find illustrations online but i did find some for the South Pole living station for 100 visitors with minimum environmental impact. The space would be holed out in a super large iceberg which would eventually melt in 7 to 10 years time.
Mila Studio proposes to build a 1,000m tall faux mountain at the site of the masterpieces that is the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin instead of hotels and sky-high offices. The Berg would be the world's largest man-made mountain, covered with snow from September to March and would serve as a tourist attraction for skiers in the otherwise slope-less city.
London-based NaJa and deOstos office develops speculative, alternative urban concepts. One of the most attention-grabbing is the Hanging Cemetery of Baghdad which explore a possible response to extreme cultural and political challenges such as the crisis in the Middle East. Initiated in 2004, the project envisions "a gigantic presence of a hanging funereal structure [that] extends over the volatile city of Baghdad."
Nicolas Mouret's Phyte is a 380m high tower that would move in natural flow and offer a stark contrast to the city's static skyline. The mechanical energy of the rocking tower would generate enough electricity to supply the building's lighting.
Stéphane Malka's Self Defense hijacks The Grande Arche De La Défense in Paris and turn it into the 'Great arch of fraternity' at the service of the forsaken, the marginalized, refugees, demonstrators, dissenters, hippies, utopians, and the stateless of all kinds.
Where the Grass is Greener by Tomorrow's Thoughts Today envisions a group of Londoners who have chosen to segregate themselves from the rest of society, and has taken up the mantle of sustainability in an extraordinary way. Driven by a set of ethics that places them in sometimes radical opposition to the rest of London, they have adopted a lifestyle that effectively makes them a carbon sink for the remainder of the city.
Saturation City explores the future of Australian urban space in 40 years time. The proposal manufactured a crisis - a rise in sea level of 20m, tested around Melbourne and Port Philip Bay - that would require dramatic urban upheaval. The park/garden, the business district, the suburb and the coastline, are subjected to dramatic densifications in response to the 'flood'.
Views inside the book:
Image on the homepage: NL Architects, Cruise City, City Cruise, 2003.
Wodiczko is best known for his large-scale and video projections on buildings and monuments. Since the 1980s, he has been transforming the facades of official buildings and historical monuments into temporary spaces for critical reflection and public protest.
Krzysztof Wodiczko covers 40 years of the artist's extensive, and often controversial, body of work using contemporary technologies to form a commentary on politics, ethics, social responsibility and the urban experience. Comprising a collection of writing by some of the most critically acclaimed art historians, cultural theorists and commentators working today, along with both previously published and unpublished texts by Wodiczko himself, this book is the definitive study of the artist's work. Richly illustrated, the book includes a diverse selection of images, ranging from digital montages and preliminary visualisations to sketches and photographs.
If there's one artist whose innovative and socially-engaged work never ceases to impress me it's Krzysztof Wodiczko. Not even his 'oldest' pieces have suffered from the passage of time. They are still as relevant as ever, even if the context has changed. His 1969 Personal Instrument, for example, consisted of a microphone, worn on the forehead, which retrieved sound from the environment while photo-receivers in gloves filtered the sound through the movement of the hand: closing the hands suppresses the sound, turning the hands to face the light opens up the sound channel, the photoreceivers on the right hand control the low-pitch filter and the ones on the left hand control the high-pitch. The resulting sound was perceived by the artist only through his headphones. By emphasizing selective listening, vital to a Polish citizen's survival at the time, Wodiczko intimated the prevalence of censored speech, registering "dissent of a system that fostered only one-directional critical thinking - listening over speech." (Source: wikipedia.)
Wodiczko's projections and instruments reinstate the city as a space for discussion, relentless questioning and debate. Therefore Krzysztof Wodiczko is not only a monograph on the artist's work, it is also a book that offers readers the opportunity to reflect upon the unresolved and under-discussed issues that the artist's projects engages with: post-war trauma, plight of illegal immigrants, exclusion of homeless people from society, industrial pollution, profit-making real-estate redevelopment that forces poor residents to move away, gun violence, etc. It is also one of the rare books i feel like recommending to artists, activists and designers alike.
