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Bright Labyrinth Lectures Explore Past and Future Experimental Communication Design

Bright Labyrinth is a series of dynamic talks by Ken Hollings, which began in the autumn term and is continuing into the spring. The lectures cover diverse topics relating to experimental communication, considering the evolving relationship between culture and technology, from historical innovations to the present day.

‘The aim of the Bright Labyrinth lecture series is to examine, and ultimately broaden, the potential of visual communication to transform contexts beyond design’ Hollings explained. ‘I take what seem significant moments in intellectual history where design thinking and philosophy impact each other – this can be anything from Ada Lovelace writing about mathematical calculus in the nineteenth century, Carl von Clausewitz’s treatise On War and Turing’s early writing on machine intelligence through to the design of office systems and cities in the age of ubiquitous computing.’ 

Hollings lectures at the RCA draw on his expertise as a writer, lecturer, broadcaster and performer. He has delivered lectures at various institutions including the ICA, Royal Institution, Roundhouse, Victoria & Albert Museum and the Wellcome Institute and has written for a wide range of journals including The Wire, Sight and Sound and Frieze. Hollings has also commissioned and edited books by John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Merce Cunningham and new translations of texts by Jean Cocteau, Georges Bataille and Erik Satie.

In 2014 Strange Attractor Press published Bright Labyrinth: Sex Death and Design in the Digital Regime, which is based on Hollings lectures and broadcasts and The Tapeworm released an audio cassette of his writing. Hollings has written and presented critically acclaimed radio programmes for the BBC and Resonance FM, and his latest documentary, about Marshall McLuhan, will air on BBC Radio 3 this spring.

‘Today’s devices and platforms, such as augmented reality and wearable tech, actually cast very long shadows into the past; and it is useful for future practitioners in visual communication, whatever their disciplines may be, to take an equally long view in order to anticipate what might be coming’ Hollings explained. ‘In the second term we will be looking at everything from astronomy and avant-garde performance to cyborgs and walking buildings. Overall, the series is concerned with the development of experimental design as an interdisciplinary practice, because – for me at least – visual communication no longer has to be shaped by modern thought – it is modern thought.’

The final lecture of the autumn term explored the history of cut-ups and loops, bringing together examples from literature, music and contemporary culture. It covered key moments such as the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 Brussel’s Expo, designed by Le Corbusier and composer Iannis Xenakis for a performance of Edgard Varèse’s Poème Électronique, a highly spatialized abstract sound piece. The talk traced the lineage from Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist poems through to William Burroughs cut up technique, concluding in the present day with the ubiquitous looping of GIFs, and the nonsensical cut-up poetry of twitter spambots.

Hollings also discussed John Cage’s durational pieces such as his performances of Erik Satie’s Vexations and the spring term began again with Cage, examining the implications and applications of his advice to composers and performers with regard to the development of strategies for environments, installations, events and interventions.

The Bright Labyrinth series is part of the Visual Communication programme, yet has a wide appeal, making connections and sparking ideas throughout the School of Communication, offering students the opportunity to reflect on elements of their own practice from new perspectives. It has particular resonance with the Experimental Communication pathway of the Visual Communication MA programme and the Sound Design pathway of the Information Experience Design MA programme, introduced in autumn 2016.

The Experimental Communication pathway provides a fluid, exploratory and open-minded working environment for those wishing to locate innovative and unconventional communication practices within the context of both real and speculative situations. Sound Design is aimed at practitioners who want to explore sound as a fundamental force for communication and experience. The pathway contextualises sound within a broad practice of experimental design, aimed at working across modes and disciplines to effect individual, social and political transformation. 

Find out more about Visual Communication and Information Experience Design MA pathways and how to apply.