Monday, February 4, 2013

School of Design Work-in-Progress Show, Royal College of Art, 3rd February 2013

I love speculative futures.  Seeing how people in the past imagined the future gives you some great insights into how they viewed themselves.  This exhibition is in that vein, albeit looking at a more immediate future.  A work in progress show, this is a collection of new designs ranging from the sensible and practical to the surreal, created by students from the School of Design.  There was an enormous wealth of stuff on show, too much to comprehensively talk about, but there were a few pieces that stood out to me for various reasons.

Though not part of the Work-In-Progress show, there was a very eye-catching display of concept cars; ‘The Natural Audi Project’, which asks first year vehicle and textile design students to design a car with inspiration from the natural world.  I’m not much interested in cars,  but I can certainly appreciate nice aesthetics.  All of these concepts were achingly beautiful, and for want of a better word; cool.   They’re all sleekly curved and forward thinking, the design briefs reading like science fiction.

My favourite was Edward Starkey's, “Audi A0” that seeks to emulate flocking behaviour in animals, using “bio-mimicry principles”.  It’s fitted with biomechanical sensors that would allow cars moving along a busy road to behave like a school of fish or a flock of birds, hopefully relieving congestion.  Sure it’d be an absolute nightmare for pedestrians, but the image of a flock of cars winding their way around each other on a motorway is a novel and exciting one. 

The Audi A0 by Edward Starkey
I was here to see the ‘Design Products Programme’, a project divided into seven separate groups known as ‘platforms’.  Walking around you see material and technology used in fascinating ways; wallets that tell you how much money is in them; vases made from thousands of crushed rose petals, bell jars of fat impregnated with smells and vacuum sealed bouquets.  At every turn you find diverse materials re-purposed, often with a sly element of humour. 

The fact that so much on display seems friendly helps elevate the work from the realm of the coldly conceptual towards something more human.  There was one display of handles that you can attach to surfaces to create monkey bars along office ceilings allowing workers to swing their away down corridors by their arms, or do ‘kung-fu’ kicks around corners.  There’s the odd but fun eroticism of malleable doorknobs, and the innate ridiculousness of overly complex ‘apology’ forms to hand out to people you’ve wronged.

It’s fortunate that most of the work is so friendly, because there were some few pieces that had vanished up their own arses:
Skeuomorphism or kitsch it raises questions [sic] about the values we associate with forms and materials and the inertia of our ability to understand the changing elements of our landscape.”
This is a description of a packet of rice.  And not even a very interesting packet of rice.  But, thankfully, rubbish like this is in a minority.  A few pieces up from this are pieces made from charcoal which the artist, Taehun Ko pleasantly tells was inspired by watching ‘Jurassic Park’.  Now that’s the kind of artistic inspiration I can get behind.

A wallet that tells you how much is in it!
There’s a disappointing aspect to many of these pieces: they don’t work.  The work has strong tendency to practicality, actually seeing the objects functioning adds a lot.  But as you walk around, eagerly interacting with some of the displays you’re frequently disappointed.  There’s a table of deconstructed remote control ‘toys’, and all of them are out of batteries, sitting motionless on the table.  You excitedly pick up the remote control for, say, a window cleaning robot, but nothing happens.  The same kind of non-functionality extends to a portrait that’s intended to be weeping, a religious miracle reduced to crystal clear materialism.  Which would be great - if it was actually weeping and not just a photo with some tubes attached to the back.  Granted, this was the last day of the show, but considering it was only four days long it feels lazy to have a lot of stuff out of order so quickly.

The exhibits that were working had their share of thrills among them though.  I particularly enjoyed Markos Ioannides’ ‘Hidden Data’.  It’s a darkened room that looks plain and boring under regular light.  You’re instructed to turn off the light, and then switch on a UV torch, and you see that the walls are painted with bright streaks of UV paint.  This is all interesting enough stuff, it’s great ‘playing detective’ and finding the hidden messages.  But the most interesting thing in the room is the full length mirror which allows you to view yourself under UV light.  Holding it up to your face makes your teeth glow aquamarine and reveals invisible freckles over your face. It’s a disconcerting effect seeing things all over you that you had no idea were there, a neat, real shift in perception.

A Barbie in some kind of wind machine to blow her hair about.
There seems to be a focus on stimulating all your sense, touch, taste, smell, hearing and seeing.  It’s great fun to put on a pair of headphones and walk across various surfaces, hearing the amplified beat of your footsteps change as you tap across metal and wood.  But my favourite was ‘Sweet 25’, a sweet that’s been designed to melt in the mouth over the course of 25 minutes, changing flavours to warn you about how long has passed.

Feeling a little bit like Violet Beauregarde I looked around to make sure no-one was watching and popped the experimental art sweet into my mouth.  When else am I going to get to eat a futuristic piece of chocolate?  Worryingly, the first sensation was an acrid, unpleasant soapy taste.  Had I made a big mistake?  What a way to go, poisoned by eating a piece of conceptual design.  Fortunately the soapy taste soon wore off, leaving me with the slightly awkward situation of having a large block of sugar in my mouth for about 20 minutes.  It's a novelty keeping to track of time by sweet, and the size of it meant that I couldn't talk during it.    Adding to this was a slight paranoia that a security guard was going to slap a hand on my shoulder for eating my way through the art.  Eventually, the sugary substance broke away, leaving a sweet peanutty centre.  Not bad at all. 

A pretty damn fun afternoon all things considered.  If the future looks anything like the imaginations of students at the School of Design, it's going to be a neat place to be.

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