Presentations of the artist's individual artworks alternate with essays by Professors of Art History, Contemporary Art, of Architectural Theory as well as art critiques and curators that focus on particular aspects of Wodiczko's work and life: the political and artistic context of Poland from the 1950s till the 1980s, New York's urban redevelopment programme which involved raise in property value and displacement of the lower income population, urban guerrilla warfare, issues of identity, etc. Along with the texts by the various contributors, the study contains also excerpts from conversation the artist had with art critiques or homeless people, a selection of his own essays, chapters from exhibition catalogues and other original documents.
I'm sure many of you are familiar with his work but for my own pleasure, here's a couple of works i discovered or re-discovered in the book:
Homeless Vehicle Project provides homeless people with a mobile tool that responds to their basic needs (living, sleeping and washing) but also assists them in their 'daily job' as collectors and resellers of discarded cans and bottles. The vehicle was not designed as a solution to their housing problem, but it rendered visible to passersby the invisible: the hundred of people compelled to 'sleep rough' on the streets of New York City.
While he was in London for a commissioned projection in Trafalgar Square, Wodiczko decided to react to what he was reading in the newspapers: racial violence in South Africa and Thatcher government's refusal to apply economic sanctions against apartheid. Since the South Africa House, was mere steps away from the Nelson Column, the artist projected a Nazi swastika on the facade of the building, establishing an uncomfortable parallel between the racist policies of South Africa and that of Hitler's Germany.
South African officials contacted the police who put a stop to the projection after only two hours.
The projection of a cruise missile on the cliffs above Bow Falls, in Banff National Park in Alberta echoed protests that rose across Canada when it emerged that Alberta had been selected as a location for testing U.S. cruise missiles in the country.
Black Dog Publishing also has an art gallery by King's Cross St Pancras' station. They have recently opened the exhibition Krzysztof Wodiczko: The Abolition of War. It will remain on view at the WORK Gallery in London though 14 January 2012.
I was planning to post this interview next week but because Ivan Henriques's action plant is yet another brilliant work on show at ArtBots Gent this weekend, i thought it would be silly to wait and not promote the event with a timely post.
Ivan Henriques worked with professor Bert van Duijn (Biology University and Hortus Botanicus in Leiden) on a research into the "action potential" of the Mimosa Pudica. The result of their collaboration is Jurema Action Plant, a machine which interfaces a sensitive plant (Mimosa Pudica), enabling it to enjoy technologies similar to the ones humans use. The project also explores new ways of communication and co-relation between machines, humans, and other living organism.
Plants don't have nerves, wires nor cables but much like humans, animals and machines, they have an electrical signal traveling inside their cells. The plant is fitted with electrodes and placed on a robotic structure. A signal amplifier reads the differences in the electromagnetic field around the plant to determine when it is being touched. Any variation triggers movement of the robotic structure by means of a custom-made circuit board. Touching any part of the plant is enough to make it move away from the person touching it. One of the most common names given to that plant after all is 'touch-me-not.'
If the plants can fell the touch and this signal travels inside the plant and be can be measured in any part, does it means that plants have memory, consciousness?
Imagine if we could communicate with plants and work together. Is it possible to reshape and redefine our tools to be coherent with the environment? Would we keep on destroying the few existent plants/animals and forests?
Hi Ivan! How did you get the idea and why did you want to build this plant-machine and give some power to the plants?
The main idea of empowering the plant comes from a range of work that I am developing called Oritur (Oritur is also the title of the book which is a compilation of texts from myself and invited artists and researchers from different countries - it will be published soon by Verbeke Foundation).
Jurema Action Plant (JAP) is a hacked wheelchair and an electronic board of communication with the Mimosa -- acting as an interface of communication between the bio-machine and us. In order to realize this work I thought about three aspects: biodiversity, plant intelligence and machine intelligence. 1) Creating a new kind of specimen, an assemblage of a plant and a machine -- a hybrid; 2) A simple movement of a finger towards the plant leaves makes it move away after the touch; 3) The plant triggers the hacked machine via the electronic board of communication into movement. While developing this work at the Summer Residency at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam/NL, it raised some questions:
Are the mechanics found in some plants species an intelligence? Do plants feel? How do they respond to the environment? Are plants considered in a lower level than us because they don't move and communicate in the same timescale as ours? My position in Jurema Action Plant is to explore plant behavior, research this intelligence to find possibilities for direct interaction and create a work which makes people think about our future.
