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SXSW: The Collision of Design, Biology and Tech
by Alan Melson 14 Mar 2015
Paola Antonelli of MoMA, speaking at SXSW 2015. (user @sachiyop on Instagram)

Paola Antonelli of MoMA, speaking at SXSW 2015. (user @sachiyop on Instagram)

KERA’s Art&Seek is covering the 2015 South by Southwest Conference in Austin. Read more coverage from this and previous years in the SXSW archive.

Picture a work of sculpture, conceived and planned by artists but realized by thousands of insects working in tandem with a robot.

Or perhaps a pile of bricks made from crops and fungi, which are then combined to build durable, ecologically sustainable and aesthetically important structures.

These and other experiments have been realized in the last couple of years through a combination of emerging technology and boundary-pushing art, happening in studios and labs across the globe – and they were highlighted on the first day of SXSW 2015 as part of a keynote on new trends in modern design.

Speaker Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, showcased some of the works and artists MoMA has championed that trend towards what she calls “the space between” – works that blur lines between science and design and thrive on ambivalence and ambiguity rather than a clearly-defined goal.

“Design used to be about problem solving; now it’s about problem finding,” Antonelli said. ” … In truth, some of the best designers of today are the ones who are able to frame new questions and new proverbs.”

The Hy-Fi, a tower designed by New York firm The Living and built with mycelium bricks. (courtesy MoMA PS1)

The Hy-Fi, a tower designed by New York firm The Living and built with mycelium bricks. (courtesy MoMA PS1)

One of the works Antonelli featured was the Hy-Fi, a 40-foot tower made of mycelium bricks – the roots of mushrooms that are combined with corn stalks and solidified in molds over several days – which was built last year at MoMA’s contemporary art space, PS1.

About 10,000 bricks were used to build the tower, which won a Young Architects Award for its designer, New York City architecture firm The Living. The firm is looking ahead towards research into even more biologically-involved projects; in a 2013 Architect magazine interview, co-founder David Benjamin cited the possibility of “living systems such as a biological coating that can help buildings self-repair.”

Antonelli spent part of her keynote discussing the growing potential of 3D printing, which continues to be a focus at SXSW after early conversation around commercial applications at last year’s conference. She cited Massachusetts generative design duo Nervous System, with a body of work focused on kinematics, “a system for designing and simulating flexible structures for 3D printing.” In addition to larger client-specific projects, they also offer jewelry and art objects – and even have web-based tools to allow individuals to design their own wearables that Nervous System then creates at their facility.

Also featured was the work of Dr. Neri Oxman and her Mediated Matter Research Group at MIT’s Media Lab. In 2013, the group created Silk Pavilion, a sculpture designed on computers. Data was then fed to a robot that mimicked the way silkworms spun their thread to construct the initial form, and then 6,500 silkworms finished the structure. The process and the result were documented in a mesmerizing, if a little creepy, video:

As she closed out her keynote, Antonelli moved to future applications of this tech/design hybrid, particularly in the biological space:
– Portugese designer Susana Soares has trained bees to detect cancer using a device that looks like a glass fishbowl.
– Writer Stewart Brand’s The Long Now Foundation is advancing the Revive and Restore Project, which aims to use biological design and DNA to resurrect extinct species, partly as an effort to repair the environment.
– And, Amsterdam-based duo Forma Fantasma uses natural polymers and other plant-based materials to create both beautiful art and problem-solving devices.

She compared her view of the design process to the nascent extreme sport/meditative discipline/art form parkour, which constantly evolves as the practitioner tries to move forward while evading objects in his or her path.

“Use what we have,” she instructed, “but in new ways.”