Above image: Burst Open exhibition, opening night. Photograph: Charles Rowe
For curators Christian Duell and John de Manicor, the ethos of open source is perhaps the broadest generational shift to effect the design industry, but its ramifications are not yet entirely understood. To rectify this they commissioned Burst Open, a collection of works by international and local designers that give a snapshot of current opportunities offered by the burgeoning online trade in design and the increased accessibility of technology such as 3D-printing.
Open source is something of a chimera but its broad definition is a system that is universally accessible and modifiable. While the sharing of information is hardly a new technique, the recognised movement emerged from the heady mix of 1970s counterculture and software development. The term “open source” originally referred to computer software that users could freely modify and distribute, such as HTML, the building blocks of the Internet. Open source has since evolved and proved a resilient model, generating hugely successful schemes such as Wikipedia and the Android operating system.
Burst Open rediscovers territory explored by contemporary and venerated architectural theorists, from Joseph Grima and Dan Hill to Cedric Price, as well the work of designers such as Thomas Lommée’s Open Structures project, (2009). In terms of art and exhibition design, Burst Open is reminiscent of art-critic and curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s long-running do it exhibition concept in which artists provide instructions for the duplication of their works.
It is into this realm that Burst Open thrusts its visitors; drawing material from online market-places that trade not in objects, but in the designs of objects. But diverging from traditional design practice, these designs can be further modified after downloading an original blueprint. The exhibition curators challenged five designers, and a team from the University of Queensland’s School of Architecture to download and modify an acquired design, adapting it for a local market and need.
Designers recorded their modifications in blog posts, an edited form of which are displayed in the exhibition, beside the original and finished design objects. As well as the six designs, there are displays designed by local studio Inkahoots which introduce the concept of open source design. Inkahoots own design piece was projected on the gallery façade on opening night and featured an interactive motion-sensing installation of publicly submitted.
The exhibition catalogues a range of design approaches, and the content is presented without judgement, appropriately open-ended. From Queensland, Nora Kinnunen and Andrew D’Occhio exemplify the down-to-earth attitude our state is known for, each separately approaching an elegant timber furniture design looking to improve on their practicality. In contrast Virginia San Fratello (U.S.A) exhibits a bespoke collection of jewellery designs that owe their form to a mundane cabinet handle.
The University of Queensland team chose to modify a WikiHouse design; freely available online, these templates that can be further customised and built from CNC-routed plywood. The finished product, the UQikiHouse stands as a stylish alternative to the average sneaky suburban granny-flat and is the most prominent feature of the exhibition. The UQikiHouse is complimented by a number of alternative models by the students, housed in a small room at the side of the main exhibition space.
The braille-operated 3D puzzles designed by Edrie Ortega (U.S.A) are an interesting inclusion and a rewarding tactile experience; though as educational products, intended for those with a visual impairment, it’s difficult judge their success. An elegant lamp, designed by Garðar Eyjólfsson (Iceland) is a particular standout, exuding an assured optimism and inspiring further experimentation. It is constructed from simple materials and techniques, exemplifying his credo of “designer as a system maker”. Eyjólfsson’s design communicates a technique that uses a simple 3D-printed joining device and readily available cable ties to create a straightforward design from locally sourced materials.
The demystification of process and the practical nature of Burst Open lends it an accessibility that, at least on opening night, generated much discussion of the potential pitfalls and opportunities of open source design. Accompanying the sleek finished products with the gritty steps, (and missteps) designers undertook positions the works as experiments, rather than art objects – but strangely some of the presented designs still feel closed, the end rather than first steps on an exciting journey. The exhibition is most successful when inspiring experimentation, channelling the counter-cultural ethos of the open source movement’s roots. Reading the pleasingly accessible DIY instructions of Eyjólfsson for example, evokes the work of 1970s art and architecture collective Ant Farm and their Inflatables (1971) project in particular.
The exhibition intentionally raises more questions than could possibly be answered in so small a show. Intellectual property is sacrosanct to the design industry and its free distribution should rightly be viewed with scepticism – but don’t designers regularly modify, steal and borrow both consciously and unconsciously from a variety of sources? The democratisation of design tools should only be a threat to those trading on knowledge of system operation rather than design; an open market-place only highlights the value of our key skills.
Burst Open is a rewarding exhibition and should inspire both conversation and experimentation among those that visit. Burst Open runs until December 24 at Artisan gallery – Fortitude Valley, Brisbane. More information can be found online at http://www.burstopen.org/
Review by Charles Rowe, contributing online editor for the Australian Design Review.