You're going to spend several months at the Verbeke Foundation for a residency. What are you going to work on there?
At the moment I am rebuilding a piece called Three Seconds which will be part of Verbeke's collection. It is composed of a closed circuit where a video camera, which faces and captures images from a rectangular aquarium containing a live Goldfish, the image is transmitted to a monitor, which has the same proportions of the aquarium and also faces it. Between the camera and the monitor there is an apparatus, which gives a three second delay to the live image. In this way the fish, which as we know has a three second memory-span, can see its recent past, which it would otherwise not be able to reach.
I am very exited to start the residency at Verbeke foundation (which will complete two weeks October 11th) and I have several ideas which are in a cloud of concepts such as architecture, recycle, interaction, biology, evolution, utopia, movement, kinetics and living organisms.
You worked with professor Bert van Duijn from the Biology University and the Hortus Botanicus, in Leiden, to develop the action plant. How was the collaboration going? Do you find it easy as an artist to communicate with a scientist? Do you use the same language, for example? Do you have to adjust to each other's way of working and thinking about nature?
While researching about plants mechanics, physiology and biodynamics, I had the opportunity to meet professor Bert van Duijn who uses a technique called action potential to measure electrical signals that travels inside the plant for agricultural purposes. Through professor van Duijn I met the organization from Hortus Botanicus Leiden which opened their doors to my research about this specific plant and helped me seed the Mimosas. We had to adjust our vocabulary and tools all the time and the whole team had different perspectives and goals when working with nature.
Can you also tell us something about the rhythm of the plant? Sometimes it rests, it doesn't react as fast as the machines we are used to (from toaster to robot)... Do you think humans are ready to accept and respect this 'slowness' of the machine?
Much like humans, animals and machines, plants have an electrical signal traveling inside them, but they do not have nerves like humans and animals; nor wires and cables like machines. Plants are completely independent and can exist without humans, but humans and animals need plants to survive. They are also moving, to extend their territory, but on a very different timescale to ours. Jurema Action Plant has its own time, it is an equalization of ourselves, machines and plants. In my opinion we have to re-think about the machines we develop and the concept of bio-sensors. There are plenty of machines in the world and we keep on making them. Do you know where these electronic components comes from, how they are made and in which conditions? Why not re-use? The machines we create are coherent within themselves but I think that our machines could be much more coherent to the environment. JAP is a prototype of machines for our future, where we can communicate with all the specimens at the same level to achieve a common evolution. Even if we have signs of a catastrophe in the next future due to global warming, war, deforestation, population growth and a very strong economical difference from place to place, I believe in a good future. The problem is not the technological development, but who is in charge of researches, innovations and changes.
What are you doing when you're not working on Jurema Action Plant?
I have some projects going on and I'm preparing new ones, making drawings, graphics, researching about kinetic architectures and motors that run with very low voltage and current. I am also preparing the third edition of EME - Estúdio Móvel Experimental (first edition 2009 and second in 2010), a mobile residency in Rio de Janeiro that works as a platform for artists and researchers to explore and create public artworks/workshops in the natural and urban environment in Rio.
This year's ArtBots is organised by timelab Gent, in cooperation with ArtBots US, Ugent and Foam. It's open only over the upcoming weekend in Ghent, Belgium.
If you miss ArtBots, Jurema Action Plant is also exhibited at the Verbeke Foundation and it will travel to Leiden in October for the Scheltema festival.
The project explores the possibility to build a 90-meter, zero-emission, airship that will never need to land to get its fuel, creating hydrogen from the elements it encounters and briefly anchoring when it needs to replenish its energy in a renewable way. Aeromodeller2 might not be the most efficient nor the fastest airship but it certainly leaves more space to imagination, dream and aspiration than anything Boeing or NASA can come up with.
