In his book TechGnosis, the writer Eric Davis describes how technology has come to replace myth and magic in the modern mind. ‘Powerful new technologies are magical,’ Davis states, ‘because they function as magic, opening up novel and protean spaces of possibility within social reality.’ In other words, we don’t have the Oracle at Delphi any more; instead, we have David Beckham at the supermarket check-out sending images via his video-phone.
Visiting the Interaction Design Department at the Royal College of Art, as students prepare for their final show, there’s a sensation of entering a world of technology and magic. Many of the projects give off a strong whiff of ‘silicon wizard worlds’ (another of Davis’ phrases), but under the enlightened leadership of Irene McAra-McWilliam – formerly director of design research and development at Philips in Holland – this microchip utopianism is rooted in the reality of business life in the 21st century. She urges her students to be ‘radical and feasible’.
McAra-McWilliam defines the aim of the course as ‘exploring the relationship between social change and the design of new technologies’. She talks about moving the focus of her students away from the ‘aesthetics of the interactive experience’, to a greater concentration on the ‘social and political implications of new technologies’. Sitting in her spartan office listening to her talk about the need to make ‘allowances for the misuse of technology by users’, you forget that you are in the RCA and not a futurology lab at MIT.
In her view, subverting the use of technology is how we humanise technology. ‘Designers of emerging technologies,’ she notes, ‘must allow the user freedom, they must also think about the context in which technology is used.’ And she’s right: when the fist Vodafone ‘bricks’ were brandished by sales reps, who guessed that the mobile phone would become a style accoutrement for fashion mad teenagers?
The Nokia engineers who developed text messaging as a way of exchanging technical data famously failed to imagine that texting would become a global obsession. Users take what they want from technology, and the failure to recognise this means that businesses are often wrong-footed.
Tobie Kerridge is typical of the students on this boundary-stretching course. A fine-art graduate, he showed me two projects, both of which might have come from a William Gibson novel. The first was a networked cuckoo clock: just an ordinary, car-boot sale cuckoo clock, the sort of thing that only a connoisseur of true kitsch could admire. But by replacing the clock’s innards with a microchip linked to his computer and then to his mobile phone, Kerridge’s clock is equipped to announce messages sent to it via voicemail.
Perhaps not an invention on a par with a cure for cancer, it is nevertheless a witty exercise in networking, and a chance for Kerridge to subvert the use of a household object. ‘I hoped to use technology in an obscured, imaginative way,’ he says. ‘The clock links the personal space of the home to the whim of a distant sender.’
Bioscience is at the core of Kerridge’s second project. Working with students from Imperial College, London, Kerridge makes jewellery from bone tissue taken from volunteers (they have to be keen – it requires a surgical operation with full anaesthetic). With the tissue he grows a new piece of ‘semi-living matter’, and from this he sculpts items of personal jewellery, which he calls Biojewellery. ‘A marrying couple could,’ he speculates, ‘exchange rings each made from the other’s bone tissue.’ It’s easy to be distracted by the ethical implications and the macabre overtones of Kerridge’s project, yet as a piece of work it is weirdly beautiful and as conceptually daring as Marc Quinn’s famous head made from his own blood.
There’s more bioscience in the project called Biopresence by George Tremmel and Shiho Fukahara, who have devised a method of replacing some of the DNA of a tree with human DNA. Still at the theoretical stage, the scientific principles have nevertheless been verified by Dr Bernard Lamb, reader in genetics at Imperial College. Already two newspapers have latched on to the sensationalist nature of this work, but Tremmel and Fukahara are adamant that this is not a mere biological stunt.
In the future, they speculate, the dead may have their DNA injected into trees as an alternative to burial. ‘With burial space at an all-time low, trees implanted with human DNA could take the place of tombstones,’ they note. ‘The tree acts and behaves like any other tree, but also carries the biological essence of a human being.’
After the silicone wizardry of the Interaction Department, I visit Dan Fern, the head of the School of Communications, to hear about the current crop of graphics and illustration students. Dressed in white and looking like Timothy Leary at the height of his acid shaman fame, Fern exudes intellectual rigour and serial calmness. When I ask him to talk about the work of this year’s graphics students he does so with fastidious care.
He defines the current year’s output as: ‘Good, some of it very good. Lots of exploratory work, typically adventurous.’ Yet given the chance to eulogise his department and the work of his final-year students, he chooses instead to talk about opportunities for improvement. Fern wants to make the course more attractive to ‘non-white Europeans’; he sees a need to improve the way the school teaches Web design; he’s keen to arrest a decline in the understanding of the traditional precepts of typography (he blames it on a ‘lack of reading’).
I ask him to talk about styles and trends among this year’s graduating students. He is especially enthusiastic about the department’s efforts in performance-based projects. He cites the work of Hannah Wise and Marisa Murgatroyd, whose 360° kaleidoscopic video projections at the recent Bath International Festival, made in collaboration with students from the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music, resulted in an epic fusion of sound and vision.
He also identifies ‘anti-design’ as a strong, though by no means universal, trend. He links it to a new-found political awareness that exists among students. He points to the neo-Situationist work of The Grey Blanket, two ‘anonymous artists’ who are pioneering a new style of politicised environmental graphic design. They use the ‘polluted fabric of [London] to create messages rubbed out of pollution build-up to raise awareness of what we breathe in’.
The Gill-like simplicity of Martin Vowles’ work is perhaps a more conventional example of graphic design craft, but no less effective or politically intentioned. Vowles has created a reworking of the Ten Commandments engraved on to Welsh slate, but with the original text replaced by war-mongering quotes from Tony Blair and George Bush.
I also enjoyed the funky, illustro-graphic murals of Sebastian Helling (with Daniel Mair and Kristoffer Busch), and Anna Sjsstrand’s delightful Book of 16 Portraits. Sjsstrand’s subjects all have surnames that are also the names of typefaces. It is popularly supposed that dogs take on the appearance of their owners, so it’s tempting to conclude that the bearers of names that are also typefaces take on the look of their typographic namesakes. Well, decide for yourself: take Mr Arial (see opposite), for instance. Doesn’t he look robustly functional?
Adrian Shaughnessy is creative director of Intro. The Show: Two runs until 6 July at the RCA, Kensington Gore, London SW7