Speculative Design practitioners – Michaela and Konstantin from Basel-based circumflex.studio: “Speculative Design should be an informed projection that brings into question the reality we ground this projection on.
circumflex.studio for xeno-design research is Michaela Büsse and Konstantin Mitrokhov. Michaela is an artistic researcher interested in speculative and experimental design practices, new materialism and philosophies of technology and ecology. Her practice is situated, speculative, collaborative and research-led ranging from text to film and installations to workshops. Currently, Michaela is a PhD candidate at the Critical Media Lab in Basel. In 2017, she was a fellow at Strelka Institute’s design think-tank “The New Normal”. In 2018, Michaela was part of the research residency “Acts of Life” – an interdisciplinary collaboration of NTU CCA Singapore and MCAD Manila. Michaela regularly lectures and runs workshops at various art academies, and is part of the editorial board at Migrant Journal. Konstantin is a visual artist and researcher exploring (science-) fictive, material, and critical discourses around contemporary technologies. Konstantin is enrolled at the DAI Art Praxis roaming master programme and is hosted by the Critical Media Lab in Basel. In 2017 he was a part of The New Normal research residency at Strelka Institute. Currently, Konstantin is engaged in self-initiated artistic research, works on external commissions and occasionally aids Michaela in her research.
How connected was your education with the Speculative Design (or related) approach you are using in your work today?
MB: During my master studies in Switzerland, between 2013-14, Speculative Design was only known in a very small circle of those who studied Design Interactions at the RCA. I heard about it from one of my theory mentors who did his PhD there and decided to dedicate my thesis to exploring the approach further. Back then, I was especially interested in its intersections with futures studies and science fiction. My final thesis was a critical analysis of Speculative Design and its intersections with these disciplines. After my graduation, the programme director asked me to start teaching a seminar on Speculative Design and we are running it for the fifth year now. Three years later, in 2017, I was part of a think-tank at Strelka Institute in Moscow called “The New Normal” which dedicated its whole programme to Speculative Design as a medium for research, critique and creation. It was the first time I had a chance to meet like-minded researchers and designers, and this is also where I met Konstantin. We worked together on the speculative project “Common Task” and continued working together afterwards.
KM: I have a background in technical cybernetics and photographic arts, but was not familiar with Speculative Design methods prior to joining the programme at Strelka Institute. I mostly worked with the photographic medium within the field of documentary and editorial photography but felt the need to go beyond these boundaries. Being a part of “The New Normal” induced a major shift in my practice. This is where systemic thinking of cybernetics and intuitions of visual arts started to converge into a more coherent research-driven practice. I am currently a part of the nomadic master programme at the Dutch Art Institute, where (once again) I’m trying to establish a constructive dialogue between the embrace of technologies and critical positions of current artistic practices.
Could you please select one of your favourite Speculative Design projects and tell us what you like about it?
Our own practice is mainly concerned with textual and audio-visual outputs since we both have a strong research focus and find these media more suitable to bringing complex ideas into action. Our latest piece Interface Creep is an experiment with the spatial dimension of language and the politics of technology. Based on an exploration of the virtual space offered by Apple Maps we created a fictional narrative that investigates mapping as a speculative practice. Through a radical alienation of the human perspective we invite the reader to reflect on her everyday interaction with maps and how it affects sense-making on the one hand and is affected by asymmetrical power structures on the other. The notion of map implies a significant degree of presumably objective, stiff relationship to the real which is deeply rooted in the model of vertical perspective. But when one floats through this space there is no ground underneath anymore and no conventional map to rely on.
MB: I would like to add here Anastasia Kubrak’s Unreal Estate work. “The Unreal Estate is a fictional agency offering services for tricking and concealing property from satellite and aerial surveillance.” What I like about this project is that it’s simple but comprehensive at the same time. It speaks to a lot of contemporary issues using Google Earth imagery as a trigger: the widening gap between ultra rich and poor; potentials and threats of emerging technologies; and capitalism’s inherent logic to transform everything into a money-making machine. A good design doesn’t have to be complex to convey a complex subject.
KM: I like Luiz Zanotello’s A Habitat of Recognition. The project translates contemporary materialist discourse into a piece of industrial design by means of reading and writing the silica-iron ore. Particles of silica and iron form a “granular record” that is eroded and magnetically sorted (reading) or deposited according to the measured values (writing). For the process to continue, the ore that was read needs to be swapped with the ore that was written. The gestures are industrial yet somewhat occult in their nature and involve human labour, thus rendering physical the matter’s agency and information it contains.
The boundaries between art and design are blurry in Speculative Design, which makes it difficult for many design students to figure out what to do with it.
If students asked about the practical or professional applications of this type of design, what would you say? (Or What are the practical or professional applications of this type of design?)
MB: There are multiple applications depending on what you speculate for. Speculative Design is mainly used as a tool to critique or question a certain implication of a technology. However, it is more and more used as a method to innovate. Many speculative designers work in research and development departments of big corporations and together with scientists and engineers give shape to possible futures. Speculative Design as a critique or a form of mediation mainly happens within the art context and academia. The boundaries between art and design are blurry in Speculative Design, which makes it difficult for many design students to figure out what to do with it. Trend consultancies are increasingly aware of Speculative Design and offer jobs to designers with this focus. Also, depending on the subject a speculation is based on, a designer might enter a completely different field of practice and apply herself to imagine alternative futures for this discipline, company or product or establish a new field altogether.
KM: I certainly see how Speculative Design can and does exist within the artistic contexts, but at the same time it is often resisted and rightfully criticised. Designers capable of resisting superficiality, evolving their sensibilities and maintaining a solid political and ethical stance, would flourish.
In your opinion what is the purpose of Speculative Design? Please suggest up to three key metrics for evaluating the success of a project.
Speculative Design should be an informed projection that brings into question the reality we ground this projection on. Informed means that it’s not about making up just any alternative future, present or past but grounding this speculation in prior knowledge, emerging tendencies, existing technologies, and human behaviours. Through creating an alternative reading – set in the future, present or past – the predominant reality is put into question and inherent biases are revealed. This is our very ideal understanding of Speculative Design. However, plenty of design proposals stay very superficial, and critique becomes a rather empty gesture. Since there is no methodology to follow, Speculative Design requires a critical mindset and the ability to connect dots and look at the world differently.
Common Task (Photo by Erin McKinney)