Disegno No.6

Reality isn't Working


5 September 2014

I have a lovely letter from the previous registrar,” says Tony Dunne. “‘Dear Tony... It has been brought to my attention that your department is in possession of illegal uranium and unregulated bio-experiments. Please reassure me that this isn’t true.’ I went to check with the studio and it was true. Every year – “Every year!” Fiona Raby cuts in, “we have some issue.” It’s always fun looking back and talking about them,” Dunne says. “Afterwards,” Raby adds.

They laugh, a little nervously. We are sitting in their office at the Royal College of Art (RCA) on Kensington Gore, and the gilded Gothic rocket of the Albert Memorial peeks over Dunne’s shoulder. Everything looks... fairly normal. Nothing is glowing or twitching in a jar. But what’s that on the Enzo Mari-designed shelves behind them? Genetics for Dummies. The Film Noir Reader. Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. A pack of playing cards used by the FBI to compare different biohazards and ex-NATO radiation dosimeters. Mutated garden tools by the sculptor Tony Cragg. A remote control for your dog. “It’s a device from about 10 years ago,” Dunne explains. “It picks up your dog’s barks and translates them, in this case into Japanese.”

This cabinet of curiosities is exactly what you would expect to find in Dunne’s office. Dunne (b. 1964), a professor at the RCA, heads the college’s Design Interactions (DI) programme; while his wife Raby (b. 1963), a professor of industrial design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, is a reader in the course. Together they are design duo Dunne & Raby, and are widely regarded as the founders of critical design, a recently codified discipline that uses speculative design proposals to variously critique, challenge, satirise, elucidate or highlight social phenomena. Still dominated by Dunne’s DI programme, it is an area of design that is growing in both influence and scope.

Design Interactions began in 1990 as “computer-related design”, a title that was obsolete by the time it was dropped in 2005. But the present, somewhat sedative, name of the programme perhaps acknowledges how difficult it is to summarise this hallucinogenic endeavour. It sits at the wildest edge of Britain’s design avant-garde, the nerve centre of a design that is liberated from industrial and commercial parameters and set free to dream.

“It was a totally different way of thinking about design research,” says Daisy Ginsberg, a biotech artist and designer who graduated from DI in 2009. “It was much more about how design affects eople and how it can be a shaping force.” The propositions that emerge from speculative design are very often warped combinations of the impractical, the undesirable and the unwise. For instance, the project that prompted Dunne’s reflections on his tangles with the RCA’s guardians of health and safety was Ai Hasegawa’s controversial I Wanna Deliver a Shark, which imagined raising endangered sea creatures in willing women’s wombs. Dolls containing the DNA of past lovers, organised by penis size; powering your home with your child’s excrement; a video peripheral that lets you watch porn without guilt by draining it of all enjoyment or arousal – biological and social transgression in DI is par for the course, with all projects fabricated with a delicious cleanness that would not be out of place in John Lewis. The branch of John Lewis in William Burroughs’ Interzone, anyway.

At its best – and it’s at its best at the RCA – speculative design is much more than mere intellectual exercise. It goes for the gut and the emotions, as much as it does the mind. The first time I encountered this kind of project, it made me angry; the second time, it made me queasy. It was Dunne & Raby’s contribution to a 2007 exhibition called Wouldn’t It Be Nice that riled me. Their Statistical Clock, for instance, counted not hours, but certain kinds of deaths; similarly their Risk Watch whispered the present level of political instability into the user’s ear. Trapped in a rather utilitarian view of design, and on deadline, I couldn’t get a handle on the why of these objects. They seemed uncomfortable, disturbing artefacts, quite at odds with the show’s theme of wishful thinking. It took some deep reflection to place them in the mindset of post-September 11 insecurity, the paradoxical urge to be continuously reassured about our safety and at the same time aware of everything dangerous that’s happening in the world. The anger came from the anxiety the projects had caused in me. And it worked – those are the only two works I remember from that exhibition.

The second project was by DI graduate Michael Burton, a series of possible modifications to the human body that would allow it to pick up more micro-organisms from the environment to boost its immune system. Feet sprouting fungal growths, fingers with multiple dirt-catching nails – it was nightmare fuel, pure David Cronenberg body horror. It made me sick, then it made me think.

