Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Speculative Everything

Designing the future

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Over the last half century or so, our culture has increasingly turned to film and television, rather than to the written word, as its primary reference point when we talk about the future. This is partially because more people are likely to have seen a blockbuster movie than to have read even the most successful novel, but the visual arts might also be more useful when it comes to certain kinds of speculation. As I browsed recently through the book Speculative Everything, I was repeatedly struck by the thought that dealing with physical materials can lead to insights that can’t be reached through words alone. In his classic New Yorker profile of Stanley Kubrick, the science writer Jeremy Bernstein provided a portrait of one such master at work:

In the film [2001], the astronauts will wear space suits when they are working outside their ships, and Kubrick was very anxious that they should look like the space suits of thirty-five years from now…They were studying a vast array of samples of cloth to find one that would look right and photograph well. While this was going on, people were constantly dropping into the office with drawings, models, letters, cables, and various props, such as a model of a lens for one of the telescopes in a spaceship. (Kubrick rejected it because it looked too crude.) At the end of the day, when my head was beginning to spin, someone came by with a wristwatch that the astronauts were going to use on their Jupiter voyage (which Kubrick rejected) and a plastic drinking glass for the moon hotel (which Kubrick thought looked fine).

This is a level of detail that most writers would lack the patience or ability to develop, and even if it were possible, there’s a huge difference between describing such objects at length on the page, which is rightly discouraged, and showing it to the viewer without comment. It can also lead to new ideas or discoveries that can feed into the story itself. I never tire of quoting a piece of advice from Shamus Culhane’s Animation: From Script to Screen, in which he recommends using a list of props to generate plot points and bits of business for a short cartoon:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

In animation—or in a medium like comics or the graphic novel—this kind of brainstorming requires nothing more than a pencil and piece of paper. Kubrick’s great achievement in 2001 was to spend the same amount of time and attention, as well as considerably more money, on solving design problems in tangible form, and in the process, he set a standard for this kind of speculation that both filmmakers and other artists have done their best to meet ever since.

In Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby suggest that the function of a prop in a movie might limit the range of possibilities that it can explore, since it has “to be legible and support plot development.” But this might also be a hidden strength. I don’t think it’s an accident that Minority Report is both the most influential piece of futurology in recent memory and one of the few science fiction films that manages to construct a truly ingenious mystery. And in another masterpiece from the same period, Children of Men, you can clearly see the prop maker’s pragmatism at work. Dunne and Raby quote the director Alfonso Cuarón, who says in one of the special features on the DVD:

Rule number one in the film was recognizability. We didn’t want to do Blade Runner. Actually, we thought about being the anti-Blade Runner in the sense of how we were approaching reality, and that was kind of difficult for the art department, because I would say, “I don’t want inventiveness. I want reference. Don’t show me the great idea, show me the reference in real life. And more importantly, I would like—as much as possible—references of contemporary iconography that is already engraved in human consciousness.”

Consciously or otherwise, Cuarón is echoing one of my favorite pieces of writing advice from David Mamet, who had exactly one rule when it came to designing props: You’ve got to be able to recognize it.” And the need to emphasize clarity and readability in unfamiliar contexts can push production designers in directions that they never would have taken otherwise.

Yet there’s also a case to be made for engaging in visual or sculptural thinking for its own sake, which is what makes speculative design such an interesting avenue of exploration. Dunne and Raby focus on more recent examples, but there’s a surprisingly long history of futurology in pictures. (For instance, a series of French postcards dating from the late nineteenth century imagined life a hundred years in the future, which Isaac Asimov discusses in his book Futuredays, and the book and exhibition Yesterday’s Tomorrows collects many other vintage examples of artwork about the future of America.) Some of these efforts lack the discipline that a narrative imposes, but the physical constraints of the materials can lead to a similar kind of ingenuity, and the result is a distinct tradition that draws on a different set of skills than the ones that writers tend to use. But the best solution might be one that combines both words and images at a reasonable cost. The science fiction of the golden age can sometimes seem curiously lacking in visual description—it can be hard to figure out how anything is supposed to look in Asimov’s stories—and such magazines as Astounding leaned hard on its artists to fill in the blanks. And this might have been a reasonable division of labor. The fans don’t seem to have made any distinction between the stories and their illustrations, and both played a crucial role in defining the genre. Movies and television may be our current touchstones for the future, but the literary and visual arts have been conspiring to imagine the world of tomorrow for longer than we tend to remember. As Speculative Everything demonstrates, each medium can come up with remarkable things when allowed to work on its own. But they have even more power when they join forces.

