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Infinite Scrolls and Touching Keys

Infinite Scrolls and Touching Keys

As part of our editorial Out of Focus Domesticity, we are exploring different feelings, spaces, times, experiences, details, and perspectives that emerge as we stay at home. In this text, we take a look at digital exhibitions. Left without a choice, museums and spaces have been moving online, creating glimpses of new possibilities for rethinking formats. But as these experiences are brought to living rooms, where and how can the discipline play a role? Can the exhibition be seen as a testing ground for thinking new relations to space that also go beyond the screen? With these questions in mind, we talk about some of our experiences online as starting points, including “Weird Sensations Feels Good” at ArkDes and “Bodybuilding: Architecture and Performance” at Performa.

Designing for Touch

The digital started as a place for infinite possibilities. The 90s spoke of traveling freely online, the efficiency of connecting with others, and the liberty and knowledge that the Internet would bring to the world. This dream, although it can still be traced in some uses and designs that we scroll today, has slowly made way for more critical perspectives on privacy, data capture, ownership, copyrights, and digital rights in general. Already in 1982, the media theorist Vilém Flusser said:

“Action is the first gesture to free human beings from their lifeworld. The second is visual observation. The third is a conceptual explanation. And the fourth gesture to free human beings from their lifeworld is the computing touch. The hand makes humankind the subject of the world, the eye makes it the surveyor of the world, fingers make it the ruler of the world, and through fingertips, humankind becomes what gives the world meaning. … In this way, keys will free us from the pressure of changing the world, overseeing it and explaining it, and will free us for the task of giving meaning to the world and life in it. Of course, this condition, in which keys will free human beings to make meaning, has so far not been reached. Instead, we find ourselves being controlled by relatively primitive keys that have not yet been properly understood and therefore not properly installed.” [1] 

Today, with advancing technology mainly kept in the hands of specialists, we still do not necessarily have a better understanding of the world and this idea of freedom is perhaps long forgotten. The role of our digital fingertips is still caught in the same loop that Flusser wrote about some years before the Internet became widespread. However, as we are in a pivotal moment in the world due to the pandemic, questioning how technology structures the spaces we inhabit is more important than ever. At the same time, this situation perhaps helps us to be aware of the lack technology creates: touching, in the flesh. We are connected but still alone in our living rooms.

Weird Sensations Feels Good (Boxen, ArkDes). Ph. Johan Dehlin

The exhibition “Weird Sensations Feels Good” at ArkDes curated by James Taylor Foster illustrates a way to rethink touching in the digital, both in its format and its content. The exhibition is about ASMR (Auto-meridian Sensory Motor Response), which is a fancy way for talking about a tingling feeling that is triggered by certain sounds and effects transmitted through digital video. We couldn’t travel to Sweden, but we could watch its hour and half long digital vernissage on our own time, a few days later, and in the comfort of our homes. The video includes discussions with invited guests, examples of ASMR, and a tour of the exhibition space. Although the format itself, a video, is not new, its context as a vernissage that can be experienced in its entirety at any moment is, raising questions on the possibility of being together in an event while being out of sync. In terms of the exhibition’s content, ASMR creates sensations in the body, and it does so without having to be live. How can we design to be better out of sync?

Making the Virtual Vernissage (behind the scenes), Weird Sensations Feels Good. Ph. Justina Hüll 

Inhabiting Beyond the Page  

At the beginning of the quarantine, before Zoom took over, one of our editors experienced Hubs by Mozilla. Set in different landscapes, bodies are avatars with video heads instead of static, square boxes. These avatars can wander around the space. With each movement, voices became louder or more distant because the sound is spatialized. What would happen if we chatted there instead of the widely-used Zoom? Would we have a different relationship with online space? In 1970, the found of Xerox, Peter McCologuh, said that he wanted to make information more inhabitable. [2] As designs have developed, the standard format is still the page. Can tools such as sound design help imagine other spaces?

Screenshot of our editor exploring Hubs by Mozilla.

(Don’t) Save for Later

Online exhibitions demand a sustained presence that is not often found in a culture that is built on immediacy. This untypical type of being there, however, is proposed by the exhibition “Bodybuilding. Architecture and Performance,” which extends the book of the same name with a rotating series of videos shown at performa.org. Organized by Charles Aubin, Curator Performa, and Carlos Mínguez Carrasco, Senior Curator ArkDes, the exhibition requires close attention to its rotating schedule to catch the films. Unlike other online exhibitions, the videos are shown as if they are live and they require live bodies to see them. There is no save or later and following the schedule felt like breaking the habits of our infinite scrolls. Wendy Chun in her book “Updating to Remain the Same. Habitual New Media” says: 

“Habit moves us from the rapid time scale of viral infections and disruptions toward the slower and more stable time frame of homophily, a frame better suited to explain the ‘undead’ nature of information spread. Further, a focus on habit moves us away from an epistemology of outing, in which we are obsessed with ‘discovering’ ‘Patient Zero,’ as though knowing the first case could solve all subsequent problems. Relatedly, an emphasis on inhabitation and lingering turns attention away from the networked viral YOU to the possibility of a ‘we.’ Habit, with all its contradictions, is central to grasping the paradoxes of new media: its enduring ephemerality, its visible invisibility, its exposing empowerment, its networked individuation, and its obsolescent ubiquity.” [3]

Bodybuilding shows these tensions that Chun mentions. We linger a few minutes before to catch the film at 4pm. Bodybuilding oddly feels more like an audience together at the same time than the pressure of having to individually find the time to watch. And curiously enough, Chun uses the metaphor of the virus to speak of this paradox.

Bodybuilding, Moore Grover Harper, Design-A-Thon, Dayton, Ohio, 1976.

The exhibition “Rethinking Tourism for a Planet in Crisis” organized by the Institute of Architecture and Design Architectural Typology and Design at The Technical University, Vienna can also be seen as another way of breaking habit. It does so through its seemingly endless categories, links, openings, and videos. It becomes a place where information is not given but is explored, opened, and recombined—a place to inhabit that at the same time questions tourism today. Instead of feeling like a sleek finished exhibition, could it be seen as an online draft for thinking through larger problems?

The use of the digital for museums and institutions is most likely here to stay, even as many countries have already reopened. We are attentive to see what other imaginations appear. For now, we will continue to dwell in these spaces.

[1] Flusser, Vilém. “Into the Universe of Technical Images,” Translated by Nancy Ann Roth, University of Minnesota Press, 2011. P. 29.
[2] Steenson, Molly Wright. Information Archaeologies in Goodhouse, Andrew, “When is the Digital in Architecture,” Sternberg Press, 2017. P. 195.  
[3] Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “Updating to Remain the Same. Habitual New Media,” The MIT Press, 2016. P. 15.

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