Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and the problem of design fictions


1 May 2014

"The train coming towards you isn’t actually going to hit you in the face," says designer Alexandra Ginsberg. "We know it's a fiction."

There is, within film circles, an urban legend surrounding L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat. The film is an early black and white shot by the Lumière brothers and a relic from the first days of cinema when projection was largely unheard of.

The film premiered in Paris in 1896 and consists of one continuous shot. A steam locomotive pulls into the station in the town of La Ciotat in southern France, where the camera is set close to the edge of the platform. The train draws into the station, with its angle to the camera so tight that the loco steams towards the screen. As the train slows to a halt, the townsfolk of La Ciotat prepare to embark. That’s it. It’s a short film, over in under a minute, but the urban legend is a good one: members of the film's first audience were supposedly so overwhelmed by the projection – shocked by the sight of a train bearing down on them – that they fled screaming to the rear of the theatre. At the time, it would have been remarkable.

It's a film and a legend that becomes of relevance to design when you consider the work of Ginsberg, a creator of design fictions and one of the authors of Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature, a book published earlier this month. It is an important moment in the development of design fictions: Ginsberg’s Synthetic Aesthetics is one of few readily available texts helping demystify this region of design. Design fictions, like La Ciotat before them, can be hard to read.

Mass horror at a train drawing towards a screen wouldn’t happen today.1 We’re familiar with cinema and we know that films – mechanically at least – are projected light and nothing more. Even 3D effects explicitly designed to make you feel as if something is about to hit you rarely raise a flinch. But there are parallels to modern society in the story about the Lumière film and it’s these that resonate with Ginsberg’s work. "When we go to the cinema or read a book, there’s this contract that we understand, a cultural contract that we make as we open the book or enter the cinema whereby we know it’s a fiction,” she says. “What I don’t think we’re as adept at is reading design fictions. When it comes to design fictions, we need to become more sophisticated in exactly the same way that we’ve figured out that when you go into the cinema, the train coming towards you isn’t actually going to hit you in the face.”

"Design fictions” is a relatively unfamiliar term. It's a technique that grew out of London's Royal College of Art in the late 1990s and, at root, it's the practice of using design to generate speculative scenarios or proposals.2 The methodology was developed by Anthony Dunne’s Design Interactions (DI) course, an MA programme that encourages students to use design as a tool to critique, challenge, satirise or elucidate social phenomenon (with Dunne's practice and DI assessed in an essay by novelist Will Wiles in Disegno No.6). Since becoming head of department in 2004, Dunne and his partner Fiona Raby have been the foremost practitioners of the discipline, with their studio – and those of DI graduates such as Ilona Gaynor, Revital Cohen and Tobias Revell – taking as its subject matter themes around areas of economics and resource allocation, medicine and industry, weaving these up into complex fictions that are variously illustrated through texts, graphics and mocked-up objects.

Ginsberg is another graduate of this course and, as with most DI alumni, her work is speculative and provocative. Ginsberg has proposed fruits that could be grown and harvested in spaceships during interstellar travel and genetically engineered species intended to balance shifting ecological systems. They are not the most accessible of projects, nor is it easy to tell exactly what they mean. Consider the space fruit. It’s an intriguing idea, but confusion arises because as an uninitiated viewer it’s difficult to tell whether it’s serious or not, particularly given the slickness of the presentation. Thought processes about the project are likely to be pocked with reversals and bafflement: presumably we don’t know how to grow fruit in space, but then again maybe we do; science moves quickly and it’s limits are not necessarily widely known; maybe you can grow fruit in space inside of electrical growth tanks; then again, maybe not. It’s hard to know which way is up.3

An electrosynthetic growing tank with fruits at different stages of growth, an image from Ginsberg's Seasons of the Void, a project in collaboration with Sascha Pohflepp and Andrew Stellitano

An exhibition led by Ginsberg at the end of last year in Dublin, Grow Your Own… Life After Nature, is a case in point. Included in the exhibition was Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas’ Selfmade, a collection of cheeses grown using bacteria from human sources, Hans Ulrich Obrist’s nose and Olafur Eliasson’s tears among them. It was a fascinating project, emphasising symbiosis between humans and microbes, but one that prompted bewilderment in many: "Human cheese? No bloody way. Thank you.” wrote one commentor when the project appeared on The Guardian’s website. Selfmade still fared better than another exhibited project, Ai Hasegawa's I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin. Hasegawa’s idea was a provocative examination of motherhood, woven together with concerns over endangered species and the depletion of food stocks, that imagined women incubating and giving birth to Maui’s dolphins (and subsequently eating them). "killing a dolphin to extract it’s [sic] baby to stick in an art work [sic],” ran one comment on the Guardian article. "what a bunch of c**ts.”4

Confusion is one of the results that typically arise from design fictions like those Ginsberg creates. The discipline seems to suffer from a problem of how exactly its fictions are to be read. It is sometimes difficult to know how tongue-in-cheek its proposals may be or how seriously we are meant to take them, and consideration of related disciplines makes the point clear. We know that art, for instance, is often oblique, non-literal or metaphorical; it cannot always be taken at face value. Yet literality is precisely what we expect of design, a discipline we are near hard-wired to think of as problem solving and practical. Qualities like humour, provocation, politicisation or subversion are common in art, yet their presence in design is rare. Just as when a designer presents a chair we assume that it must be to sit on,5 so too when a designer suggests growing a Maui’s dolphin in your womb there is a temptation to take it is an order.