Inspired by Dunne & Raby’s Foragers project, 2009, which was shown at the Design Saint-Étienne Biennale in 2010

Burton’s work came at a time when British speculative designers were expanding their interest in the direction of biotechnology, a trail blazed by bio-artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, who had created the lab-grown Victimless Leather Jacket in 2004. This interest led to some of the most provocative and memorable imagery 21st-century British design has yet produced – James King’s colourfully unfoodlike food in 2006’s Dressing the Meat of Tomorrow (which explored how tissue-grown meat should look, smell and taste to imitate farmed meat; scanning meat to create stencils into which the tissue-culture could be placed) and Revital Cohen’s celebrated Respiratory Dog, a proposal to turn greyhounds into living ventilators for human patients.

Now Design Interactions is again broadening the scope of its enquiries to take in the nation state, ideology and citizenship, while Dunne & Raby are pursuing links to think tanks and possibly even government. This year sees the publication of the duo’s Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming (MIT Press) – part speculative-design manifesto, part greatest hits, part effort to weave connections between their protean field and sympathetic areas of industrial design, art, film, literature and elsewhere. Speculative Everything comes at a time of growing interest in critical design. Dunne & Raby recently filled London’s 140-seat Hochhauser Auditorium with a paying crowd for a launch, and last year they were profiled on BBC Two’s The Culture Show.

Meanwhile, a decade of DI graduates are now achieving mainstream success. Cohen and Van Balen – a collaboration between Revital Cohen and fellow DI graduate Tuur van Balen – is among this year’s Jerwood Makers Open. Late last year, scientist Nelly Ben Hayoun was appointed “head of experiences” at file-sharing service WeTransfer, while Daisy Ginsberg’s book, Synthetic Aesthetics, was published in March. As well as being something of a cultural phenomenon in Japan, artist Sputniko! is now assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab and guest professor at Kobe Design University; in 2013, Vogue Japan named her one of its women of the year and this year Nikkei Business included her in its list of the 100 most influential people in Japan. In the US, thanks in large part to the popularising efforts of writer Bruce Sterling, there is broad enthusiasm for “design fiction” in tech circles, and the work of DI alumni has found enthusiastic audiences. Has speculative design come of age?

“It does seem to be in the air at the moment,” says Dunne. “There are organisations interested in it, people doing PhDs on it, I’ve seen magazine articles, debate, discussion... We see it as a broadening of the scope of design to make room for the fictional, speculative and imaginative – it just pushes it a bit further.” “I think in the other disciplines, in architecture, film and literature, it has always been there,” Raby adds. “Designers maintain this very practical view of their work: ‘This is what we do, we don’t do anything else.’ I’m from an architectural background, so we’re always speculating, that’s what architects do.”

There’s something else in the air too, which is a lot more troubling. China is mass-producing cloned sheep; Egyptian protesters are told that they are breaking the law by location-triggered text message; and Facebook has raised its number of user gender options from two to more than fifty. There is a DI feel to all of these developments and the programme has a track record of uncomfortable prescience. “The students do joke about it – you read something in the newspaper and say, ‘That could be one of our projects,’” Dunne says. “But obviously if it’s already in the newspapers it’s a bit late for Design Interactions. What they’re trying to do is spot trends and shifts and research directions that maybe in a few years time will surface in the mainstream and try to get discussion going now.”

But DI has never been some TED-like evangelical operation making big claims and big boasts. Despite the often radical, often dark, and sometimes upsetting nature of their work, Dunne & Raby share a kindly, unassuming demeanour – two modern-minded Church of England vicars, perhaps. Their manner is often cautious, particularly in their almost nervous desire to deny that their work has a practical, functional role. Speculative design is, Dunne says, “a purely cultural activity about thinking and enrichment of our imaginary lives”. “I like the term ‘lightness of touch’, where something is quite delicate and then it’s gone,” Raby adds. “It’s not saying something is going to save the world and everything is going to be fine, setting expectations beyond what it can do, it’s just shifting your mind into thinking [about] something very different that you wouldn’t otherwise have permission to do.”

Indeed, during their Hochhauser talk Raby compared speculative design to shopping. Shopping is all about looking at objects and imagining how your life might change with the addition of that object – projecting yourself into the future, dreaming, speculating. In the mall these dreams are limited by the objects on display, the things that are available to buy. Dunne & Raby’s work by contrast removes that limitation, liberating objects from consumer reality.

“We think it’s a bit perverse, especially in education, to be focusing on this very limited idea of what reality is, and designing for it,” Dunne says. The studio’s work takes place in a world where so-called “reality” has become frankly unreal, or even surreal. Fiction has permeated every aspect of life, a phenomenon noted by author J.G. Ballard26 in 1974: “We are living inside an enormous novel, written by the external world, by the worlds of advertising, mass-merchandising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, and so on and so forth.” Accelerating technological change is part of this, generating baroque and illegible systems, and in 21st-century Britain the process has been further intensified by the out-of-control financial sector, and the intoxicated and inscrutable mythology it spins around itself, a system that has given politics, economics, society – indeed, the whole public sphere – an utterly phantasmagoric quality. “So why can’t design work with this stuff and extend it and supplant it and so on?” Dunne asks.

