Oliver J Smith
I did my BA in Graphic Design & New Media at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) in Epsom. I was there when the course was turning its attention to programming and electronics as part of design. In the three years between my BA and starting at the Royal College of Art, I taught at UCA and at London College of Communication, and worked as a web designer and developer, and also worked on some installation projects. Things felt unfocused, and I knew I wanted to move away from screen-based work and make objects, and experiences. That’s why Information Experience Design seemed so appealing.
IED’s approach seemed ideal: I wanted to gain skills and be able to find work after graduating, but I knew I wouldn’t be forced down existing routes – I wanted to make my own routes. I saw Kevin Walker, Head of Programme for IED, speaking on a panel at the V&A about some of his aims for the new programme. It seemed so interesting, relevant and current, and combined so many of my interests.
We did a project in the first year about Sir John Soane’s Museum, and how the place relates to memory. I began thinking about what a computer might understand or remember, and how you might model human memory. It fired off this idea that you can take computers and tools that are supposed to do very particular things, and you can point them in a completely different direction and get very different results. The realisation that these tools aren’t all-powerful, but are, in fact, more brittle than people, was a really key turning point for a lot of the work I made afterwards.
IED is a small programme, so I worked with most of the other students at some point over the two years. My final project emerged from a conversation with another student, Francesco Tacchini, about this sort of conceptual pun, combining the numerical code for wi-fi (802.11) and comparing its rhythms with an 808 drum machine. The studio environment really encouraged those sorts of conversations to happen, and we ended up collaborating on the final project. IED is great at bringing people together who have very different skills but are interested in similar things. Francesco has more of a graphic design approach, I came from web development, there was another student with an anthropology background, and so on.
Over the summer since graduating, it’s been interesting to take our final project out of the Show and think about it in new contexts. Francesco and I have been thinking about where to take that project, and future projects. It’s called the Network Ensemble, and is a tool that turns the wireless communications around us into sound. It allows people to hunt through the forces that we’ve made, now that wi-fi is as prevalent as, say, the wind, or gravity, but it remains something most people can’t really get a handle on. It has layers, from the very digital, raw noise of the computer network, and then we can layer rhythmic sounds on top, and then over that it can play the xylophone and keyboard, so you get this ambient sound as well, but only when the network provides the right communication.
It’s been interesting to create something that’s out of our control. The project came from an acceptance that most of us can’t really understand these complex things, despite the fact that they come from human actions and intentions, and are ubiquitous. Historically, we explained the world with myths and magic, and now that man-made things have reached such a level of complexity, we’re at a point where things seem like magic to most of us again. The Network Ensemble isn’t a tool for understanding, but rather a way of asking how we might begin to explore these ideas. It’s an exploration of human forces, in the same vein as that long line of art made in response to the world’s natural forces.
Francesco and I performed the work again recently, at an RA Lates event. It was originally an exhibition object with a performance attached to it, and for this we developed it into a performance of the object on its own. We tried to find ways to guide people through what it does, as part of the performance. The feedback from the audience was interesting, and we’ve been invited back to perform for a closing event for the Ai Wei Wei exhibition.
The RCA taught me the importance of sharing a workspace with interesting people. Those two years were such a condensed period of work, and when you look back, you realise what a rich experience it was. Francesco and I have recently got a studio together, and we’re working on applying the mythical, magical methods we developed through the Network Ensemble to other human forces.
"The RCA taught me the importance of sharing a workspace with interesting people. Those two years were such a condensed period of work, and when you look back, you realise what a rich experience it was. "