As I live quite near the Design Museum, it’s very neglectful of me not to have gone to the opening show at their new venue until now. I finally made it to the Fear & Love exhibition, around the future of design & the role of technology, only a week before it closed in April 2017.
Fear & Love is a varied exhibition, exploring themes encompassing sustainable fashion, sexuality, wearable technology, death and our feelings about robots. But, as an exhibition, it is more about asking questions than attempting to solve them.
Mimus, an animated robot arm that dominates the space, sets the tone for the exhibition. Designed to behave in a way that is unsettlingly life-like, Mimus responds to your presence, peering at you from behind its glass enclosure and following you as you move around the room with its unreal eye. Quickly bored, it will switch its attention to another museum visitor within moments. Interacting with Mimus forces us to ask ourselves about our relationship with technology in general, and how we respond to a machine that behaves more like an overexcited pet than an automaton.
But technology also exists to connect us with each other – something explored in Intimate Strangers, a film installation about Grindr, the gay dating app. As a technology, Grindr encompasses the best and worst of the digital world; it is used by authorities Syria in to track and arrest LGBT people, but it is also used by refugees as they seek safety in Europe. The film also explored Grindr’s transition from one designed for clandestine gay hook-ups to a lifestyle app, documenting the scene that surrounds it and the fashion show that J.W. Anderson exclusively live streamed through it.
Indeed, there is a strong fashion presence throughout much of the exhibition. Hussein Chalayan’s set of wearable technology, from his S/S 2017 show, reflects the anxiety of living in a city. From the fear of terrorist attacks to repressed emotion and sexual desires, Chalayan created smart-glasses that monitor the wearer’s breathing, heart rate, and stress levels to visualise this anxiety on a screen. This stands in contrast to the work of Chinese designer Ma Ke, at the opposite end of the space. Once one of the most famous designers in China, she has come to reject the fast fashion synonymous with the nation. She founded the label WUYONG (无用), which translates to ‘Useless’, that creates intricate garments from recycled materials, incorporating traditional techniques of weaving and dying. The display, where a single mannequin stands, illuminated, in a pile of dirt, is striking and ethereal, and wholly a rejection of the fast, bright, digital landscape.
This environmentally-conscious thinking informs one of the most striking installations, Christien Meindertsma’s installation Fibre Market. Confronting throwaway fashion culture, and the poor standards of textile recycling, Meindertsma has used new technology to machine-sort some 1,000 discarded woollen jumpers by colour, presenting them in visually-arresting heaps. She also machine analysed fabric samples and found that content labels are far from accurate.
The exhibition concludes with different kind of wearable – Neri Oxman’s 3D-printed death masks. In a series titled Vespers, these death masks aim to record a different aspect of death – documenting not just the visage of the person, but also their last breath and the decay caused by bacteria. This gives the masks an alien-like strangeness – so it’s not surprising that another of Oxman’s creations has found it’s way to Bjork!
As the digital world expands and changes, and technology controls more of our every day lives, we must ask ourselves questions about how we interact with the digital world, how technology and information affects our perception with the world around us, and what it means when we refuse to engage with technology. Although technology makes it possible to document more of ourselves than ever – from our anxieties and sexuality to our final breath – there are possibilities and horrors contained in this kind of technological-ization. This exhibition asks us to consider this issue from all angles, but refuses to provide answers to these questions – because there are no easy answers.
Fear and Love ran until 23rd April, 2017, at the Design Museum, South Kensington, London. Further details here.