California: Designing Freedom is a fascinating survey that showcases Snapchat Spectacles and a self-driving car alongside (what now may feel like) very rudimentary designs: Atari’s famous ‘Pong’ game, which simply involved batting a single pixel back and forth, and Steve Job’s Apple 1 computer, which could be mistaken for a keyboard stuck to a plank of wood. However, it is these seemingly simplistic innovations that really get the pulse racing at this show.
California is, in essence, the birthplace for the majority of what we would now consider everyday technology, and what California: Designing Freedom looks to exhibit is the incredible evolution that has taken place in this North American State. Take, for example, the humble pocket calculator. The HP-35 calculator was designed to fit snugly and conveniently into the shirt pocket – and it was this idea that kicked off the trend for portable devices, eventually leading to the laptop. There is an advert for the first portable computer, the Osborne 1, on display at California: Designing Freedom. The advert offers a comparison between a man with a suitcase and a man carrying the Osborne 1, along with the slogan: ‘The guy on the left doesn’t stand a chance.’ The last sentence of the ad simply states: ‘I’s inevitable.’ It’s intriguing, yet somehow sinister, to think that this tide of technological advancement did become so ‘inevitable’ – a theme that pervades the entire exhibition. While Apple’s first laptop, the Powerbook, uses the tagline ‘Freedom’, the exhibition asks us to question just how ‘free’ we have become.
The radical printed materials and graphic artworks on show at California: Designing Freedom (ranging from Emory Douglas’s Black Panther posters to the work of nun and social justice artist Corita Kent) aim to demonstrate that, alongside a technological revolution, there was also a major social one going on at this time. Again, we are presented with a question: is our freedom of speech as powerful now as it was then? While some people believe that contemporary feminism has lost its way, having become diluted in its effort to garner universal appeal, back in the ’60s and ’70s women’s rights activists were still ravenous for equality. In this exhibition, the C-word spreads loud and proud across the centrefold from an issue of feminist newspaper Everywoman, which was inspired by the cheer: ‘Give me a C, give me a U, give me an N, give me a T’ that Sheila Levrant de Bretteville’s students created in her department at the California Institute of the Arts. She designed the layout using ‘Consciousness-Raising’ (C-R), a design method that became a tool of the women’s liberation movement and was intended to help expose entrenched hierarchies.
The exhibition also aims to highlight the increasingly blurred line between fantasy and reality, which technology has enabled – the online role-playing game World of Warcraft, which appears on display, is a far cry from the early graphics of Atari, a video game with the simple aim of entertainment. A sense of escapism has become increasingly prevalent in gaming, as has our ability to play with perceptions – the proliferation of micro cameras and apps such as Instagram have enabled us to create an ‘ideal self‘, where life becomes like a performance in a well-edited documentary rather than a true reflection of everyday monotony.
Despite these darker undercurrents, California: Designing Freedom is largely a celebration of technological innovation and there’s a nostalgic feel to much of what’s on display here. To see the first-ever Kindle in a display box makes you realise, firstly, that it has already been a decade since it launched, but also that it’s hard to imagine a time without it – a time when stuffing a stack of paperbacks into your suitcase really was the only option if you wanted to read on holiday. Similarly, the exhibition highlights the invention of intuitive touchscreen technology – it’s almost inconceivable that ‘swipe right’ wasn’t even an option before 2012…
The exhibition is as light or as dark as you want to make it – on the surface, it’s a fun and upbeat journey through a psychedelic landscape of experimentation, but lurking underneath is a demonstration of how far technology has saturated our daily lives and how dependent we have become upon it.
California: Designing Freedom runs until October 17 at Design Museum, South Kensington, London. For more information and to book tickets, visit the website here.