The press release doesn't specify how it was exactly that Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda came to meet Mitsuru Kariya, project designer for the new Honda Civic, but I bet that it wasn't in a cloakroom in Davos. Swipes at the AccelorMittal Orbit aside, for Ikeda's newest work, data.anatomy [civic], Honda stumped up a lot more than mere cash: Kariya's team handed over the complete set of CAD files and wireframes for the brand new, ninth-generation Honda Civic. Ikeda said it was like being given a secret file from the FBI.
Though Ikeda's latest installation in Berlin's MUMA (Kraftwerk) building might sound like little more than an inventive commercial for Honda, the artist has a back-catalogue of works which transform abstract masses of complex data into stunning audiovisual experiences, so this particular collaboration is much less far fetched than some other designer-brand teams of recent memory.
Of course, Ikeda typically works with vast sets of data from sources as varied as the solar system or the Human Genome Project, so it's interesting to see him working for the first time with data from a single specific object.
Is the experience lessened because the data set is taken from a Honda Civic and not the solar system? Yes and no. It's still the same impeccably high level of technical brilliance one expects from Ikeda — the visuals are clean and precise and the sound is as crisp as lettuce in an ice box and reverberates throughout the enormous old industrial space in a pleasingly buzzy fashion. But at only 12 minutes in length, data.anatomy [civic] is far less ambitious than his other installations I've seen. It also feels a bit too polite. In datamatics [ver 2.0], which I saw Ikeda perform live last year at the Barbican, there are tsunami-like waves of audio intensity that bombard the senses. It's an utterly joyous, transformative metaphysical experience; an experience which is somewhat lacking in data.anatomy [civic].
That's not to say that the installation isn't a success, because it is. In keeping with the visual language of Ikeda's previous data-related pieces each of the sections — in this case there are three — has a distinct look and tone in relation to each approach at abstracting the data. The first part is the most successful: beautiful, illuminated heartbeats of a phosphorescent cathedral floorplan rippling their way across the three screens. This strange illuminated plan is a diagrammatic of sorts of all of the parts of the Civic laid out on a flat plane, occupying the same space as Todd McLellan's photographs of objects taken apart to reveal a catalogue of constituent parts. Accompanied by laconic, snappy electronic tones that resemble dueling andalusian hand-clappers, Ikeda's more abstract approach to the design of data is a surprisingly creative and intuitive way to look at machines.
The piece's second section is a cross between a time machine and an information-superhighway slot machine. Little icons and numbers race across the screen from left to right like a Bloomberg ticker on overdrive. Watching it at the time, I have no idea what these data are supposed to represent except that they must have something to do with the files from the car. I'd like to tell you that I later found out what they were, but I didn't. It doesn't really matter, though. Watching the data icons race across the screen, I feel like I'm in a trance inside a sci-fi zoetrope. One gets the sense with much of Ikeda's work that an effort is made to transform the code which underlies the everyday reality of life into something sublime, simply by enabling us to see and to hear, to understand the language of the data.
The third and final section is also familiar, as it's another riff on datamatics [ver 2.0] where various points in the solar system are plotted on a 3D grid. In data.anatomy [civic], Ikeda does a kind of endoscopy on the different parts of the car using the wireframes, accentuating individual car "organs" by lighting them up in red, timed to pingy, minimalist tones. Then, a short pause and the whole thing repeats itself over again.
There's no denying this is a commercially-driven piece, which particularly reveals itself in temperament when compared to a piece like datamatics [ver 2.0]. Tonally, this is a much softer work, with less dynamism and variation in sound: there's nothing here to scare those who've wandered in off the streets. With data.anatomy [civic], Ikeda has single-handedly created a unique way to represent vast amounts of complex data in an abstract, aesthetically stunning fashion that makes something as uninteresting as a Honda Civic seem like one of the most ethereal, otherworldly beautiful things in the world.