Beyond the Digital Turn

By Pedro Gadanho

First of all, I must make a warning: I will not recur to airing a quick succession of 140 characters tweets, nor will I use the latest live-feed technology to try and let you understand how Beyond Media felt to me like a festival haunted by its very initial premises. Nope. Instead, I’ll go back to the very old means of putting up one word after the other, and one paragraph after the other, and try to telescope you into the heart of that simple argument by means of a very personal interpretation.

When I say that this Festival is “haunted by its very initial premises” I do not mean that showing the audiovisual media which are today quintessential to architecture representation should bear any special problem. On the contrary, it is only natural and logical that someone should be doing it. At its 9th edition, the Florence festival also has it in its curriculum to be one of the first to do so. The ghosts I am referring to, instead, are those of the so-called digital culture. When Beyond Media was initiated by multitasking Marco Brizzi in 1997, it was only too obvious to a given few that digital tools were there to change the way we worked, the way we designed reality, the way we represented it and also thought about it. By then, it was also acceptable to let yourself immerge in the fascination that is due to the enormous possibilities granted by these new tools.

Digital tools, though, have by now been culturally absorbed and are now part of the everyday banal of (almost) everybody: think of TV, if not of the means we deploy to pursue any design or technical profession. This banality – what we may expect when what I will call the digital turn is complete – is intrinsically good. It means that, by now, and even if in permanent development, the digital paradigm is, like taste, already acquired. Of course one can, still today, be locked into the early thrills of those who once were at the forefront of digital culture. Just think of blobtecture: a formal approach to architectural shape that is still locked into the early inception of what the digital should look like. But one may also be looking beyond the processes that today invisibly drive architecture’s creation.

In this sense, the effective object of the festival’s – film, videos and digital visualizations of the most varied nature – revealed this year that maybe we are indeed at the turning point of the digital turn. The point in which we can start accepting that the digital turn -the process of passing from an analogue mode of culture production to a digital one- is reaching the point in which the digital is completely overruling the analogical, and that this is definitely influencing our behavior – although, at the same time, this doesn’t have to be the main focus of our attention.

This means something like what Francis Ford Coppola achieved instantly when he did one of the first digital movies back in 1982: One from the Heart. (The other was Tron) Do you remember Coppola’s for being “digital” or just for being a great film, with great characters and great music? (But, then, that is why Coppola is a genius)

Spot on Schools exhibition in the Stazione Leopolda

Being at the turning point, though, also means that, even if we may start looking forward to a more mature approach to digital tools and looks, we must still bear some typically naive flirtations with the medium. In this sense, many of the films and participants in Beyond Media’s “Visions” – the event’s theme for 2009 – were still too obviously encapsulated in the discussion of the digital tools’ nature and possibilities, rather than stepping onto the next platform of the reflection and production of visions that the digital turn welcomes. This was perhaps most explicit in the case of the teaching departments selected to integrate the Spot on Schools exhibition – a quite valuable initiative that kind of offers a background for the festival, occupying two floors of the cave-like, discontinued halls of Stazione Leopolda. It is certainly true that, in terms of architectural education, the learning of the tools should be a major concern. It is true that the most efficient design instruments are now inevitably digital. But are the school departments heavily focused in parametric design the only ones that reflect the consequences of the digital turn? Indeed, for me, it would be far more interesting to explore the subtler ways in which the digital tooling affects the thinking behind architecture and everything else– because it structurally does.

On the other hand, the symposium held through the Festival’s long opening weekend did attempt to drive the debate into the 2.0 aspects of this issue… A well-tempered media historian such as Mario Carpo revealed the ambition to bring in the long perspective – the fact that you can look back at history and anticipate that the digital fad is just… like any other fad. But he was paired with a group of panelists – John Frazer, Furio Barzon and Alvise Simondetti from ARUP – who, as centered as they were in the wondrous updates of the tooling aspects, certainly made it difficult to achieve a more philosophical and distanced approach.

It was only when the starring bright minds came pouring in, that a jump could be felt in this direction. Like in some fast paced talk-show, both Derrick Kerckhove and Marcos Novak raised the political aspects of the new digital social networks. And with the aid of Beatriz Colomina’s historical rereading of little magazines, the core discussion of vision and communication was finally redirected into aspects of radical action towards the whole of society, rather than to a strict focus on the technical apparatus of the “selfless” digital architect aimed at analysis, standardization and cybernetic reproduction of building.

Happily, the symposium curated by Pietro Valle confirmed that there are many possible avenues into the achievement of vision in a digital world – including power, writing, exhibiting and the hidden mission of the festival: archiving. In the benefit of diversity, there was a contribute of those who, in these different areas, are immersed in digital technology, but also a presence of those who haven’t even arrived at the heart of digital, or let’s say, network thinking – although they inevitably use digital tools as a sort of upgraded craftsmanship. This was the case of Tony Fretton, for example, as opposed to Martin Rein-Cano, from Topotek1, on a panel on art visions… While neither addressed the digital turn, their practices certainly reflected a generation gap coming from the eruption of a new interaction, network paradigm. As such, in one of the very few moments in which a spicy confrontation arose, Fretton revealed how the minimalist frame of view is today acquiring a conservative and reductive overtone, as opposed to Rein-Cano’s hybrid linking of nature, technology and social space. Fretton wants to stick to an architectural world of autonomous abstractions, Rein-Cano wants to immerge in the everyday flow of contemporary information. This where the digital turn leaves its less obvious imprints.

“Concerto for infrastructures” by Gilles Delalex (Muoto Architects)

Palimpsest by Eva Sommeregger

Back to the movies, though, these demonstrated with bewildering diversity how digital tools are indeed around the corner, but in the end can simply provide for any world vision you may want to pursue. As you may preview in YouTube, the more revealing pieces in Beyond Media perfectly illustrated that even if digital tools are the rule, freedom of expression is once again the thing. As such, films reached from resolute experimental pieces by the likes of Pilar Ortiz or StudioMuoto to interesting graphic “documentaries” like Eva Sommeregger’s Palimpsest, Maki Gherzi’s Dalla Casa all’Abitare, or Anthony Burke’s States of Convergence.

Squint Opera’s Adamstown

MongoPalace by Interaction Design Lab

And video-portfolios by architects went from the classical digital professionalism of the “viewmasters” such as Zaha Hadid, UnStudio and MVRDV, to recent attempts at developing narrative devices such as those in Lavarita-Navarro or in BIG’s clever take on parkour’s architectural appropriations as filmed by Kaspar Astrup Schröder The best videos selected by Beyond Media thus revealed a clear assumption of existing digital tools, while willing to take these onto their next logical phase: visual originality, narrative, and a more humane approach. Whether corporate or subversive, whether institutional or personal, these films were, after all, looking back into the visual cultures of animation, cartoons and film… so as to discover the new/old paths that may lie beyond the digital turn. This again reveals the impact of the long, historical perspective: history constantly repeats itself through new instruments and media. As such, the sooner we achieve a critical distance from what is hitting us right now, the better we are using the repertoire of past and present to make the new technologies work for our everlasting and recurrent human needs.

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