This winter the Media Design Program at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design hosted “Made Up”, an exhibition and series of events devoted to the most innovative productions at the borders of science fiction, speculative design, and fictional storytelling, united for the occasion under the umbrella term “design’s fiction.”
Staged in the MDP’s Wind Tunnel Gallery (an impressive, secret former Jet Propulsion Lab facility where ultrasonic jets were tested), Made Up, as its curators Tim Durfee and Haelim Paek claim, is a new type of exhibition ―a self-recording, 1:1 map of questions and propositions: dreams as program; science fiction as precedent; cults of commerce; objects as ideas; strange-ified banality; truth-revealing jokes; false histories; and elaborated scenarios. The artists present in the exhibition use speculative practices and fictional storytelling to produce as much as to provoke.
They enjoy framing scientific research with narrative models, creating critical or philosophical objects, and designing for future scenarios or technological capabilities, acknowledging the increasingly uncanny correspondence of the real and the imaginary.
Design’s fiction, nowadays is quite a fashionable term in the world of media art and design, thanks to the seminal work done in the past years by the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art (RCA), and most notably by its faculty, Antony Dunne and Fiona Raby. The latter was also present as a key speaker for the opening panel of the exhibition, sharing the stage with another of the world’s influential voice at the intersection of fiction and design: Bruce Sterling.
Although the panel discussion didn’t reveal much that was new in the genre, and the show itself felt too quickly installed, the selection of artists disclosed a good number of interesting findings worthwhile to mention. The artists present were mostly related in some way or another to the two institutions of the Art Center’s MDP and the RCA, and roughly half of them have backgrounds in architecture/urbanism, and half design/art related. Let’s go through the ones I enjoyed the most.
The batch of architects and urbanists present at the show were almost all Southern California based: Juan Azulay ( http://www.ma77er.com ), The Planning Center (http://www.planningcenter.com), Hernan Diaz Alonso (http://www.xefirotarch.com/) and AGENCY (http://agencyarchitecture.blogspot.com/).
Among these, the latter’s project got my attention for his visionary approach: AGENCY’s Super Levee Urban Farm is a project presenting a future scenario where, to safeguard against future disaster from rising sea levels, the world’s cities must think of new forms of infrastructural development. In this context, they propose a global system of levees, serving as a new brand of urban farms at the city’s edge, preserving local ecologies while protecting cities from emerging dangers and trying to expand in the same time the necessary infrastructural and environmental interventions to propose a more productive urban and personal life.
Still grounded in the methodological framework of architecture and urbanism, but more poetic in its expression, is the work of the British “visionarchitect” Thomas Hillier (http://www.thomashillier.co.uk/ ) whose interests include art, design, storytelling and installations with a particular interest in how literature can be directly translated into urban and architectural space. Hillier attempts to look at architecture and space using unorthodox narratives and personal visions to create original and often surreal observations, using innovative and poetic materials coupled with a technological and environmental understanding to craft a very personal idea of spatial design through drawings, models and assemblages.
For the exhibition he presents the last iteration of The Emperor Castle, a three-chapter project inspired by a mythical Japanese tale that charts the story of two star-crossed lovers, the weaving Princess and the Cowherd who have been separated by the Princess’s father, the Emperor.
Hillier transforms these characters into architectonic metaphors creating an Urban Theatre within the grounds of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo: the Princess is represented as a flexible knitted membrane that envelopes the spaces below in aim to reach the grass parkland perimeter representing the Cowherd. Linked within this skin is a series of enormous origami-like lung structures, deployed around the site acting as physical barriers that manipulate the knitted skin as it extends toward the outer parkland. These manipulations are controlled and articulated by the Emperor’s army using a series of complex pulley systems that pull back the lungs and the surrounding skin.
From Hillier’s website: “This piece of narrative architecture was the vehicle to examine current days’ cultural and social issues in Japan such as unconditional piety, relentless work ethic, and conservative attitudes toward love ( ) Tokyo is looked upon as the city of ‘bright lights’ and fast moving technology, yet within its underbelly still exists the idea of ‘exquisite craft’ that has defined Japan over the centuries, I wanted the Emperor’s Castle to complement these ideals.”
Similar to Hillier’s endeavor of using mythical or historical narrative elements as a platform to build up fictional worlds, is the work of Noam Toran (http://www.noamtoran.com), currently teacher at the RCA. Toran’s work spans multiple disciplines and mediums, involving the creation of objects and films that reflect upon the intersection between cinema, mass culture, and psychology.
His works, whether presented in films or installations, are imagined as constructions for particular individuals and psyches as commentaries on the desires, fantasies, and pathologies of modern life. His I Cling to Virtue, installed for the first time in September 2010 at London’s V&A Museum, is a project consisting of a fictional archive of the Lövy Singh clan, a twentieth-century East London family of Punjabi and Lithuanian descent. This collection of objects and video works, lying at the border of artifact and artifice, history and myth, complicates the effort of ever fully, or even adequately, archiving one’s past, as those are not intended to capture a singular truth of the family, nor do they seek to produce a complete picture of the century through which the family lived, but, more simply, they attempt to curate a series of emblematic impressions.
Andrew Friend (http://www.andrewfriend.co.uk), another British artist and former RCA student present in the exhibition, shares a similar interest in the fascination for designing experiences between people, technologies, and their surroundings, but with a more personal and ironic twist. With an attitude that reminded me of Bas Jan Ader (http://www.basjanader.com/), he uses a heroic iconography and an almost surreal approach.
