Monday, December 22, 2008

Whenever you are, we're already then

Last week, Dan Lockton (who maintains the excellent blog Design with Intent) tipped me off to an announcement about the imminent opening of something marvellous; a time travel-themed convenience store in Los Angeles. His email from the UK reached me in Hawaii on the morning of 15 December, but linked to a blog post by Stefan G. Bucher (the LA-based writer and illustrator who designed the store) dated 16 December -- which hadn't even started in England yet, let alone on the west coast of the U.S. However, being a bit preoccupied with defending my dissertation proposal that morning, I didn't quite register this apparent instance of actual time travel occurring in my inbox. Today, however, I read the full text of Bucher's report on the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, in which he excitedly looks forward to "the full opening on January 15th, 2008" -- almost a year ago . At first I took this to be a time-travel joke. But no, in fact it had been my mistake all along. He had posted on 16 December 02007.

The Internet collapses other times into the present with such astonishing effectiveness (and sometimes disorienting results) that a boutique of heterotopian, hypothetical products would seem destined for a comfortable niche online; a website selling novelty goodies fresh from the distant past or future, a sort of plutonium-powered CafePress. And indeed, Echo Park's one stop shop for intertemporal knick-knacks does have a counterpart in cyberspace. But really, physicality is the thing. Its reality-warping presence in meatspace, at 1714 West Sunset Boulevard, is what makes this attractive to me. (And it gives me one more reason to go back to that weirdest of cities, Los Angeles, reluctant though I may have been in the past.) See, one expects to find weird crap online, regular as clockwork; but there's simply no question that tinned Woolly Mammoth Chunks, robot emotion-upgrades and Time Freezy Hyper Slush drink substitutes would be infinitely more wonderful to behold (and certainly more interesting to taste) in person than onscreen. It's just one of those things: to date, at least for me, actual presence musters much more experiential oomph. Hence I'm always impressed when unusual, mould-breaking designed real-life experiences (or even attempted experiences, whether or not they fire on all proverbial cylinders) come my way.

From a futures point of view the Time Travel Mart does seem a bit heavy on Futurama-style space-and-robot gags, thus perhaps missing the chance to do something a bit more interesting with the concept (without losing any of the playfulness) -- but make no mistake: it's still profoundly cool.

826LA poster (part of a set) by Amy Kate Martin
via her Flickr photostream

Image via wallofhair's Flickr photostream

So who, or what, accounts for the temporally ambiguous arrival of this particularly curious take on that all-American institution, the Mart; this time machine toystore -- not a store with toys so much as one that toys with stores -- worthy of Matt Groening, if not H.G. Wells? To my surprise, and great delight, it turns out to be 826LA, the local office of 826 National, a nonprofit tutoring, writing and publishing organisation with a focus on teaching creative writing to kids, cofounded by the splendid novelist Dave Eggers. It has seven locations in the U.S. to date, with space for running workshops and the like, but most of them also feature some sort of unusual retail shopfront, to help "raise funds, inspire creativity, and advertise our programs to the local community". Along with the Time Travel Mart, these include a superhero supply shop in Brooklyn, a robot-themed outlet in Ann Arbor, and the fabulous Pirate Store in San Francisco (this last of which provided the backdrop for a fine afternoon's mischief in summer 02007, thanks to my good, if slightly unbalanced, pirate-impersonating friends Simone and Dave).

This "news" may be fully one year out of date (but is a time travel store literally capable of being news? Slogan: "Whenever you are, we're already then"), but I'm so very happy to learn of a nonprofit organisation using genuine ingenuity to promote its worthy cause -- creative expression -- by actually embodying it.

Holiday card designed for Echo Park Time Travel Mart by Amy Kate Martin
via her Flickr photostream

Image via Orrin's Flickr photostream

Related posts:
> Visit Venice, see Baghdad
> Mars Products
> A Simpsons simulacrum

(Thanks Dan!)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Futures in the flesh

Patricia Piccinini, The Young Family, 02002-03
silicone, acrylic, human hair, leather, timber
Image via Brooklyn Museum

Readers, stumblers, netizens: I have been up to my eyeballs in dissertation research and general end-of-year craziness, but the sceptical futuryst is still, let me assure you, a going concern. Having defended my PhD proposal on Monday this week, I'm now back and hope to share a few more thoughts with you before the final encroachment of silly season.

