The virtual beat goes on

An exhibition highlights innovative collaborations between artist and engineer. By Jennifer Rodger
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The Independent Culture
Computer technology has long since become a feature of the art world. But people are no longer simply using high-end products to make interesting graphics. Today, innovation comes from a group of students on the unique Computer Related Design (CRD) course at the Royal College of Art, who have abandoned robotics, high-end technical products, arcane programming languages, or anything that smacks too much of computers.

That's not to say that the computers in the MA course title aren't in use. The studios have an eerie terminal hum, and the main room is decked with wire loops. Exhibition space is livelier, filled with hand-stitched sequins, carefully dried flowers and cute lights boxes that show ambient colours. The new talents on display are all exponents of the idea that computers should be put in an emotive, as well as useful, setting.

The course director, Professor Gillian Crampton Smith, who has a background in graphic design, describes it as a blend of multimedia and Computer- Aided Design (CAD). "This course aims to make the transition from the virtual world to the real world easier," says Smith, "by taking into account emotions." There is some relation to Industrial Design, and it started out as part of this discipline, but Smith reckons the Computer-Related Design MA encourages more artistic solutions. "Fifteen years ago technical tools were made by technical people. But now that it's cheaper, people want to design their own products. And we care about their beauty," she adds.

At the weekend Sarah Morris and Alex Darlington DJ at uber-club Bagleys, and this seems to have influenced their project, "Everyday Disco". They are playing with the movement of the body to sound, objects and atmosphere: a person is in front of a wall made from thousands of sequins, they move, lights flash behind the sequins and illuminate a virtual mimicry of that movement. Disco beats are taken apart, re-organised as complex or simple beats, and play according to the speed of the dance.

"Artifi-ciel", 27-year-old Helen Evans's project, was inspired by her memories of a holiday in France. The idea is that her friends in France will gauge the weather, using a sensor, and send an image - eg of rain, hail or sunshine - to England.

Other exhibits are more obviously practical. One offers a specialist solution to journalists who use the Internet in a situation like Kosovo. Stephanie Hankey's "Stringer Field Kit" is for use in areas with problematic telecommunication systems, to which end it monitors the power used by a computer; it can be set to prioritise sending a report, but save downloading a book until a surge in power. There is also an innovative Web browser system; the journalist creates a "map" of reliable sites, and browses through this manageable, time-saving selection.

An alternative computer game console, thought up by Tim Brooke and Ben Guyer, has no flat screen interface, mouse or keyboard. The game is projected on a round table instead, which means that players can gather around and enjoy multi-player gaming. "It's more sociable, a bit like a game of chess," explains Ben. "It gets away from the idea of the nerd gamer, playing his console in the bedroom. It could even be used in the work environment. Then you'd have two people or more at work at the same time, in the same space."

The variety of projects, according to Professor Smith, is due in part to the course's unique admittance policy, which deliberately blends students from apparently different disciplines. This year's finalists have backgrounds in psychology, fine art, computer programming and Web design. "It's a combination of artist designers, who are interested in emotions and desire, and engineer designers, involved in how to make it work," she says. "There is no other course in the UK like this. You'd have to go to the Domus Academy in Milan or the Interactive Telecommunication Program in New York."

The students are by no means guaranteed Silicon Valley at the end of the course, but there is an average 98 per cent employment rate - and at the right level. Alex Darlington and Sarah Morris, aka Shirley and Pepsi in club circles, would like to see their installation used in a bar. In contrast, Helen Evans aspires to see hers in a domestic environment, and imagines "Artifi-ciel" as an interior design feature. Today, when the game business is valued higher than film, and the Internet is in many homes, the games table and the journalist kit are well-timed innovations.

But wherever these computer-related art objects and their makers end up, it's going to involve looking at technology in a surprising light. In the mainstream, there are already terminals in pretty colours, and palm-friendly computers that can be carried in your bikini bottoms. In the future, these artists will make everyday consumer technology ever the more appealing.

The CAD final year show runs until 4 July, Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London