In 2005 -- around the time the British government banned "unauthorized" protests outside the Houses of Parliament -- the design studio Troika rolled out its Tool for Armchair Activists, a machine that could receive gripes and grievances via SMS and then blast them, in absentia, from a megaphone aimed at the powers that be. However, "some people said it was missing the point of demonstrating -- others thought it was brilliant," says Troika partner Sebastian Noel. "It was interesting to see people react so strongly to an object or technology." Such is the technological raw nerve that Troika, founded by a trio of Royal College of Art classmates in 2003, taps into so well. From their base in London -- a city where more than 10,000 surveillance cameras record your every move -- Noel, who comes from France, and German-born Conny Freyer and Eva Rucki have made their name by turning technology onto itself, critiquing our engagement with it while re-jiggering its gee-whiz potential.
Consider their grenade launcher-shaped SMS Guerilla Projector, currently on view in "Design and the Elastic Mind" at New York's Museum of Modern Art (through May 12). Made from an off-the-shelf mobile phone and light projector, it lets you shoot text messages onto the streetscape like digital graffiti. Eliciting both fascination and ambivalence, it's the stuff of Gibson and Orwell -- a kind of cyberpunk anarchy subverting hi-tech totalitarianism. "We don't use technology so much as a tool, but as a commentary," says Noel.
In true postmodern style, Troika -- whose book, Digital by Design (Thames and Hudson), comes out this fall -- embraces old-tech as much as the new. Most recently, their descriptively named sculpture, Cloud (unveiled in March at Heathrow Airport's new Terminal 5) shimmers in an array of computer-programmed patterns -- all created by the old-fashioned flip-dots that carpet its surface. Steps away is their All the Time in the World installation -- essentially a 72-foot-long world clock that textually displays the hour in handwriting-like script, thanks to a new screen-printed, electroluminescent technology that is also a striking (and more energy-efficient) alternative to LED screens. It may not have the political sting of Troika's earlier work, but dissent was never entirely the point. "It's about creating alternative visions of technology," Noel says, "and different ways of embedding it into our world and lives."
First row: Troika's shimmering Cloud at Heathrow's Terminal 5. Second row: (l-r) Tool for Armchair Activists, MTV; SMS Guerilla Projector; Tool for Armchair Activists, MTV. Third row: (l-r) Exploded Monologues; Electroprobe