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Design and the Elastic Mind
Matthew Waxman, 14 Apr 08

"Design and the Elastic Mind,” a current exhibition at the New York MoMA running through May 12, brings together a wide range of design, art, architectural, computational and scientific experiments that challenge us to stretch our minds and see how design participates in science and science can be engaged in design. The intermingling of design and science is part of a larger trend where design is being explored as a process of knowledge creation across many scales. Design work included spans nano-art, sensory design, 3D printing, open-source computational design, visualization of networks and the internet, experiments in the design of future culture and the making of new worlds. This is a must-see show!

Design as a tool for learning can increase our understanding and appreciation of the world around us, as well as enable designers to participate in a wider technological, cultural and environmental discourse creating the world of the future. Considering design in such a way is not new, though it stands in contrast to design embedded in commercial culture where instead of representing hidden relationships and enabling sustainability, design is used to represent a commodity’s necessity for an image of modern living.

The work in “Design and the Elastic Mind” follows from 20th century technological and scientific advances such as the internet and wireless technology, nanotechnology and biotechnology. This landscape of technology and its ability to affect our cosmology parallels the power of past revolutions in thought, such as Copernicus’ revealing the Earth to be part of a greater system and the widespread adoption of a mathematical model for perspective drawing in fifteenth century Renaissance Italy. Such advances challenged our perception to see in ways we didn’t know were possible.

Stretching our way of seeing –- as well as our ways of learning how to see -– is the concept behind the exhibition’s title. As MoMA architecture and design curator Barry Bergdall writes in the exhibition catalog, “it is the elastic mind -- with the flexibility and strength to embrace progress and to harness it -- that is best suited to confront this world of seemingly limitless challenges and possibilities.” In this sense, the exhibition emphasizes the importance of our contemporary era, one characterized by particular changes in technology and environmental conditions. As we say here at Worldchanging, the tools for building tomorrow are already here, and the “Elastic Mind” exhibition is full of fantastic examples showing that they sure are.

When I visited during my recent trip to New York, I found “Elastic Mind” to also have a striking resonance with a separate exhibition across town, “Ant Farm: Radical Hardware” presented at the Columbia School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation (see my comment in Regine Debatty’s post for further info). Ant Farm, as also described in a recent post by Regine Debatty, was an art and architecture collective in the 1960s and 1970s which explored the fringes of architectural discourse and were among the first to meld notions of architecture with enviro-tech visions using video, multimedia and performance. The exhibition is notable in relation to the MoMA exhibition, as Ant Farm planted some of the first seeds of interdisciplinary design meant to push the elasticity of the mind. The Columbia show displays an archive of early work sharing themes with that of “Elastic Mind”: Ant Farm sought to embrace alternative lifestyles and stretch perception with inflatable structures, the visualization of networks (the Truckstop Network), the exploration of the senses (their Osmic Accelerator, a conceptual odor machine), and the proposal of alternative futures (the project 20:20 Vision).

A sample of the super cool and super fascinating work from “Design and the Elastic Mind”:

“Epidermits Interactive Pet” from the Cautionary Visions project by Los Angeles-based Stuart Karten Design is a biotech toy for the future. The pet’s engineered body of human flesh can be modified any way one likes, tattooed, tanned, and pierced. The pain-less creature can’t think, so there’s no harm in harming it. The concept is tongue-in-cheek and challenges us to think about what is real and natural, if anything is. I think the toy would be loads of fun!


Given our chemically-infused lifestyles, where most 20th century homes and built environments off-gas loads of toxic VOCs from paints, plastics, glues, and more, Bel-Air organic air-filtering system is a way to off-set the negative impact on human health and release clean air. Artist Mathieu Lehanneur was inspired by the NASA discovery that certain plants effectively absorb toxins from the air. The system’s fan whirls in dirty air and is purified by the plant before returning to the world outside.


I’m a huge fan of alternative energy, especially solar, but frankly the aesthetic of the increasingly ubiquitous photovoltaic cell isn’t very interesting. Fortunately design has come to the rescue with GROW, a prototype photovoltaic arrangement whose panels look like the leaves of vines crawling up a wall. The flexible leaves can flutter in the breeze, thus also harnessing wind power. The project is by Samuel Cabot Cochran of Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology (SMIT).


The Million Dollar Blocks Project makes visual the grotesque relationship between incarceration and particular neighborhoods in the New York metro area. Led by architect Laura Kurgan, the project is a collaboration between the Columbia School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation’s Spatial Information Design Lab and the Justice Mapping Center. The maps show how particular city blocks are the origin for a disproportionate amount of people incarcerated, and that in many cases the state is spending at least one million dollars a year to take people from these specific blocks and house them in prisons. Using difficult to access data from the criminal justice system, the project reveals a complex relationship between urban planning, social justice issues and the prison-industrial complex.


One of my favorites from the exhibition is “New City,” a virtual environment experienced in a semi-immersive installation. New City is a collaboration of Peter Frankfurt of Imaginary Forces, architect Greg Lynn/FORM and production designer Alex McDowell. Exhibition visitors can enter a video narrative about the new city and take a peak at a visualization of tomorrow that is also a representation of today: wildly hyper-connected, global, transnational, multi-national, and one-planet. (Architecture website Archinect provides a link to download the video in their article about New City; the link is in the middle of the article.)

New City is about an “architecturally-considered, web-based virtual environment” where experiments in virtual reality could be tested. New City is also fascinating because it is a representation of the interconnectedness of our world today and a meditation on what makes great real-world cities great. The “manifold” form of New City turns in on itself and constantly morphs to adjust to new relationships within. The form of the city sheds light on the dynamic character of our real world whose immaterial connections create a structure increasing bending and defying time and space.


Image sources: Epidermits, Bel-Air, Million Dollar Blocks, New City

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