Device Art:
Coming to America?
By Carla Diana

The Bitman project by Maywa Denki represents the quintessential Device Art object.

Picture the following products: an animated character that you wear around your neck, a clock that shows time in phrases, a stock-market sensitive plant that waters itself. These objects represent a new breed of creative professional work, manifested through projects that equally straddle the worlds of art and design. Part product, part toy, and part sculpture, this new discipline, which academics term "Device Art," allows designers to make user experiences that are carefully crafted, mass produced, and guided by artistic vision rather than a corporate brand or market niche.

Verbarius Electronic Clock by Art. Lebedev is a digital clock that displays time in phrases, encouraging users to think of time in more human terms. Photo Courtesy of Art. Lebedev Studio.

At the moment, we are seeing an explosion of Device Art activity emerging in Japan, with new artwork appearing in such mainstream channels as electronics catalogs and department stores. In the U.S., however, the Device Art landscape is somewhat bare. One would think that the public's voracious appetite for gadgets, combined with the creative community's growing discontent with formulaic, brand-obsessed corporate design would solidly set the stage for this discipline to become a strong cultural force in the U.S., yet it seems relegated to museum boutiques and the back rooms of hipster Japanese toy stores.

What gives?

Just What is Device Art, Anyway?
The term "Device Art" was coined by Machiko Kusahara, Media Scholar at Waseda University in Japan, and adopted by the academic community to describe artists who employ technology to produce message-driven, individually-conceived works, meant to exist outside the limited audience of galleries or museums through mass production and commercial distribution. In this emerging discipline, the object is not a souvenir or by-product of the artist's work, but it is the artwork itself.

In terms of design, Device Art exists less for the user's needs for function or commercial value, as it does for the producer's desire to communicate a message (and the user's interest in receiving the message). This new model can change what it means to be a designer by giving creative professionals the encouragement to develop a personal vision delivered to more viewers.

A Whole New Audience
While the actual medium and technical details of these devices is critical to an understanding of this discipline, perhaps the most powerful factor in its emergence is this new relationship to audience. With Device Art, the viewer is engaged with this work in a completely different context. As commercially viable projects, they can be produced in quantity and easily purchased. In fact, the term "viewer" is fundamentally inappropriate, as Device Art will ideally engage its audience through physical interactions with buttons, knobs, materials and mechanisms—in their own living rooms, kitchens and offices. While this unconventional relationship requires a change in behavior on the part of both the artist and audience, it does present an opportunity for a much more compelling engagement with many more people.

Though it may seem easy to dismiss this work as consisting mainly of toys, novelty gadgets, or experimental tinkerings, those involved with it maintain a commitment to an overriding concept and the communication of a message. Theorists such as Michael Naimark, media artist and Research Associate Professor at USC School of Cinematic Arts, are sometimes critical of the saccharine nature of many of today's Japanese device artists—he admits to having gotten into "a bit of trouble by publicly referring to Japanese electronic art as 'Ars [Electronica] on Prozac'"—but the fact remains that these artists are the ones giving the movement momentum.

Knockman by Maywa Denki, is part of a family of wind up toys that represent the "cute factor" in a lot of today's Device Art work in Japan.

But Aren't American Artists Already Doing This?
To be fair, there are a plethora of Western artists operating in this realm in some way. Every year at Art and Technology conferences such as Ars Electonica and Siggraph, compelling and poignant work emerges from disciplined artists. Former Syracuse University Professor Doug Easterly and Penn State Assistant Professor Matt Kenyon have produced Spore, for example, a self-sustaining potted plant whose water supply (and therefore its health) is mapped to the Home Depot stock price.

Spore, by SWAMP (Studies of Work Atmospheres and Mass Production) - an art collective comprised of Douglas Easterly and Matt Kenyon, is a "self-sustaining ecosystem for a rubber tree plant purchased at Home Depot." Photo: Luke Hoverman

Design collective Release1 challenged designers to create provocative projects such as the Baco-Blitz instant electric bacon cooker by Beth Mosher. Photo: Andrew Ng

Artist and interaction designer Graham Plumb's Airbed is an inflatable mattress with an intermittent air supply rises and sinks with each randomized, compressed air "breath."

