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Objects Caught in a Net

Roberto Bottazzi reviews exhibition Creative Multiversities, a collection of work delving into digital technologies

All great design ultimately contains a philosophical component. That is, all great works are self-reflective as they radically question the very field within which they arose. They ask more questions than they answer, colonise new territories paving the way for other pieces of work to emerge; they redraw the limits of given disciplines, hybridising them with others that, until that very moment, they had no connection with. The value of this work resides both in the objects actually produced as well as on a meta level, as a contribution to the cultural discourse on a specific topic.

Creative Multiversities, which took place at the Centre Pompidou in Gallery 315, achieves all that with great economy of means. Fifteen pieces scattered in one large room turn out to be actually enough to cast a very different light on the nature of creative processes today and their radical potential. The trigger for such profound rethinking is the ever-growing and pervasive world of data and, more importantly, networks which both metaphorically and literally are here utilised as generative tools for design.

The rather convoluted title of the show also reminds us that contemporary creative processes fully bank on industrial technologies such as CAD/CAM systems which allow the smooth transformation of digital information into physical objects or experiences.

Though the exhibition is only a small sample of the production in this field, it compellingly collects works which tackle the rather vast and fluid relation between digital technologies and creative processes. The authors of these projects have an average age of 35, and yet assert maturity and confidence in dealing with the volatile world of rapidly-evolving digital technologies.

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Res Sapiens 2 by LUSTlab e Pieke Bergmans

Curator Valerie Guillaume breaks down the collection on display into three main categories: generating, manufacturing and representing digital data. Though consistent in its entirety, no clear unifying traditional narratives link the works. For instance, established disciplinary categories do not really apply as architecture, web design and product design casually coexist.

The distinction between product, process and prototype is also blurred: Linkfluence’s beautiful interactive map of the French blogosphere is an open, interactive work, whereas Kossi Aguessy’s furniture could easily be put into production immediately. Aesthetics, too, does not provide any more poignant insight; despite all the work having been generated by concentrated use of computers and their computing power, the formal language of the pieces is highly differentiated: Achim Menges’s elegant folded wooden surface sits right next to Philippe Morel’s cubic concrete modular system.

As for the most challenging and radical of exhibitions, we are asked to question the work at a more profound, almost conceptual level. It is in fact the very notion of design, its definition, materiality, methods and effects as cultural artefacts, that are at stake in this show.

Design is here interpreted as a more distributed activity, operating under the paradigm of continuity rather than discrete domains. Through digital design and manufacturing techniques, virtual and physical worlds can be thought of as one, as continuous fields which allow us to materialise digital data as much as digitise our physical reality.

If 19th-century philosophy healed Alberti’s distinction between the designer’s hand and brain, we are now in a position to think of the real and the virtual as continuous rather than separate realms. Biothing/Alisa Andrasek can therefore utilise exquisite agent-based animations to derive the form and structure of her buildings, while Achim Menges’s folded wooden installation senses variations in humidity levels, which are computed into kinetic inputs altering the shape of his piece. Here the material qualities of wood actively determine the shape of the work, creating a sort of physical computing. 

HygroScope - Meteorosensitive Morphology by Achim Menges, in collaboration with Steffen Reichert

HygroScope - Meteorosensitive Morphology by Achim Menges, the wooden folds alter with humidity levels

The notion of creativity, too, is questioned by the employment of networks as creative materials. Many pieces in the show start from extracting and mapping large sets of data extracted from the Internet which are thus treated as ‘found objects’.

These data could be compared to DNA code, the raw materials that will give rise to all sorts of unpredictable constructions; these hybrids can involve intersecting data with even more data sets (as in Bruno Latour’s mapping experiment on the art/engineering group EAT) or even with literary references (Neri Oxman’s stunning series of mythical figures is directly inspired by Borges’s fictions).

Though no one disputes the originality of the work, we are not confronted with creativity as an ex-nihilo, solitary act, rather creativity here is more akin to the notion of digital remix, a hybrid composition that is often manipulated by the author as much as the end user.

The distinction between production and consumption unavoidably thins out as we, the visitors, become part of the piece. This is the case of LUSTlab and Pieke Bergmans’ dance between two lamps which translate into physical motion messages sent through Twitter accounts.

The definition of what constitutes design in this context is also unstable: robotic manufacturing techniques are employed to manufacture the work. Rather than finite objects, these technologies allow designers to create systems based on general parameters that bear multiple solutions. This is only possible by resorting to advanced software packages which are no longer just ‘tools’ to assist the design process but rather co-creator of the work, at the same time curtailing and augmenting the designer’s ambitions.

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Fogo Lamp by Kossi Aguessy

In line with the spirit of the exhibition, the institution of the museum, the Centre Pompidou in this case, also turned itself into a network. It not only commissioned all the 15 pieces on display, but it went a step further by opening up its own innovation space, a Fab Lab − which stands for fabrication laboratory − which is in itself the result of a collaboration with the Zinsou Foundation and the Centre Songhai in Porto-Novo; Kossi Aguessy’s furniture Benin is the first output of this partnership.

The challenging and forward-thinking nature of this show would have lent itself to further discussion to unravel the complexity of the issues discussed. As the nature of these questions is conceptual as much as pragmatic, a catalogue would have been a welcome accompaniment to the exhibition.

Perhaps, in the spirit of the show, this too should have been an open, interactive document able to grow and evolve exactly like the kind of design it frames; an implicit declaration that the creativeprocesses gathered here are only the beginning of a profound transformation in the way we see and affect our built environment.

Creative Multiversities

Venue: Centre Pompidou

City: Paris

Dates: 3 May to 6 August 2012

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