Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Saturday, October 24, 2009
“So what is wrong for artists to design a product, or to collaborate with the industry to make people a little happier?" probes Japanese new media scholar and curator Machiko Kusahara. She's showing us all kinds of new technology design projects invented by avant garde artists. She's arguing that more and more examples of artists working with commercial products are emerging--especially in Japan.
Machiko is taking us all on a jolting powerpoint journey through the emerging worlds of gadgets and devices.
Machiko's presentation works the cracks between the avant garde, concept design, industry and commercial applications. Here in the United States, we often ping poing within westernized binary logics: mainstream media bad, independent media/arts good; industry bad, experimental practice good; popular culture bad, criticality good. Machiko contends that these dualities aren't operative in Japanese culture.
One of the most interesting examples she screened on her densely packed, visually engaging , and utterly exciting powerpoint is the Tenori-on, designed by artists Toshio Iwai and Yu Nishibori. It's a new interface to make music and visuals simultaneously through a user -friendly touch screen interface. Yamaha sells it.
It's day two of the Spatialized Networks and Artistic Mobilities International Workshop at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell. I'm sitting in the lovely 19th century meeting room padded with a thick Persian carpet and a Steinway grand rumored to have the best tone in Ithaca. Oil painting portraits hang from the wainscotted walls.
The contrast between these wild new media designs from Japan--we just saw documentation of an installation of digitized water flows--and these surroundings that feel like part of the set from Pride and Prejudice could not be more extreme. And that's part of the pleasure of this gathering--it's an infiltration of original interrogations into networks, startling designs and the new horizons of digital theory into a domain I have come to associate with an emphasis on written texts and dispassionate, distant, often overly qualified theorizing.
Tim Murray, director of the Society for the Humanities, has occupied the forefront for creating think tanks where digital meets texts meets artists meets politics. The many digital culture symposia and workshops he's organized over the last decade have spurred collaborations, artists 'projects, theoretical writing. Murray is an intellectual and creative shaman fashioning creative cauldrons where new ideas emerge from unexpected interactions. He's also one of the most generous, gracious, and open intellectuals in upstate New York, according to reconnaissance from several of the participants in the Spatialized Networks workshop. He conjures vital, urgent communities and convenings.
We're now looking at Robot Tile by Hiroo Iwata, an Japanese engineering professor who works with nano-technology materials and makes tiles which use infrared sensors on the floor to move. A person walks on the tiles but they move to keep the walker in a room, always in the same place. The tiles are programmed to move in a specific direction. You walk forever but get nowhere.
Hiroo Iwata also invented a video camera attached to a blimp that sends the view from above to a spherical immersive screen in an oversized helmet. This sphere attaches to the head of the participant, making them look like an overgrown ant.
Machiko's talk is mind -stretching and challenging in this environment of artists and critical intellectuals. I sense that some in the room are uncomfortable with the contention that avant garde artists and designers would work in a bottom up way with industry. We've been watching a dizzying multitude of examples of experimental artists moving into design. Right now: Straw straw. The Muji prize winner with the gold prize, these artists have repositioned straw--yes, that's right, straw, as in barn, as in farm-- as wall art. These straws of wheat have a long history traced back to Mesopotamia. And now, they are art on a wall, or suspended in a plastic bag. Minimalist art? Design? A joke?
Senseware, explains Machiko, is the association of manufacturers of synthetic fibers in Milan, Italy. They offered the high-tech fabric to artists, designers, and architects who would realize new works using the latest textiles offered by the sponsoring companies.
Next up: the cleaning robot by Fukitorimushi designed by a Panasonic designers team. It looks like a white pillow, but crawls like an insect. It cleans the floors. The crowd of academics and artists here are laughing and smiling. The product uses nano-fibers. The nano fiber offers more surface than other fabrics--so it can pick up more dirt and dust. So, is it art? Is it design? Is it commercial? The form resembles a traditional zokin (cleaning cloth) used for fukitori (wiping). Cleaning, claims Machiko, constitutes a central part of Japanese everyday culture.
Machiko's conclusions are provocative. They ask us to dive into the blurs between art, design, industry:
My friend Stephanie Owens, herself a new media designer and artist, enters the discussion: Is the playful tradition of design in Japan connected to any where else? How do we think about the Japanese "tradition" of appreciating "gadgets" and "useless" design?
Machiko's answer: an image of the Chameleon USB, a USB stick designed to look like a chameleon. Some other models are designed to look like sushi, and others, like underwater creatures you'd see while snorkeling in the South China Sea.
"Designers need to think about the culture, rather than just selling it," suggest Machiko. Later, over a lunch of ham and brie sandwiches and spinach salad crackling with upstate cheddar cheese chunks, I asked Machiko how she defines the difference between a "device" and a "gadget." A device, according to Machiko, is something that is used. A gadget is something that in its utter uselessness, is fun.
As for me, I'm ready to snap up one of those nanotechnology pillows to clean the wood floors in my house. And on another screen as I write these words, I am scouring the internet to shop for one of those Japanese creature USB sticks to plug into my Asus netbook. Might be a good way to start a debate about what is art, what is design, what is experimental, what is a device, what is a gadget, what is industrial application, and....what happens when the avant garde and the everyday find each other in an intellectual and artistic traffic jam?