Swing Designers (en)

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What is intriguing about works on the border of art and design is the simultaneous pursuit of art value and brand value—or more specifically, advancing brand value while defying it at the same time (here, the artistic is parallel with being experimental, indifferent to the market economy). Achieving these contradictory purposes relies solely on the degree to which the designer can keep balance walking on the risky tightrope between art and commerce. The New York-based architectural design duo Aranda\Lasch (Ben Aranda and Chris Lasch) shows a sense of balance par excellence through research-based experiments and interdisciplinary collaborations, particularly those closely associated with the market, either art or mass market; sometimes they present their conceptual works in art institutions, and sometimes they join with a couture brand to apply their concepts to fashion items, pushing the limits to which contemporary designers can transform themselves from serious lab researchers to producers of brand value.

Philosophical Foothold for Experimentation

The encounter between art and design is not at all new. Since the late 20th century when consumer markets expanded significantly, some artists appropriated the commodity/brand value of mass-produced objects or images to make critical comments on consumerist society, while some art forms were absorbed by the mass media, transforming the art value back to the commodity/brand value. Under neoliberal economy circumstances, the exchange between art value and brand value is more complex than ever, as art has become highly conceptualized and design (as well as art) has become inextricably bound with capital. Although most designers wish to pursue both art and brand values, once they build a commercial success, they can hardly return to the experimental stage because, under capital, things very easily turn into exchange value, becoming a sign, completely exhausted of original artistic qualities.

The reason why Aranda\Lasch maintain better balance in between the two contrary values is because their design practice is rooted in the experiment—a search for the principles of form—which is the resilient power that always leads them back to the research stage. Their primary research was to explore a series of processes of form-creation, calling it tooling. Tooling, as they define it, is “about what rules exist within this hypothetical ‘pre-material’ state that influences its movement into the realm of the material.”[1]

What potential could tooling have in design practice? The answer may be found by comparing the concept of tool with that of tooling. The shift from tool to tooling is an epistemological transition about the relationship between subject and object; tool as a value-neutral instrument mediates the subject with object, whereas tooling blurs the distinction between the two as the subject blends with the process of creating the object, tacitly dissolving the hierarchy between subject and object, demystifying the modern myth of designer as a problem solver.

Aranda\Lasch explains this view on design as a process through the metaphor of Satellite; satellite, not as a thing that sends the data back to the earth, but as anything that, like a stone thrown into the world, rolls around the earth while receiving and sending out the data simultaneously (from an interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, The Venice Architecture Biennale 2010). The job of design for them, thus, means launching a satellite and moving along with the orbiting device that they devise.

One of their early projects, “The Brooklyn Pigeon Project” (2004), literally represents the idea that design is an act of shooting satellites. In an attempt to discover a formula for pigeons’ flight paths in the city, they attached micro cameras on the birds and sent them out over the city, while seeing things through the birds’ eyes and becoming a satellite themselves. Their plan to understand the birds’ behavior was, however, limited to the simulation of the flock’s movement on the computer, since the pigeons moved according to a set of rules that the designers could barely understand—the law of unpredictability. In this way, it inadvertently showed the fact that, and the ways in which, things operate by [nondeterministic] algorithmic process. The result also shows that a non-grid quality does not allow a determined mark on the map but exists only as a process within an ongoing event, which is the essence of tooling. While the history of modern design has developed mapping on the grid, tooling suggests indeterminate and indeterminable mapping on a non-grid basis.

The duo’s design research is, as such, deeply grounded upon the concept of tooling that provides them with not only a theoretical instrument but a philosophical foundation by which to approach design practice in a new way.

Cycle of Values

Initially, Aranda\Lasch made their alter-ego called “terraswarm” specifically for an experimental media project, which appears to have been a conscious effort to differentiate an experimental project from conventional architectural design. However, when most of their works turned out to be digital media-based and ultimately a spatial practice (from form-creation to installation), the line between Aranda\Lasch and terraswarm was actually blurred.

In 2008, they collaborated with artist Matthew Ritchie for an installation, “The Morning Line,” for which the duo rendered unit forms of variant scales. The installation garnered favorable attention from both art and architectural/design worlds for its splendid visual elegance, its geometric rendering of space orchestrated with the math of musical streaming surrounding the structure. It was an experiment with form-scale-space-sense based on geometry and math.

Meanwhile, it was the in-depth examination of “crystal form” that enabled Aranda\Lasch to freely cross different realms including art institution and high fashion market. For 2010 Design Miami, they teamed with Fendi and applied algorithm-based form exploration to the configuration of patterns and structures. The crystalline structure consisted of small, medium and large units, often of reduced sized versions of objects such as a table and chair, or even jewelry. The limited editions of these designs, or the design-art pieces, rapidly flowed into art galleries, gaining the exchange value of the market. Throughout these collaborative projects occurs a breathtaking transaction between the art value of the lab experiment and the exchange value of the market.

Aranda and Lasch say that they will continue their form research and participate in cross-genre projects at least once per year. It reflects their will to maintain an experimental spirit and approach. Paradoxically, however, the moment when the work is appreciated by art institutions for its experimental art value, it attains higher brand value and generates profit and elevated reputation. The same is true with the circulation of other creative projects by so-called star architects and celebrity designers. The profit enables them to further experiment which may again generate exchange value, and the cycle goes on and on. Here we can hardly tell where experiment ends and turns into exchange value, or sign, since the two are inextricably intertwined.

Yet the duo seems to acknowledge that once the experimental concept becomes a sign, the whole practice would lose all value: firstly, artistic value and, accordingly, exchange value. No doubt that Aranda\Lasch’s work value will continue to grow as far as their form research evolves. It evolves with even more diversity through multidisciplinary collaborations such as a recent co-production with the psychedelic pop-rock band Yeasayer. For the band’s stage environment they developed a crystal-shaped installation, the surface of which feeds and reflects the visuals and vibrations in real-time in tune with the music. The concept of this project was, as always, initiated by the experimental idea to create a symbiotic relationship between audio, visual and spatial environments, while the outcome directly engaged with the public through mass media (the stage was debuted on NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”).

In order to sustain the design values, both artistic and brand-based, designers need to learn to return to the research stage as soon as the work gains brand value yet before it becomes a sign, and the research has to be an independent, subjective performance that is less (or, ideally, not at all) associated with capital. Aranda\Lasch has stayed resilient to come back to the original point of the experiment because their design practice is tooling, an ongoing research per se. Even when the crystal form runs out of its exchange value, the idea of tooling remains as an evolving design practice and they can continue to exist as a tooling subject. That may be one way to stay in between the two incompatible values.

Jeong Hye Kim (revised in October 2012)

[1] Aranda\Lasch, Pamphlet Architecture 27: Tooling (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006): 8.

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