Brave New Virtues at the MAK

Vienna

19 July 2019

In early July, Belgian public broadcaster VRT revealed that Google had been listening in to recordings people made using its AI system, Google Assistant.

Depressingly, this perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise. Google’s user terms specify that the company may use the recordings its Home devices make, while it is been well known that the company employs contractors to help better understand language patterns and accents. Whether consciously or subconsciously (who actually bothers reading user terms?), we make the trade-off that our provision of personal data is compensated by the service you receive in return. You give Google personal data and, in return, Google gives you helpful services. “Okay Google,” VRT suggested as one such example of handiness, “how’s the traffic heading towards Brussels?”

Still, it’s a bit creepy, isn’t it? While some of the facets of the story may have already been in the public domain, what was new within the investigation was the depth of personal information that had been made available to contractors. Imagine being one of those unsuspecting people to whom VRT revealed that they were being eavesdropped upon by Google’s contractors. “In these recordings we could clearly hear addresses and other sensitive information,” reads the VRT report. “This made it easy for us to find the people involved and confront them with the audio recordings.” Perhaps traffic information for Brussels is feeling less attractive right now.

This Faustian trade, data for function, lies at the heart of the 2019 Vienna Biennale, Brave New Virtues: Shaping Our Digital World. As titles go, it’s a neatly contradictory one. The references to “virtues” and “shaping” suggest a belief in society’s agency and capacity to elect for a positive future, while the title’s overall form recalls the dystopian techno-nightmare of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. As with so much contemporary discourse around technology and digital systems, Brave New Virtues presents society as being at a crossroads. “We have to remind not only people, but also artists, designers and architects, that we live in a new modernity and have to act accordingly in coming up with ideas and how to design this modernity,” says Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, director of Vienna’s MAK museum of applied arts and one of the progenitors of the biennale. “We have to make the right decisions as societies.”

Across the city, individuals, collectives and institutions have staged exhibitions and installations around the theme (such as Hysterical Mining at the Kunsthall Wien, or Change Was Our Only Chance at the Angewandte Innovation Laboratory), but a significant portion of the biennale’s content is housed in the MAK itself. Here, the museum has taken a broad approach to the topic at hand, premised around the idea that digital technologies provide a gateway through which any number of societal, political and disciplinary questions might be answered. “Digital is the main driver of our new modernity and it feeds other [fields],” notes Thun-Hohenstein. “Computing power has triggered totally different timeframes [across disciplines], and artificial intelligence will be the main driver for how our societies develop. There are lots of opportunities and potential, but also shortcomings and dangers. It boils down to us having to deal with it actively.”

Lunar Lander by EOOS, part of Climate Change! From Mass Consumption to a Sustainable Quality Society.

One possible future comes in the form of Climate Change! From Mass Consumption to a Sustainable Quality Society, a series of design proposals from Viennese studio EOOS. A joint project from the MAK and Austria’s Federal Ministry for Sustainability and Tourism, Climate Change! presents a new series of working prototypes for everyday objects that have been developed around the Austrian government’s #mission2030 climate and energy strategy. “It’s the first time the ministry has used designers to come up with contributions,” notes Harald Gründl, one of EOOS’s co-founders. “#mission2030 was highly criticised by NGOs because it wasn’t concrete enough – [society was] still missing the policies. As designers, we have a role when we’re faced with a society that is frightened and cannot conceive of alternatives to a given way of life.”

As a result of their unorthodox genesis, the proposals within Climate Change! occupy a productively uncertain territory between concrete proposals and playful provocations. The objects are all, to some extent, speculative, but EOOS has been careful to ensure that they also function. If a visitor to the exhibition deems the works on display as outlandish, the onus is on them to consider why that is. Lunar Lander, for instance, is a unisex toilet that channels urine through microbial fuels cells to generate electricity that could be pumped back into the grid. The setup just so happens to be housed inside a structure that mimics the appearance of a 1960s lunar lander – this initially seems an odd choice, although perhaps no odder than the reality of increasing number of decommissioned public toilets in London being converted into bougie wine bars. “From an aesthetic point of view, the lunar lander is a design classic; for 50 years it hasn’t changed,” says Gründl. “It’s retro-futuristic, but it still represents the future. So the piece is a little bit ironic – can’t we find better images and wishes than those we had in the 1960s?”