“I loved that headline in Metro the other day about people stealing things from supermarkets because of the digital self-checkout systems,” Raby adds. “It was extraordinary, people do it depending on how they feel. There’s this unreality even in how we interface with a supermarket, which I found quite extraordinary.”

Image drawing on Ilona Gaynor’s Under Black Carpets a version of which was shown at the Lisbon Architecture Triennale in 2013

Nevertheless, the shoddy edifice of modern neoliberal unreality is presented within society as monumental, immutable fact, the unshakeable product of universal law, rather than the vulnerable and volatile confection it truly is. “That’s one of the things we’re interested in – this monolithic ‘reality’, ‘there are no alternatives, we just have to deal with it’,” Dunne says. “Speculative culture in general unpacks this and shows other possibilities are available, they just might not be easily attainable. We’re interested in seeing what design can bring to this general culture of alternative-making, and the specific things it can do that film and literature can’t.”

Though DI work is consistently transgressive and sinister, there are strands of utopian yearning within it, even if you have to squint to see them. Dunne & Raby’s Speculative Everything book sharpens this focus on the “social dreaming” side to the discipline – a longing for alternatives, both for the individual and society. Traditional design has very rarely gone in for utopian thinking, despite an obvious and growing demand for it, and perhaps this is what is fuelling the growth of speculative design, along with the increasing outside interest in it. “Among students, certainly the ones we’re working with here, there is a real hunger for something else, something different, something more,” Dunne says. “The idea of simply going back to what once was [before the 2008 crash] is anathema to them.”

“They look at the future, what’s proposed for them,” Raby adds, “in education, employment, housing, health, an ageing population. It’s a bit daunting for the younger generation. From where they’re standing they’re asking, ‘Did that work out, is that reality a good reality?’” “Reality isn’t working,” Dunne says.

Now, gripped by this urgent thirst for private and public utopias, the programme is applying itself to looking at political and financial systems, themes particularly prevalent in the work of DI graduate Ilona Gaynor, whose Under Black Carpets project used the scenario of bank heists in downtown Los Angeles to examine the political and legal implications of how objects are presented in forum. Such a thematic shift is part of a broader trend within speculative design – Dunne & Raby point to Sternberg Press’ Solution series, a collection of essays reimagining different nation states, and AMO’s Eneropa – Europe’s boundaries recast along energy lines, produced by the publishing and philosophising wing of Rem Koolhaas’ OMA – as further recent examples of geopolitical dreaming in design. Meanwhile, Dunne & Raby’s own United Micro Kingdoms, a small exhibition at the Design Museum last year, imagined a future Britain split into four “super-shires”, each of which had pursued its own technological and social direction. The Bio-Liberals pursued civil rights and synthetic biology, tooting around in fart-powered mobile calluses; the Digitarians traded liberty for consumer electronics, forging a ruthlessly marketised, restless paradise of constant movement. “It’s always been there – we’ve always talked about citizenship, we’ve always talked about economics,” Dunne says. “But we’ve never really grappled with it.” Joint ventures with think tanks are being explored and the pair allude to approaches from branches of government, although they spell out that they are not seeking a policy-making role.

At whatever scale, these explorations remain thoroughly rooted in design, a discipline that has always had more to do with politics and finance than people might imagine. “Ideology, which sounds like a very old-fashioned concept, is a very interesting and powerful core of technological development,” Dunne says. “So often in technology it’s assumed that everything is neutral and the ideology that does inform technological development is not up for discussion. So we wanted to set up projects that would highlight that and expose it more. And that took us into thinking more about political systems and how you organise relations between people and society. And that started to open our eyes to world-building and geopolitics.”

What saves these exercises in speculation from drifting into pure handwaving is their rootedness in design and fabrication – they always return to a design proposition. Even mock-up and props help make the underyling concepts more concrete: “Making the unreal real thing that people put into the real environment in order to have real thoughts,” as Raby puts it. This emphasis on making is what puts Dunne & Raby at the forefront of speculative design and perhaps provides a platform for their students’ success. It’s in contrast to some of the “design fictions” emerging from the US, which never go beyond computer visualisation and so remain underpowered – Branko Lukic’s work, collated in his 2011 book Nonobject (MIT Press), is full of witty and provocative stances on design, but never gets beyond glossy, sterile renderings. By contrast, the act of making feeds back into the ideas and lets objects take on their own voice. “Sometimes we have debates about putting the switch on something,” Dunne says. “If you put the switch on, it becomes real, but if you leave it off it’s just a model. I love all those little possibilities, and the ways an object communicates – for instance, if you put radiused corners on something it tends to look more real and if you strip them off it looks more abstract; it would be very difficult to mass-manufacture something so sharp.”

