Tech seduction, present pursuits and starting points

For the past couple of years, I have been working on an interdisciplinary studio that operates at the intersection of art, architecture, and technology called Urban Matter. We are reluctant artists and most of our work in one way or the other caters to the wants of a user, community, city or a client, which probably makes us designers more than artists. Our relationship with various emerging technologies is significant. We use it for prototyping (in the shape of 3D printing, laser cutting), to create interactivity (using arduino, raspberry pi or makey makey), to tell stories (using projection mapping or LCD screens) or to simply light up a space (using LEDs and fiber optics). We use it as a tool and as inspiration. Even though most of our work comes from a place of detailed process and design research, we love the idea of using the latest and greatest technique out there to do something novel. Is technology the main highlight of our work? No, but it is a significant aspect of what we do. It seduces us and at the same time challenges us. We have a love and hate relationship with it. On one hand, the awe and wonder that can be created using todays tools and technologies helps us create interesting experiences, on the other hand, it is restricting to always rely on wifi connectivity and power sources. Maintenance of such work can be an unending list of things as well.

But lets get back to the inspirational side of things. I recently saw a presentation by the amazing Anab Jain at the Design Crit Program at SVA. Her studio Superflux weaves scenarios around the future of technology. It is fascinating how true some of these make believe scenarios can be. In a way, they are almost predicting the future even if it seems to be a bit bleak. A trip to the recently renovated Cooper Hewitt Museum was inspiring in a different way. All the interactive content was done by Local Projects which is a media design company, best known for all the work they did for the 9/11 museum. The seemless integration of real time 3D with touch screen technology created quite a stir but quickly became commonplace. A reminder of when the wow dies down, things become familiar and habitual. Brighter and lighter things then take their place. It is a challenge to work in a business where a big component of the business (aka tech) changes every day, every minute.

My relationship with all things technical started early. While growing up in mostly remote Indian military cantonments, I watched a lot of TV primarily because there really wasn’t a lot other stuff going on. In a way it was like growing up in an American suburb, only a bit more dangerous. Movies like Gattaca and shows like X Files were always a favorite. Scully was a role model for me and weirdly so a driving force in a lot of early decisions around career and colleges. The characters analytical mind was truly inspiring and something I hoped to emulate. 20 years later, I know that I could have never been anything like Dana Scully. But my career list did comprise of an entomologist, a microbiologist, a physicist and other similar nerdy professions. After high school when I was trying to figure out which science/engineering colleges to apply to, my father got posted to a town with a good architecture school.  And that is how I landed up in an arts/architecture environment versus engineering.

After struggling at my new school for a while, I learned slowly but surely that architecture is a balance of art and technology. Behind a great piece of architecture is numerous hours of structural engineering, behind a material finish, there are material properties. Everything is interlinked, there is a science to every piece of art and vice versa. My final year thesis was on dematerialization of spaces, an understanding of how spaces had evolved from solid structures like the pyramids to the glass and steel structures of today, all because someone figured out how to create windows by creating flying buttresses. The other kind of dematerial space that I was getting really interested in, was the cinematic space or the screen space where people could get immersed in for hours and mentally teleport. There is a lot of literature around this, and if all the architecture theory is anything to go by, its good to steer clear of it when given a chance.

Urban Matter Inc is a continuation of that thought process that started close to 15 years ago as an attempt to see architecture from the lens of technology. As Archigram once envisioned the walking cities as the future of cities, it is my hope to see what is next when it comes to how people live their lives in cities and present day technology. Being true to this vision is our hope for 2015. Happy New Year everyone!


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