LAB (AU): META DESIGN
LIQUID SPACES AND THE CITIES OF TOMORROW
Txt: Marco Mancuso
There are people living in cities who are careful observers of the slow changes which are taking place around them. Such people are not inclined to complaining about new telecameras controlling the access to the old town centre, about the prevailing traffic and polluted air, or the advertising billboards covering the facades of the old buildings in boulevards.
The changes I mean are those little multimedia sparks which have started to become part of the urban landscape surrounding us: digital screens set in frequently visited places (such as stations, squares and airports), interactive shopping windows, public projections, multimedia advertising billboards. Those elements are more and more discussed and arouse curiosity as much as the latest discoveries in the ever-present demotic.
Surely the contents, the message and the display of information that could be conveyed through these digital systems are definitely far from the apocalyptic results imagined in Blade Runner (or in Salvatores’ Nirvana, just to pay homage to an underestimated Italian product)on the one side, or simply from a new contexuatualization of the public spaces and the ordinary urban landscape on the other. That could be a possible new form of emotional experience with the environments and relations we usually interact with.
My intention is not to deal with a complex topic on which experts much more “skilled” than me are still discussing and arguing, just in one article. What I just would like to point out is that on the one hand the media exalt a small number of architects who use digital technologies simply as a computation tool for their brave architectural calculations, while on the other hand those studies of design/architecture which interpret the concept of Meta Design or Media Architecture more literally are perhaps considered less appealing. So, together with stars such as Zaha Hadid, Nox, Libeskind, Koohlhas , who are able to surprise and charm with their shapes and projects (we suggest the extremely interesting essay by Maria Luisa Palombo Nuovi Ventri and many other books published in the Universal Architecture Series ), there are studies and projects such as Lab[Au] , which consider the idea of architecture mainly as an instrument to reinterpret the space, to enjoy and display the urban network of information, an artistic means to new emotional experiences that can link persons and objects, knowledge and emotions.
The subject is obviously long and complex and its analysis has already been dealt with on previous DigiMag’s articles and is meant to be dealt with in the future. Now I would rather take a break and listen to Manuel Abendroth from LAb[Au] , a collective living and working in Brussels and very close to the activities of their exhibition space, Media Ruimte. There are many projects which the Belgian collective developed according to the ideas explained above: interactive installations such as Touch, related to the urban architecture project for Dexia Tower, 12m4s and i-skin, collective audiovisual performances Liquid Space , multimedia dance project Men in e.Space and projects such as PixFlow and EOD02 ,
Marco Mancuso: For a start let’s talk about Lab[Au]‘s activity. How and when did you start, how does your gallery works, what are the activities carried out in your study and how do you work with special live projects or collaboration with other audiovisual artists and performers?
Manuel Abendroth: Since it’s founding in 1997 LAb[au], laboratory for architecture and u rbanism, explores digital design focusing on the question: how technologies of computation, communication and storage, known as ITC’s, transform the construct of space on the level of its perception, conception and meaning. According to this objective, the projects by LAb[au] range from experimentation (laboratory) to production (bau = the construction). Further on, through the principle of a collaborative agency, LAb[au] explores the setting of a new discipline, MetaDesign, acting on the modalities of digital technologies.
In this sense, LAb[au] follows the 20 th century avant-garde purpose, and as our agency name suggests, particularly the one of the Bauhaus. Triggered by technological advances, new codes (semantics) and methods (practice) appear often revealed by the term that is used to qualify them, as for example the word ‘design’ came up in the beginning of the last century according to the shift of pre-industrial to industrial society. The emergence of the concept of ‘design’ around the Bauhaus had the intended purpose of qualifying artistic concerns in relation to the technological changes of the time in order to reintroduce them in the concept of art itself. The very term of design has since evolved, as technology did, from industrial design to communication design, system design etc. Seen from this angle the industrial revolution led to design, the post-industrial area to communication design (around the Ulmer Schule) and the informational revolution to system and process design, which we designate as MetaDesign. As non-exclusive these terms can be and as interwoven the developments and purposes, they all are based on a common question: how technologies shape the aesthetics of their time, influence artistic practice and the entire conception / production / meaning of artefacts.
Obviously, these questions aren’t specific to one single artistic discipline but influence all of them; therefore we established our ‘lab’ in the form of a collaborative agency to cross different methods and practices and thus to explore these questions within different perspectives. LAb[au] ‘s own background is architecture and our focus is architecture, but in times where the notion of space is changing radically, it is important to research these fundamental questions within a wide field and without any disciplinary borders. Yet during the past ten years of our collaborative work and projects we established a design methodology, which we define as parameter design , inherent to all our projects. This reveals another important aspect of our work: the conceptual and theoretic work about a design method proper to IC technologies, which we define as MetaDesign.
