For These Young Visionaries, Design is an Illusion

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T, The New York Times Style Magazine, October 20, 2013.

Pick up an iPhone 5 and you are holding 727,040 pixels in your hand. Individually, they have no smell, no texture, no meaning. They make no sound; the faint hiss of old televisions has disappeared. Only in sum do pixels become more — information, images and art; a world engorged with screens. But how can an artist or designer make something more interesting than that everyday digital reality? How do you create something technological that transcends technology? In essence, how do you get people to look up from their own devices?

The artists featured here manipulate light and sound — water, even — to resensitize us to technological wonder. They deploy custom electronics, LEDs and thermal sensors the way Renaissance painters used perspective: as tools to better reflect the world around them. Their work isn’t always interactive, but it’s never static. The results often defy categorization, if not reason: stalactites built of light, a musical instrument made out of a bridge, a building that’s actually a waterfall. They mainly labor in large, collaborative studios, and perhaps not surprisingly they are all younger than 40.

What separates these blinky lights from the schlock of the Starship Enterprise (or an in-flight catalog) is their emphasis on our experience. These are objects that come alive as subjects. They put the retina before the pixel. They heed Picasso’s warning about those “enormous new mechanical brains”: “They are useless. They can only give you answers.”

View the slideshow.