Cheese grown using bacteria taken from artist Olafur Eliasson's tears

Confusion is further engineered by the precise nature of Ginsberg’s practice. Since graduating from DI in 2009, she has focused her attention on the sciences and the field of synthetic biology, a thinly sketched pursuit that is heavily entwined with genetic engineering. "It’s not very well defined at all,” acknowledges Ginsberg. “The general idea is that it’s an evolution of genetic engineering, but adopting ideas from engineering: ideas of standardization, CAD, design cycles and so forth. It’s about making genetic engineering repeatable and predictable, which in the eyes of synthetic biologists has been more of a bespoke, craft activity.”

If industry characterised the 19th century, and information technology the 20th, it is tempting to look at biotechnology and synthetic biology as strong candidates for the 21st. The capacity to grow non-consumable products – as Suzanne Lee has done with her Biocouture project – or to create low-emission fuels or cheap pharmaceuticals is clearly appealing, while notions of programming DNA like computer code hold obvious attractions (as well as generating obvious fears) for areas such as agriculture. If farming is the practice of coercing nature into producing desirable results, biotechnology presents a development of this idea: nature rewired to produce these same results “naturally". It is a point writer H.G. Wells made 119 years ago in his essay The Limits of Individual Plasticity: “We overlook only too often the fact that a living being may also be regarded as raw material, as something plastic, something that may be shaped and altered."

Genetically engineered species released into the wild to encourage conservation, an idea explored in Ginsberg's Designing for the Sixth Extinction project

Such an idea understandably resonates with designers, yet also raises questions about how design as a discipline will adapt in the the future. What role do designers play if synthetic biology becomes a dominant production mode? Biology is not an equivalent material to wood or metal; a new matter that can be easily subbed into the design process and subjected to the designer’s expertise. Rather, it is a substance that, at least for the foreseeable future, requires the knowledge of a biologist to manipulate.6 It is a point to which Ginsberg is sympathetic. “I think synthetic biology presents an interesting area for designers because it makes you ask what designers will be doing if biologists are designing,” she says. "My question is 'What does design become in that space?' I’m curious to see if design can reflect on itself by working in a very unfamiliar space. Is there an opportunity to think about what we make, and what we should or shouldn’t be making?”

These are some of the questions addressed by Synthetic Aesthetics, a book that documents an ongoing research project of the same name. The project was initiated by the University of Edinburgh and Stanford University in 2010, and paired synthetic biologists with artists and designers to generate residencies that examined crossover between the disciplines. While not all of the resultant projects are fictions, many are.7 Biologists Wendell Lim and Reid Williams for instance collaborated with IDEO designers Will Carey and Adam Reineck to propose drinking vessels formed from dormant bacteria that, when awakened by water entering the glass, would activate to mix and form a probiotic drink. "The book in a way was laying out what we’ve learned from the residencies, but it asks questions as well,” says Ginsberg. "What is synthetic biology, what is design, what do we want design to be in synthetic biology, and how do we bring its ideas of ethics, innovation and sustainability together?”

Such open-ended questions however feed back into the problem of design fictions. As a field, design fictions is not interested in providing definite answers or pursuing clearly defined goals (à la a brief to design an affordable, ergonomic aluminium stacking chair) and that’s where confusion enters in. Rather than problem solving – as conventional design is typically seen as being –8 it seems most contented when simply probing, holding a mirror up to debates that have no easy answers. "There is an understanding that design can only make stuff to sell, that it translates technology into things to consume,” says Ginsberg. "I think there is room for design practices that challenge and expand that. In a way, my practice is a design-based think tank."

Yet it is a state of affairs that makes the publication of Synthetic Aesthetics significant. Books about design fictions are comparatively rare, a fact that in part contributes to many people’s uncertainty with the discipline: it is simply not well-known enough yet for the process of acclimatisation to have taken place. Prior to Synthetic Aesthetics, the most visible texts in the field have been Dunne’s Hertzian Tales9 and his subsequent collaboration with Raby on 2014’s Speculative Everything. Writing about this latter title, the design scholar and director of London’s Design Museum Deyan Sudjic remarked that "design is about asking questions, as well as answering them” and it is true that the emergence of design fictions is not the first occasion in which design has acted as provocateur. The Italian design avant-garde of the 1970s were highly critical of the society in which they operated for instance and such precedent suggests that there is nothing conceptually confusing in design acting in the way that it does in design fictions. Design fictions aren’t confusing in and of themselves any more than a projection of a train is confusing in and of itself; all that is lacking is familiarity with the discipline.

Publications like Ginsberg's Synthetic Aesthetics are an important step in the acclimatisation process. As we become more used to the notion of design fictions, it becomes easier for them to do the work they were intended for. Rather than prompting confusion and misapprehension, they can begin to spark debate, generate ideas and inspire research. It is a similar process to that which L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat would have gone through more than a century ago. What initially provoked terror was actually a marvel – a train’s arrival preserved on camera; a moment in a Marseillaise town bottled and unstopped in a Parisian theatre. On a second viewing the film’s audience would have seen that.