Systems of belief

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For many viewers, including me, I suspect that Google’s short film “The Selfish Ledger,” which I discussed here yesterday, was their introduction to the notion of speculative design. It’s a concept that evidently emerged through the work of the designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby of the Royal College of Art, who coined the term back in the nineties. In their recent book Speculative Everything, which I read over the weekend, they define the field as a form of criticism using design methods and techniques:

All good design is critical. Designers start by identifying shortcomings in the thing they are redesigning and offer a better version. Critical design applies this to larger more complex issues. Critical design is critical thought translated into materiality. It is about thinking through design rather than through words and using the language and structure of design to engage people.

Elsewhere, they characterize it as “design as a catalyst for social dreaming,” or what amounts to a form of science fiction using the tools of modern art, often in the form of museum installations or exhibits. As I studied the examples in their book, which is beautifully illustrated, I was left with a sensation much like the one that I felt after attending a symposium on futurology last month, which is that of a parallel development of speculative thought that has evolved independently of the tradition that I know best, with its own rules, conventions, and vocabulary.

In fact, I find speculative design—or at least the little of it I’ve seen—rather more interesting than academic futurology, which often suffers from its reliance on the same handful of concepts and catchphrases. Design, by definition, forces its practitioners to come to terms with tangible objects and materials, and the resulting ideas are often richer and more surprising because of their engagement with physical constraints. The closest equivalent might be the creation of sets and props for such movies as Minority Report, which might be the single most influential piece of futurology of the last two decades, although Dunne and Raby are careful to draw a distinction between the two fields. In Speculative Everything, they write:

One way of considering the fictional objects of speculative design is as props for nonexistent films. On encountering the object, the viewer imagines his or her own version of the film world the object belongs to. Film prop design, therefore, might seem like good source of inspiration for these objects, but as Piers D. Britton points out in “Design for Screen SF,” film props have to be legible and support plot development; they have to be readable, which undermines their potential to surprise and challenge. They are instrumental in moving the plot along.

In speculative design, by contrast, whether it’s a sculpture, a diorama, or a short film like “The Selfish Ledger,” the user’s momentary disorientation is the entire point. Many of these works are deliberately unheimlich, or uncanny, and much of their value lies in the mental exertion required to figure out what they’re trying to say, which would be discouraged in most conventional narratives.

As I browsed through Speculative Everything, which I read just after watching “The Selfish Ledger,” my eye was caught by a film installation, Belief Systems, by the German artist Bernd Hopfengaertner, which can be viewed in its entirety here. In their description, Dunne and Raby write:

Hopfengaertner asks what would happen if one of the tech industry’s many dreams comes true, if all the research being done by separate companies into making humans machine readable were to combine and move from laboratory to everyday life: combined algorithms and camera systems that can read emotions from faces, gait, and demeanor; neurotechnologies that cannot exactly read minds but can make a good guess at what people are thinking; profiling software that tracks and traces our every click and purchase; and so on. He developed six scenarios that explored different aspects of this rather grim world. In one, a person wants to buy a teapot. She walks up to a machine, pays, then hundreds of images of teapots flash before her on a screen suddenly stopping on one, the one the machine decides the shopper wants from reading micro expressions on her face. In another, a person is trying to identify muscle groups in her face so she can learn to control them and not give her feelings away, voluntarily becoming inhuman in order to protect her humanity.

The film is nearly a decade old, but its concerns seem even more relevant now. In the teapot segment, the vending machine is meant to “surprise” the user by giving her a product that she never really knew she wanted—which is the dream of consumer data aggregation. In another sequence, billboards are altered in real time in response to viewers’ facial expressions, which merely translates the default assumptions of online advertising into the world around us.

Belief Systems can be seen as a secret precursor to “The Selfish Ledger,” but there are also crucial differences. For one thing, there isn’t much doubt about Hopfengaertner’s point of view. (As Dunne and Raby note: “For some this is the ultimate user-centered dream, but for many Hopfengaertner’s project is a cautionary tale fast-forwarding to a time when currently diverse technologies are combined to ease our every interaction with technology.”) Google’s short film is more ambiguous, perhaps intentionally, but also because of its source. Speculative fiction sponsored by corporations will always have a different feel from the kind made by artists, partially because a corporate thought experiment has a way of turning imperceptibly into an action plan, but also because of the pressures operating on designers at such companies. Dunne and Raby speak shrewdly of design’s “inherent optimism,” which can turn into a trap in itself:

It is becoming clear that many of the challenges we face today are unfixable and that the only way to overcome them is by changing our values, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. Although essential most of the time, design’s inbuilt optimism can greatly complicate things, first, as a form of denial that the problems we face are more serious than they appear, and second, by channeling energy and resources into fiddling with the world out there rather than the ideas and attitudes inside our heads that shape the world out there.

An artist working independently has the luxury of functioning as a skeptic or a critic, while the equivalent at Google, however nobly intentioned, can hardly help turning all dilemmas into problems that the Google design team is uniquely qualified to solve—which is a slippery belief system in itself. I’ll offer a few final thoughts on the subject tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

June 5, 2018 at 8:28 am

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