Edition of One

Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am to work at the V&A, and the past week has been one of those times. First we opened the majestic new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, and now we have a new exhibition about the the present day, or maybe even the near future. The show is called Decode: Digital Design Sensations. Tightly conceived by the V&A’s Louise Shannon and Shane Walters, director of onedotzero, and sensitively designed by Francesco Draisci,  the exhibition works brilliantly on a lot of levels.There’s a lot to see and do: a lot of eye candy swirling around, and many of the works (like Mehmet Atken’s piece Body Paint, shown above) are interactive. But there is also a lot to think about.

What it made me reconsider, of course, is the sketch. Several of the ‘objects’ in the exhibition are driven by data captured from out there in the real world. One example is Flight Patterns by Aaron Koblin (my favorite work in the show, against stiff competition). It’s a digital animation that charts the passage of airplanes over North America over the course of a day, sped up so that 24 hours pass by in less than a minute.

It’s a stunningly simple depiction of a dizzying array of variables: geography, work patterns, harrowing nocturnal flights from the west coast to New York, America’s relations with Mexico and Canada, and many more. It looks like a sketch, but all the visualization is done by the work itself, which ‘draws’ something out there in the world, at a level of complexity that a human hand could never achieve.

Yet despite this backwards high-tech structure, there’s something here that is quite similar to the more traditional sketches discussed on this blog. Koblin still had to make a lot of decisions in realizing Flight Patterns, from the standard-issue design concerns of palette and format to more specific questions arising from the work. For example, it would not be nearly as poetic – or watchable – if it were a different speed. And if it focused on a different chunk of geography, it would have a very different political feel.

What this suggests to me is that these digital works still involve the same back-and-forth of concept and sketch that older forms of design do; it’s just that the work does most of the sketching. What are the consequences of this reversal? One phrase in Decode that caught my eye really seemed to sum it up. It was hiding at the bottom of the label for the work Nature, by John Maeda (the influential former head of the MIT Media Lab, where many of the technical and aesthetic ideas in Decode were developed, and now the President of the Rhode Island School of Design).

Like Koblin’s work, Maeda’s is a digital animation, fed by code. And it is described on the label as an “edition of one.” I love this wording, because it seems like a contradiction in terms. “Edition” usually refers to a work made in multiples, like a print or a photograph. It’s the opposite of a unique work. But in the context of Decode, the phrase makes a weird sort of sense. It captures the combination of the immateriality of a work like Nature (our sense that it exists as pure information) and also the obvious fact that we encounter it as a physical thing in space, materially composed of monitor, hardware, and the gorgeous play of light. In an introductory text panel, Shannon and Walters describe the works on view as ‘bespoke and tailored,’ and it seems to me that this craftsy language does capture something real in the designs.

Works like these revisit an old conundrum from the days of Conceptual Art in the 1960s: can a work be ‘dematerialized’? Some artists tried, and even got close. Robert Barry sent radio and radiation waves through gallery spaces; Yves Klein filled a gallery with nothing, calling it the Void. This absent-mindedness never achieved true dematerialization, of course; not even philosophy can happen without the physical traces of words. But what seemed an impasse back then seems, in Decode, to be a whole new world of possibilities. Via the digital, the immaterial and the material are interlocking in completely new ways. In the process, the contingent aspects of design  that used to be confined to preparatory processes are brought center stage. Now, they happen right in front of our eyes, making the work and being made by it all at once. We can even join in. That’s what I call a sensation.