Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Xenotype?

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Xenotype?

Design Matters Gallery, 11527 West Pico Blvd, Los Angeles
November 7, 2015 – January 8, 2016

Design Matters is an open, white space tucked behind storefront windows in a concrete block building on the western edge of Los Angeles. Part gallery, part architecture office, the hybrid venue promotes an expanded model of design appreciation. As Mark Bittoni, the director, explained, the venture’s name conveys the aspiration: “Initially, I set out to use the word ‘matter’ more as a noun, but as I developed the gallery concept and the range of shows that I wanted to present, it seemed to be more fitting as a declaration of sorts.” By putting private practice on display and by interchanging the expectations for design and art, he introduces conditions that he hopes elevate the societal awareness of architecture’s material and technological experimentation—and, in turn, of its art value.

In a recent Design Matters exhibition, the works of nine groups of architect-designers are presented as part of a literal alternate universe of and for design. The arrangement is ordinary enough, just another gathering of creative productions in a showroom setting. As expected of such expositions, things hang from walls and occupy arranged positions on the floor. The media of the pieces, typical to the contemporary maker scene, are mixed, including drawing, modeling, coding, and fabricating. The premise for this assembly, though, is not to conform, but rather, to unsettle.

Entitled Xenotypes, the exhibition brings to life imagery from the pages of eVolo’s 2013 Xenoculture publication, a document dedicated to “intensifying [the] practices of [xenophobia] towards new thresholds, those that unleash the potential of the alien in the world.” Carlo Aiello, cocurator along with Juan Azulay (who guest edited the publication), sees the materialization of the magazine content as a next, more intimate, step in furthering an innovation agenda: “I am always looking for the ‘xeno’ gene, the DNA that breaks the mold and pushes into new outcomes.”

The Xenotypes notion of advancement builds from a fascination focused on the visually extreme. The assumption is that there is (r)evolution in the look of the foreign—that the unfamiliar, or the act of misinterpreting it, is evocative of radical emergence. Herein, the optically strange, through the allure or repulsion of exoticism, clears the way for the abnormal and encourages the stranger still. Flat, figurative, and form-driven specimens, classed by the curators for their aesthetic as extra-terrestrial, are imbued with the compositional power to trigger the ever unexpected.

Xenotypes deploys these logics with a sample population of proto-architectural creatures. The presentation, ambiguous in its explanations, confronts unsuspecting visitors with alien first encounters: Hollow shells of a barnacle species amass, sitting on a shelf, in a conjoined family of puckered orifices. Or, framed in a row, three Mylar slides capture dissections of a mysterious, hirsute anatomy in inked multispectral images.

The taxonomy continues in a line-up of bulbous glassy jellies pooling in a corner crosswise from a vine of pink plastic articulated tentacles. Nearby, a many-appendaged animal glows under enveloping restraints, pushing subtly in protruding bulges at the bounds of an apparently elastic casing. Interspersed with the biological, a few technological deposits, including a meshed metallic hammock and pixelated multiples of a faraway color-field cartography, lay out not the alien being, but rather the inanimate stuff of a science-fiction future.

If the Xenotypes theory holds, these entities are enough in the weirdness of their pedestaled physicality to inspire the passion or fear generative of breakthrough in the experience of the designed environment; by spectacle alone they are presumed to imbue their onlookers with the will to interrogate, if not reinvent, the everyday. But, disassociated as they are from their provenance, they, like any found object, depend on the imaginative impulse generated by their audience’s first impression to perceive and further the potential latent to their form. All to say, sure, these things are edgy and cool to behold, but the show’s exclusive reliance on appearances traps the works—these alien creatures—in their bodies. Limited to a fixed and objectified state, distanced from the journey of intent and technique that conditioned them, they are held back from their intergalactic ambition to do more than momentarily attract a mystified gaze.

In the Xenoculture source text, on the other hand, the alien aesthetic is a byproduct of design processes loosed without stylistic concern; it is an effect of a pursuit driven by questions indeterminate in shape. This methodological bias is more suggestive of how the Xenotypes might satisfy their designated role as progenitors of change in the standards of the art of building. It offers a rereading of the Design Matters collection, one that makes the mechanisms of mutation transparent.

Instead of simply showing a row of organic-tissue-like slabs, sensuous in the leathery sheen of their rippling folds and pockets, the visual appeal of the Ball-Nogue Studio’s four steel wall panels might, if allowed some history, broaden into a larger narrative about industrial production. The four prototype segments tell a tale that spans from scrap metal recovery, to junkyard compressor appropriation, to multi-shop fashioning and finishing. It’s a story of insight, motivation, and humor that, with a window into the whys and hows of execution, is simultaneously relatable and wonder inciting.

Similarly, the patterns projected through the tessellated armature of the lamp by Alvin Huang’s Synthesis, while mesmerizing in their dance of light and shadow, belie an extensive effort to push additive fabrication practices. The structure, one in a long series of trials, represents a breakthrough in the elimination of the support substance, and thereby the waste, of 3-D printing. By employing operations akin to corbelling, it utilizes plastic’s stable angles of repose to arrive at its intricate lattice of cantilever geometries.

Most deceptively, the presentation of the Two-String Piezoelectric Violin, a collaborative work between Monad Studio and musician-luthier Scott F. Hall, as an inert tarry lozenge conceals both its utility and radicalism. The instrument upends musical expectations with its otherworldly shape and sound, alike. A coded arrest of a performer’s rhythmic movements, it formalizes the actions of playing and skews the resonant frequencies of the resultant notes through a honeycombed, 3-D printed interior.

These details and revelations, however, bring the Xenotypes into a realm of comprehension, of affinity. They amount to an unmasking of the alien—an act that, of course, ultimately renders the works harmonious.