January 19, 2007

Art is not needed

Following up on my discovery of catfish extrudate, it turns out that there's an entire industry devoted to snack food research and design. Papers in the field abound. Sub-specialties have proliferated. Most promising of all are the areas of acoustical and mechanical analysis of snack foods, i.e. how they crunch and how they sound when they crunch.

For example, these guys report that "an optimal process resulting in an expanded peanut product with a crispy texture have [sic] not been reported". Their research follows an elegant design: make snacks, crunch them up in a crunching machine, record the crunching sounds, analyse the sounds. Their conclusion (that "crispy peanut-based snacks can be produced by extrusion cooking and frying, and that acoustical properties can provide valuable information in evaluating them") is a bit of a let-down for those looking for something more hard hitting. Still, it's good to know that low shear strength (how much jaw you have to apply before the snack crunches) correlates well to a loud crunch.

But for a maximally impressive conjunction of research themes du jour, these guys take the Cheezel. Using that trendiest of techniques, the neural net, the researchers have developed a method for predicting the crispness of a snack by its sound alone. Again, it's an elegant design: crush snack with pincers, record sound, analyse sound. Imagine the benefits that acrue. Process control will become a, er, snack when you can just crunch up a few bags on the line to see if there's undue sogginess. Marketing gets a whole new tool if it can ran sample product through the crunch simulation before focus group testing.

And this is why I believe there are no art installations anywhere near as strange as what happens in "ordinary" industrial life. If an artist proposed a sound installation based on crunching up bags of chips, the project would be canned within five minutes of Alan Jones broadcasting his opposition. But this sort of surrealist art is actually the very heart of industrial society. If modern art is accused of having no ideas, it's because manufacturers and marketers and designers have nicked them all. In a society where serious people conduct serious tests on little orange crispy things, the surreal cannot shock, it can only seem out of context.

It's a difficult predicament. For art to function as a way of enlivening us to the strangeness of our own lives, art itself has to be capable of being strange. But I wonder if art can be strange any more, or at least any stranger than what supports our day to day existences.

posted on January 19, 2007 at 11:20 AM by darren.