This post is a bookmark to my favourite recent finding in the futures/design/art space, which came via a book, translated from German and published this year by MIT Press, called Insatiable Curiosity: Innovation in a Fragile Future. It's the work of Helga Nowotny, a scholar in social studies of science and technology. I don't intend to review it here, but it's one of those alternately heartening and frustrating works that, apparently oblivious to the existence of the futures field, tries to reinvent it.

p. 2: The future is. Its content, its shape, and its fullness -- the images we construct of it -- always have significance only in the here and now.

p. 4: This ability to claim the future for oneself is a cultural resource and should be made available also to those who currently do not have it, like the poor in the developing countries.

p. 7: Conceiving the future -- conceiving it differently -- demands that we escape the polarities of utopias and dystopias and replace them with other images that are neither taken directly from science fiction nor fueled by media-staged apocalyptic or superhuman fantasies. ... Conceiving the future means examining the assumptions on which it supposedly rests.

p. 110: Today, speech about the future is in the subjunctive mode. The term future rightly ought to be used in the plural, even if our language resists.

See what I mean? Anyway, in Chapter 2, "Paths of Curiosity", Nowotny says (pp. 63-64):

Patricia Piccinini's artful figures consciously cross the boundaries between humans and animal species. She creates monsters whose familiar human characteristics disturb and speak to us even while they appear in an alienated form. She arouses the viewers' curiosity, a curiosity that follows two separate paths at the same time. One path leads to the created object, which is alien and familiar to us at the same time. The other path leads back to ourselves, for looking at the object nourishes our suspicion that science's conscious and intentional manipulations could one way also make us humans take on such an alienated form, just as the artist has done with her mutated form produced from silicon, acrylic, human hair, and leather.

The footnote to that paragraph cites Piccinini's 02003 exhibition We Are Family, Australia's contribution to the 50th Venice Biennale. We Are Family included "The Young Family" (see photo at the top of this post), among other works by the artist. From Linda Michael's catalogue essay [pdf] for the exhibition (p. 5, emphasis added in bold):

Over the last few years, Piccinini has nurtured a new animal, the Siren Mole or SO2 (named after the scientifically produced 'Synthetic Organism 1', or SO1).
After talking with zoologists and ecologists about her beast in its various forms, Piccinini was keen to create a new improved version – one capable of reproducing itself. The next stage in its evolution is SO3, the theoretical 'scientific' name for Piccinini's creatures in her sculpture The Young Family.

The mother of this family lies on her side like a big sow with a litter of suckling pups, her humane face the subject of one stray pup's wide-eyed attention. Despite her status as a new mother, she is old.
The sculpture's verisimilitude, and the fact that today science fiction becomes fact so rapidly, makes it conceivable that this creature exists in the world. In it the differing physical attributes of youth and age are portrayed with commanding realism. Yet though its form is realistic, its content is improbable. It is a highly defined representation or surrogate of something. But of what?

Detail from The Young Family
Featured in We Are Family, Venice Biennale 02003
Image via Australian Journal of Emerging Technology and Society

Reverse shot of The Young Family
Featured in We Are Family, Venice Biennale 02003
Image via Giant Ginkgo's Flickr photostream

Patricia Piccinini, Game Boys Advanced, 02002
silicone, polyurethane, clothing, human hair
Featured in We Are Family, Venice Biennale 02003
Image via Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

Patricia Piccinini, Still Life With Stem Cells, 02002
silicone, polyurethane, clothing, human hair
Featured in We Are Family, Venice Biennale 02003
Image via Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

Michael continues (pp. 7-8):

What the tableaux within this exhibition offer us are visions that encapsulate contemporary dramas, with all their contradictions. This is no less than a model of reality or truth: 'In my work I am primarily interested in creating real experiences for people, experiences that touch people ... bodily but both intellectually and emotionally. No matter how artificial or unreal the stuff that constructs these environments is, these spaces always constitute a reality and evoke real experiences'.*

Piccinini's work engages us because it does not take sides, though it draws from the conflicting emotions that underpin our fascination with genetic engineering. Her works give imaginative life to a potentially scary future, while also asserting the redemptive power of social values and relationships. Our horror of humans combining with other species, for example, is considerably softened or sidetracked by the image of Piccinini's profoundly weary and patient trans-species mother suckling her young.