In order to examine and explore all the different aspects of MetaDesign including research, production and development we further felt the need to establish a space to experiment and exchange with other artists active in digital media. According to this motivation we founded in 2003 our own gallery with the focus on digital art, architecture, design and music, called MediaRuimte (but which will from 2008 be named MetaRaum). All these different aspects define today LAb[au] as a digital art, architecture and design group, a research lab and a digital design platform.
Marco Mancuso: How do you plan the activities of your gallery in Brussels? How do you think a modern gallery should work today and how do you interact with the space available to you? What are in your opinion the types of artists and the most interesting disciplines? How do you relate to contemporary art market?
Manuel Abendroth: MetaRaum [ 01t XYZ ] is a platform for digital design which we initiated four years ago with a program focusing on the digital medium and its multiple forms of expression, as such: MR+ ( MetaRaum abbreviation to MR., say ‘Mister’ ). We follow a very strict programmatic focus on digital design while hosting a series of activities going from exhibitions ( ‘MR.xpo’ ), artist-presentations ( ‘MR.ini’ ), audiovisual performances ( ‘MR.wav’ ), conferences ( ‘MR.txt’ ), online studies ( ‘MR.www’ ), artist-residences ( ‘MR.tmp’ ) to workshops ( ‘MR.exe’ ). The intention of LAb[au] is to propose an experimental platform BY artists FOR artists where experiences and exchanges are shared with a public. New presentation formats proper to digital art are explored, and each invited artist is encouraged to explore the modalities of its work through live-experiment and site-specific development. MediaRuimte is thus as much a platform for presentation and creation as it is a place to experiment and to cross different artistic practices.
One of the specificities of our gallery lies in its focus on digital design, its practice, concepts and formats, excluding all other forms such as multimedia art or art replacing traditional formats and technologies by computers. For example: one can compose music with or without a computer but there is a very specific type of music which one can’t compose without computers such as algorithmic, generative, interactive and programmed music. We follow the same criteria for design, art, architecture… For us it is important to follow this strict distinction to be able to explore digital design in its conceptual, theoretic specificities as in its presentation and production modalities. Of course this approach is much influenced by our own, LAb[au] ‘s work, and thus MetaRaum is an artist space for experimentation and project development inviting each artist to research and observe new design aspects. This reveals another specificity of our space: there are only a few places where digital artists can experiment, develop and exchange; thus MetaRaum acts as much as a design lab as on a community level. All these aspects differentiate MediaRuimte from traditional art galleries and the art business. Of course MediaRuimte was never intended to be a commercial gallery but obtains public founding’s as much as LAb[au]‘s own investment.
Marco Mancuso: Your artistic activity is various and diverse. You are involved in interaction design projects and in different kinds of installations, as well as in live audiovisual shows and dance performances such as those performed for Todaysart festival. So, how do you decide to work choosing one direction rather than another and what is the attitude that leads you? Besides, is there “guiding principle” which connects all your works and your different artistic attitudes?
Manuel Abendroth: I agree that at first glance our works may seem heterogeneous; implying various artistic disciplines and formats such as audiovisual productions, dance, fashion, graphic design, architecture and urbanism, but on a closer look you will discover a continuous and methodological approach. On the one hand all our projects are based on the question how digital technologies transform our perception and understanding of space and thus deal with nowadays architectural concerns involving questions about interactivity, immersion, information architecture…and many other constructs. Today investigating ‘space’ is not a question which belongs only to architects but many other disciplines such as dance, music therefore all our collaborations and investigations within various disciplines allow us to approach these questions from various angles, which I think is crucial in times where fundamental notions and concepts of space change.
One the other hand our work is entirely based on a design philosophy which we define as MetaDesign. From an etymological viewpoint MetaDesign combines two notions: the one of Meta and the one of Design, both very connoted as much in the field of computer science as in aesthetics. In computer science ‘ Meta ‘ describes the type of information necessary to instruct any kind of communication or computation process, it defines as well its spatial, morphologic or semantic parameters. It thus designates the way binary data is processed into textual, graphic information. In short it describes a higher hierarchy of information; it is information about information . In this manner the use of the word ‘ Meta ‘ in the definition of a methodological approach focuses on the parameters of information structures, processes and systems, its architecture. Further it reveals that information processing technologies instruct their own language and aesthetics which differentiate them from other artistic practices.
