In the dim heart of the space, an orb glows silently. Watch carefully enough and you can track the shift of colors evoking fire to those reminiscent of water, or earth or wood or metal. Emerge from the shadowy corners of the room and the orb notices, changing the swirl of light as you approach or retreat. It’s watching. And in its inscrutable way, it’s communicating.
‘Anima II’ – from the Latin for ‘spirit’ – is one of dozens of cutting edge works of art on display at the Sea World Culture and Arts Center. In Minding the Digital, the center’s inaugural exhibit seeks to stretch our understanding of what our newly-crafted world can do, to help our thinking catch up with what’s already begun.
“It’s a bit spooky in its dark space,” Senior Curator Carrie Chan tells us. “We don’t want to just celebrate [digitalization], but we want people to reflect. Is it scary if a lamp understands how we feel? That’s why it’s important to share this and represent the feelings of the digital era.”
With “digitalization” Chan means “how the widespread integration of technology is shaping our lives through art, design and... a certain domination of [our] thinking about life.” With the exhibit, on display until June 3, “it’s not just about the invisible but about the tangible.”
They mark the beginning of the era as 2009, when third generation (3G) mobile phone networks were first approved in China, quickly emerging as the ubiquitous mobile network we know, explains Assistant Curator Tang Siyun. After that, “everyone is staying connected, constantly online.” WeChat appeared in 2011 and achieved ubiquity in 2013 along with the rest of the BAT trifecta. Ofo took to the streets in 2014 and Mobike the following year.
“After 2015,” Chan notes, “the Chinese government echoed this phenomenon with policies that celebrated this change: ‘Internet+’. These were the defining moments.”
Internet+ was the buzzword of 2015’s two political sessions, with Premier Li Keqiang calling for China to integrate IT, big data, cloud computing and the ‘Internet of Things’ into every aspect of the nation’s economy. Internet+Finance, Internet+Agriculture, Internet+Medicine: it’s part of what drives Shenzhen to invest in labs for Nobel scientists, to create new cures and new products with a range of yet-unimagined technology. And in their inaugural exhibit, the Design Society – the team in charge of art curation for the Center – brings us something like Internet+Art.
The main unifying thread of the exhibit is digitalization, thought it appears in radically different ways.
“A lot of designers looked to nature for inspiration,” Chan explains, but now “with digital tools they can produce more complex structures... and generate a deeper understanding of nature, though design.”
“Especially 3D rendering and manufacturing,” Tang adds. “Those are very difficult to achieve without digital technology.” That’s clear in the displays of elaborate fashion that would make Lady Gaga blush. Even more so in ‘Research Pavilion 2013-2014.’
In that multi-layered room of curved spaces, designers looked to the beetle for inspiration. Inspecting the complex structure of their elytra (the hard shell protecting delicate wings) the artists envisioned how to build such a complex structure themselves. With the help of digital friends, of course.
“Not just the physicality – the shape and materials – is digitally generated,” Chen explains, “but also the fabrication” thanks to robots that assembled the piece.
Elsewhere it feels like the artist is the machine’s assistant, as with ‘Kaleidome.’ The LAAB artists took the shape of a half-sphere and used computers to divide it into irregular cells. Then, with precise measurements and painstaking craft, the artists cut and bent metal to the appropriate shapes to build what their algorithms had wrought. The effect, beautiful as it reflects a shifting array of lights, also sets our minds to wonder how else our convenient machines are adding to our work.
Some – like a series of instruments from Meng Qi or the hologram cast upon fog that bursts to flame when touched – are playful fun. Others, like the ‘PolyThread’ canopy that opens the exhibit, cast our minds to contemplation.
The alien canopy envelops us as we enter, with lighting that simulates the shift from night to day refracted through the threads. As with the dome, the shape is inspired by cell structures, with computers devising the shapes and stitching them with another machine. There’s some hand stitching as well; a lingering token of the human touch.
“Th[is] spirit of digitalization that’s adapting [to newly invented technologies] really represents the spirit of the times we’re in,” Chan tells us. “We’re constantly surrounded by all these changes. From inside [‘PolyThread’] you can feel all around you it’s changing.”
When you emerge, the world is a little bit different. Some cutting-edge app or device or algorithm has just emerged, about to change all our lives once again. But maybe, with the engaging works of Minding the Digital, you’ll better understand how it can all work together.