In virtual space, visionary designs and fictional scenarios for architecture can be imagined without the limitations of the real world. The first MAK exhibition to showcase a wide array of interior design, architecture, and urban planning in Virtual Space, /imagine: A Journey into The New Virtual provides research and crucial insights along pressing social, environmental, political, and aesthetic questions. In this conversation with its curators Bika Rebek and Marlies Wirth we talk about different ways to explore real world issues through virtual settings, the power relations that exist inside the virtual world and the role of language in designing virtual futures.
KOOZ /imagine: A Journey into The New Virtual aims to present a freeze-frame in the constant evolution of virtual space design. How does the exhibition approach and define the notion of the virtual today? What informed the four themes around which the exhibition is curated?
BIKA REBEK | MARLIES WIRTH Within architectural academia, there was a first wave of digital work done in the 90s. At that time, only very specific people had access to these tools—people who worked in big corporate firms or within elite educational institutions. By 2008, many 3D creator tools were much more available and, through the economic crisis, the discourse shifted away from the early excitement to a nuanced, critical approach. The next big shift happened during the pandemic: 3D virtual spaces became relevant to a lot of people and institutions and a lot of the creators in the space saw their work flourish. Right after the pandemic, there is a mix of excitement, critical investigation and fantastic work in this area. The four themes are non-exhaustive and overlapping, but they are an attempt at structuring the vast amount of work we found. The dreamscapes section is perhaps the most clearly defined style. The other three sections were divided according to the approach they take towards 3D virtual design: are they mostly narrative based, are they doing tons of research, are they exploring machine learning?
The four sections show different ways of exploring real world issues through virtual settings.
The four sections show different ways of exploring real world issues through virtual settings. The selected projects address topics around societal and ecological issues that are related to the use of technology and its inherent bias. We feel that the creators of the “New Virtual” are aware and often critical of the technologies they use or discuss in their work and research, stressing that the solution to certain issues—be it climate change, city planning or data bias—cannot be solved by technology but by human governance.
The solution to certain issues cannot be solved by technology but by human governance.
The fact that the area of research and practice we are showcasing in the exhibition is constantly progressing made it even more important for a museum like MAK to produce the show now and give our audience the opportunity to look at a topic that is widely present in the media. Artists, designers and architects make use of technologies in a meaningful, playful and critical way, opening a discourse around how space is produced, used and distributed.
KOOZSpanning a range of backgrounds and disciplines, including architecture, landscape design, interior and product design, urban planning, visual arts, game design and film, how do the practitioners explore the challenges and potentials of virtual worlds?
BR | MW There are a number of different approaches here. On one hand, you have those that have a dreamy, surrealist quality—the dreamscape artists. Then there are artists like Liam Young who are showing provocative visions of what a future world could look like. They are taking advantage of the ever-evolving creative tools that allow for ever more realism.
The section “Speculative Narratives and Worldbuilding” stresses the power of imagination when it comes to creating scenarios for alternative futures by probing them in a virtual world and providing food for thought. How can these ideas trickle into the real world, maybe impacting our decision making?
How can these ideas trickle into the real world, maybe impacting our decision making?
Then there are creators who are most interested in using 3D tools for forensic purposes, to analyse historical artefacts or 3D scan them. In research projects like Morehshin Allahyari’s Material speculation: ISIS, what seems like a potential technology (to share data in an open-source way) is looked at in detail to discover some of the challenges—open source is not always equitable or can even reinforce existing power relations.
Finally with algorithmic design and artificial intelligence the duality of opportunity and danger is the most widely discussed. Simone de Niquille’s video Home school—narrated from the perspective of a roomba vacuum cleaner—is one way to address the complexities of image based machine learning as opposed to a real understanding of the purpose of certain items or tasks. The film also questions the limits of language in describing what makes a home or the way we really interact with furniture and items around a household.
KOOZNumerous philosophers and writers have referred to our contemporary society as one which suffers from a crisis of the imagination. What is the potential of these virtual worlds in helping us imagine diverse ways of inhabiting our planet? How can speculative proposals as those of Planet City by Liam Young communicate imminent environmental questions facing us today?
BR | MW Liam Young is creating a provocative vision because he takes an extreme proposition and then imagines every single detail of that scenario. Viewers are immediately drawn in and at the same time question if they would really want to live like this. He is also really great at getting his content out there in front of a lot of people. In a time when one can easily feel hopeless or disillusioned, it is particularly important to see how even extreme visions like his can spark a new compassion for the planetary community of species. His films also communicate through emotion, with the sound being an important part of the narration.
In a time when one can easily feel hopeless or disillusioned even extreme visions can spark a new compassion for the planetary community of species.