There is a polish and charm to the design work produced by Dunne & Raby and the DI students and graduates, even if it is nonetheless hard to reconcile the studio’s utopian rhetoric with the darkness of much of its work: its recurring emphasis on scarcity, unfreedom, fear, uncertainty and the apocalypse. Dunne & Raby’s Foragers project (2009) proposed prostheses for a post- collapse society of scavengers. United Micro Kingdoms stubbornly squatted between utopia and dystopia to make the point that different technological and social directions necessitate trade- offs – you can’t have it all. Are they optimistic or pessimistic?

Illustration inspired by Ai Hasegawa’s I Wanna Deliver a Shark, 2010-12

“We’re incredible optimists,” Raby says. “We want the science to work, we want the technology to work. But there’s this other side where we think, ‘Oh no, humans are these difficult characters who mess everything up.’ If you have an idealised way something will work, you can guarantee that something will come in and mess it up.”

“The combination of technology, politics, economics and ecology that we have at the moment in the western world, it’s going somewhere bad,” Dunne continues. “We’re quite pessimistic about that, so a lot of our work amplifies that or parodies it. When I look around, I think we’re heading to a terrible conclusion. But when I think of the human mind and imagination I think surely something good can come out of it. And maybe design as well can be a catalyst for some of this, even if we don’t know the answers, it can act as a lubricant.”

But with its growing profile, speculative design has begun to draw criticism, not least concerning its dystopian edge. The Republic of Salivation, a project by Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta, imagined a future of food scarcity and prompted a passionate debate when it was featured on the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) Design and Violence website34 last year. Critics led by US designer John Thackara argued that what was being held up as a frightening vision of things to come was already a daily reality for much of the world’s population, and that the project ignored the factors that led to such scarcity in the first place. Brazilian designer Luiza Prado was prompted to write a more general attack on speculative design (in conjunction with Pedro Oliveira), berating its “blindly privileged environment” and its apparent lack of interest in race, class and gender. “Projects that clearly reflect the fear of losing first-world privileges – gastronomical, civil or cultural – in a bleak, dystopic future abound,” Prado wrote, “while practitioners seem to be blissfully unaware (or unwilling to acknowledge, in some cases) of other realities... speculative design can only earn its ‘critical’ name once it leaves its own comfort zone and starts looking beyond privilege, for real.”

Prado’s critique is unfair in some respects – there are a lot more non-white, -male, -heterosexual people in the field than she suggests. In other respects it’s extremely important and a reflection of the fact that as speculative design’s influence grows, its responsibilities also grow. “It is true that most speculative design happens in the west and often reflects first-world issues, but I think it’s because conventional design (and some of its shortcomings) is pretty well understood in the west, so it’s only natural for some people to want to explore new possibilities for design and other ways it can contribute to society, even if that society is part of the first world, for now,” Dunne says. “But there is no reason why this approach can’t develop in a wider context. It’s early days yet. We’d love to see it spread to other parts of the world and mutate into new forms of practice appropriate for local issues, cultures and contexts. But it needs to emerge locally, bottom up.”

They are not trying to create a form of universal speculative design that works anywhere for anyone. “We need to allow for individuality and local variation in method, content, style, subject, etc. Something we see very little of in design today due to globalisation,” says Dunne. “Not being mass-produced, speculative design has more potential to reflect local issues and cultures. Also, there’s a limit to what design can do. Sometimes we can achieve more as citizens than designers... We need to recognise its limits.”

Yet Tobias Revell, another DI graduate, goes beyond Dunne’s careful pragmatism. Writing in response to the debate on the MoMA page, Revell presented the passions aroused by Burton and Nitta’s project as a historical opportunity for speculative design to emerge as a progressive force. “It feels, from the inside, like critical design is edging closer and closer to something new and radical, particularly looking at the work of current students and recent graduates,” Revell wrote. Speculative design’s increasingly influential young practitioners are “highly politically literate, frustrated and energetic”, Revell continued. Together, they could be “the closest we have to a movement with the radical ambition to change the world without jumping on the back of markets. It’s young, full of naivety and has a lot of learning to do – but it feels like a powder keg.”