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Responsive Architectures at Subtle Tech
Dawn Danby, 15 Aug 06

subtletech06.jpg subtletech_photopia1.jpg

When Subtle Technologies came back to Toronto this summer, it created another temporary safe zone between the divergent worlds of scientists and artists (layered with a heavy dose of academia). Architects show off the unbuilt and unbuildable, artists work with nanotech, and geneticists look at microscopic patterns in order to ponder fate.

This time around the focus was on Responsive Architectures - the way that natural and artificial structures change, adapt, and relate to one another. The very small structures of the cerebellum and the cell were there, along with large-scale wifi-enabled urban "sound gardens". The event kicked off with a workshop on new parametric modeling (3D) software. It seems that architecture, marinating in new technologies, now more than ever embodies what our Mr. Sterling once casually called the CAD-CAM baroque.

Although everything at Subtle Tech tastes a little bit of Near Near Future, I couldn't make the whole event this year. Still, some other very biased highlights include...

- Steven Vogel, who's written great books on practical biomimicry, did his keynote talk on plant mechanics: the way that poplar leaves, shark's bodies, and daffodils move through air and water... and the way we can apply these to buildings. After Vogel's talk, there was a fun exchange between him and Donald Ingber, lamenting how dangerously rare it is for architects and biologists to work together. Design can be "neobiological", they argued, and yet be nothing but inspired by living forms, enabled by expensive software - with no consideration or relevance to ecology or physics. "We're being a little concrete by feeling like we need to make everything look like cells.", Vogel insisted. "The future's nanotechnology will look as little like nature's nanotech as our computers look like brains."

- "Exchange. Artist trades personal belongings. Trade with me." Nancy Nisbet stopped in with her Exchange Project, to trade all her worldly possessions - each tagged with an RFID chip - for others'. The half-year-long performance piece is taking her from Canada on a long coastal trip around the U.S. and México, willfully interacting with border agents and exploring Free Trade politics, surveillance and identity. (See photopia's Flickr set here.)

- Australian sound artist Boo Chapple is developing audio speakers that amplify sound using the inherent piezoelectricity of bone.

- Peter Hasdell's students in the Architecture and Urban Research Laboratory at the KTH-Arkitektur Stockholm have been making beautiful digital machines that mimic ecologies. The Interspace project included a Terra-iser landscape-shaping device, a Citruskraft sound sculpture powered by inert lemons, and a Fog Table that "mimicked the Aurora Borealis' plasma clouds by moving a cloud of fog according to changes in a magnetic field".

- It's fascinating to see what people speculate about within rigid corporate and academic worlds. For instance, nanofuture scientist John Storrs Hall theorized about utility fog,"a kind of universal substance, programmable matter, that can simulate everything from air to solid rock. A kind of 3D TV screen, but instead of making any desired picture visible, it makes any desired shape tangible."

- Balkan writer Gheorghe Dan sent a performer in his stead. She whispered the computer-tech fantasy of Living in Limnos: Betwixt and Between into the mic ("auto-looming midsummer night patterns", "a melange of negative singularities"). None of it made any sense, but it was a good way to break up the afternoon.

- Waterloo's Val Rynnimeri talked about the civic stewardship of urban nature, arguing that we can only manage our relationships to ecosystems, and not the ecosystems themselves. Years of using proto-GIS technology to work on integrating ribbons of wilderness and real biodiversity into cities has led him to think deeply about "nature", and how we can design for "holarchic" self-organizing systems. After all, "order isn't free; ecosystems aren't free - they're highly complex solar dissipators. The more complex the ecosystem, the more solar energy it stores. A 400-year old forest is global air conditioning; a clearcut reflects solar energy back out into space."

For the first time, the team put out a big, lovely catalogue of the work. Next year, the theme will be Body • Medicine • Art...

(photo: photopia / HiMY SYeD )

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