Thursday, June 28, 2007

Back from travels!

As you may or may not know I recently went away on both holiday and business, starting in Amsterdam, proceeding to Delft where I met up with ex-IPDmates Oscar, Leonoor and Roseliek. Oscar is still ensconced in the academic world, conducting research into styling strategies at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at TU Delft. I visited him there and observed with awe their building - a vast warehouse type space with open access exhibition and workshop space in the middle, surrounded by dozens of studios overlooking it from a gallery level - the place was alive with work, and hundreds and hundreds of students! Quite a step up from PDE in Glasgow in terms of size!

Meanwhile Leonoor and Roseliek both work in consultancy including Fabrique and the very interesting Innovaders, a small sustainability-driven consultancy in Amsterdam, currently working on a power monitoring device for the home. I had a great time chatting on design and memories of Norway, and might even consider collaborating with Oscar on some research if we focus on some common ground - perhaps the significance of styling in defence contract bidding?!

Following on from Delft I promptly took the train (was doing the whole trip by train, mainly cos one can!) to Barcelona and Sonar 07! Oh yes. I had been looking forward to this for about, oo, a year equally for the music and the art and interaction pieces, and was not disappointed. Of particular interest was the SonarMatica, this year on the theme of Magic! Particularly pertinent as I was staying with an accomplished magician and Ramblas performer, Fergus, and his able assistant Suz! It was fascinating to approach the interactive exhibits from a completely product-based point of view, that is, without concern for the workings but the ultimate experience. And most of them really were magical to play with, particularly Philip Worthington's Shadow Monsters, which I first saw at the RCA show last year. This time he's added all sorts of new augmentations to the shadows, including turning any closed loops in the shadow (such as making an 'o' between thumb and forefinger) into eyes! With the sounds, the place was abuzz with particpiants sounding like a menagerie. Just on from that minim++ exhibited Tool's Life, which again played with shadows but with a level of tactility in that upon touching objects upon a table, their shadows are augmented with characterful animations and sounds - a seamless and simple idea. Round at the back of space, similar experiments with projection were taking place such as Christine Sugrue's Delicate Boundaries in which squirming bugs on a screen magically wriggled onto your hands as you approached them, with a wonderful life of their own, part trying to stay on your palm, but mostly rolling all over it. Just on from that, Diego Diaz and Clara Boj's AR_magic system was causing hoots of delight as people, looking at their wall-sized reflections proceeded to remove their friends' faces and place them on their own.

The latter projects were devised out of a workshop at the Medialab Madrid, and I was fortunate enough to attend a talk by a couple of the participants who talked with enthusiasm about the symapthetic experiential relationship between magic tricks and designed interactions - both ultimately concerned with audience's often beguiled entertainment, but what Zach Liebermann described as the 'open-mouth' effect - the involuntary dropping of the jaw that he observed amongst his audiences and is so well known by illusionists. Zach is a member of medialab and worked with Spanish magician Mago Julián on a show which was also performed amongst others at the exhibition. It was again a seamlessly choreographed performance mixing sleight of hand with video trickery to demonstrate what might be possible when technicians and artists collide. The project is called Open-sourcery and as the name suggested the aim is to distribute the source for the tools for further development by the magical community, an interesting and fundamental differnce in paradigms between the now well-known and oft expected open distribution of technical content and the equally well known propreitary and close nature of the magic circle!

Soon after that Julien Maire's Digit performance was completely unexplainable. The Sonar website describes it better than I can:

A writer sits at a table writing the script of a film. Simply by sliding his finger over a blank piece of paper, printed text appears under his index finger. The spectators can come very close to the “writer” and read the text following the movement of the finger.
The performance is simple but quite disturbing. Nothing appears to be in the way between the thought and the printed words. It seems that there is a shortcut somewhere: there is not computer, no typewriter, no noise, no projection. The spectator is free to follow a text written and drawn in a very easy and natural movement.

Another thing that Zach Liebermann mentioned and that I discussed later with Fergus, is the already established link between technology and magic - many tricks rely on the peculiar nature of a certain material, or some cleverly conceived and concealed device. Fergus pointed out the story of the Mechanical Turk (an excellent book exists on this by the way, I thoroughly recommend it). Later on, Fergus pointed out an amazing puppeteer on La Ramblas, deftly making a frog play a miature piano in perfect finger-synchrony with a soundtrack. Yet again a 'performer->technical device->magical outcome' situation. Wouldn't it be fun to design these things?

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There are many more gushing things to be said about Barcelona, but shall leave that for now ... onwards to Paris and Mr. David McCormick, reluctant researcher in Vision Science, or more specifically, the relationship between visual and aural cognition and from what I could fathom, trying to deliberately confuse people to see if he can using only bleeps and greyscale monitors! Can't say that we talked much design, although Dave has always been something of a design lover - I particularly admired his paperbag lights and continued my wonderings as to whether his love of design and the web and his research are linked in any direct way. I doubt it given his dislike for his current job, but he certainly conceded that he finds the audio-visuals at gigs a much more valid application of cognitive theory, and he should know, being as much of an expert in gig attendance as vision science..

While in Paris I also attended an exhibition at the Le musée
des Arts décoratifs
in the Louvre on Italian designer Joe Colombo, but it didn't interest me all that much to be honest - a little too adulative for me, praiding his futurism. It was indeed 60s futuristic, that is undeniable. But how much can you say the designers inspired the set designers and illustrators or vice versa without asking where it got them? One-off trade shows it seems, and innspiring another style trend. Fair enough, but not my cup of tea.

So from Paris to London, and the RCA show, the Central Martin's show, the Bartlett show.. it was hectic!

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