In The Air_Future Legacy

12th March 2013

With advances in science and medicine, our lifespan has increased, but we still only live for a number of decades, which is a brief passage of time on earth. With digital advances, we now live in both the physical and virtual worlds. We die or pass away in real life, but do we die in the digital world too? Technology and digital developments have spurred many artists and designers to begin thinking about how our identity exists in both the physical and digital worlds and question when we have physically died, do we die virtually and how do we design for online death, legacy and memories? Exploring the transformations of our society and its fugacity, we are seeing the emergence of new ways to archive, preserve information and transmit it to the next generation, on a community or individual scale.

We are surrounded by objects that bear witness to our existences, acting as daily memories or archives of our lifetimes. The exhibition, 365 Charming Everyday things , presented in both Paris and Japan, explores this concept. Showcasing everyday items that are commonplace in Japanese people's lives, the exhibition was displayed as a collection or a popular archive, with each item corresponding to a calendar day. Its point was to celebrate the quality, diversity and simplicity of everyday life. Looking more to our daily rituals as a creative process, Lesley Robertson records the traces of morning rituals such as brushing our teeth or drying our hair to create a collection of abstract printed textiles as a representative memory. Before I Die is an interactive public art project by Candy Chang that invites passers-by to write their last wishes on a blackboard.

The web and the digital world have opened up new possibilities to archive and store information and virtual objects in a way that was not possible before. D/STRUCT by Dutch artist Lucas Maassen and Raw Color poses questions about the importance of whether something is digital or analogue and the resultant issues of ownership and archiving in a virtual world. The D/STRUCT website offers small packets of pulverized raw matter, created from digitally scanned objects, to develop a digital archive of objects that no longer do or need to exist. Rapid prototyping technology allows these objects to be re-built in the future, raising questions around issues of storage and archiving. Boîte à souvenirs, by Loïc Lobet, explores digital and physical archiving through embedded RFID tagging technology. The archived images and objects take on a new narrative. Photos appear on the box while its contents are explored. As the objects are touched, images on the box adjust to enhance the story and experience.

The practice of observing and archiving is not new, it is of course the traditional method of referencing history and the past. Recently however, we have seen an increased desire to preserve our culture and biodiversity, fueled by climate change issues as well as an understanding of the potential of life beyond Earth. The Doomsday Vault, built in 2008 in Norway, is deep inside an Arctic mountain and is established to conserve millions of seed samples, keeping them safe from potential world disasters. The UK Pavilion for the Shanghai 2010 expo designed by Heatherwick studio and called Seed Cathedral, was comprised of 60,000 transparent long optical strands with embedded seeds. The botanical archive by Studio Glithero is an anthology of the weed specimens collected and pressed by the design duo. Gathering hundreds of weeds from their London neighborhood, they archived them in a book that serves both as a documentation of the specimens collected to date, as well and as a tool for composing new designs for their Blueware Vase process. The Blueware series places silhouettes of the archived weeds on vases through the use of ultraviolet light. The Golden Record is a phonograph that was included in the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977. Containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth it offers a visual and audio archive.

Time capsules offer the potential to write a letter to the future. The power of time capsules isn't just what they contain, but much more the visceral act of burial and disinterment. There is a combination of commemorative expectation, community feelings and superstition. Mundane objects and messages are metamorphosed into quasi-religious relics. Time Capsule by White Elephant is part of The Lava Project led in the lava flow fields of Hawaii. A message was put into an aluminum vessel that was injected into the lithosphere. It aims to literally link the present with the creation of our planet and raise the question of awareness for long-term thinking and responsibility towards our own and future generations. The same studio also created a chair made from a vessel used as a Time Capsule to carry photos, memories and messages over time and generations. Similarly Kai Table by Japanese designers Naoki Hirakoso and Takamitsu Kitahara appears as a simple table but in fact is hiding numerous secret compartments that act as an archive for future generations.

Age brings about wisdom and value. Old or vintage objects often hold more reverence, which has led designers to explore ways to prematurely age or fossilize. Archive of things to come by Koby Barhad, a student in Design Interaction at the RCA London, explores our attraction to obsolete or yesteryear products. He has designed a machine that can age books using radiation and humidity. The device takes just 4 hours to add a year to a book. His accelerated maturation process gives an aged past to modern objects. Austin Houldsworth’s device, 2 Million &1AD, was designed to fossilize organic material in a few months. Exploring whether humans can control such a process, he fossilized a pineapple and a partridge. Dutch designer Carolina Wilcke designed objects using 600-year-old wood, excavated from Eindhoven’s city foundations. Inviting the viewer to touch, feel, hear and smell, her Please do touch! project explores the value placed on age and places old materials charged with history within the present.

Genetic identity is passed down as biological inheritance but with innovation in medicine and genetics, we may choose to pass or not pass our DNA to our descendants. Revital Cohen’s Genetic Heirloom project explores a series of devices, speculative heirlooms and objects designed to allow people of the same family to connect and share their genetic identity. Considering the tradition of passing precious metals and jewels through families as well as a number of genetic cancers that are traditionally passed down the generations as inheritance, the project draws parallels with the emerging use of precious metals in medicine, especially in cancer treatment. Material heirlooms and genetic ancestry become intertwined. Data Fossils by Tobias Jewson explores what happens to our collective history when everything goes digital. In the digital era our information no longer takes the form of the physical, but that of an electronic file stored in “the cloud”. With our attachment to physical objects replaced by information, the project questions what we will leave for future generations. As a series of fictional scenarios, it looks to advances in bio-computing that suggest the possibility of storing data in the skeleton. The bones’ ability to remodel themselves can be hacked to provide data storage. Polyps of calcified binary code become embedded into bones, portraying digital identities. The treasured remains of a loved one become archaeological memories.

What happens to our bodies once we die? Burnt or buried they just becomes one with the earth. But what if human bodies could offer more than that, and become a precious resource? Auger and Loizeau imagined a device that would make it possible to recover the energy of a body after death via an electrochemical reaction. By filling up a battery, the device would offer both psychological and memorial benefit as a new form of mourning. Then, they commissioned several designers to propose what they would do with this afterlife battery, charged by themselves or family member, post-death. A range of fictitious devices resulted, suggesting emotive uses for the captured energy. Also considering the post-death body as a resource, textile designer Kerry Greville’s project, Recycling the dead, explores the potential of precious resources to be found, post-cremation, for future material mining. She raises questions of human relationships with objects if the object’s components were previously human.
Such projects question the possibility of life after death, which has taken on new connotations thanks to our presence online and in digital worlds, and has lead to new forms of heirlooms. Many websites are proposing the recording of a last message or last tweet. If science and technology are transforming concepts like time and materiality, this movement of preservation clearly reveals both a common wish to share experiences and a long-term perspective legacy. Beyond the idea of leaving a message during our time on earth, these new forms of legacy raise questions about the future of our existence. It's not only about leaving a trace, material or not, but it leads to questions about how the body could become a new form of inheritance while our digital selves become something entirely different. Concerning our identity, if we assume that technology can now predict our tastes and actions; it is not impossible to imagine that our digital being will behave independently after death, using all the data stored during our lifetimes.

Published April 2012 © Reproduced with kind permission of