Australian design magazine
Nr.45, May 2011 edition
Belgian art collective LAb[au] explores the new spaces of the information age
words by Mandi Keighran -->
Belgian art collective LAb[au] couldn't have chosen a more fitting name when they formed in Brussels in 1997. Most obviously, the name means 'laboratory for architecture and urbanism', describing the group's experimental approach that navigates between architecture, information design, digital art and sculpture. But, like much of LAb[au]'s work, there's more to it than that. Pronounced in French, the emphasis falls on 'bau', German for 'construction' and a link to the Bauhaus movement. "The Bauhaus is very important to us," says Manuel Abendroth, one of the founding members of LAb[au]. "It was a place where technological shift led to artists, designers, architects, musicians and dancers questioning what it meant to create in a new industrialised world." The parallels are easy to draw. Just as Walter Gropius and his peers were navigating the shift to an industrialised world, LAb[au] are discovering new forms of architecture and space in an emerging information society in which rapidly evolving networks and advancing technologies abound.
With the dawn of the information age, new questions to do with the purpose of architecture, art and design have arisen. Architecture, for example, is a representation of a specific purpose - so, a public library has meaning in the urban landscape and represents certain values and ideals - but in the
information age, what is representation? What is connectivity? How do we access information? It's issues like this that members of LAb[au] - Abendroth, Jérôme Decock, Els Vermang and Alexandre Plennevaux - are broaching. "You can speak about it in terms of architectural thinking," says Abendroth. "It's how to translate social, economic and other structures into artefact."
These 'artefacts' are frameworks - structures that run software or other applications - which react to a wide variety of parameters depending on the software applied. It's an approach, documented in extensive texts by LAb[au], that reduces complex information to deceptively simple visual representations.
The work that LAb[au] is best known for is at the Dexia Tower in Brussels. The group designed RGB LED lights into the tower, making each window a 'pixel'. It was proposed to Dexia that the tower become a "kind of urban sign" using three different systems - interactive, performative and analytic - with each system type reacting to a different set of parameters. These system types come from a range of six used by LAb[au] in their projects: generative, analytic, performative, reactive, interactive and connective.
Generative, for example, is something completely self-organised, a process that runs by itself. On the contrary, interactive systems need user input; performative systems need a composition a skilled person, an actor; and connective systems need a network. The project for the opening of Dexia Tower was Touch, an interactive work that allowed people, via a touch screen, to interact with and control the LED lighting of the tower in real time. The resulting pattern of colour and light on the 145-metre tower was seen by the wider city. The person controlling the appearance of the tower was, by extension, anticipating the image of the city, which was memorialised in the form of an e-postcard. "You create a new relationship between a citizen and the building," says Abendroth.
The permanent illumination is chrono.tower, an analytic work based on a simple principle that matches the three primary colours of light - red, green, blue - to the three basic measures of time - hours, minutes, seconds - creating a slowly evolving colour field that represents time. "You re-install a relation between light, space and time," says Abendroth. The increasing brightness between sunset and midnight - chrono.tower restores a circadian rhythm to the city's inhabitants. A snapshot of each hour has been plotted as a print and exhibited as a visual mapping of the passing of time in a work titled chrono.prints. On occasion, the tower is performative, the lights reacting to a composition by artist or musician.
"What we do is parameter design," says Abendroth. "We try to identify parameters and how we can translate them - not in a metaphorical way, but in a concrete way. It's just taking things as they are."
Mandi Keighran is Deputy Editor of Indesign.
See LAb[au]'s most recent work Tessel on
Metalab02 History Navigator (requires the Adobe Flash Player 8+).