Space Popular are participating in the show with The Portal Galleries, a piece on the research of portals in the history of fiction, presented as an immersive VR experience that is guided by a narration. They are presenting a manifesto on civic teleportation, where they are setting out important points about how we will move in virtual space once the immersive Web3 is established thirty years from now. They are basically saying we have to think ahead because the way the metaverse is developing is not concerned with civic issues—such as interoperability between systems—but rather with maximum profitability for private companies.
KOOZWithin the section on “AI and Algorithmic Variation”, the exhibition also critically explores designers who work with Midjourney and who consequently spend hundreds of hours refining their prompts and creating more and more detailed variations. How and in what ways are these tools redefining the designer’s relationship to language? From pen and paper, to the pixel, is the future the spoken word?
BR | MW It has only become more and more apparent with software like Midjourney, but all virtual spaces are text-based on the level of code, or actually based on binary computation on the most fundamental level. Text as an easier way for humans to communicate with machines has been advancing since the early days of computation.
For designers in particular, a lot of software also provides visual and geometric aids, which has made it less and less important to be able to do traditional drafting or understand projective geometry in order to sketch or visualise designs. These skills keep being relevant when we are moving away from pure image making into physical structures. But even when not necessary on a technical level, I do not think that AI tools will ever entirely replace pen and paper, because it is also a matter of personal preference—some people prefer to design through visual means and others through text.
Text as an easier way for humans to communicate with machines has been advancing since the early days of computation.
Language is a major connecting element between human and machine intelligence, even when it comes to image processing, where labelling is crucial. Machine learning based software like Midjourney can improve the designer’s sense of describing a space, a certain atmosphere or light that might be hard to convey in a drawing. The program can only create a certain visual stimulus that will not replace the actual work of envisioning and planning a real space to be used and inhabited.
Language is a major connecting element between human and machine intelligence.
MAK Exhibition View, 2023 /imagine: A Journey into The New Virtual Kordae Jatafa Henry, Earth Mother, Sky Father, 2019 Film, Installation, lava rocks, screen, 8:11 min MAK Exhibition Hall © kunst-dokumentation.com/MAK
KOOZIn the coming months, we will be sharing our second theme-based series titled “Fair Play”, which will tackle issues of visibility, equity and justice in the built and unbuilt spaces of architectural practice. How is the MAK committed to Fair Play design? What standards are you setting for Fair Play architecture in the 21st century?
BR | MW One reason we were excited to make this exhibition is because we saw such a broad range of creators doing this, and we were excited to show a lot of international work, most of it never shown in a museum before. We were careful to create a good balance in terms of gender and diversity of participants. For the exhibition design, we re-used elements and materials from previous exhibitions and made sure that the elements we cannot recycle will have an afterlife either within the museum itself or within other institutions.
The MAK is a historic institution with a historically grown collection. With exhibitions and projects like this we are not only moving forward in terms of representation of more diverse voices, but also looking at the inherent way that space, architecture and urban planning—real and virtual—have to change alongside our values and mindsets towards diversity and inclusion.
Bika Rebek is an architect and educator based in Berlin. She is the founding principal at Some Place Studio, an architectural practice dedicated to designing sustainable and communal spaces. Rebek’s work is defined by an expansive interest in contemporary issues of equity, sustainability and technology through the lens of architectural discourse. She has worked with a number of international institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, and has designed highly acclaimed spaces for clients such Original Feelings Yoga Studio and Pars Restaurant. She co-authored the Slovenian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2018. Bika Rebek has taught at Columbia GSAPP, Yale University, the Spitzer School of Architecture and Node Curatorial Platform. She holds a diploma from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and a Masters in Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices from Columbia University.
Marlies Wirth is a curator and art historian based in Vienna. As the Curator for Digital Culture and Head of the Design Collection at the MAK – Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna she curates exhibitions and programs in the fields of art, design, architecture, and technology. Her research focuses on the cultural, social, ecological and political impacts of the digital age and the role of art and design in re-imagining meaningful relations with our planet. Current and recent exhibitions include “/imagine: A Journey into The New Virtual” (2023), “INVOCATION FOR HOPE. A Commission by Superflux” (2021), “UNCANNY VALUES. Artificial Intelligence & You” (2019), as well as the 2000 m2 MAK DESIGN LAB. She has been the curator of the official contributions of Austria at the Triennale di Milano (2019 and 2022) and the London Design Biennale (2021) and is regularly taking part in international lectures, talks and juries on art, design and digitalisation. Alongside her institutional work, she develops independent exhibition projects with international artists and writes essays and texts for publications.