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‘The world is a computer’: design professor’s exhibit brings data back to reality

Photo by Anton Galetsky

For design and public policy professor Dietmar Offenhuber, digital life and real life aren’t the two distinct spheres most people imagine, one happening in the ether and the other in the physical world. Even when it comes to the concepts we think of as most “online” — like data and information — it’s all “real” he says: “There is always a physical component to how we visualize the world.”  

To explore this idea, the Center for Design faculty member recently co-curated an international art exhibition with Russian pianist Daria Parkhomenko at New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  

The New Tretyakov Galery Moscow. Photo by Yuri Palmin

Called New Elements, the exhibit is a collaboration with LABORATORIA Art & Science Foundation, in partnership with Kaspersky, examining different forms of information and computation, how they relate to physical reality — and the implications of that physicality for how we make sense of the world.  

“The idea that digital information is abstract and exists outside the physical world is a harmful myth,”  Offenhuber explains in recent Medium post about New Elements. “Since technology has entered all aspects of our lives, its material nature deeply affects us.” 

Artworks at New Elements attempt to demonstrate this effect, bringing digital data back to reality and showing how everything is interconnected. To this end, the exhibit includes printed matter, video installations, photosprints and slides, performance and even a “biotechnilogical installation,” which takes liquids from the air exhaled by visitors, extracts amino acids and ethanol through a bioreactor, and distills drinkable alcohol. Here, the artist Thomas Feuerstein uses air, water, and substrates as “media,” making literal Offenhuber’s writing about the work: “The elements surround us and we are always entangled inside.” 

POEM by Thomas Feuerstein, 2010, featured in ‘New Elements’ at New Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Photo by Yuri Palmin

“Design is a practice, and CAMD is in the process of expanding its scope in terms of design practices. We’re mostly focused on digital practices, but also using other elements,” says Offenhuber, who is also the interim chair of Art + Design in Northeastern’s College of Arts, Media and Design.  

“The world is a computer: it leaves traces and records of information that has been processed. In this space, CAMD students can see themselves as artists and designers.” 

New Elements is open through February 27, 2022. Learn more here.