The selection of the theme of this exhibition—interrelating artistic concepts with industrial designs for future consumer products—reflects the expertise of curator Shoko Takahashi. Coming from a background in product planning and business sector development, she now works at the Ars Electronica Futurelab conceiving workshops designed to help industrial firms develop visions for products of the future. Nevertheless, “What does industrial design have to do with art?” was a question posed by several visitors at the opening of InduSTORY in the Knowledge Capital exhibition in Osaka. In cooperation with Martin Honzik, director of the Ars Electronica Festival, she explained this approach to curious members of the public with reference to the exhibits on display, the work of an artistic duo going by the name of neurowear—Kana Nakano and Tomonori Kagaya— Prototyping & Design Laboratory, that is led by Prof. Shunji Yamanaka. The tremendous relevance of this topic is reflected by the huge number of visitors, with interest extending far beyond the core target audience of art enthusiasts; many representatives of industrial firms have also been in attendance. What these two completely different implementations of socially relevant industrial products have in common was the point of departure of this interview with Shoko Takahashi.
Shoko Takahashi: Both approaches are matters of using artistic means to demonstrate the participatory aspect of product development. Since the Digital Revolution and the advent of the Internet of Things—that is, the phenomenon of the computer unobtrusively assisting human beings in the course of everyday life—manufacturing consumer products has long since ceased to be a one-sided process. Industry in the classic sense—that is, serving up products to people and creating needs with advertising—has become passé. Thanks to new technologies like the 3-D printer and exchange via the internet, individuals beyond the realm of the industrial elite are becoming inventors and developers. And this, in turn, is increasingly making it important for big companies to reestablish an advantage by addressing issues in a way that proceeds from a standpoint other than the classic self-centered value creation. In the brainstorming process, art is helpful as a mediator.
If one considers the objects on display, one discovers, on one hand, seemingly futuristic engineering replication of the organic system —and, on the other hand, products that constitute gadgets—i.e. technical toys. Could you cite and elaborate on a few examples that put the above-mentioned distinction into concrete terms?
Shoko Takahashi: The first case you mentioned are robotic devices created by the Prototyping & Design Laboratory headed by Professor Shunji Yamanaka. The robot series named “Ready To Crawl” showcases principles of motion, design in digital software, and potentially to be printed from a 3D printer, that may allow you to customize the eventual shape to exactly fit to your bones and muscles.
In conventional 3-D printing, the output results from the accretion of layers of the heated material. In sintering, on the other hand, a block of powder-like material is heated by laser in such a way that the form rendered on the computer fuses in one piece while the rest of the powder is blown away. Thus, construction is a one-time process that entails no assembly with screws and joints. “Ready to Crawl” resembles a sort of centipede that, with the exception of its motor which drives a spring, is a one-piece construction. Of course, this was the outcome of a trial & error process that resulted in quite a few dysfunctional prototypes before an ideal model finally emerged. But once hard-and-fast rules about the product’s spacing, size and stability are established, anyone can generate his/her own individualized part.
There is another impressive exhibit by the same artist, the robot named “Apostroph”, which represents a sophisticated approach to develop a robot itself. It is accomplished by a very simple structure, arcs and motors. The beauty resides not only in its external design, but in the noble idea to achieve robust stability by respecting the law of nature, which tends to be overtaken by the classic industrial engineering approach that aims to govern precise movement by strictly calculated controller.
But before you reach the point at which you can arrive at a functionality assessment by using trial & error, you need to have an idea of what you want to generate when you’re creating your design on the computer in the first place. So then, what are the origins of the initial assumptions or of the knowledge about the robot’s form and function? They’re probably from existing industrial models.
Shoko Takahashi: The way “Apostroph” works is based on observations of the natural behavior of living organisms. The stability of any living creature is based on the laws of gravity, or on the struggle against gravity. The ideal posture, the one a person unconsciously assumes, is the upshot of the mode of least exertion that the body has to expend in order to achieve equilibrium. Secreted in Apostroph’s joints interconnecting the bent frame components are motors that enable the individual parts to rotate at full 360° and are programmed so as to counteract external force—that is, gravity. For the most part, the mechanism resembles a human being standing up from a reclining position. Before we stand comfortably on our feet, we first have to align ourselves.
Let’s turn to the other elements of the InduSTORY exhibition. What’s the story with the prototypes created by neurowear? They undoubtedly give a totally different answer to the question of our society’s future needs … What are they?
Shoko Takahashi: neurowear is a Tokyo-based project team that focuses on creating “communication for the near future.” They design prototypes of new products and services on the basis of biological signals such as brain waves, heartbeat, etc. These are, above all, so-called gadgets—i.e. technical toys—that can by stylishly integrated into everyday life. There are several such objects featured in InduSTORY. “mononome” was the first so-called eye of things device, which can be mounted on furniture or household appliances to alert users that, for example, the refrigerator has to be restocked or it’s high time to do a little vacuuming. It communicates this by a sad expression in its eyes. “onigilin” is a device that helps you meditate by controlling the three elements that are essential for relaxation: body tension, breathing rate and heartbeat. It’s shaped like a rice ball and can be taken along anywhere. We’re also showing “cotorees,” three cone-shaped devices stylized as little birds. Each birdie can perform only a single task, just like an app has one dedicated function—one provides a weather forecast, one serves as a translator, and the Wikibird is a reference work.
How do such devices enrich the everyday life of human beings?
Shoko Takahashi: All in all, they remind us that, with this exaggerated smartphone mania, we’re paying homage to a device that makes us stare on a 24/7 basis into a little box that’s supposed to be able to do everything. Transferring individual functions into playful little gadgets might be a way to retrain ourselves, perhaps even bring more humanity into our everyday life, engender more attentiveness—in contrast to the situation we have now in which more and more kids withdraw into a sort of shell, whereby they’re connected but only virtually. We’re losing sight of our surroundings.
Artworks of neurowear require humans to positive engagement such as noticing change of expression of the ‘eyes’, that might help us to retrieve classic (or more natural) communication with others. Hence, it leads back to our intrinsic human behavior. In comparison to an App, it does not only fulfill a need by function but also by mimicking human traits.