Expo Futures – Memories of the Future by Ruth Slatter.
This article was originally published on visit1862.com in December 2015.
Over 5 weeks from November to December 2015, the editors of visit1862 have been working with Informational Experience Design (IED) and History of Design (HoD) MA students from the Royal College of Art as they have been developing an exhibition about the future of international exhibitions. This post is the first of many contributions that the HoD students working on the project made for visit1862.com. But today their post reflects on the project and the processes of research, concept development and exhibition design they have been involved in.
MEMORIES OF THE FUTURE was an exhibition by the Royal College of Art’s Information Experience Design (IED) and the History of Design MAs held in the Machines Room, Vyner Street, London in December 2015. The exhibition looked at the contemporary international exposition through the lens of the ‘forgotten’ International Exhibition of 1862. By subverting historic designs and highlighting the importance of ‘expo mechanics’, the exhibition speculates on the role of human intervention with design and problematises our interactions with these ever changing technologies.
The History of Design team took various approaches to the historical side of the exhibition. We initially focused on various aspect of the 1862 exhibition including the political-historical context of Prussia and Austria’s exhibition space; the chess subculture and conversation around the International Chess Tournament of 1862, that took place at the same time as the International Exhibition; the British media coverage of the Japan Courts and the Japanese response to the exhibition; and national identity as it related to wrought and cast iron.
The historical background we provided served as a springboard for the exhibition concept and content. The result are six installations that address issues of evolving soundscapes in an increasingly mechanised world; the current desire to photograph every aspect of our lives; problems of private space in public toilets; a game of chess as a critique of the rigidity of the existing seemingly open and democratic Expo structure; knowing the future through old technologies; and the exposition guide as both a rarified object and a tool for creating experiences.
As design historians we have each had our unique experiences with the project and below are a few of those thoughts:
Working on a collaborative project is exciting because we are constantly learning from each other and utilising information in different ways.
I come from a design background; therefore I am always inspired by the past, and interested to see how this can be visually tailored to suit the present and even the future. As a Design Historian my aim is to create a wider and better understanding by analysing, critiquing and discovering information by fixating on the past.
In this particular collaboration, my role was to seek information about the history, experience and aesthetic of the toilet, an everyday luxury. Before encountering a historical reference, as a group we looked at contemporary examples of toilet related exhibitions and understood that sanitation is a key agenda. Then by looking for information around sanitation, via the floor plan and experiences recorded of 1862 International Exhibition, I was able to explore other avenues such as class, gender and what it meant to use the toilet.
My background in anthropology and interior design provides me with an interest in the way people interact with space and objects so this project really excited me. However what I didn’t expect was how quickly the IED students took the historical aspect into consideration. My group was focused on creating the exhibition guide and one of the first things we discussed was the physicality of the guide itself. How big was it? What did it cost? But those questions soon took a back seat to questions about the kind of content the guide revealed and how we would like to explore that in the guide we were creating. By exploring the successes and the drawbacks of the 1862 guide we were better able to craft the look and the content for our 2015 guide. A nice bonus was discovering in the 1862 guide a critique of the 1851 Great Exhibition guide.
Before settling on a topic with my group, I had initially researched the objects on display in the Austrian and Prussian courts in the 1862 Exhibition catalogue. Inspired the array of musical instruments on display, our group decided to create soundscapes for the final installation. After learning from the London Illustrated News and the visit1862 website that umbrellas were officially banned on the premises of the Exhibition, we reimagined how as disputed objects, umbrellas could become time vessels capable of transporting visitors back to the past. If anything, it was very insightful learning that creative inspiration can come from unusual or unexpected places. As a historian, I also checked the historical accuracy of the sound sources used in the umbrellas soundscapes.
As students of design history, we research the manufacture, use and contexts of consumption for designed objects. This collaborative project gave us the opportunity to reimagine history with living designers and to learn about the value that historical research has in making the past tangible for designers.
Joining the team from a professional background combining contemporary art curating and antiques, along with a history in dance, I was keen to learn and experience new approaches by taking part in the project. Starting with an exploding view of the Exposition, History of Design students bought our conceptual thinking into play whilst IED critiqued the Milan Expo and picked out some key themes to shape the project.
Working on researching the sensory theme within the 1862 exhibition was challenging and from the press reviews remaining I was able to build a picture of the visual and felt experience focusing on the exhibition building and the crowd as an entity in itself.
Turning to the concept of photography I was excited to hear of the planned installation piece including a sculptural recreation of Sutton’s panoramic camera and video refraction of the live audience, combining past, present and future in a re-imagining of photography as a medium for temporal exploration.
My background is in art history and more recently in practical exhibition development and management. I am interested in exploring various aspects of an exhibition as a mode of interaction, cultural development and visualisation.
As a historical reference my group and I decided to focus on the International Chess Tournament that took place in London parallel to the International Exhibition of 1862. It was the second time that such a Tournament was held (the first took place during the 1851 Great Exhibition) included 14 participants and lasted just over two weeks. Initial research revealed an emerging chess subculture and a highly interactive community that partially gather around the tournament but mostly interacted through letters, newspapers and specialised magazines.
Free interaction via such a seemingly democratic medium as print periodicals got us thinking about the limitations and restrictions inherent in the game of chess. With the piece presented in the Memories of the Future exhibition we raise the question of rules and boundaries present in the structure of the modern Expo, inviting viewers to play a game of chess and, perhaps, make up their own rules.
First called the Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph, conducted by Animal Instinct, the Tempest Prognosticator used leeches to predict approaching weather disturbances. The accuracy of the machine is outstanding both for its noted reliability and the neglect it has received since its exhibition.
Our group wanted to create a narrative around our replica that made it the direct descendant of the original. We envisioned a place for this forsaken object in a society that is increasingly curious about animal instinct. The machine prompts some of the same questions it did in its original historical context: what is the value of animal instinct?
However, the machine we’ve created is no longer just a weather forecasting device but a grand, omniscient predictor of the future. As well as speculating on the potential of animal instinct, we wanted to comment on the nature of the promise of expos, thus asking what is really shown or valued, the spectacle or the innovation. The collaboration was an outstanding look at the past, present and future but the speculative narrative itself was incredibly creative as it required fabricating a history as well.
With thanks to the RCA/V&A History of Design students.
Visit1862.com in an online space dedicated to collaborative research into the 1862 International Exhibition. Established and edited by Helen Cresswell and Ruth Slatter, visit1862 is one project associated with the Figure 9 Collective that engages with design history beyond the academy.