October 15, 2003


Wacoal Art Center Exhibit: Rendezvous of Art and Industry

* This article is under copyright protection.

Manabu Akaike
Universal Design Intelligence Inc.

A Car That Can Wag Its Tail

The ground floor garden gallery of the Spiral all & entertainment complex on Tokyo's Omote-Sando boulevard is the scene of a unique product design exhibition called Rendezvous. The exhibit is attracting over 1,000 people a day and gathers together in one spot of original prototypes created by some of today's most prominent artists.

The work immediately visible as one comes into the gallery is a compact Mercedes Benz sedan with an unusual mechanism attached to the rear end. The piece created by famous media artist Kazuhiko Hachiya is entitled "Thanks Tail."

The mechanism wags and moves like the tail of a pet robot dog. It's an automotive accessory that serves as a communication tool. Cars should have some means of communicating besides signal lights. The Thanks Tail lets the car say, "I'm going first," or "Thank you," or "Sorry." This tail-wagging car was realized with the cooperation of the Yanase Mercedes dealership that responded to the originality and inventiveness of Mr. Hachiya in helping to create this prototype.

In fact all the works on display at this exhibit took shape through a "rendezvous" or meeting of the minds between artists on the one side and advanced technology in the form of industry or science on the other. The sponsor of this project is Wacoal Art Center. In the past, the product development process would begin with technology developed by engineers, which was then developed for commercial application by product designers. Wacoal Art Center observed the special criticality and creativity that artists display in relation to their times, and came up with this project as a way to explore new means of making things. Products in this exhibit took form via a meeting of the artful wisdom and ideas of the artist, the technology and skills of industry and craftsmen, and the results of basic research by scientists.

Five Keys to a New Means for Making Things

The central concept of Rendezvous can be expressed in the five key phrases it names "The Five Rules of Flight" - "From Competition to Collaboration," "From Idea to Action," "From Production to Creation," "From Innovative to Heartfelt" and "From Customer Satisfaction to Human Fulfillment." These phrases convey the possibility of a future style of development and production wherein artists will be positioned as the representatives of the everyday living people (seikatsusha, as opposed to the passive consumer, incorporating the idea of conscious living), so that seikatsusha will be able to make the things that they themselves want, instead of relying on industry and product designers to tell them what they want.

In the old manufacturing world, engineers have been the ones most involved in technological development, and the scientists engaged in basic scientific research have not always been given enough opportunity to take active roles in developing new technology. Among the works shown in this exhibit are a clothing line titled "Silky Way" by fashion designer Kosuke Tsumura. His clothing sparkles with design sense in contrast to the usual dull image of recycled clothing, and his innovative textiles elicit a new strength from the lowly silkworm.

Tsumura's collaborator was Tokyo Agriculture University's Dr. Takayuki Nagashima. "Silk can be melted by means of calcium chloride without emitting any harmful substances, into a film or sheet like material." The results of Dr. Nagashima's research on silkworm cocoons gave rise to Tsumura's recycled apparel line made out of old silk clothing with a new quality feel, as well as a totally new type of textile created by placing colonies of silkworms onto loosely knit dresses and letting the worms spin raw silk directly into the fabric. Basic insect research has come to life, and a new product has been created through a "rendezvous" of disciplines, not to mention the participation of the silkworm itself.

This is the socialization of scientific technology. The Rendezvous exhibit is attempting to empower our scientists.

Rendezvous With Traditional Craft and Urban Factory Technicians

Another product that grew out of the Rendezvous exhibit deserves a closer look, and that is "Socrates." This collection of robotic cubes was created by multimedia artist Noboru Tsubaki in collaboration with Kobe-based robotics maker System Watt.

Pet robots like AIBO are already well established on the scene. Mr. Tsubaki describes Socrates as "a robot that will return the power of thinking to humans."

Each cube has one or two functions that are useful in a variety of applications, such as sensors, a camera, a walking mechanism, etc. The modules can be combined in anyway to fulfill a particular purpose, so the system essentially allows you to build your own robot. The robot can also be loaded with control functions that allow for remote control by cell phone or Palm-style PDA, or by infrared communication or voice recognition. It is laden with potential for use in all kinds of social issues, from a building block-like toy for developing children's intellectual ability to remote activation of telephone devices, earthquake detection or on the scene disaster relief.

At Rendezvous, a cell phone i-mode system and a Palm-style PDA were used as remote controllers to direct the robot in a high-tech gardening system called "Plantsman." Gallery visitors delighted in using a cell phone to direct Socrates to water the plants in the indoor garden. Mr. Tsubaki hopes to utilize more advanced biotechnology in adapting Socrates to aid in irrigation of desert regions.

"Hooks and eyes similar to what is used in apparel is what we use to link the robot cubes together. So this 'rendezvous' also used the type of technology found in small urban factories," laughs Mr. Tsubaki. Tomoharu Matsuda, chief planner for the Spiral complex says, "We are planning more Rendezvous projects not just with artists but also art students, traditional craftsmen and engineers at smaller urban factories. In fact we are thinking about developing new foods. Imagine the interesting new foodstuffs that could be created by artists working together with agricultural scientists and organic farmers. Keep your eyes open for that, after the next Rendezvous."

JAPAN CLOSE-UP, April 2002, published by PHP

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