CARLA DIANA: FROM REAL TO VIRTUAL
AND BACK AGAIN
Txt: Barbara Sansone
/ Img: courtesy by Carla Diana
/ Eng: Luisa Bertolatti
Some years ago, in the rich panorama of designers and artists that used Flash to express their creativity on the web, there was a very interesting female figure whose work had already achieved international recognition. It was Carla Diana, from New York, but as her surname suggests, not far from her Italian roots.
Carla’s work immediately gave off a particular feel. Her environments were almost always abstract and sparse and the objects that populated them were sound toys that the user could manipulate at leisure, thanks to the complex programming behind them. And Carla, with her love for mechanical objects and music, with her capacity to capture through her senses the stimuli of daily life that are generally ignored, with her reflections on the relationship between animals (even humans) and machines, with her attention to feedback of her colleagues and users, with her curiosity that gave her a deep understanding and knowledge and technique and finally, her simplicity which makes her open and available to talk about herself and continue to learn about other people’s work, she showed how to use Flash as a means to conduct a personal and coherent research, as if it were possible to go around the limits and use it as a creatively rich concept.
Her works, marked by a distinguishable style, enrich that area of the Web that, thanks to Flash, began to be dedicated to art, to experimentation and entertainment.
After having taught for many years at the Savannah college of Arts and at the Georgia Institute of Technology and later having worked at Frog Design in San Francisco, Carla has now returned to New York where she works at Smart Design, a company dedicated to object design with a user friendly direction… a perfect place for her! And from the 25th of August till the 25th of September she was invited to the Barcelona office to collaborate on the development of a top-secret project, in order to avoid industrial espionage.
To have Carla here for a month for me was a huge gift. I met her 5 years ago when I was writing a book about web artists who used Flash. Getting in touch with her at the beginning generated some embarrassment, because I thought she was too important to dedicate any time to me. But I was wrong: Carla was immediately friendly, generous and had a deep desire to exchange opinions and knowledge. Se told me everything about herself, she sent me some of her files after having cleaned up and commenting the code so that I could write a tutorial and we became cyber-friends. When she said that she would be spending the summer in Italy with her family, I invited her to come and meet me in my splendid house by the sea in Sicily where I lived. But I felt that keeping her to myself was selfish and I organised a presentation at the beautiful Villa Aragona Cutò in Bagheria. To meet her face to face was a great pleasure and enormously exciting.
When in July this year she said that she was coming to Barcelona for a month, as well as introducing her to artists and experimenters, taking her to see important places like the Hangar, showing her the less obvious architectural paths and involving her in more pleasant activities, like dinner with friends and neibourhood parties, I immediately thought of repeating the experience of honouring her with a public presentation in a city that was much more prepared to be her host. Thanks to Antonia Folguera’s precious help, the event took place at the Niu on the 10th of September and once again was a huge success. Carla enchanted us, telling us of her stories and the evolution of her projects, wooing the audience with her intelligence, her charisma and her genuineness.
Carla’s biography suggests how elements of daily life can, when combined with character traits of a person, give life to a creative personality. Carla has always loved mechanisms and functioning processes of daily objects and this curiosity was the starting point of her fascinating story that made her a world famous designer. She was a “child with a screwdriver”: when she was little she loved cars, which in her view are the perfect combination of movement and solid parts, and she had great fun taking things apart, like her bike, or examining locks, opening the phone to see what it was made of inside. This irresistible temptation provoked fun and joy that she later tried to recreate in her interactive design. The users of Carla’s works can play around and take things apart and put them back together in different ways.
When she was little she studied piano and music theory. Coherently with her curious and creative personality, the approach to music was another stimulus to investigate mechanisms. Even if she did not use music in her professional life before she became a designer, she always wanted to put this joy into her life. Her first works were centred on the use of sound that involved numerous loops that sounded out simultaneously. The separate volumes could be regulated dynamically by manipulating the graphic elements on the screen. Carla defines these first works as interactive “visual mixing boards”. With the evolution of her work, Carla added the possibility of manipulating the height and rhythm as well as volume, connecting these properties to graphic objects on the screen. In her work music is an object to take apart and the user is invited to put it together, to mix up the elements it is made of.
An eloquent example of this is repercussion.org, winner of the Experimental Flash Forward Film Festival of 2003 in San Francisco, where the small parts that make up an instrument and produce a sound can be manipulated singularly or in blocks, influencing the product and functioning of the virtual machine. Or the most recent installation Fragile, created for the Lacoste Galleria Bleue, where hundreds of eggshells illuminated with different colours were inserted in the environment, a kind of cave. Once again the audience was invited to touch and manipulate, despite the fragility of the material, to substitute the three eggs placed in a central nest, modifying the environmental sound and generating unique sounds in each egg. The installation was then adapted for the exhibition in other spaces becoming a sound sculpture and interactive nest.
Carla is originally from New York, and she obtained her MFA in Design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and her degree in mechanical engineering at the Cooper Union. These studies, as well as satisfying her innate need to understand how the elements of mechanical objects coexist and are brought to life, influenced her strongly in her thought process and her expression in digital art manifestations. Her objects always have small autonomous functioning mechanisms that influence each other and determine the behaviour of the body they make up.
Furthermore, as Carla does not want them to be flat and anonymous, but prefers them to coexist and form a system capable of narrating a story, she puts them in contexts that generate environments and atmospheres and makes them manoeuvrable by the user. Because Carla’s work tries to keep in the confinement between the real and the virtual, between organic and mechanical, without forgetting the contact between two realities like the central idea of her work, the aesthetic of the objects is carried through the research in this balance.