A thousand airbuses jumping back and forth over the ocean twenty-four-seven. Fly, land, replace crew and passengers and take off again.
One thousand hyperactive passenger jets, and one airship that needs to rest when its energy level is low.
The most surprising part of the project is that Lieven, just like its airship, works at his own pace. It might take him one year, ten or even more to complete his project. That's not really the point for him. What matters is the experimental process, the constant testings, the unhurried journey made of improvements, adjustments and exploration.
The text that describes Aeromodeller2 explains that "The project was born as a manifesto for a designer-driven innovation, as opposed to one driven by a marketing department." What are the advantages of a designer-driven over a marketing-led approach?
The school where I studied industrial design was at that time very much pushing its students towards industry. If you wanted to design a good backpack, you did focus group studies and market research and asked the people what they wanted. This is a perfectly valid thing to do, and a fittingly humble approach to design. I never liked it. My background was in architecture. My heroes were, and still are, people like Le Corbusier and Buckminster. I like the arrogant, aristocratic designers who say: "I've studied this problem. This is the right solution and we should build this."
There are fields, like ergonomics, where user feedback is invaluable, but if you're asking a hundred people if solar panels are better than wind power, it is an illusion to think the average answer will be better than that of one expert who studied the issue. If you base your designs on the amount of people that will buy it and their opinions, you will always follow. I value visionary designers who lead. Designers who say: "I'm not making what you want, I'm making what you need. Take it".
My government, like most, is trying to promote innovation. They're doing this by financing R&D-projects, but those are all evaluated on the basis of their business plans. Explain how long it will take to make, who you will sell it to and to how many at what price, and you'll get considered for funding. This approach gives you a lot of small, sensible innovations. It leads to new Tupperware. It won't give you moon rockets. It won't give you iPods, only a lot of iPod add-ons. It won't give you high-speed reclining bikes, jet packs or stair-climbing wheelchairs. You need a different kind of inventor for that, you need the stubborn idiots tinkering away a shed somewhere. You need people that are passionate about what they do and don't give a rats what anyone else thinks. The Wright brothers never did a market study on the economical potential of non-stop transatlantic flights. They just thought flying would be the best thing ever. And it's that passion that made them persevere when others gave up.
For me the Wright brothers were artists. They were at the cutting edge of their field and followed their hearts, put their soul into what they made. To me, asking what they did is engineering or art, is like asking if Bach's church music is art or a functional piece of music.
Also i note that you mention 'design' but could you replace the word in the sentence with art as in "art-driven innovation"? Would it impact what you try to convey with your work?
I wouldn't use the word 'art-driven', it makes me think of bringing an artist into a foreign field or industry, to apply his/her ideas and visions as an innovation consultant or an added layer to this industry, This has been tried, and I don't think it's a very useful idea.
Artists are much more comfortable with showing experiments and failure than engineers are. Art has this culture of presenting a process, a work-in-progress. "It isn't as good as I want it yet, but this is what I'm trying to do..." A painter, labouring for 20 years towards his perfect work. The idea also that your drawing takes shape as you work on it, as opposed to executing a finalized design. The idea of starting something you don't know you'll be able to finish, being ok with uncertainty. I think there is a lot of strength in those ways of working, if what you want is perseverance rather than a deadline.
Surely this must influence the way you draw up the budget necessary for the development of the project?
A traditional industrial R&D-process has a budget up front and a deadline looming at the end. You work behind closed doors and are supposed to present the finished result within time and budget. In this structure a lot of projects fail, not because you can't make them work, but because you can't make them work on time. Or they don't even get started as you can't find all the financing up front.
If I finance a project like mine against a deadline, I'm setting myself up for failure. My most precious resource is my time, as it is very hard to predict how much time we'll need to solve unexpected problems. What I'm trying to do, by showing my experiments, by talking about a work-in-progress and explaining what I'm testing, is to put together a methodology that is less dependent on a deadline and more on slower, more sturdy growth.
I believe that if you're prepared to fail in public, to show your dumb mistakes and what you've learned from them, you can grow stronger from this, and at the same time tell a more realistic, less macho, more honest story of invention.