Kitchen-Cow by EOOS

Kitchen-Cow, meanwhile, is a beautifully executed prototype kitchen that ferments food waste to produce the methane that then fuels its in-built gas burner. So far, so practical, although the methane is stored within a 400l biogas tank that squats fatly on the floor like a bodybag for a dairy cow. “It’s not speculative in a way, it just shows a scheme,” says Gründl, and it is worth wondering if a visitor to the MAK would be justified in feeling troubled by the obtrusive presence of the Kitchen-Cow infrastructure in their kitchen, but ambivalent towards the present realities of natural gas extraction’s impact on the environment. Most troubling of all EOOS’s proposals is the most aesthetically neutral work in the exhibition, the Citizen Socket – a publicly owned charging station for electric vehicles that would be operated through a peer-to-peer network. “The idea was it would stand in front of the museum as a point where citizens share self-produced energy,” says Gründl. “But we had a really big ‘no’ from the authorities in Vienna.” Citizen Socket, it seems, could not be accommodated within existing regulations. Thun-Hohenstein’s warning as to the need for societies to make correct choices seems apposite here. “I think that’s what design is for,” notes Gründl, “to renegotiate what can be done in a city.” If it is occasionally unclear as to how EOOS’s proposals ties in with the biennale’s wider theme of “our digital world”, perhaps this is the point – a digital world need not only admit to digital solutions and ideas.

Certainly EOOS’s use of future speculations as a vehicle for reflection on our present realities finds further expression in the museum’s reinstallation of its permanent Design Lab display – a series of predominantly contemporary galleries. Curated by in-house curators Marlies Wirth and Janina Falkner, working in conjunction with external studio Mischer’Traxler, the gallery sets out to illuminate what Wirth describes as “the thesis that design is more than objects, it’s the design of our society and how we live together on this planet and shape things.”

The Design Lab permanent display at the MAK, designed by Mischer'Traxler

As is demanded of a permanent collection, much of Design Lab serves as a whistle stop tour through the great and the good (and therefore familiar) of contemporary design, but the exhibition’s curators have nevertheless managed to introduce a number of fresh ideas that ought to be aped by other institutions. Chief amongst these are the ‘Cabinet of Consequences’ and ‘Design Dilemma’ displays, a set of wunderkammern that tow the party line of presenting design as a problem-solver, but which simultaneously subvert this by acknowledging that many designs create as many problems as they solve: “The increasing exceedance [sic] of our habitat’s ‘planetary boundaries’, the reckless exploitation of the resources necessary for human survival: we are to blame for all of this,” reads one wall text. “Despite striving for ideal results, no object, no system, and no digital application can be perfect[…] The objects on display are good design solutions – but some have a flip side and others have even failed.”

Here, Tejo Remy’s Rag chair (1991) for Droog makes intelligent use of old garments, while are belted into shape to form the chair’s structure, but less intelligent use of existing logistical networks: “The clothes have to be brought to the designer, and the furniture then has to be sent back to the buyer. As the furniture is quite heavy [45kg of clothes], transportation is very energy-consuming.” A pullover from clothing brand Fjällräven, meanwhile, is woven from a synthetic material from old PET bottles that would otherwise become landfill. It is a fine recycling initiative, but one that failed to account for the fact that when the fleece is washed, it sets free up to two grams of PET microfibres, which subsequently enter the food chain through the wastewater. “Throughout the display, there’s quite a circle of taking responsibility for our body, our privacy, our planet, and talking about how design can change that,” says Wirth, and it is telling that the residents of ‘Cabinet of Consequences’ and ‘Design Dilemma’ are frequently projects which may have focused too much on the design of an clearly defined object or set solution, without taking full account of the ecosystems and contexts in which those solutions might operate.