We are thus confronted with an expanded idea of the real – with alluring and original creations where truth has primacy over appearance. Though they may be in some way failed or mutant creations, her figures have a kind of innocence that makes it easy to see beauty in the grotesque. We are free to imagine new futures that are unconstrained by outworn social philosophies. Piccinini always does this in a way that makes such futures understandable in terms of what we encounter in everyday life.

Patricia Piccinini, Not Quite Animal (Transgenic skull for the Young Family), 02008
bronze | Image via artist's website

Patricia Piccinini, The Long Awaited, 02008
silicone, fibreglass, human hair, leather, plywood, clothing
Image via artist's website

Patricia Piccinini, The Embrace, 02005 (Nature's Little Helpers series)
silicone, fibreglass, human hair, plywood, leather, clothing
Image via artist's website

While gathering images for this post I came across an intriguing case of "The Young Family" being "debunked" at urban legends website Snopes, one person or several evidently having seized the opportunity to fabricate tabloidlike trans-species scandal stories based on photos of the sculpture.

The fact that it lends itself to such misinterpretation is a clue to the power of Piccinini's work, which for me comes very close to realising an emerging ideal for future artifact creation; the epistemically ambiguous dramatisation of scenaric potential.  That is, we may be entirely aware of their artifice (no deception required; they do appear in art galleries after all), and yet it seems that the "real experiences" of encountering her hypothetical creatures can provoke genuine insights in relation to configurations of the future landscape of -- in this case, biological or genetic -- possibility.  Life is pretty damn weird anyway, truth be told, so whatever's deemed natural about it is a function of taste, and especially that to which we're most accustomed. These sculptures seem to embody the ethical complexity (and the threat of simplicity) inherent in genetics research-driven technosocial change, far more effectively than thought experimentation or arguments from principle can. To my mind, transgenic "monsters" -- shadow-puppets projected with the false illumination of baseless moralising -- vanish in the light cast by imagining specific futures; and these strange Others start to be recognisable, with the rest of us odd creatures, as life.

In closing, three quick associations: first, the extraordinary work of Australian hyperrealist sculptor Ron Mueck; second, Canadian sculptor slash programmer Adam Brandejs, notably the Genpets project (which I'd intended to blog ages ago); and third, the biology and genetics-themed work of several students at the Royal College of Art's (London) Design Interactions program.

Ron Mueck, A Girl, 02006 | Image via Zimbio

Screenshot of Genpets website by Adam Brandejs

Image from Nanotopia (02006) by Michael Burton, RCA Design Interactions

Related posts:
> Your destiny is no longer in question
> How future-shock therapy works

(Thanks Rosa!)

* Patricia Piccinini, interview with Paul Greenaway, Heterosis: Digital Art from Australia, exhibition catalogue, Madrid: Conde Duque, pp. 46-49; p. 48.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Viridian is dead. Long live Viridian!

Last week I ran across Bruce Sterling's "Last Viridian Note", dated 19 November 02008, and declared by the scifi-writing design Pope-Emperor himself to be the final edition in his decade-long series of bright green missives, collectively aimed at "creating irresistible demand for a global atmosphere upgrade".

It's no feeble "Thanks folks, I'm outta here", either, but a thoughtful, quietly powerful, personal manifesto -- a summation of where he's come from, in terms of his thinking and habits around sustainable design, and where he aspires next to go. So rarely is that wise dictum of the stage "always leave them wanting more" not overshadowed by the temptations of corporate, governmental, or brand immortality, that it's astonishing when any kind of human enterprise both deliberately and gracefully quits a still-viable role in affairs (though easier, no doubt, when it's a one-man show rather than a body of many parts ossified by time in the habits and expectations of thousands). In any case, kudos to Sterling for taking the less travelled if more dignified road of shutting down Viridian in its current form, before it outlives its usefulness, and chancing the move on to, as it were, greener pastures.

