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The Future

is in the

Ideas

Composite Wing, 2014, The Future is Here Exhibition, RMIT Design Hub, 2014, Image courtesy of Studio Roland Snooks.

WORDS BY Fleur Watson

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.

Technics and Touch: Body-Matter-Machine, RMIT Design Hub, 2015/2016 Curators: Charles Anderson, Fleur Watson, Kate Rhodes | Photography: Tobias Titz.

The Future is Here, RMIT Design Hub, 2014. | Photography: Tobias Titz, 2014 | Curators: Alex Newson, Fleur Watson, Kate Rhodes.

Technics and Touch: Body-Matter-Machine, RMIT Design Hub, 2015/2016 Curators: Charles Anderson, Fleur Watson, Kate Rhodes Photography: Tobias Titz.

Technics & Touch: Body-Matter-Machine

This proposition of ‘performative curation’ was further tested via the exhibition Technics & Touch – a project co-curated with researchers Charles Anderson and Jondi Keane earlier this year.

Here, the intent was to explore the relationship between technology and creative practice through the seemingly simple activity of a robot and human drawing together. Here, the process of drawing is, as Anderson and Keane describe it: “an idea coming to be, just as much as it is a representational or instrumental tool. In this context,code is understood as a performative notation – both a drawing and a scripting. The code for the fabrication of an object is simultaneously the drawing of the object and the object itself. In this very process the activity that we call ‘drawing/thinking’ can be re-conceived and reinvigorated.”1

The project experimented with posing questions to one another in order to expose what robots and humans independently do well and what they might do better. How might the human and non-human collaborators learn from each other and create works that either participant by themselves would not be able to conceive?

The exhibition was conceived as two parallel spaces: a laboratory located in Project Room 1, where Anderson and Keane produced drawings that the robot responded to using real-time feedback systems and programs such as Grasshopper. The aim of the lab was to ask questions that work through the assumptions we have about the way robots function by working alongside and with them. As Anderson and Kean state: “Such an enquiry posits the potential of what could be termed ‘hybrid ecologies’ which, in this instance, refers to a dynamic inter-relationship between humans, robots, software programs, digital and analogue tools, diverse materials, and situation.”2

Here, as with The Future Is Here, the design as exhibit is integral to the intent to perform ideas. Rather than simply supportive, the design of the exhibition environment is an explicit curatorial move and commissioned as a ‘performative laboratory’, produced in collaboration with graphic designer Sean Hogan.

To further contextualise the performative space, the adjoining gallery collected together a diverse range of works by practitioners who explore rule-based or procedural drawing that use a set of parameters to enable an idea or task to be performed. Here, the works drew upon three themes: Figure, Frame, and Fugue. These groupings framed ways in which the activity of drawing assists us in understanding our relationship to the world, materialises our thoughts or enables complex interactions through algorithmic design processes.

Importantly, the exhibition aspired to move beyond the current ‘fetishisation’ of robotic processes to deeply explore the inter-relationship between humans and robots. It examined how designers might develop more effective interfaces to expand upon current capabilities and envisage new and progressive collaborative outcomes.

The Future Is Here and Technics & Touch extend upon Design Hub’s overarching curatorial intent to produce exhibition environments that test new methods of exhibiting design ideas and invite the audience to take an active part within the research process. As such, the curatorial intent is charged with an explicit agency to engage meaningfully, mediate and perform to audiences the process of making design ideas. New technologies, within this framework, are revealed as powerful enabling tools yet as being dependent upon progressive design ideas that experiment with performance and potential and, in turn, reveal their impact within a wider cultural context.

Fleur Watson
Curator, RMIT Design Hub

Footnotes:

1. Anderson C., Kean J. Introductory essay, Technics & Touch: Body-Matter-Machine, RMIT Design Hub, 11 December 2015 – 30 January, 2016.

2. Ibid.