In the past Carla worked in New York for the famous designer Karim Rashid, with whom she learnt a great deal about aesthetics and processes. She passed from Object Design (a definition she prefers compared to Industrial Design) to interactive design because she had the nagging sensation of creating “fake” and useless models that didn’t do anything, whereas designing for the screen and later for physical interactive installations gave her the power to take advantage of her capabilities to give life to her projects.
But even when she “limits” herself to the design of daily objects, to Carla the fundamental issue is that the object is user friendly, it must be used very easily and the user must not feel overwhelmed, the object must generate emotions, make us want to “hug” it. For her designing has the objective of expressing her compassion by creating devices that allow the user to feel understood and powerful, to compensate the mysteries of nature and time that take away their control of their existence. The tactile experience with an object of a studied shape and of immediate use facilitates communication between objects and people and creates the illusion of being super-human.
On the website there are some recent examples of the result of this philosophy, like the delightful Spluey pendant and the furniture that, thanks to a simple word carved into them, remind us of daily activities that we often forget to do (like a participant once said at one of her presentation, doesn’t that remind you of the amnesia phase of the inhabitants of Macondo?). This latest project, in particular, is interesting because of the modality of its distribution: Carla wants to sell the project for about 1 dollar so that anyone can produce their own furniture avoiding useless waste of transportation and stocking.
Thanks to her capacity to make design emotive, Carla was designated the task of designing the face and body of Simon, a humanoid that they are creating at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the field of the research laboratory on socially intelligent machines conducted by Dr. Andrea Thomaz. The robot has already appeared on the cover of the September/October 2009 issue of “Technology Review” and is achieving great international success.
But what are the ingredients of such a creative mind? To obtain work like Carla Diana’s you must have great technical skill, which in her case is completed by her curricula of studies and her work experience, but you must also have a message to give. The idea must be organised and made convincing by accurate directing, transmitted by a strategic use of means of visual and sound communication and eventually it must contemplate the user’s intervention in a stimulating way. And finally, it must find a place so that it can be made available to the public. What distinguishes Carla’s work is the idea at the base of it all that connects all her work: the reflection on humanity and on machines and trying to connect the two by creating a rapport inspired by daily life and digital possibilities.
The observations of the people who come into contact with Carla’s work are always connected in one way or another to the brain and its functioning. Her work seems to suggest an oscillation between two hemispheres of the brain and their specialities, which reflect the cohabitation in the digital artist of being able to have a dialogue with a machine when you instruct it to do what you want it to do, programming it with necessary, precise and rational language, and having a fantastic creativity which is at the base of the idea and in the strength of the content. Carla reflects on similar things when she considers the creative work. Sometimes she feels that art and design are simply a way a human being can delude himself or herself that they can control an environment, when it is evidently at the mercy of the Universe. In this sense it seems that the rational part of the brain dominates, in the user and the artist. On the other hand, once something is created, it has a life of its own with its own behaviour and gives the user the sensation of play and creativity. Carla loves to produce works that give a sense of control, but that become something new when the user uses it and gives them the freedom to explore. Her strong attention to the user, her capacity to enter into the user’s mind and anticipate their needs, of imagining what could make them laugh or could interest them, make the visitors of her works feel like a guest getting all the attention and the protagonist of an all-involving adventure.
Carla’s works are environments where the users find themselves being sucked in, to the point of forgetting where they really are. This result is the fruit of attentive and accurate planning, which begins with brainstorming on objects that make up the work, how they will behave, how they will move, how and when they can be used by the user. In this phase, Carla dedicates much time to the study of different possibilities on her sketch album, which fills up with little drawings and scribbled notes on the side of the page to describe how something must move or sound. Afterward, she tries to imagine the environment and the metaphor that connects these objects along a narrative line. The narrative aspect is one of the intangible pillars of Carla’s work: for her, even abstraction is always to do with a story. When projecting an idea, Carla asks herself what type of environment she’s creating, what type of creature or character lives there, how does that world sound and what emotions does it have to offer. For this she tries to avoid doing isolated experiments and prefers to begin working when the actions are cut to size for a theme at the base.
The fundamental objective of Carla’s work is to influence emotions in the user and create an experience that is in some way immersive. What is essential to her is an accurate connection between sound and image. In a good work, all the elements are deeply synchronized. All the components of a work must live side-by-side and work together like organs in one body, like mechanisms of the same machine. This creates a coherent environment and atmosphere with a clear and definite character, which is transmitted to the user in an unequivocal way, guiding them in an experience with great emotional enthusiasm.
Initially Carla chose the Web for the distribution of her work. For an artist that connects the capability of putting users at the centre of her projects to her need for expression, its a priceless experience to have a worldwide audience, unpredictable and numerous and free to choose whether, when and how they will use her work. Furthermore, compared to places that used to be dedicated to art, the Web is frequented by people of all backgrounds and with diverse interests. More recently though, she began to feel the need to go back to physicality, a tendency that all interactive art is having, which feels too limited when closed inside a simple screen. It was then that, beginning with a Repercussion converter in a physical installation, she dedicated herself to non web-based works. A shame for the greater difficulty of access, but nonetheless a decision that allowed her work to be expressed more completely, coherently and emotionally. Her work creates more sensations that can influence the emotions of the users and the interactivity allows them to modify the work and so giving them power over it. In Carla Diana’s work, the work controls the user and the user controls the work.
We now await anxiously for how Carla will translate the many stimuli that Barcelona has given her in a new work and hope to see her close-by more often, so she can tell us about herself and her precious teachings and points for reflection.