The reason i wanted to bring art on the table is that, unsurprisingly, i immediately thought Panamarenko when i saw your work and read its name. You also referred to Gaudi's old models and Frei Otto's soap bubble experiments in our previous email exchange so i guess your influences must reach much further than i expected. Can you tell us something about them and, more generally, what brought you to this ambitious project?
If you stop drawing by hand, and only use a computer, you stand to lose something. A pencil is a particular interface, you think with a pencil. You don't think up a drawing up front, it gets created in an interplay between your hand and your head. I think most people would agree that there are aspects to a simple pencil in a well-trained hand that a computer can't replace. I think the same holds true in building and testing stuff, in the physical experiment. Gaudi made the highest church in the world not using reinforced concrete. And he did this by building his upside-down models, using ropes under tension so find the correct shapes for the stone arcs under compression.
Frei Otto is the architect who designed the 1972 Munich Olympic stadium, using light-weight tent structures. At that scale, your tents are not simple canvas sheets. The sails have to be cut to follow the curve of the main cables so they don't flop. These sails are a particular double-curved surface. He researched those by building small wire-frame models of his cables and poles, and dipping these in a soap solution. You then get these fragile, beautiful models with soap surfaces where the textile should go. It turns out the shape the soap surfaces assume is the minimum surface you want for that tent. You can measure those shapes and reproduce them for your large tent structures. There's a picture in his 'Seifenblasen' book showing he experimented with instantly freezing those soap bubbles, it looks absolutely amazing.
Today you can do all that with computer simulations, and evaluating a structure will be faster and more flexible. But what interests me is the use of these physical simulations as a design tool. As with that pencil, I think something gets lost when engineers stop tinkering about. I would be the last to deny computers have created fantastic new possibilities, I've worked with them professionally for years. But for me, to develop a feeling for how a tensegrity structure will deform, nothing works as well as a hot-glued sticks-and-rope model, a physical model I can touch and push against.
For the airship I wanted to study how you could create shapes by partially filling balloons, instead of using pressurized cigar shapes. The shape would be generated by the lift force of the gas, wanting to go up, as opposed to the pressure in a spheroid balloon, pushing the walls out. Now, it's quite hard to do this with gas in a table-top-sized model. In small volumes the forces become too tiny to be practical. So what I did was, I turned my airship model upside-down, and filled it with water. The weight of the water acts as a simulant for the buoyancy of the lift gas. This gave me shapes to play with. It allowed me to test how different balloons could interact and slide over each other. I could try out different cut-patterns for the containing bags, see how they can fold open and contract, how their shapes change as they're filled to a different degree.
I believe building physical models keep you solidly grounded in reality. It's too easy to draw stuff on a computer that simply can't be built. And in doing experiments, you can try out stuff that you don't understand. You can be surprised by a result, and afterwards discuss it and learn what was going on. A computer can't replace that. You can do a wind tunnel simulation on a desktop pc, only you need to understand all the variables you put into the computer. Otherwise what comes out will be garbage. But anyone can put his hand out of the window of a driving car and feel the wind pushing on it.
That's where I want to link back to Panamarenko. What he did in a unique way, what I love in his work, is the way he showed experiments, condensed to a single idea. The essence of experimenting is curiosity, 'Let's try this and see what it does' and this is what he captured in his best works. Experiments are about failing and learning from these failures, and that is a story engineers are remarkable bad at communicating. The essence of technology is in research, is the experiment, is the process, not the final waxed car.
Has Panamarenko ever seen and reacted to your work?
I sent Panamarenko an invitation to my first exhibition, where I published the work. The expo was in Antwerp, his home town, and I was showing a houseboat airship in an arts centre. I never got a reply, but I suppose he has better things to do. He had already retired then. He was the elephant in the room anyway. I felt I had to deal with that up front, and called the expo 'aeromodeller2'. As you know 'aeromodeller' was the name he gave to his airship. It was a bit a provocation, but mainly I wanted to affirm my love for his old work. I knew I didn't want to get the headline 'Antwerp architect designs airship that DOES work' I didn't create my project as a critique on his work and I didn't want it interpreted that way. If you baptise your boat the 'Kontiki 2', everyone knows you like Thor Heyerdahl. Panamarenko's hands-on prototyping was an inspiration, in a context where hundreds of crazy airship concepts never got off the paper.