Whereas the use of the term ‘ deSIGN ‘ besides its Latin definition ‘signare’, to distinguish by a sign, is more based on its cultural and historic meaning. During the Bauhaus period, El Lissitzky was employing the term to identify and to found a new artistic approach according to the age of the machine. But rather than being a pure aesthetic reflection it was founded on the necessity to rearticulate artistic practice according to the social, political technological transformations. The combination of both words in one single construct thus relates to its technological, semantic and cultural understanding and reflects our contemporary state in the production of cultural artefacts. According to this, Metadesign can be defined as a practice grounded on the inherent logics of computation and communication technologies in the visualisation and formalisation of inFORMation processes in textual, graphical, spatial constructs. As a discipline MetaDesign is about the setting of codes / language drawn from concepts of communication and information sciences – cognitive science with that of process methods _ design and spatial constructs _ architecture.
For our own work this design methodology reveals the fundamental questions about design, its practice and concepts and thus is more relevant than its distinction according to traditional disciplines and formats. In all our projects underlies this methodological and architectural thinking, not architecture, at least not as we traditional define it.
Marco Mancuso: Have you ever had the chance to work in public spaces with urban audiovisual installations and interaction media design projects? Can you tell me something more about the Dexia Tower project in Brussels?
Manuel Abendroth: Most of our recent projects deal with interactive urban installations and fixed interventions in an architectural frame. One of these projects is ‘touch’ which was the most challenging project last year as it proposed to experiment on a huge scale (a 145m high skyscraper in the city centre of Brussels) the influence of IC technologies on architecture and urbanism. A multi-tracking touch screen interface sheltered inside a pavilion placed in front of the skyscraper allowed citizens to interact in real-time with the enlightening of the tower by choosing a colour and composing out of points ( windows) lines ( the edges of the building) and surfaces ( the facades ) an architectural enlightening (4200 windows, each enlightened by RGB led rails). This interaction is far more than a fancy and playful device to create an attraction but the involvement of everybody in architecture, public space and the image of the city. For this reason it was also important for us that people could snap a picture showing their ‘creation’, the enlightened tower placed inside the Brussels skyline, in form of an electronic postcard that they could use as a greeting card to send their best wishes for the new year 2007. The entire project, this communication chain, creates an exchange between the individual and the public space, the collective sphere, exploiting IC technologies, its processes and logics, to create a new and contemporary form of citizenship and urban artefacts.
There are many ways to think about light and design; one of these is to consider light as information, be it on the level of a receiver, transmitter or sender. From this viewpoint and from the terms we applied to it in the Touch project _ light design is the design of communication and its representation in order to establish a new urban sign involving each citizen in its setting. In the Touch project the use of interactive media in an urban context allowed us to explore the relation in-between the individual and the collective. LAb[au] has a long history of experimentations in the active use of IC technologies to conceive and create spatial processes but it was the first time we had the opportunity to do it at this scale.
Marco Mancuso: Personally I am very attracted by your activity of designers and architects involved in planning the city urban landscape again using digital technologies. What do you think about media architecture and what is your idea of public installations like those showed during Todaysart for example? How can media work to change he perception of our metropolis and what are the differences between you and the architects who works with digital technologies with a procedural approach such as Zaha Hadid, Nox, Libeskind, Koohlhas and others?
Manuel Abendroth: To answer this question we first have to agree on a certain definition of architecture. From our point of view architecture and urbanism are structural and functional disciplines involved in the spatial and temporal organization of social, economic, political structures through which they also constitute a semantic system of signs and codes. All these aspects define them as organizational disciplines that process, analyse and structure data within spatial constructs while improving it with a specific significance – meaning. On this level it reflects and produces cultural, social codes.
In this relation ne w media, digital design will more and more take part in the construct of space / architecture, as it already does in our daily life, a state were its conception directly includes the question of interaction design, interfaces & software developments, information architecture These developments will play a major role in tomorrow’s design / architecture. For example the design of the ‘Touch’ project was only possible due to our own hardware, the 1.7 x 0.8 multi-touch screen, and software development. This development allowed us further to layout the project for an outside and urban use and shifted the development from a technological device to the design of an enlightened urban pavilion. Due to the fact that we could cover the entire conception and realisation process we could encounter the development with more design and conceptual considerations; actually it allowed us to ‘design’ a coherent project, not a technology, according to the contextual, technological and conceptual parameters. Therefore we think that interactive design is less a question of a specific technology but rather the ability to encounter technology with conceptual, artistic concerns, fitting these technologies inside a broader meaning.
