RISE OF THE MA­CHINES

The Weekend Australian - Review - - VISUAL ARTS - Christo­pher Allen

In­ter­face: Peo­ples, Ma­chines, De­sign Pow­er­house Mu­seum, Syd­ney, to Oc­to­ber 11

THERE is some irony in vis­it­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion de­voted to de­sign at the Pow­er­house Mu­seum, start­ing with its lo­ca­tion on the edge of Syd­ney’s Dar­ling Har­bour. If you haven’t been there, imag­ine a bay that once, per­haps a cen­tury or two ago, must have been at­trac­tive but is now cov­ered in con­crete and bi­tu­men, shad­owed by im­mense fly­over ex­press­ways and filled with a dis­tinc­tive kind of cheap tubu­lar ar­chi­tec­ture.

The whole area is not only ex­traor­di­nar­ily ugly but, by any stan­dards of ar­chi­tec­ture and ur­ban plan­ning, thor­oughly de­press­ing. It man­ages to be in­hu­man in scale with­out ever achiev­ing a com­pen­sat­ing sense of grandeur or power.

The Pow­er­house Mu­seum is not much bet­ter from a de­sign point of view. You walk into a cramped foyer from which you have to turn a cor­ner and go down an es­ca­la­tor, at the bot­tom of which is the chaos of an ex­hi­bi­tion de­voted to the stage pro­duc­tion of Strictly Ball­room. It is from here that a ramp fi­nally leads up to the space de­voted to In­ter­face: Peo­ples, Ma­chines, De­sign.

The sub­ject of the ex­hi­bi­tion is in­dus­trial de­sign, and specif­i­cally the way de­sign, in the 20th cen­tury, made tech­no­log­i­cal de­vices such as type­writ­ers and then com­put­ers both eas­ier to use and more ap­peal­ing, so that they be­gan to ad­dress a con­sumer mar­ket rather than merely the needs of business.

It’s worth paus­ing to con­sider the his­tory of the idea of de­sign. It is the equiv­a­lent of the Ital­ian disegno or the French dessin, which both mean draw­ing as well as in­ten­tion or pur­pose. The common word in English, draw­ing, lit­er­ally means to pull or ex­tend a line from point to point. The word de­sign en­tered English us­age from Ital­ian and French through the in­flu­ence of art the­ory and there­fore be­came a high­brow syn­onym for draw­ing.

In mod­ern English us­age de­sign came to mean the draw­ing, or by ex­ten­sion the idea or plan, for any­thing one wanted to make or build: thus the de­sign of a ma­chine or a tool. Be­cause of the other mean­ing of the word, it pos­sessed a con­no­ta­tion of pur­pose and in­ten­tion that draw­ing did not.

The con­cept of in­dus­trial de­sign arose with the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion and the prob­lems of mass pro­duc­tion. This new form of man­u­fac­tur­ing had rad­i­cally trans­formed both the level of out­put and the role of the worker. As Adam Smith ex­plains in The Wealth of Na­tions (1776), where a sin­gle in­ex­pe­ri­enced worker could once barely make a sin­gle pin in a day, a fac­tory with 10 work­ers and the ap­pro­pri­ate ma­chin­ery could pro­duce more than 48,000 in the same time.

But as Karl Marx and oth­ers such as John Ruskin and Wil­liam Mor­ris saw, this process also stripped the craftsman of his agency and ini­tia­tive. Once he had been re­spon­si­ble for the whole process of pro­duc­ing a par­tic­u­lar item, but now he was con­fined to the end­less rep­e­ti­tion of a sin­gle step in the process while the next was per­formed by his neigh­bour on the pro­duc­tion line.

In ef­fect, ar­ti­sans pre­vi­ously had worked in the same way as artists, re­spon­si­ble for the plan­ning of their work, the col­lect­ing of raw ma­te­ri­als, the form of the item they made and ev­ery part of its ex­e­cu­tion. Now they were me­chan­i­cally re­peat­ing tasks that had been im­posed by oth­ers. It is not hard to see how, as the work of so many ar­ti­sans was ren­dered mean­ing­less in this way, that of the fine artist be­came in­creas­ingly ro­man­ti­cised and fetishised, not for its skill or the qual­ity of its ex­e­cu­tion but merely for an ab­stract con­cep­tion of cre­ativ­ity. The artist was ro­man­ti­cised as a last sur­viv­ing ex­am­ple of free work.

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