Monday Matter

On Monday I decided I needed a day out and went to the Science Museum in London as well as to an electronic music festival (ElectriCity 2008). I arrived at the Science Museum fairly late, so I just managed to see three exhibitions: Survial, Listening Post and Plasticity – 100 Years Of Making Plastics.

‘Survival’ is essentially a children’s exhibition on the future of our planet – in the style of a futuristic games arcade! Four cartoon characters (Buz, Eco, Tek and Dug) guide through the games and displays and discuss your decisions in each game amongst each other. Buz is the negotiator between the three different opinions represented by the other three characters (ecological sustainability, technological sustainability and tradition). On a late Monday afternoon, I had the whole space to myself as all of the school classes had left about an hour ago. Thus, I could clumsily try out all the different games without embarrassing myself in front of children again (I never play computer games so I am outstandingly bad!). My favourite ‘game’ was the one where you design a living space for the future – the underground homes just look so cute that they made me wish for a real one I can afford!

What initially made me a bit worried was the explicit corporate presence in the exhibition and the overly ‘high tech’ aesthetics of the exhibitions which seemed to give the issues a very abstract (cutified?) and remote feel. Going through each of the exhibits actually alleviated some fears as the opinions seemed to be fairly balanced. What I liked was that the exhibition not only outweighed pros and cons of different ‘survival’ styles, but also asked the question ‘do we have to have less fun in the future?’. I find it important that discussions around the future of our planet do not only engage with the basic material needs, but also allow you to discuss things that otherwise seem to be cast as irrational or sinful human habits such as leisure (‘the planet is dying and you just think about having fun?!’). The designs on display illustrate how designers are already incorporating ‘fun and functionality’ with unexpected innovations such as ‘sustainable dance clubs’ where the floor absorbs the energy from the dancers’ motions (e.g. jumps) and converts it into electricity to power the lights (maybe even the sound system?) of the respective club. In the last room, the day’s choices were summarised on a map of ‘neighbourhoods’ which each represented a possible future that humans could create. The current state of the neighbourhood looked quite unfriendly to me, so I moved on to the ‘merchandise’ which mainly consisted of wind-up gadgets, but also featured postable gardens, recycled paper jewellery, a ‘debatable’ place mat and even a kid’s survival rucksack for the paranoid parent. I was surprised not to find any theme computer games!

Source: Science Museum

After exploring the art installation ‘Listening Post’ (which used live data from internet chatrooms), I ended up in a forest of red plastic strips dangling from the ceiling. I found out that I had just entered ‘Plasticity’. I noticed that I had gone into the exhibition from the wrong end, starting straight into the future of plastics, but then I thought that this was more than appropriate…
Plastics, mutable matter par excellence, proved to be much more inspiring than the Survial exhibition – probably because it was more adult-friendly (and free!). The first thing I literally bumped into was ‘Echo’, a waxy blob-shaped thingie that was supposed to respond to your movements – or maybe in the near future (it refused to interact with me – or it probably sensed correctly that I was fairly tired that day!). ‘Echo’ took the concept of ‘responsive materials’ (the title of the section it was in) to extremes by suggesting a future emotional relationship / symbiosis with plastics: in the future plastics will no longer be cheap, disposable items, but rather the opposite – ‘precious, sophisticated materials’ that ‘no-one would dream of throwing them away.’ A strong degree of dependency is implicated in this relationship: if your ‘Echo’ – your responding Other that you have had since around birth – is taken away from you, not only would your ‘sculptural diary’ be lost, but a piece of you. Somehow the idea and texture of Echo reminded me of Stanislaw Lem’s ocean in his novel ‘Solaris’. (More information on Echo can be found in this lady’s portfolio.)

Source: Science Museum

The remaining exhibits were no less exciting (excitingly disturbing?). I am curious how things such as ‘plastic blood’, semi-conducting plastics (‘organic electronics’), solar-power plastics, morphing vehicles, plastic home printers (‘create your own low cost plastic items’), ‘plant plastics’ and recycling services will develop in the future. When I still studied design, I was very interested in so-called ‘eco plastics’, and I am pleased to see that some biodegradable/compostable products have now been introduced as supermarket packaging or bin liners (although so far only for a very limited number of ‘high end’ products and probably at a fairly high energy cost). Unfortunately it was almost closing time, so I got shooed out by some museum people while quickly skimming through the plastics’ past (Bakelite!) and present.

Back on my bike (and in the rain!), I went to the Great Hall of City University for some ‘musical matter’. I had been enticed to go by a review of one of the featured composer’s pieces. The latter part read:

‘The piece carries on under the microscope, minuscule ordeals of matter magnified into the domains of audibility, at times scrutinized, it seems, even through a scanning electron microscope, revealing the inherent atomic jitter – and way inside, in the spacious realms inside the circumference of madly circling electrons: a wonderful veil of shadowy Arabian music; a touch of Om Kalsoum and Farid El Atrache inside the dreamy states at the core of matter…’

I’m so predictable, but that sold it to me! Another composer on the bill had an audible ‘Multiverse’ on offer, so one more reason to go! Having been involved in making electro-acoustic for a long time, I kind of knew what to expect (and what reviewers of this kind of music are like…), but because I had ‘matter’ in my head and not ‘composition’ that night, I noticed consciously for the first time how materials are present in and communicated through sound. I could clearly hear ‘metal’, ‘wood’ and ‘feathers’, but also attributes such as ‘furriness’, ‘slipperiness’, ‘wetness’, and see what I heard in my ‘mind’s eye’. After the concert, my stomach reminded me that while I had matter in the brain, I had forgotten to put it into other parts of my body, so I cycled home to remedy this ASAP.

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