Those familiar with his work will not be surprised to learn that it's a terrific read. Sterling, more than most anyone, understands the intimate and essential connections between design, futures, and whatever you're doing right now. His thoughts here resonated deeply with me, so for those who don't plan to read the whole thing, at least check out the following excerpts.

Hairshirt-green is the simple-minded inverse of 20th-century consumerism. Like the New Age mystic echo of Judaeo-Christianity, hairshirt-green simply changes the polarity of the dominant culture, without truly challenging it in any effective way. It doesn't do or say anything conceptually novel – nor is it practical, or a working path to a better life.
What is "sustainability?" Sustainable practices navigate successfully through time and space, while others crack up and vanish. So basically, the sustainable is about time – time and space. You need to re-think your relationship to material possessions in terms of things that occupy your time. The things that are physically closest to you. Time and space.
The items that you use incessantly, the items you employ every day, the normal, boring goods that don't seem luxurious or romantic: these are the critical ones. They are truly central. The everyday object is the monarch of all objects. It's in your time most, it's in your space most. It is "where it is at," and it is "what is going on."

It takes a while to get this through your head, because it's the opposite of the legendry of shopping. However: the things that you use every day should be the best-designed things you can get.
You will need to divide your current possessions into four major categories.

1. Beautiful things.
2. Emotionally important things.
3. Tools, devices, and appliances that efficiently perform a useful function.
4. Everything else.

"Everything else" will be by far the largest category. Anything you have not touched, or seen, or thought about in a year – this very likely belongs in "everything else."

You should document these things. Take their pictures, their identifying makers' marks, barcodes, whatever, so that you can get them off eBay or Amazon if, for some weird reason, you ever need them again. Store those digital pictures somewhere safe – along with all your other increasingly valuable, life-central digital data. Back them up both onsite and offsite.

Then remove them from your time and space. "Everything else" should not be in your immediate environment, sucking up your energy and reducing your opportunities. It should become a fond memory, or become reduced to data.

It may belong to you, but it does not belong with you. You weren't born with it. You won't be buried with it. It needs to be out of the space-time vicinity. You are not its archivist or quartermaster. Stop serving that unpaid role.
You are not "losing things" by these acts of material hygiene. You are gaining time, health, light and space. Also, the basic quality of your daily life will certainly soar. Because the benefits of good design will accrue to you where they matter – in the everyday.

Not in Oz or in some museum vitrine. In the every day. For sustainability, it is every day that matters. Not green Manhattan Projects, green moon shots, green New Years' resolutions, or wild scifi speculations. Those are for dabblers and amateurs. The sustainable is about the every day.
You should be planning, expecting, desiring to live among material surroundings created, manufactured, distributed, through radically different methods from today's. It is your moral duty to aid this transformative process.
So. This approach seems to be working for me. More or less. I'm not urging you to do any of this right away. Do not jump up from the screen right now and go reform your entire material circumstances. That resolve will not last. Because it's not sustainable.
That discipline is not as hard as it sounds. As the design of your immediate surroundings improves, it'll become obvious to you that more and more of these time-sucking barnacles are just not up to your standards. They're ugly, or they're broken, or they're obsolete, or they are visible emblems of nasty, uncivilized material processes.
[Y]ou may be interested in my next, post-Viridian, project.
Viridian "imaginary products" were always a major theme of ours, and, since I'm both a science fiction writer and a design critic, I want to do some innovative work in this space – yes, the realm of imaginary products. Conceptual designs; imaginary designs; critical designs; fantastic and impossible designs.

This new effort of mine is a scholarly work exploring material culture, use-value, ethics, and the relationship between materiality and the imagination. However, since nobody's easily interested in that huge, grandiose topic, I'm disguising it as a nifty and attractive gadget book. I plan to call it "The User's Guide to Imaginary Gadgets."

(via Worldchanging)