What’s Going On?

April 2021

We live within the Information Age; an era defined by the development of computing technologies, and the subsequent digitalization of daily life. For evidence of this we don’t need to look further than ways in which digital technologies allow many of us to ‘carry on’ through the pandemic lockdowns. The Dutch-French artist duo Arvid&Marie (Arvid Jense and Marie Caye) feel a sense of contradiction in this so-called Information Age however, observing that as information technologies structure more of our lives, they are at the same time becoming more uninformative. Their nondescript forms reveal little about how they were created, how they function, and what exactly their goals might be. Technology, they argue, has become silent. From the domestication of the Alexa smart speaker through cozy textile coverings, to the replacement of physical buttons with touchscreens in Tesla dashboards, new technologies seem to do more and more while visually communicating less and less through their forms.

How do we understand technologies whose appearance no longer communicates anything about their inner-worlds? Arvid&Marie are not alone in probing for answers. They see a new generation of artists and designers engaging with the hidden social, environmental, and ethical issues raised by new technologies as they propose different ways to break the silence of these muted forms. In the process, Arvid&Marie see creatives navigating the inability to fully comprehend the complexity and breadth of technological infrastructures by building their own visual languages to form a perspective on these intangible hidden worlds.

Arvid&Marie materialized this tension in the baroquish Dry Toilet (2020), a work made jointly for the Walden exhibition at Schloss Hollenegg, the Austrian design incubator, and the residency stage of the research at Cultureland in Amsterdam. Although it’s not the first object that comes to mind when we think about modern technology, their choice to reimagine a toilet points to a turning point in technological development. In the perfect geometric forms of toilet bowls they see function and form begin to diverge, as the complexity of newly constructed sewage systems were hidden by the visual language of clean porcelain. This enabled modern cities to grow, but also ushered in the era of a ‘flush and forget’ society. But through the ornamentation of stained glass windows, sculpted Roman pillars, and illuminated manuscript lettering, Arvid&Marie see the potential of the ornate to communicate complexity to the uninitiated, and in this case, can help to create a perceptual awareness of the system that keeps our homes and streets free of odour and disease.

As they plot a course for this movement (that they half-jokingly call ‘Informational Expressionism’), they enlist friends and colleagues to add to the body of work – some of which have made special work to illustrate the project and will feature in the exhibition stage of the research – and propose different visual languages to help tech-objects speak once again.

The sculpture Organic Thought Obliteration by designer Baptiste Labat (FR) aims to undermine the calm rationality of Alexa’s voice interface and recessive form by placing it on a pedestal, where a human figure, the thinker, is deflated and absorbed into Alexa’s sphere, reminding users of their precarious relationship with technology.

Using pictorial narratives as a form of non-verbal and non-literary communication, artist Manjot Kaur (IN) embellishes surveillance devices with iconography; replacing the blank, reflective stare of cameras with a view into the physical and digital surveillance infrastructures that permeate our environments.

Studio Post-Neon (BE/NL) interrogates the global resource infrastructure hidden within opaque, monochromatic smartphone bodies. The diverse material properties are brought to view, presented almost as if it were a geological survey of an iPhone.

As they explore alternatives to the smooth, shiny surfaces of ‘smart’ technologies, this generation of designers come up against the tech-industries doctrine of simplicity. Arvid&Marie do not subscribe to this belief that new technologies need to be minimal in order to be useful. ‘Use’ is more than simply getting a task done. Through bringing the backstage of technological infrastructure to centre stage, they show us that ‘use’ continues far beyond our individual interactions with modern technologies, as material and digital resources are mined, sold, processed, and re-used as their infrastructures unfold.

Text by Vincent Thornhill

This research has been made with the support of the Creative Industries Fund NL.

The exhibition of Forms of Hidden Intent is scheduled for early May in London, however due to coronavirus details are still to be confirmed.

Arvid&Marie, Dry Toilet, 2020, photo: Lupi Spuma, courtesy of Schloss Hollenegg
Arvid&Marie, Dry Toilet, 2020
Arvid&Marie, Dry Toilet, 2020
Baptiste Labat, Organic Thought Obliteration, detail, Alexa holder, 2021
Baptiste Labat, Organic Thought Obliteration, detail, Alexa holder, 2021
Baptiste Labat, Organic Thought Obliteration, Alexa Holder, 2021
Post-Neon, PhoneRocks, 2021
Security Camera by Manjot Kaur
Manjot Kaur, A design for a security camera enclosure, 2021
Manjot Kaur, A design for a security camera enclosure, detail, 2021
This article appeared in DAM78. Order your personal copy.