FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION but what does function follow?

How Art informs Engineering and Technology…

Responding to an article in Conservation Magazine, Powered by Art* raised on the ecoartnetwork, and the proliferation of images of aesthetically orientated design towards renewable energy, another stimulating conversation has begun exploring the way that Art informs Engineering (or technology). Following on from my last two articles looking at the relationship between Art & Science and the nature of Arts-based research, and with regards to my interest in the practicality and application of Art I would like to briefly venture once more into the realm of applicable/practical aesthetics…

 Framed (pward 2009); Crushing pigment, Peppercombe, North Devon (pward 2010)

What has appealed to me most about ecological art is its functionality – its willingness to address issues, to set out to do something (rather than just make something) in the world, to act towards a specific social or ecological goal, an end of some kind rather than simply (but profoundly) produce a statement or celebration of our tactile, sensorial or intellectual dexterity. While most aspects of Art may be justified (considered socially and/or ecologically beneficial) in some way it is the experienced application of certain and specific skills, the craft of Art if you like, which render its technological dimension. Technology, in my understanding and in whatever form, is the practical manifestation of skills and knowledge, determined through whatever means – artistic, intuitive, scientific – in order to achieve a particular end, to practically address a problem or issue physically, intellectually and even psychologically.

By such definition technology or engineering is by no means inferior (if it was ever in question) to the abstract, open-ended investigations employed by artists, scientists and academics worldwide, it is simply the raison d’être of such inquisitiveness and the means by which such sometimes-spurious theoretical conjecture may be tested in the world – it is quite obviously the other side of the coin. Indeed without technology, or the appliance of ‘science’, where is the integrity in our  practice? Where is its meaning in the world?

 The first Solar Thermal plant has gone live in Spain – Hundreds of mirrors focused on the tower containing salt, heats up to incredible temperatures which in turn heats water which stays hot for many hours giving base load power generation…

We are all aware of examples of technology or engineering, which is generally perceived in contemporary society as the appliance of scientific understanding achieved through rigourous testing and experimentation, that exhibits an ‘aesthetic’ quality, that are considered ‘beautiful’ (I will refer to such as ‘pretty’) or more cynically that have been designed to appeal to the fashionable, stylistic sensibilities of our time. But as we are also very much aware such ‘cosmetic’ qualities are fickle and seldom add anything to the practicality of the solution. So while such decorative design may again celebrate our cultural self-importance it is merely a further indulgence, another extravagance in our struggling, depleted world.

If, however, our appreciation or perception of beauty is not superficial but born of a sense of the intelligent and sensible choices made in developing, creating and applying solutions to the problems we face in this world then maybe we are beginning to understand our own existential wonder, our miraculous becoming, our harmonious endeavour, this relational brilliance, this ecological industriousness. Our work on this earth is about making choices, of discovering which choices are the most appropriate to a time and a place and an implied purpose.

It is about appreciating and realizing not only the nature of the materials/resources we use to resolve the issues arising from our bodily movement through this world but where they come from, how we gather them, who gathers them, who is affected by their extraction during and after our intervention, what happens to them or what influence they have when we have finished using them. Also can the extent of the intervention or disturbance we have made be justified in relation to the interdependent animate earth in which we reside, as well as our own selfishly derived imperative?

So the aesthetic of technology/engineering is not just a visual dimension (superficially) incorporated into its design, it is all the qualities exhibited by the appropriateness, sensitivity, efficiency and practicality of choices made in its manufacture – the materials, the labour, the locations and the awareness of its immanent decomposition. It is that jolt in the gut when we enjoy how something we encounter works on so many levels. It is a holistic appreciation of how a problem raised has been sensibly addressed entirely or not…

 furrowed fields, pembrokeshire (pward 2012)

The majority of beings in this world are daily faced with practical problems – how to get food and clean water, how to maintain adequate shelter and to keep warm, how to make clothes, how to get from A to B in their endeavours, how to stay healthy, to ease pain or mend a broken bone, how to fix a vehicle or care for livestock – relatively few are in a position to contemplate the appropriateness or relative aesthetics of this or that activity or object, nor developing understanding towards such ends. Those of us privileged enough to do so are utterly dependant on the hard labour and practical knowhow of others to maintain our position. Those others often receive no benefit from our material and intellectual privilege. It is therefore our responsibility to not only appreciate and respect the division and disparity of labour that our technology and communal co-existence dictates, but to also employ our own skills, privileges and aptitudes to ensure a fair and healthful society for all.

Function is created through a circumstantial demand or disparity within a society or ecology. (Necessity is the mother of invention.) Technology is the means by which we might address such difficulty. So how might we determine what our needs are and therefore what technology and engineering needs to achieve? Maybe it is ‘Art’ that allows and promotes such perceptive and sensible practical determination.While we may use a variety of means and methods to research and enable our art in this world, our craft or technology if you like, it is the integrity and skill of our intention and application towards communal resolution of shared difficulties, whether local or global and in consideration of all our animate relations, through which we might measure our humanity.


* Believing that public art can play a role in large-scale renewable energy production, architect Robert Ferry and artist Elizabeth Monoian created the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI). In its design competitions, a key piece of the organization’s work, LAGI calls on interdisciplinary teams to use “renewable energy technologies as a medium for the art,” the founders explained in a recent TEDx talk. (
 Windstalk, which took second place in the 2010 competition, consists of 1,203 carbon-fiber stalks standing 55 meters high that can harness energy from wind blowing in any direction. When the stalks sway, piezoelectric disks inside compress and generate an electric current. The installment can power an estimated 2,000 homes.
Image courtesy of Darío Núñez-Ameni and Thomas Siegl (Atelier dna)
 Light Sanctuaryis a 40-kilometer-long ribbon of vertical solar panels. Coated with thin-film photovoltaics, the array is perched above the desert. The thin-film technology can absorb light from a wide range of angles, and the vertical panel orientation minimizes sand buildup.
Image courtesy of Martina Decker and Peter Yeadon (Decker Yeadon LLC)

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