FEATURES

Tomorrow Today: Design, Fiction and Social Responsibility

London

30 June 2015

In their most recent book entitled Speculative Everything, critical designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby confess “…it is the backdrop that most interests us, not the narrative; the values of the society the story takes places in rather than the plot and characters.”

Through their activities in design and education the duo have forged a career – and spearheaded a movement – premised on bringing the background into focus through the design of objects that promote debate on the political, economic, technological and social scenarios which the objects might imply.

Critical design aims to give its audience agency over the future through the creation of design fictions. Dunne and Raby explain in their 2001 book Design Noir: The Secret Life of Everyday Objects: ‘If in science fiction, technology is futuristic while social values are conservative, …in value fictions…, the technologies are realistic but the social and cultural values are often fictional or at least highly ambiguous.’

Dunne and Raby were not present at the ambitiously titled symposium Tomorrow Today: Design, Fiction and Social Responsibility held recently at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), but there too it was the backdrop which was the most interesting. In their opening remarks, organisers Catharine Rossi and Portia Ungley, lecturers respectively in Design History and Visual Culture at Kingston University, outlined their intentions behind the event: "What does politically-engaged design which addresses inequalities have in common with speculative and critical approaches to design? Can the latter be socially beneficial to a wider audience, to the common denominator?”

Here they seemed to allude to criticisms of critical design – or the acronym SCD (speculative critical design) by which it has also become widely known – in the sixteen years since the term first appeared in Dunne’s 1999 book Hertzian Tales. If at its best, critical design is held to spark public debate about the ramifications of science, technology and policy, the field has also been lambasted for its limited reach and efficacy. John Thackara, for instance, recently mounted an attack on what he termed its “infantile science fictions” and Susan Yelavich, Associate Professor at Parsons School of Design charged it for ‘only preaching to the choir’.

At the symposium, keynote speaker, design curator Paola Antonelli – who has spent much of the past decade promoting Critical Design to a wider audience through exhibitions at MoMA in New York – diagnosed the moment in her presentation. In the evolution of movements she outlined “a tendency where pioneers are doubted; after a period of drunkenness, the boat capsizes and follows with fatigue.” Antonelli used the online exhibition she co-curated on Design and Violence as evidence of critical design’s enduring potential. The website uses both mass-produced and conceptual design artefacts to provoke discussion on issues such as the death penalty and euthanasia. Antonelli then went to on to call for the scrutiny of standards in Critical Design.

The remainder of the day was filled with presentations by practitioners, theorists and educators, some of whom studied under Dunne and Raby’s tutelage. Where shaping the future is concerned, more than one of the speakers rejected the imposition of top-down utopias, such as those proposed by Le Corbusier and other male proponents of the modernist movement. Jocelyn Bailey, a PhD candidate from Brighton University, accordingly drew on theorists such as Chantal Mouffe and Bruno Latour to outline her design approach to working in the area of government policy; one based not on the myth of consensus but rather one which “recognises the inevitable inequality of power relations" and the necessary vital clash of political positions.

Paul Graham Raven, a science-fiction writer and PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, Raven used narratology – a literary approach based on the systematic study of story-telling – to evaluate the field of design fiction, and to consider the limits of science fiction as a genre in contemporary times. Raven argued that science fiction as a genre has evaporated. Indeed, if in its evolution science fiction can lapse into clichés, one can argue that Critical Design, no longer in its infancy, can tend to do the same; hence aspersions about its “noncommital aesthetic play”, about copycat methods and even a style of photography which suggests a slightly abstracted, toy-like reality.

Yet many of the projects presented at Tomorrow Today put paid to these accusations. Onkar Kular, designer and tutor at the Royal College of Art, presented an array of student projects which, rather than demonstrating the movement’s calcification, gave the impression of a rigorous exploration of its bounds. In order to explore the personal and social application of clones, Matt House, for example, trained an actor to be a copy of himself and documented the results in a reality-tv-cum-soap-opera. Adi Zaffran experimented with sound and foley techniques as a therapeutic tool for post-traumatic stress.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg presented a number of design projects carried out with scientists in the field of synthetic biology. In explaining Design for the Sixth Extinction – an attempt to forecast the implications of a genetically engineered wilderness – she revealed the lengths she went to, to perfect a style of botanical illustration and the verbal language of patent law in order to make the language of communication successful.

Other speakers included Jerszy Seymour, who made a case for amateur interventions based on his work at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam’s Dirty Art Department, and philosopher Betti Marenko from Central Saint Martins, who considered the possibility of designing for a non-human – and non-humanist – world.

The afternoon ended fittingly with a performance by urbanist, designer and futurist Liam Young. His vision of the future came in the form of a story told against a backdrop of dystopian, computer-rendered urban landscapes.

Such stylistic probing and cross-pollination of genres were evidence of critical design’s constant scrutiny of ever-evolving codes. These are necessary to straddle the present and the future, reality and fantasy, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the feasible and the strange, the negotiation of which, according to Dunne and Raby, is essential to critical design’s power and success. As the pair conclude their 10-year tenure at the Royal College of Art at the end of this academic year, it was clear from Tomorrow Today that the future of both critical design and otherwise rests on a knife edge.