In science, when you create something new, you mention your sources, you mention the people whose work you're building on. Not doing so is dishonest and this is what felt right to me. After the expo, the name stuck to the project, so I kept it. And here's an interesting thing: if I talk to scientists and engineers about this, everyone agrees it makes sense and it's a good name. If artists ask me about it, almost every single one of them tells me I should never mention Panamarenko, dump the name altogether and 'stand on my own two feet'.
I'm a bit a stranger here myself, I'm not an artist by training, I'm not sure where I belong, but there is definitely a cultural difference between science and art in referencing your sources. There are days I wished I had chosen a different label, and I've been called 'Panamarenko rip-off' on several occasions, but never by anyone who took more than 2 minutes to look at my work. If I hadn't had the solid confidence that my work stands on its own, I would never have dared give it this name.
Now i think i'd need more details about the technology behind Aeromodeller2. The vehicle 'regenerates its fuel, creating hydrogen from wind power and the rain on its skin." Why isn't it powered by the sun like so many flying prototype i read about then?
In order to answer that I have to tell you about hydrogen gas first. We've stopped using it in airships over 70 years ago. It is lighter than air, but also flammable. Today though, a number of people are reconsidering this, as we're using the same gas as a clean fuel in cars. It's harder to use than batteries, and less efficient, but the cars exist and we can use them safely.
The reason people keep trying to make it work, is because the principle behind it is very beautiful. You start off with water, you put an electric current through it and you will split the H20 into H2 and 02. O2 is oxygen, you let that part go, H2 is hydrogen. Hydrogen is a flammable gas with the unique property that when you burn it, it turns back into water. If you use it as a fuel, what comes out of the exhaust is clean water.
Now I'm arguing the problem with those hydrogen cars is that you're misusing this principle. The cars only consume the hydrogen. This means they need hydrogen refueling stations, which don't exist. It also means that they miss the essence of this idea, namely that it is a reversible, cyclic system. If you put hydrogen in a car, you're saying to the world that hydrogen is a clean fuel, it is a replacement for gasoline. And it is not. You have to make it first. If the electricity for creating the hydrogen is generated by a coal-firing plant, it is not clean energy at all! Hydrogen is not a fuel; it's a fantastic, light-weight battery. It is not an energy source, it is an energy carrier.
What I'm proposing is a vehicle that can generate its own hydrogen, store it and later use it as fuel for propulsion. That would result in an airship that is both a lot more autonomous, wouldn't need refueling stations, and could fully demonstrate the beauty of this water-to-hydrogen-to-water reaction. You would have a true zero-emission zeppelin, with the autonomy of a sailing ship.
The basic principle is that I equip my airship with 2 large propellers. It can fly with those, using hydrogen as fuel. When it runs low on hydrogen, it does not land to refuel. Instead it anchors at a cable, like a kite. The propellers now start working as wind generators. They create electricity. You get water from captured rain or a lake. Electricity and water gives you hydrogen. You have the ship recharging for one or two days, and then you lift anchor and fly on.
Now, you could implement the same idea using light-weight, high-efficiency solar panels and have a continuous system. You wouldn't need to stop. This kind of design does exist as concept drawings from several companies, but they're extremely expensive to build and won't get realized, not with the present state-of-the-art. They only exist as computer renderings, not as prototypes. The largest solar-powered airship is a French student project that's just big enough to carry one man. I wasn't interested in making pretty design drawings. I wanted to take this elegant idea of a hydrogen-based energy cycle, and implement it in a design at a scale and cost level that it could actually be built. I wanted to take this blue-sky, radical concept and develop it in the most down-to-earth, practical way possible. Because of this, the shape of my airship is designed to be built from smaller parts on ground level, like a tent structure, and the wind rotors originally were put on there because, unlike solar panels, they're perfectly affordable and much more low-tech.