His project Fantastic (2010) is a series of works dealing with that which may seem extraordinary, undesirable, confusing, or uncanny. In his words: “I am interested in the fantastic experience, be it the conscious quest to achieve one’s personal (or indeed popular) fantasy, or the more subconscious seeding of a fantastic situation or construct through the actions of others. The fantastic has the power to engage the imagination, initiate dreams and trigger desires, excite, manipulate and confuse.”
The project is constituted by a series of “fictional devices,” such as the Device for Experiencing Lightning Strike, a kind of huge lightning conductor to increase the chance of getting struck by lightning; the Device for Experiencing the Invisible, a wearable parabolic dish aimed at increasing the effects of radio, paranormal, or electrical activity; and the Device for Disappearing (at the Sea) that offers the individual opportunity for a safe, temporary disappearance.
A slightly less poetic and more “technological” take on the genre came from the section of US-based artists in the exhibition. Most generally concentrated on the speculations on how emergent digital technologies may impact our near future; this batch of projects often revolved around a specific technology and presented a more ”classical” design approach and aesthetic, comprising research scenarios and prototyping methodologies.
As an example, the project ReWire: Topological Interaction (2008) di Justin Gier (http://rewireprojects.com/, examines how the rise of the “Internet of Things” and embedded technology might inhabit our lives and change the way we design objects, interactions, and new experiences.
Justin Gier set up a biographic research scenario inspired by the condition of dysmorphia, an inflammatory reaction of pathways in the brain associated with the form of objects and their meaning. In this scenario, everyday devices take part in a new “ecology of things” and their forms have been hijacked, replaced with the strange and organic forms of Cucurbitaceae, also known as Gourds or Calabash. The artist’s interest here lies in the possibilities of constructing functional objects out of the gourds as a way to continue imagining future experiences: “I set out designing three discrete electronic objects. One would be activated by a cell phone call, another would be an autonomous recorder, and the other would be motion sensitive.
These are all speculations about device characteristics in the near future, exhibiting potential qualities of interaction. An interesting thing happened though once they started working. Individually each demonstrates a trait, but when placed on a shelf together they start to feedback with each other. A phone call setting the one to shaking, the vibrations of which travel the shelf and set the motion one playing its sound. The recording one picks this up and then records and plays it back. A feedback loop created out of the discrete behaviors of objects.”
Along these lines,Chris Woebken (http://www.chriswoebken.com) showed a piece who started in 2008, Animal Superpowers. Looking at natural systems and biomimetics, it explores the differences between animal and human senses in a playful way, although I found it slightly over-didactical. The project is based on the question of how design can help us understand how we should perhaps change in the near future to be more in tune with our technology and the environment in which we now inhabit
Woebken stresses the fact that animals have extraordinary abilities allowing them to sense information and perceive the world through sensory experiences far beyond anything humans will know: the detection of low frequencies, the sensing of magnetic fields by some birds, or the pheromone-based communication of ants, are “superpowers” whose mechanisms science is trying to decipher. Woebken moves from this statement to explore how he could approach these amazing phenomena through design and make the mystery of “animal super powers” accessible to ordinary people.
As part of the festival, a Residency Award was established with the goal to host two research projects during Summer 2010 related to the MADE UP theme. A jury composed of Bruce Sterling, Fiona Raby, and the Art Center’s Media Design Program faculty members selected the projects Suspension of Disbelief, by Daniel Salomon and Ingrid Hora, and SUPERCALIFORNIA! by Sascha Pohflepp.
Daniel Salomon (http://www.heliko.org) and Ingrid Hora (http://www.ingridhora.com) are two very interesting artists working at the intersection of fictional design and utopian productions. For the residency, they produced a series of props exploring the design of the cultural production of spiritual movements: together with a team of student research assistants they produced shrines, icons, altars, and various technological devices. These “props” were used in the filming of a peculiar set of rituals that took place by five “cult members” in the Mojave Desert.
Sifting through their websites I discovered that Daniel Salomon, besides having projects such as delivering, in Esperanto for a non-Esperanto-speaking audiences, lectures around Europe about combustion and the reproduction of snails, and launching in Reykjavik a non-national sausage company selling a hot-dog named Kolbasoj Sen Limoj, or “Sausages Without Borders,” founded the Sennacia Bank (Bank without Nation) on Wheels, the only mobile bank in the world issuing the single-world currency “Mono.”
Ingird Hora born in Italy and currently based in Berlin, aims to show the idiosyncrasies and tensions that the contemporary society brings, with the design of objects, furnitures, and performances. Lately, her work has evolved around the idea of “Functional Escape,” a term she came up with to describe “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially through a special activity, purpose or task.” The objects carry stories of loneliness, hope and supplication as well as the need to hide and the desire to reach out.
The other production in residence is the project SUPERCALIFORNIA! by Sascha Pohflepp, a London-based designer and artist interested in past and future technologies, notions of art, business, and idealism. SUPERCALIFORNIA: Forever Future, is an installation that includes a short film, a series of portraits, and a set of objects. In the installation, a fictitious character named Rob Walker remembers the 1970s, the Voyager probes, and the debate about space colonies. The project tries to answer the question “What happens to technological visions when they do not come true?” and moves from the assumption that ideas, once they have been part of the public imagination, do not go away.
They might go into a kind of “cultural limbo” from where they may be materialized at another point in time, or there might be futures that for various reasons may never materialize, which appear to be speeding away and thus stay at a certain distance from us. Phantom futures may evoke a certain nostalgia in some, because they may have been part of the dreams and wishes of their life.
A way to stress the fact that sometimes reality can be much more dystopian and fictionalized than much of science fiction, but that science fiction and the design borne from it is as much as important as reality when it comes at the point of producing collective dreams and wishes.