I won’t lie, I was far from enthused by the prospect of spending hours inside The National Technical Museum in Prague, but was outvoted by the males on our festive trip to the Czech capital. The National Museum, numerous art galleries, monasteries and libraries brimming with antique books were far higher on my agenda, but was pleasantly surprised and impressed. The museum is housed in an enormous concrete and brick building adjacent to Letna Park with views over the Vlatva river, and I was immediately won over by the gruff looking but utterly charming old(er) man who sold us our tickets and took the time to share much information about the museum with us! The collection is vast; comprising transport, architecture and civil engineering, printing, mining, astronomy, horology, photography and household appliances across six floors. The stand-out gallery is dedicated to transport and takes up the entire back of the building with a triple height exhibition hall filled with bicycles, motorbikes, cars, trains, planes suspended from the ceiling, and even a hot air-balloon charting the history of developments in Czech transportation. With fourteen large permanent displays as well as the temporary exhibition and only two hours allotted for our visit, we decided to focus on printing and architecture. The printing gallery mimics an antiquated print shop with typesetting blocks, printing presses from various periods, newspaper and bookbinding machinery, and outlines the role print material played in developing the country’s national consciousness. Similarly the architecture gallery documents the most significant buildings erected across Czechoslovakia over the last century via original models, plans, sketches, photographs of their construction and replicas – and I enjoyed recognising and learning more about the civic landmarks I had already visited or walked past in the city. Despite my reservations, this museum challenged my preconceptions and highlighted how important technical innovations are in all our lives in myriad ways.
The impact technology – and more specifically the internet – has had on art is certainly having a moment. Having already visited ‘Big Bang Data’ at Somerset House, this weekend I explored Whitechapel Gallery’s investigation into this phenomenon at their current ‘Electronic Superhighway’ exhibition. Comprising work from 70 artists over the past five decades, it combines painting, photography, sculpture, installation, immersive video, and interactive ipad and visitor controlled experiences. The ground floor gallery impressed me by not only raising interesting questions and commenting on this topic, but by the quality of the artworks themselves; Douglas Coupland’s ‘Deep Face’ combined black and white photographic portraits with brightly coloured abstract shapes reminiscent of pixels, targets and text redactions obscuring the facial features, as a criticism of Facebook’s development of facial recognition software employed with or without user consent. Likewise Aleksandra Domanovic’s series of five 3D laser cast models of the ‘Belgrade Hand’ each holding a symbol of emancipation or peace were beautiful sculptures outside their political or technological connotations. I also appreciated Oliver Laric’s photographic series ‘Versions (Missile Variations)’ which questions authenticity following a photoshopped image of four missiles being launched rather than one, released as a military hoax by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 2008. The upstairs galleries present a selection of tech-heavier artworks chosen by Rhizome (a New York based online organisation and archive of Net art) and E.A.T (another New York based interdisciplinary group looking at experiments in art and technology from 1960’s) which explore the evolution of hardware and software – whilst I enjoyed the nostalgic element of seeing 1980’s and ‘90s television screens and computers used in various installations, it was a little niche and IT focused for me. The final piece on display allows the exhibition to end on an artistic high, as Peter Sedgley’s ‘Corona’ uses kinetic lighting to captivatingly alter the mood and feel of his two paintings.
I’d describe myself as a fledgling cyclist yet have already been the unhappy recipient of a Penalty Notice for Disorder and a £60 fine courtesy of the Royal Parks Police on my way to work one morning, so was eager to educate myself more about the UK’s fastest growing method of urban transport at the ‘Cycle Revolution’ exhibition. Visitors are greeted by Ben Wilson’s steel sculpture created from bike frames in the museum atrium, and tyre tracks then lead you up the stairs to the exhibition floor itself. Once there the show is separated into different “tribes” – ‘High Performers’, ‘Thrill Seekers’, ‘Urban Riders’, ‘Cargo Bikers’, ‘Frame Builders’ and a look into the ‘Future of Cycling’. Numerous iconic bikes including Bradley Wiggins’ 2015 Hour Record bike and 2014 World Championship Time Trial bikes, Chris Hoy’s 2012 Olympic Track bike and the earliest Brompton prototype in existence are all handsomely displayed. However what I found more interesting were the personal stories of London’s 155,000 inhabitants who now cycle to work every day including the ultimate urban cyclist Lucy Granville, heavily pregnant and still using her bike to navigate her way across the city! Similarly the ‘Future of Cycling’ provided insights into urban planners global responses to the growing needs of 21st century cyclists as well as showcasing pioneering new bikes; notably Bamboo Bicycle Club’s innovative and sleek matt black 2015 Road Bike created from sustainable bamboo and joined using flax fibre and an eco-epoxy resin. This bike could have equally sat amongst the other British ‘Frame Builders’ as the Club teaches people to build their own bespoke frames rather than mass producing bikes. This is the Design Museums’ final exhibition at their current Shad Thames location, and it has certainly clicked into gear and ended on a high.