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Variations by Post Tool Design: SFMOMA's 1st Experimental Design Award

By Julie Kim

It's hard not to like what's showing in the little hallway tucked away in the otherwise expansive Architecture & Design galleries at SFMOMA. It's an intimate space, reminiscent of the corridor connecting the bedroom and kitchen in your Victorian flat. A visit to this gallery provides a much needed respite from rainy-day-museum-overload, where you might find yourself wandering aimlessly from one large white box to the next, unable to really focus on or be enlightened by the art. There's only room enough for a handful of contemporary design pieces, so it's a good place to hide out if you really want to absorb.

Currently on view are four digital works by Post Tool Design, one of three winners of the inaugural SFMOMA Experimental Design Award. The design corridor is especially fitting for Post Tool's work, each displayed on NEC flat-panel screens mounted along two walls. There is a semblance of privacy and enclosure, and the room's manageable scale creates an atmosphere close to that of your home-office or cubicle, wherever you do your Web-surfing.

You will definitely appreciate a good chunk of time, uninterrupted by backseat-clickers, with Post Tool's newest work Variations. On the surface, Variations—an interface displayed on two adjacent monitors with graphics and sound wired to a 1960's organ—seems neat-o, or pretty, and fun. By fooling around on the keyboard, you produce a composition, both graphic and aural, as you add layers of geometric doodles and eclectic sounds simultaneously. You can play your way across both monitors from left to right, creating patterns of tap-tap-tapping pixels atop a base layer of bleeding planes of color. Add a thundering series of folding rectangular panels, a sinuous line of branches that creep horizontally across the screen, or a clicking set of vertical poles, and you've got yourself something very complex to look at and listen to. Furthermore, you can fool with the 'mode' buttons to re-mix your sound or to introduce a z-axis into the mix. If you lay off the keyboard for a few seconds, the composition will play back for you and loop for as long as you choose to marvel.

Yes, the program reacts differently whether you're banging "Chopsticks", a blues chord, or your own 'experimental' composition. But Variations is non-discriminating in the sense that it doesn't favor the knowledgeable musician over someone who doesn't know a sharp from a flat. Because the sound and rhythm translations are highly abstracted, anything you do will look and sound pretty cool. If anything is rewarded, it's persistent experimentation; the more you play with the keys and buttons, pressing each at different intervals or for varying lengths, the more complex your composition will be.

If you spend more than a few minutes on Variations, human instincts will kick in and you'll want to know how the damn thing works. Dozens of wires, leading from each button and key into two separate Pentium III processors, stare back at you as you fool around, and they're a visual cue to the intricate programming that is fueling your delight. Variations is a program that--like all machines--runs in a premeditated and exact manner in accordance with concepts and commands originating from human will and creativity. Post Tool has spent a year thinking, seeing, and dreaming in C++ so that we can have our fun. If an action seems to occur randomly or automatically, it is only because the artists have--with utmost deliberation--decided, and controlled it, to be so.

Variations and other works by Post Tool Design are on view at SFMOMA through February 5, 2002, along with works by Experimental Design Award winners Donald Fortescue and Thom Faulders. For information call 415.357.4000.