But in placing those wind generators on the concept, it grew into something else. I now had a machine that had to rest in order to regenerate. I had designed a zero-emission machine that, in order to renew its consumed energy, had to go to sleep. It grew into this biomimicry model, of a machine dealing with energy in the same way as a living being, a machine that at the end of the day has to pay the price for the energy it used up. I think that's a very powerful idea, telling a story about energy as a finite resource instead of an unlimited supply, and I think this version is better than the solar-powered one.
How long have you been working on the model and how much work is left before you think that you've achieved what you were dreaming of?
I never finished those studies in industrial design, as I left to start a company with two friends. So I never did a thesis project as a designer. In the years that followed this airship idea slowly took shape. It got under my skin and I kept going back to it. It established itself as something I saw as my master thesis, as something I could use to take a position on what I kind of designer I wanted to be, and I worked on the concept verification in my free time. It's hard to point at a specific origin, as it isn't as much one concept, but a puzzle of ideas that over time fit together into something that was more than the sum of its parts. In 2007 I did a series of combustion tests on 10m³ hydrogen balloons to see if you could develop a balloon system to use hydrogen safely. I realized nobody had actually done those kind of experiments in a serious way, as the idea was completely marginalized by the old Hindenburg disaster. In 2009 I got to the point where I believed I could convincingly argue this concept was feasible, so I published it in a solo exhibition in order to do so. This led to the opportunity to show the work in other exhibitions, and to build the remote-controlled 9-meter-model at the Verbeke Foundation, and the project has been my main focus since.
People keep asking me how long it will take me to build the full-scale airship. I have a couple of timelines written out, including one where I have all the funding I could wish for. So I used to give an answer, with a definite timing and budget, then tried to explain that it's more complicated than that. That the whole point was deciding what you do when you don't have all the money you wish for and you need to manage your resources. Be small. Cut the big project in little pieces and realize one piece at a time, but get it off the paper somehow. That when you want to build something radically new, any deadline is a guesstimate and your time is your most precious resource and you should protect it by developing methodologies that focus on endurance instead of on a deadline. Show your work-in-progress, instead of building behind closed doors. Show an R&D-process instead of an end result and grow slowly...
I recently realized I can give a simple, one-sentence answer. And it is: "As long as it takes..." Like a painting, it will be finished when it's darn well good enough. I'm chasing an idea I'm passionate about and think is worthwhile working on. If it takes 10 years to get it done, then it takes 10 years. That's how it is.
Finally, i was interested in the scenario behind Aeromodeller2. Would people live on it, use it as a refuge in case of natural or man-caused disasters or would it be rather a vehicle for travels? Or would it simply be a passing blimp?
Now you're asking me the industrial-engineering question; where is it good for? What's the application? Who will you sell it to? But what if I'm not building the fastest, the most efficient or even the cheapest solution? What if I'm building the most elegant, most beautiful solution to a problem?
What if I'm building a working airship, not for any particular use, but to tell a story? A machine that needs to sleep, that deals with energy like a living being. A story about a more responsible, more organic way of using energy. A story about an old, clean technology that's too slow to actually be used in transport, just like sailing ships are ancient and outdated.
If I want to do that, where does it belong? Where do I belong?
I don't want to define an application for it, because then I'm trapped again in this industrial-engineering logic of developing a product against a business plan deadline.
Let's build it, not for a specific market, but because it's beautiful.
Let's build it because it has the right story to tell.
I'm not interested in wild utopian visions where hundreds of these nomad ships are wandering over the globe, I'm interested in a pragmatic approach to get the first one built. An experimental ship will be limited in where it is allowed to fly. It won't be super big, but large enough to carry a thousand kilos of supplies, a warm coat and a bed (yes, in the end I'm still an architect, this would be the ultimate tree house). Like an experimental airplane, it won't be allowed to fly over any densely populated areas. And if you want to come on board for dinner, I'll have to make you sign a waiver. But even if I'm only allowed to travel over international waters, there are a whole lot of interesting places we could visit...
This Summer the 9-meter-model of Aeromodeller2 is participating to the exhibition Machines improbables, on view at the Musée Ianchelevici. The show is part of the ARTour Biennale in La Louvière, Belgium and runs through August 28, 2011.