Hyperlinks: Architecture and Design

The Art Institute of Chicago

Samantha Topol

Simon Heijdens, Shade, 2010; self-development software and switchable transparent film; The Art Institute of Chicago, funds provided by the Celia and David Hilliard Fund

Matali Crasset, Spring City in Mexico, 2008; pigment print on Hahnemühle paper; courtesy Achille and Colombe Cahen Salvador and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris and Salzburg

In the most affirmative or even utopian sense of the word, “hyperlink” evokes the rapid exchange of information and heightened connectivity of experience in the digital age. As the rhetorical framework for the Art Institute of Chicago’s Hyperlinks: Architecture and Design—which includes more than thirty projects from architects and designers with widely divergent practices all over the globe—it draws its greatest strength from the elasticity the term allows.

The hyperlink, as a passageway and a portal, is an opportunity to determine a path through a series of influences, pages and spaces. Many of the projects presented here seem to march to that beat, developing their own specific network of sources and drawing on the information, regardless of field, that most effectively informs the task at hand. In Plant Facts and Plant Fictions (2010), the London-based art and design firm Troika looks to classic botanical illustration, advancements in genetic engineering and recent environmental discourse to generate curious plant forms that respond to social needs. Large, framed digital prints present a new type of mushroom, for example, that absorbs sound; or a species of fungi that binds heavy materials to generate material for electrical wiring. Seasoned formal innovator Greg Lynn uses sail-cloth technology in developing the strong yet lightweight Carbon Net Chair (2010), commissioned by the Art Institute. Loftily suspended from the ceiling in the second gallery, the chair appears to be one part hammock, one part Eames La Chaise offshoot. Augmented (hyper)Reality: Domestic Robocop (2010), a film by recent Bartlett School of Architecture graduate Keiichi Matsuda, skillfully merges hand-drawing, physical models, collage and live footage to depict an imagined future where physical actions, like making a cup of tea, are instantaneously mediated by virtual interfaces.

Other projects seem to be shaped by the more abstract implications of a hyperlinked world, drawing on notions such as responsivity and transparency of process. Dust Relief (2008) by Parisian architectural firm R&Sie(n) is a clever, animated proposition for a contemporary art museum in Bangkok that absorbs ambient dust and pollution into an exterior latticework, both cleaning the air and coating the building in a growing, changing fur. Vienna designers mischer’traxler’s Idea of a Tree-Bench and Lamps (2008) are two objects, striking for their subdued elegance, generated by an autonomous solar-powered machine that draws cotton through dye and glue, and then around a cylindrical mold. The length, the height and the intensity of the color of the thread are determined by the amount of sunlight available during the day of the object’s production. The project introduces a new tack on locality—the machines are designed to be installed anywhere, and the resulting “harvested” objects reflect their immediate physical environmental conditions.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, The Company of Colors: Shadow Box 9, 2009; high-resolution display with integrated computerized tracking system; edition of 6 + 1 AP; courtesy the artist

Troika, Plant Facts and Plant Fiction, 2010; Durst Lambda print; edition 1 of 3; The Art Institute of Chicago, funds provided by the Architecture & Design Society

Some of the most compelling inclusions in the show activate the spatial and interactive sense of a hyperlink within the exhibition itself. For Shade (2010), another project commissioned by the Art Institute, London-based designer Simon Heijdens developed software to translate the wind, as measured on the roof of the museum at any given moment in time, into a light and shade pattern projected across the surface of a window in the exhibition space. It is mesmerizingly graceful in its rendering of the world outside onto the museum’s interior; and because it’s projected onto a window shared by the exhibition space and the museum’s atrium, it creates a relationship between these two otherwise distinct areas. Montreal artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s The Company of Colors (2009), the ninth in his ongoing interactive Shadow Box series, projects the image of anyone standing in front of the work onto a screen in one of four distinct pixelated displays. The most impactful is an approximation of the captured image as a grid of Benjamin Moore paint chip colors. Overall, the work is an engaging and sly evocation of Lozano-Hemmer’s larger ideas about the power of objects, including computers and computer screens, to actually change the way we see.

Even the most elastic rhetoric can be stretched too far. Inclusions such as posters by the Amsterdam-based graphic design team Experimental Jetset for NAiM/Bureau Europa, while potentially addressing “information architecture” in their graphic sophistication, seem anomalous and have little bearing on the “solutions to urgent issues” mentioned in the exhibition wall text. The installation by Makkink & Bey—a wall-sized rendering of an urban environment on many single sheets of paper being blown from the side by an oscillating fan—is inventive to the point of eclipsing the ability to understand the subject of their inquiry. The graphic treatment of the word “hyperlink” developed for the exhibition by the Dutch firm COMA is clean and intelligent in isolation, but repeated above and below each designer’s name on the wall, it ultimately feels heavy-handed; as does the generalized claim in the introductory wall text that “our understanding of the world is based on connecting and interpreting ideas according to associations and the juxtaposition of information within a given context.” Such a statement reinforces the didacticism to which the museum context easily falls prey.

Presenting an exhibition of emerging work in any field requires developing a language for it, to both make a case for the new phenomena and to frame the context for its consideration. This is no easy task, especially given the broad international scope surveyed here. The work on view resists the polemics of timeworn debates about boundary lines and crossover between the disciplines of architecture and design (though the show’s subtitle may appear to set up that dialogue) and instead offers a number of exciting possibilities to consider the emerging dynamism in these two fields. The notion of the hyperlink does important work to situate these projects within the rapidly developing present tense, and the exhibition, in its sprawling density, conjures the distinguishing characteristics of the structure its title references.

Samantha Topol is a writer currently based in Chicago, where she is an MA/MFA candidate in Visual and Critical Studies and Writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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