Nascent technologies and platforms such as 3D-printing, robotic processes, digital looms, networked manufacturing, open-source micro computing and crowd funding are integral to supporting design practitioners experimenting with progressive ideas that may have only previously existed within the imagination or representational form.
From a community perspective, ‘new’ technologies are enabling more people than ever before to engage with the production of our physical world and to respond to the fast pace of our contemporary life. Public engagement with the idea of the ‘social city’ is evident in the proliferation of ‘maker spaces’, co-design platforms and the share economy through Uber and AirBnB etc.
Yet, generally, design exhibitions that engage with technology are mostly focussed on the pragmatics of these new tools or, conversely, present a fantastical future. The reality is that progressive design emerges in the middle of this dichotomy – the space where design ideas respond to and engage with technology in order to push experimentation and learning through thinking, testing, making, experimenting, failing etc. It’s in this ideas-led process that technology can reveal something new and influence the practice of design.
Exhibiting ideas and performative curation
Two recent exhibitions at RMIT Design Hub aspire to address this dichotomy and ‘perform’ the making and testing of progressive design ideas within the context of new technologies to a diverse public audience. Here, the notion of performative curation lies in testing experimental mediation methods for encountering design ideas and processes, as distinct from exhibiting finished works or artefacts. This performative intent aligns with the overarching remit for Design Hub to operate less as a traditional gallery and more with the intensity of a studio environment.
The Future Is Here
Originally a touring exhibition from London’s Design Museum, The Future Is Here was re-contextualised and co-curated specifically for the Design Hub Project Rooms. The exhibition spoke of the impact of new technologies within the context of a third-wave industrial revolution or a post-digital age. It asked: what do digital technologies such as 3D printing and robotic fabrication mean to our collective future?
As a building dedicated to a community of inter-disciplinary designers, there was a clear opportunity to curate a series of Melbourne-based projects into the show focussed on design speculation. In this way, the exhibition at Design Hub took a deliberate step back from the impact of the 3D printer on the ‘high street’ to present research projects that were informed by experimental digital production.
The exhibition environment itself also presented a vital opportunity to test this premise in spatial form. As such, the exhibition design for The Future Is Here at Design Hub was reconceived as an exhibit within itself with the intent to commission a large-scale, experimental architectural structure that would ‘house’ the exhibition objects and materials. More importantly, the structure created a full-scale spatial experience where the audience could experience a live research experiment in development.
The design as exhibit structure took its starting point from a prototype model by architect Roland Snooks that was first exhibited within Convergence, an exhibition curated for the Design Research Institute in 2013. Up-scaling and further developing this earlier iteration, Snooks’ design – The Composite Wing – merged robotic fabrication, CNC milling and laser-cutting technologies with traditional boat-building techniques. The result was a proto-architectural suite of tables and display surfaces whose structural and ornamental features were created through a digital translation of the natural swarming systems of birds, and fish.
Importantly, the surfaces of the Composite Wing formed the supporting base to display an additional, fourteen local design projects in various stages of development. Here – via models, material tests, prototypes and commissioned films documenting each project’s design process – the focus was on the thinking behind the use of new technologies. Examples included a prototype for an active building skin system, tailor-made bone replacement parts for medical applications using additive manufacturing and an experimental ‘exertion game’ that combined robotics with physical exercise.
The focus on speculation also carved out a space for debate around the fetishisation of new technologies within a wider socio-political context. Examples included Matthew Sleeth’s Study for a Drone Opera – a video-work that gave the audience an intimate view into the compelling subculture of drone-makers/ hackers and the complexities of experimenting in a public place with a new technology that has a complex and unclear legal status.
Undoubtedly, pursuing this curatorial method exposed the exhibition to risk. Firstly, via commissioning a highly speculative and previously untested structure as the exhibition’s primary exhibit. Secondly, the collaborative relationship between curator, researcher and manufacturer set up to realise the structure accepted that the fabrication technique – by nature of its highly experimental design – may fail to achieve an exhibition quality result.
The risks, however, were fundamental to the experimental nature of the installation and to the intent of performing the research ideas through this shared and transformative spatial encounter. The curatorial challenge, therefore, became less focused on mitigating the risk of failure and more intent on setting up a flexible curatorial framework that would be dexterous and adaptive to the evolving elements of the exhibition. In this case, a series of films were commissioned to document rigorously the process of producing the experimental structure (prototyping, robotic manufacturing, fabricating the mould, to full installation on site) in order to tell the story of the testing process and move beyond a singular focus on the form itself.