The Design Lab permanent display at the MAK, designed by Mischer'Traxler

Design Lab’s other great virtue is its intelligent use of the MAK’s historical collection, with objects from these archives scattered in amongst the contemporary projects that make up the bulk of the display. These historical objects are not deployed gratuitously as masterworks, but rather aim to illuminate similarities in context between the issues facing contemporary designers and their forebears. Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s revolutionary Frankfurt Kitchen (1929) – a dedicated, highly rationalised, compact kitchen space – was the precursor for the fitted kitchens that came to dominate society in the postwar years. Yet while the exhibition praises the manner in which the kitchen “enabled particularly efficient, time-saving work processes”, its presence in the display is no valedictory lap. Schütte-Lihotzky’s interest in Taylorist optimisation took root within a heavily gendered society (a status quo that has changed little in the proceeding 90 years), and her design can be analysed and critiqued with this bias in mind. Indeed, the closing line of the Frankfurt Kitchen’s exhibition text features a sting in the tail: “[Schütte-Lihotzky] was accused of having tied women[…] even closer to the kitchen sink.” Even a design as celebrated as Schütte-Lihotzky’s kitchen may merit a place in the ‘Design Dilemma’ display, and it is difficult to view the Frankfurt Kitchen without harking back to EOOS’s Kitchen-Cow. Upon its debut as a part of Ernst May’s Neues Frankfurt social housing project, Schütte-Lihotzky’s design would have shocked 1920s societies that were largely unaware of ideas surrounding labour-saving household efficiency. Today, however, her kitchen is familiar in almost every aspect – it becomes a diverting thought to consider whether any features of the speculations of Kitchen-Cow might one day seem equally commonplace.

A more explicitly future-facing portion of Brave New Virtues takes flight in Uncanny Values: Artificial Intelligence & You, an exhibition curated by Wirth and Paul Feigelfeld. “We wanted to make it a cultural exhibition and not an exhibition about AI per se,” says Wirth. “We’re interested in its cultural implications.” In this spirit, Uncanny Values comprises 18 projects and installations submitted by artists and designers, each of which looks at the affordances of emerging technologies and tries to tease out some of their present implications. It makes for fraught viewing.

AImojis by Process Studio, part of Uncanny Values: Artificial Intelligence & You.

AImojis by Process Studio, for instance, submits a databank of several thousand emojis to a Deep Convolutional Generative Adversarial Network (DCGAN), which has been trained using these images to subsequently generate emojis of its own. The results are horrifying – smeared, gurning nightmares that unpleasantly recall the alien in Men in Black’s efforts to pass itself off as human by hiding within the ill-fitting skin of a farmer it has murdered. On the one hand, the “artificial” emotions that DCGAN generates are reassuringly laughable, but the sheer breadth of outputs begins to generate questions around the efficacy and neutrality of our existing emojis – do the limited emoticons we currently possess really capture the range and diversity of human experience? Any new, “official” emojis need to be approved by the non-profit Unicode Consortium, and the options available to users are, as a result, limited and highly partial. Issues around racial diversity within emojis have been well documented (and are subject to ongoing remedial efforts), and it is only in 2019 that a Diya lamp emoji has been added in recognition of Diwali (Christmas, meanwhile, has been represented for quite some time). The oddities of the AImojis may be grotesque but are ultimately far less alarming than our cultural biases embodied by more aesthetically polished emojis.

This seems to be the constant within Brave New Virtues: Shaping Our Digital World. Standing on the cusp of new technologies may bring with it the potential for future change, but it is equally an opportunity to reflect on our present realities and past decisions. Behold These Glorious Times! by Trevor Paglen is a video installation within Uncanny Values that shows hundreds of thousands of the images with which neural networks are trained to analyse and assess the world around them. The effects are hypnotic: a torrent of imagery of people, plants, people and objects, all pouring forth into the nascent mind of a machine. As with anything, what we get out of AI will be determined by what we put in to begin with. In deciding upon the future that we want, the best place to start is with analysing the choices that we have made up until now.