Flying from Singapore to Helsinki. We’re flying over an apparently endless landscape of dark forests and snow-covered hills, presumably Russia, rendered indigo in the velvety pre-dawn light. Settlements are picked out by clusters of yellowy-orange lights, connected by a vast web of white lines, roads and rail cutting through the trees and rock.
Most landscapes are transcendental from an airliner; Australia’s are particularly transcendental, if that makes any kind of sense. Flying up from Adelaide, towards Singapore, we pass over what I think is Lake Eyre, a body of water that is only sometimes water, a 10000 square kilometre salt pan.
It’s as if Australia’s terrain is designed to be seen from the air. From the ground, as Robert Hughes and others have pointed out, Australia’s landscape has a beauty of its own, but it is not one that can be easily drawn from the lens of western aesthetics. From the air, however, the vastness of its systems can be quickly appreciated. It’s beyond Burtynsky.
Similarly, flying into Singapore, we can sense the scale of the world’s economic systems, as with most of the eastern cities at this point. The water is full of tankers, container ships and smaller freighters, queuing to get into the port, patterns stretching towards the horizon. As the dark waters give way to land, suddenly everything is the pristine green of manicured golf courses, peppered with clubhouses.
Flying into Singapore under steely skies; sea full of container ships, land full of golf courses. Entire history of modernity right there.— Dan Hill (@cityofsound) March 25, 2012
Of course this transcendental, strategic scale hits the all-too-down-to-earth reality of airports at some point; well, at numerous points. I started writing this in the altered realities of Singapore Changi airport, but when I got to Adelaide, on Integrated Design Commission business, I saw an artwork by the Russian collective AES+F which further “unpacked” the experience of airport—as purgatory—in "Allegoria Sacra" (2010-11)
At the Art Gallery of South Australia, in a wonderfully-curated 'International Art Series' show alongside pieces by the Chapman Brothers, Goya and a 16th century Japanese screen depicting a civil war, "Allegoria Sacra"is difficult to describe in terms of content—we were fortunate enough to be given a superb, florid and articulate introduction to the piece by gallery director, Nick Mitzevich, which took around ten minutes—but technically it consists of a 39-minute three-channel projection, composed essentially of animated digital stills at the scale of a gigantic tableau (this was apparently projected from the street, onto the gallery itself, for the opening; a smart attempt to turn this archetypal Victorian interiorised ‘house of art’ inside out.) Everything is in this piece; do take the chance to see it, if you can, in Adelaide or anywhere else. This video gives a hint of it, but no more, obviously. You have to sit down in front of this thing and soak it in:
I’ve written about airports many times before, finding them endlessly fascinating, but a year or so ago, I wrote a piece for Domus that focused more on the experience of flying an aircraft—which I’ve never done, I should hasten to add (not that this stopped me from writing it). But the editor (Joseph Grima) asked me to write something about the developments in interfaces for flying, aka avionics. It sat alongside an article by an aviation expert which focused more on the developments in aircraft design, but I was to take an interaction designer’s point-of-view on the design of the avionics systems interfaces.
Here I also wanted to capture the sense of an interface’s possibilities: not merely in the functional, but also in conveying the sensation of flying — which is present as a passenger, never mind a pilot. This, despite the relatively mundane outcomes of avionics design, which are quite rightly risk-managed to the hilt. Hence the allusion to Ballard’s extraordinary book, "The Unlimited Dream Company", amongst other things. That particular allusion should also suggest that this is a fairly exploratory, speculative piece.
There are a lot of question marks in this piece, perhaps tellingly, and as ever, this is the longer original edit, not seen in the magazine version—the ’30 Rock auto-pilot' edit.