Central Saint Martins x Tokyo Tech: Ulrike Oberlack
In 2017, Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) invited three Central Saint Martins academics to each undertake a month-long teaching or research residency, in continuation of an institutional dialogue concerning the arbitrary borders between art, design, science and technology. Over the course of the last academic year, Ulrike Oberlack, Betti Marenko and Heather Barnett have visited Tokyo Tech, spending four weeks attached to Professor Kayoko Nohara’s laboratory in the Department of Transdisciplinary Science and Engineering. Dr Ulrike Oberlack, Academic Course Coordinator for MA Design: Ceramics, Furniture or Jewellery was the first to visit the Tokyo institution. Here, she presents a photo-essay, reflecting on her design-based teaching programme which was focused around her practice in Wearable Light and her visits to the Tokyo Tech research labs. Wearable Light explores light as an immaterial medium in relationship to the body through wearable light projection. The work crosses the boundaries between technology, design, performance and lens-based media.
Arriving on a sunny weekend into Tokyo’s glittering urban landscape immediately prompted inspirations for Wearable Light opportunities. Large-scale reflections of people hovered over the Tokyo skyline, framed by the dramatic windows above the Mori Arts Centre.
Shinzo Terui’s basket-weave aluminium frame on the exterior of the Aoyama Stella McCartney flagship store seemed to offer opportunities for performance or interaction by Tokyoites. The swarming of autumn colours, like the leaves at the Nezu Museum and Garden raise questions about the structures of lighting.
My daily commute – a five-minute walk from accommodation at Tokyo Tech International House through the campus in Ookayama – takes me past one of the three shrines that are very much part of university life. As I meet members of the NoharaLab and the HopeLab there is an annual earthquake drill, and it becomes clear I’m not in King’s Cross now. Soon we settle down to teach and visit the research labs.
The specifically developed teaching programme introduced participants to a range of Central Saint Martins design projects which are engaged in science and technology. This was followed by practical workshops based on my practice in wearable light as a vehicle of exploration. The Tokyo Tech participants responded well to my approach of introducing design methods and iterative processes harnessing creativity through fast feedback loops.
Immediately after the lecture, our participants brainstormed concepts of wearable light, focusing on narrative and context: what might wearable light be; who would use it and how, in which situations or location; would it be used in the present or future?
Taking part in the project were an equal number of men and women, both from Japanese and international backgrounds and coming from a range of disciplines – such as computer science, engineering, linguistics, environmental studies, science communication, media studies and industrial design, bringing a wide variety of perspectives to this workshop.
Some great concepts emerged in this session, exploring how wearable light might address issues of loneliness and stress in urban environments; how it might instigate playful interaction between commuters and how it might drive performances and storytelling.
In the following workshop we used collaging as a method to further develop our conceptual frameworks. Completely unfamiliar to most participants, this visual approach allowed them to both envisage, expand and refine their ideas. Students learnt how to read visual languages of images and how to construct their own visual narratives by manipulating and assembling images.
With conceptual frameworks in place, the participants started to develop design ideas around wearable light through hands-on experimentation. They constructed and adapted small-scale electric circuits to drive light-emitting diodes, combining devices with different materials and media to manipulate light emissions. This quickly resulted in a range of wearable devices which explored the relationship between the body and its surrounding Tokyo environment.
These experimental, risk-taking workshops focused on the notions of learning through play and engaging with hands-on exploration rather than fulfilling pre-planned experiments. Similarly, the criteria for success and emerging results supported different forms of analysis.
In the final workshop, participants presented their findings to their peers and a panel of design and educational professionals. The group discussed the content and process of the programme, reflecting on how design methods might contribute to their own projects and disciplines in the future.
Due to its diversity of participants and their impressive engagement with the material, the programme was a great opportunity for both students and staff to learn about alternative learning methods and to develop creative elements in their various disciplines.
As one participant reflected ”I was able to learn important skills during these events. The design activities in the workshops were new to me. It was challenging but I enjoyed that…I have always thought about undertaking my own transdisciplinary research to tackle real problems. I found I have been missing the field of art and design and I think it is useful when I work with non-scientists.”
The scope of learning expanded both ways, with the teaching programme being revised and adapted in response to the participants’ engagement in each of the workshops. wearable light proved more important as a vehicle for experiencing and learning design methods, rather than a brief specifically for developing prototypes. Having said this, the concepts for wearable light explored in the workshop could be taken forward into fully-fledged design projects.
During my residency I visited a range of Tokyo Tech research labs to explore the potential for future collaborations between Tokyo Tech and Central Saint Martins. I identified a broad range of themes from urban architecture to bio-mimetic robots and drones; global entrepreneurial leadership to metallurgy and industrial steel processing; molecular robotics to bio-informatics, artificial intelligence and virtual reality simulations. These visits uncovered a huge bank of potential for development, which is now being further explored between academic staff at the two institutions.
Further conversations between myself and Professor Nohara at Tokyo Tech instigated discussions of a project on “wearables” in relation to the preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Central Saint Martins academics Betti Marenko and Heather Barnett explored the potential of this project further in their respective residencies and it is now the first to be taken forward with funding from the Tokyo Arts Council.