Nowadays there are many interesting projects and design teams which explore new technologies in the construct of architecture and urbanism, including interactive and generative design, new communication channels and smart materials… But most of these proposals aren’t realised by architectural offices since they don’t investigate these technologies on their conceptual and technological level, but rather as an added element plugged onto a traditional architectural design and which for most of the cases are even designed by external teams. For example to conceive a media façade involves the question of the content and the manner this content is formatted displayed and accessed, which is a fundamental question when conceiving a media façade but which are for most of the time left besides. Or to expand to another example the design of a library nowadays implies information design running from the conception of the backend system, the conception of a relational database, until the conception of the graphical user interface and the way they are displayed and accessed. This conception implies a series of decisions, each affecting the meaning of the system. These parameters and design potentials can only be understood when being involved in this project development and research phase.
One may find this reflection very abstract but if you pay a closer attention to some ancient built libraries you will discover that the structuring of their content (books), and displays ( shelves ), can affect the spatial structuring of a building and thus directly influence the form = the meaning of the building. Take for example the city library of Asplund, isn’t this a symbol of the renaissance enlightening idea, in the centre of all books stands the enlightened man? When looking to this example one may understand that the structuring of the books directly influence the meaning of the building, but what happens if the books turns more and more digital ? Do we have to give up the idea of the library as a public space? Will it only be a screen interface? I think when we still want architecture to be part of the production of social and cultural artefacts we can no longer conceive architecture without taking information processes, communication and computation, in account when conceiving spatial and semantic constructs. Architects have to work with IC technologies, experience their specificities and understand their processes to be able to conceive nowadays architecture. Unfortunately for the moment there are only few architectural offices which involve digital design within their architectural practice. In consequence most of the interesting examples are realised by people coming from other fields than architecture. This missing involvement into nowadays fundamental architectural questions is for me the reason why so many of the so called ‘star’ architects design turn more and more into the design of personal phantasms without any relevancy for the ongoing transformations in our society. According to all mentioned references you may imagine my profound conviction that architecture can and has to play an important role in these processes.
Of course in this discussion there is another point that raises question: are digital design teams able to understand architectural and urban issues. When seeing many interactive and digital installations produced in the last years we can question the relevancy of interactive and digital design in the field of architecture; many projects leaks any significance and most of the time interaction design has rather an entertaining than a representational or symbolic value. From this point of view digital design teams will have to encounter their design, get aside from the technological gear, and face the public realm and the relevancy and new forms.of public space.
Marco Mancuso: Finally, what are your experiences with digital art festivals? Last year you worked with Club Transmediale, while this year you have worked with Todyasart among the others; moreover, you are connected to Cimatici’s platform in Brussels. How did you work with those partners, and how hard it was to deal with the huge organization of those festivals and to work in cooperation with other artists and sometimes to fit your works to very wide spaces as for men in e.space project which was showed in Den Haag inside its City Hall?
Manuel Abendroth: It is obvious that there is at shift of generation taking place in the electronic music and digital media scene. New festivals are appearing that become more and more important for artistic exchange and mediation, replacing well established festivals; is it on the level of a more artistic than theoretic and academic focus or on their implication as structures within artistic production. It seems to us that the most fruitful experiences are festivals with which we can establish a partnership in order to develop site-specific presentations and projects, as we have been able with the festivals you mentioned. I think this basis is crucial to present big scale projects according to their specific modalities: spatial, conceptual, and technological level.
I think more and more festivals are looking for these long term exchanges not only to face the complexity of new media works but to follow and anticipate the artist works. In concern of the mentioned festivals one important aspect is that they are led by young teams with a motivation to explore and develop projects broadening the classical context of a festival, and to research long term collaborations as opposed to the standard, rather short, period of a festival.
For example to present a performance such as the Man in e.space dance performance inside a public space like the town Hall of Richard Meier in Den Haag during the Todaysart festival isn’t imaginable without such an involvement and anticipation.
Of course these experiences also ask a different involvement from our side and turns to very unique and experimental forms which is only possible when the festival team knows our artistic concerns. It is very positive to see that all these mentioned festivals follow our work to be able to anticipate it. In this partnership idea we collaborate with the Cimatics festival now for the fifth time proposing specific projects and exhibitions to complete the festival focus in the field of digital design and Club Transmediale offered us an entire building to organise a two weeks collaborative design cycle under the title of “liquid space”. All these are very positive examples and a great reason why these festivals become more and more important their field.