Synopsis for the conference Digital. Material. Structural. Ornament Today, to take place on 31 May and 1 June 2010 at the Faculty for Design and Art of the Free University of Bozen/Bolzano.
Digital. Material. Structural. Ornament Today Brightly coloured, playful and provocatively sensuous, ornament – the very thing that modernity attempted to abolish at the beginning of the machine age – is today making a comeback in design, art and architecture. The ornament debate reignited once more as the machine age gave way to the communication age. The talk is of the new ornament which shows itself in the most varied ways, as ephemeral appearances on screens and media facades, but also in the sophisticated play of materiality and space in Jun Aoki’s projects for Louis Vuitton (Roppongi 2003) or in the structural concept of Toyo Ito’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion (London 2002), not to mention in the organically intricate furniture design of Zaha Hadid (Venice 2008), in the art of Tobias Rehberger or in rhetorical form in the work of Christian Kathriner.
We are here addressing the most varied manifestations of the new ornaments, but one thing is certain: the new ornaments can no longer be limited to surface and perception phenomena. With computational design, mass customisation and scripting software, the ornaments have become separate from paper, walls or electronic screens and now penetrate the material and structure of things. An excellent example is to be found in the experiments of Achim Menges with integral material systems. Here the borders so to speak dissolve between object and surface, ergon and paregon. Interestingly enough, computational design does not in fact begin with questions of ornament, but of the structural principles of the digital processes and of the material, although the architectural results in turn have much to do with ornamental structures. Therefore Menges does not speak of ornaments, but of performative patterns, which are nevertheless of an ornamental kind. Under the influence of digital processes, material, structure and ornament enter into a new interrelation.
It is at exactly this point that the conference Digital. Material. Structural. Ornament Today wishes to commence and raise the question of the change in the structure and status of ornament in the digital age. On the one hand ornaments today show themselves as structures that are detaching themselves from the surface and rampantly growing in space as a result of the “controlling programs and codings” (Brett Steele) of computers. We must thus ask ourselves whether or not the abstract logic of the digital habitat is perhaps visible in the specific form of each ornament. This does not however mean that the designer’s creativity has been completely switched off. The evidence is that in the artistic processes of VJs and even in the digitally calculated spatial structures of Arata Isozaki, such as in the Florence railway station project, the design is still guided by a formative intention. It is by no means the case that the hand of the designer is obsolete. On the contrary, it is through the new ornamental processes and their structures, mediated by the new digital technologies, that human beings are entering into a new relationship with the environment and with themselves.
The question of the new ornament thus, according to the first thesis, not only has a technological side but also an – enormously important – anthropological one. So, more insistently than ever, the question arises: What is new about the new ornament? What does it change in the relationship between human beings and environment? How does it affect how we feel and our relationship with things? Would we be better, in view of its process-oriented nature, to speak directly of ornamental processes? How does the new ornament differ from machine ornament and classical ornament, and where in turn do affinities and continuities exist? Is every moiré effect, every computer-generated pattern and every pixel-like structure on a media façade now a new ornament?
According to the second thesis, history itself makes clear that the recurrence of the question of ornament is always an indication of a fundamental change in culture. This holds true for the debates on ornament in the period of early modernity as well as for their return in the 1960s in the ornamental figures of early computer graphics (Nake, Noll) and in the structural ornament of structuralism (Candilis, A. van Eyck). This is also true for the abstract ornaments of concrete art, from pop art and op art and also for the allegorical and metaphoric ornaments of postmodernism (A. Mendini, E. Sottsass, M. Thun, Arata Isozaki). Modernity sharpens its theoretical concept on ornament. Opinions diverge when it comes to ornament, but less – as is generally held – in the sense of questions of taste than that the central formative questions and problem areas of an age crystallise on it.
Ornament, according to the third thesis, is where the reconceptualisation of culture in the ever-changing cultural force field takes place. This is worth examining. The new ornament seems in this sense to indicate an end-point and a turning-point, the “end of the Albertian paradigm”. Alberti believed that the strength of the Renaissance lay essentially in the separation of the intellectual design process from direct realisation by the craftsman. But, as Mario Carpo shows, digital tools tend to abolish this separation that had held for over 500 years between the “intellectual act of design” and the “material act of building”. What can now be seen is a new “interactive linkage” between the cognitive processes of design, i.e. the thinking of the things, and the material processes, i.e. the making of the things. The new ornament seems to be the driving force behind the “interactive linkage” of the cognitive and material processes of design, as well as their result.
The conference Digital. Material. Structural. Ornament Today invites international theoreticians, cultural scientists and philosophers as well as creators in the areas of design, architecture, art and fashion to Bozen/Bolzano in order to pose the question of the new ornament from the perspective of practice, theory, aesthetics and media psychology. There will be contributors from the USA, Japan and Europe. The languages of the conference are English, German and Italian. All contributions will be simultaneously interpreted into the other languages. The conference will take place on 31 May and 1 June 2010 in Bozen/Bolzano and is being organised by Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Jörg H. Gleiter, an engineer and specialist in aesthetics at the Faculty for Design and Art of the Free University of Bozen/Bolzano.
Bozen, 15. November 2009
Jörg H. Gleiter