Superflux: Tools and methods for making change
Anab Jain and Jon Ardern of Superflux (“a studio for the rapidly changing world”) talk to James Auger about their approach, their recent projects, and their educational activities.
Photo by Matt Cottam
Superflux create worlds, stories, and tools that provoke and inspire us to engage with the precarity of our rapidly changing world. Founded by Anab Jain and Jon Ardern in 2009, the Anglo-Indian studio has brought critical design, futures and foresight approaches to new audiences while working for some of the world’s biggest organisations like Microsoft Research, Sony, Samsung and Nokia, and exhibiting work at MoMA New York, the National Museum of China, and the V&A in London. Over the last ten years, the studio has gained critical acclaim for producing work that navigates the entangled wilderness of our technology, politics, culture, and environment to imagine new ways of seeing, being, and acting. The studio’s partners and clients currently include Government of UAE, Innovate UK, Cabinet Office UK, Red Cross, UNDP, Mozilla and Forum for the Future. Anab is also Professor at Design Investigations, University of Applied Arts, Vienna.
You practice across numerous and diverse fields (education, commercial, gallery). Does your idea of speculative design change for each of these contexts? How do you balance the different expectations of each?
We don’t tend to strictly define our work as “Speculative Design”. Usually we say we are designers or artists or filmmakers. Speculative Design is gaining traction lately, and we might have a client of two who knows the term and might even hire us for that, but usually they come to us because they want to explore a possible future or a different narrative, or investigate a technology. We think our work investigates a potential rather than speculating on a future. Speculation is an undeniable part of the process but it is not the primary motivation behind our work. Our work is an open-ended process of enquiry, whilst speculation can at times feel like a closed loop.
There is a tendency, in many speculative design works, towards dystopian futures. It seems that as with science fiction, apocalyptic futures are easier to imagine and tell as stories. Focusing on your CCCB installation, Mitigation of Shock, how would you describe this project in terms of its value connotation? What is the purpose of such a project?
For us, Mitigation of Shock is actually not apocalyptic at all, but instead a pragmatic vision of hope, emerging from a dystopian future ravaged by climate change. On a personal level, it can be difficult for people to imagine how an issue like global warming might affect everyday life for our future selves, or generations to come. Our immersive simulation merges the macabre and the mundane as the social and economic consequences of climate change infiltrate the domestic space.
Mitigation of Shock, Superflux
The installation transports people decades into the future (or perhaps even closer on the horizon), into an apartment in London which has been drastically adapted for living with the consequences of climate catastrophe. Familiar, yet alien. A domestic space alive with multispecies inhabitants, surviving and thriving together in an indoor microcosm. Climate projections from the beginning of the century have unfurled into reality, their consequences reverberating across the globe. Climate catastrophes shatter global supply chains. Economic and political fragility, social fragmentation, and food insecurity destabilise society.
Rather than optimistically stick our heads in the sand, or become overwhelmed with fear, we decided to catapult ourselves and others directly into a specific geographical and cultural context to experience the ripple effects of extreme weather conditions. Hope often works best alongside tools for proactively tackling future challenges. Which is why, in this year-long experimental research project, we explored, designed and built an apartment located in a future no one wants, but that may be on the horizon. Not to scare, or overwhelm, but to help people critically reflect upon their actions in the present, and introduce them to potential solutions for living in such a future. The evidence in the apartment may reflect a different future, but all the food apparatus was in fully working condition, no speculation there. We wanted to demonstrate that we have the tools and methods we need to make the change today.
Futures of Power – Algorithmic Power and Democracy, Supeflux
We are living in complicated times – politically, environmentally, culturally. After several years of speculative and critical design evolution, do you think that it can have a more influential role in shaping futures/alternatives beyond the discussions that typically take place in the design community?
We wrote a little bit about this here: https://medium.com/superfluxstudio/stop-shouting-future-start-doing-it-e036dba17cdc.
Could it adopt more political or activist role? If so, how could this aspect be incorporated into education?
Yes definitely. Our latest project Trigger Warning explores this very space: https://mod.org.au/exhibits/trigger-warning. And then a completely different project: http://superflux.in/index.php/work/future-of-democracy-algorithmic-power/#temp.
[Anab] Also my students at the Angewandte will be exploring the theme of “futures of democracy” in the upcoming semester.
Discussions of race, gender expression and privilege are much more granular than simplistic accusations, and I strongly believe that designers who address complex issues, whilst battling student loans and rents, should be applauded, not condemned.
Coming from India but educated at the RCA, what was your take on the “privilege” discussion via Design and Violence? More specifically, what can we learn from this debate? How can it push speculative design forwards?
[Anab] I sensed an underlying assumption in that debate that anybody from the West was seen as “privileged” and anyone from any other colonised country is not. Whilst there is a long and troubling history to colonisation in India, I do bear in mind that India was always a battleground for clans and dynasties from other countries long before the West came and colonised it. These issues are very complex, and I think the only way we can attempt to understand them is by avoiding accusations and flamewars, but instead opening up space for everyone’s voice to be heard.
As things stands today, even though I come from India, a lot of people would argue that, within India, I am privileged because I had the opportunity to choose my education path and the person I want to marry. On the other hand, I know lots and lots of people in the West (white/male even) who are disempowered because of systemic privilege within the West. So discussions of race, gender expression and privilege are much more granular than simplistic accusations, and I strongly believe that designers who address complex issues, whilst battling student loans and rents, should be applauded, not condemned.
How can we resist or overcome the situation where avant-garde design practices, established as a resistance to the dominant system, ultimately become appropriated by the system?
If we successfully overturn capitalism, the rest will follow.
Mitigation of Shock, Superflux
Could you select one or two top speculative design projects (your own or others) that exemplify the strengths of the approach?
Mitigation of Shock is one of our favourite works. (We are in the process of documenting it, we’ll share the link soon.) The intention of such a speculative approach with hands-on experimentation is that it offers us the opportunity to very directly step into a familiar space to confront our fears, but also show concrete ways in which we can mitigate the shock of climate change. It’s a space that nurtures hope and desire for transformative action, with awareness and responsibility for consequences.
We also like Thomas Thwaites’ Toaster Project for its investigative nature.
Toaster Project, Thomas Thwaites (Photo: Daniel Alexander)