Artist and interaction/exhibit designer Graham Plumb created the Airbed, a mattress with intermittent compressed air bursts to simulate human breathing behavior. Photo: Graham Plumb

Design collective Resease1's conceptual projects from online exhibitions such as "DesignDisturbDelight" from 2001 have received a great deal of design press.

With the examples above, we can see that the concepts are there, but yet there is little activity that exists to actually take these works beyond the one-off proposal stage. Though it can seem financially and logistically overwhelming to move from the phase of prototyping to production, tools and resources for manufacturing are now more accessible than ever. Nevertheless the projects that tend to go the distance to actual production are kitschy artifacts like the Pez MP3 player–created from the garage of DIY enthusiast, but devoid of any critical message (or, incidentally, any apparent functional benefit).

The Pez MP3 player is a commercially available product by a self-proclaimed "one person company...working out of his basement" who states that his motivation was simply "wouldn't it be cool if there was an MP3 player that looked like a PEZ dispenser?" Photo/Illustration by Patrick Misterovich.

Device Art in the "Golden Age for Gadgets"
In American society, we are seeing a proliferation of devices in general, and they range from the elegantly pragmatic to obnoxiously absurd. Buying habits, as well as entertainment preferences indicate that we may be entering a time that journalist Allen Salkin, in an article for the New York Times this past April, very aptly dubbed the "golden age for gadgets." Blogs such as Engadget and Gizmodo are hugely popular, evidencing a large and growing audience interested not only in purchasing and owning gadgets, but reflecting on them and debating their object qualities as well. This captive audience spends hours on gadget-focused publications, home shopping networks and SkyMall-style catalogs. These are fans poised for new content in the form of an object, yet few designers are seizing the opportunity.

Art.Lebedov's Vilcus Plug Dactyloadapter uses SkyMall style object qualities and marketing techniques to offer its audience a product that questions human psychology with respect to electricity. Photo courtesy of Art. Lebedev Studio.

Michael Naimark proposes an interesting vision of "artists producing 100,000 pieces at $10 each as opposed to 10 pieces at $100,000 each" in his Leonardo article entitled "Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Money: Technology-Based Art and the Dynamics of Sustainability." When questioned about the potential for Device Art to grow outside of Japan, however, he admitted that the opulence of today's art market may actually be working against movements such as this one. According to Naimark, "While many artists want to embrace, indeed affect, pop culture, some have a stigma about going pop. Selling an edition of 10 at $100,000 may have certain advantages over selling 100,000 at $10: more quality control, fewer lawyers, better parties, etc. It's also a fact that over the past several years the rich have gotten richer–much richer. Hence, the current economic climate skews profitability toward selling smaller numbers of more expensive items." By this logic, the main block in the system is the art-world's gluttony, but what's stopping all of the designers who have been waiting for a way to express themselves outside of client work?

Reproduction and Distribution
Many factors are in place that would lead designers to embrace this new discipline, but the biggest question is still, "where does the money come from? " In order for a movement like this to take off in the US, new vehicles for funding may need to evolve to support the device artist's activities. According to Professor Kusahara, Japan's successful Device Art movement has been a result of the fact that "key persons, mostly academic, with backgrounds such as engineering, media and art, collaborated for many years to persuade the ministries and their agencies. " These efforts resulted in government funding for research and media arts festivals. There is a focused Device Art project, launched in 2004, to support work based on 5-year grant from the Japan Science and Technology Agency, for example.

No matter how many projects we see emerging from artists as proposals, Device Art projects have to be commercially viable in order to exist. Even if artists or designers are funding the work themselves, they will still need to recoup the investment in order to have a sustainable practice. It will be interesting to see how relationships amongst investors, manufacturers and artist/designers emerge as the field of Device Art progresses. A creative approach to these relationships and a passion for working out the details may become an important part of the artist's process, having just as much influence on the project's success as form or content.

Final Thoughts
Though Device Art is reliant on mass production, it's easy to see the roadblocks standing in the way of its taking hold in the US. Though many designers are discontent with bland megastore offerings, they are reticent to dive into anything non-traditional and financially risky. But the American public is ready for the Device Artist to emerge in popular culture. Can the design community step up to the plate and make it happen?

Carla Diana is an industrial designer and educator with a diverse background in design, technology and product research. She is co-founder of Spank Design Studio and a Professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Carla holds an MFA in 3D Design from Cranbrook Academy of Art , and is currently working on a variety of projects from cocktail shakers to private jets.