Interview: Andrew Friend and Sitraka Rakotoniaina

March 9, 2019

Speculative Design practitioners – Andrew Friend and Sitraka Rakotoniaina (London): Exploring ways to democratise the narratives that make up tomorrow’s visions.

Andrew Friend and Sitraka Rakotoniaina met while studying Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art in London. With backgrounds in Interaction Design and Architecture they craft narratives through the conception and creation of machines, devices, installations, sets and photographs, exploring the intersections of Art, Science and Technology. Alongside their practice, Andrew and Sitraka regularly lecture at private and public institutions and in 2015 they founded the collaborative project Very Very Far Away, a platform dedicated to democratising future narratives through podcasts, workshops and installations. Their work has been exhibited internationally in venues including the Wellcome Collection, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Museum of China, Saint Etienne Design Biennale, Venetian Arsenal, and the Art Center College of Design.

How connected was your education with the Speculative Design (or related) approach you are using in your work today?

Studying in the Design Interactions programme was mind bending, and in effect, our education probably shaped a substantial part of our approach to work in general. We met whilst studying at the Royal College of Art, and as such the way we operate today still closely resembles the way we were collaborating back then, whether we work within gallery, commercial or corporate settings.

Our practice spans across a wide range of projects, but the common thread has to do with a certain attitude towards making something of interest to us, with an outcome that is unknown and often unexpected before the project has been realised. This might not be strictly related to Speculative Design, but the ability to think about projects in organic ways with a methodological openness, beyond a particular framework, craft or sense of aesthetic is probably what we gathered from that course. And doing so despite whomever may commission the work, or if it is self initiated, the practice is by essence exploratory and experimental (meaning that sometimes the outcome isn’t a success, but that’s ok).

Could you please select one of your favourite Speculative Design projects and tell us what you like about it?

I don’t know if there is a clear favourite project. Each one of them has been a good occasion to learn new things, whether in terms of process, method or general framework for our practice. However the Prophecy Program is, in our eyes, one of the most complete. What started as a broad exploration of the nature of the science experiment, led us to examine the aesthetic of the experiment itself as the backbone for the creation of beliefs. Since the conception of this project took place in a wind tunnel converted into a gallery in Los Angeles, we were interested in turning the gallery back into a site of tests, whilst exploring the southern Californian context as the home of cinema, storytelling, myths and new age mysticism.

What we really liked about it is, that the project went full circle; a couple of years after its completion, we received interest from an agency wanting to use our video documentation as part of the promotional material for the Google science fair of 2015. Which provided us with a nice validation for our process, method and general aim for this project.

Prophecy Program

We like projects that use designed artefacts as mediums to probe new cultural narratives, or relations to the world. Often the ones we find successful are the ones that enable us to think about reality differently, a sort of escapism as method for reflecting on the status quo, as opposed to escapism as coping mechanism; projects that may appear fantastic at first, but have been designed and engineered to such an extent that they may engender a paradigm shift. Maybe hailing from before “Speculative Design” as a term of classification was really used, Krzysztof Wodiczko’s vehicles are pretty good as functioning artefacts that play with big ideas, yet do so with a slightly absurdist wit and humour in their execution.

If students asked about the practical or professional applications of this type of design, what would you say?

There are some good examples of this type of approach but from our teaching experience we found that labels are often misleading or create confusion. Anything that challenges our current assumptions, attitudes and is contextually relevant can count as a practical application.

In our minds, Speculative Design ultimately allows us to think about what’s preferable, no matter what dystopian, utopian or particular lens a project may use as a vehicle, and crafts the speculation from the bottom up with localised interventions from which can emerge a bigger picture. Where other approaches may potentially favour a top down perspective with a programme. This may give the illusion that such an approach is more practical, but it may just be that one can be more deterministic whilst the other lets you familiarise yourself with the unknown by allowing the creation of positive protentions.

In terms of professional applications, we are getting more and more interest from companies interested in how to explore potential futures in a coherent and critical way. The approach using detailed speculation and a thorough justification that we use when exploring what may (or may not) be desirable in a future is certainly of interest to more “traditional” design, media and tech disciplines looking to capitalise on what could be next, but recently we have been working with service design and even accountancy firms to explore new ways of viewing possible futures also.  

Challenging one’s perception and/or assumptions of what technologically driven realities could be is one of the main purposes of Speculative Design as we understand it.

In your opinion what is the purpose of Speculative Design? Please suggest up to three key metrics for evaluating the success of a project.

This is a tricky one. In our projects we like to look at “success” in a layered way, for example if we are making a physical work then there is the initial success of getting the attention of the audience or passerby, this is the hook, and for a start this is enough, they see a strange thing and stop even for a moment to have a quick look, they may continue back with what they were previously engaged in but they may also start to look more closely, the second layer! Here we can start to engage some more ideas, and layers of content (and hopefully value) so the more someone engages with a project the more they “should” get out of it, though in reality it is absolutely fine just to catch the attention and then let the audience go too!  

In general, challenging one’s perception and/or assumptions of what technologically driven realities could be is one of the main purposes of Speculative Design as we understand it. In our most recent project (Very Very Far Away), our main interest is to explore ways to democratise the narratives that make up tomorrow’s visions. The premise is that popular futures, as narrative constructs, are often based on technological prowesses but do not necessarily reflect on the cultural “fictions” that surround and could potentially be derived from these advances. These visions are then mediated through objects and products proposing a particular aesthetic experience of the world by carrying with them a certain “baggage”, or set of values. These may or may not be shared by everyone, and aspects of these narratives thus conveyed may or may not be preferable for everyone.

When working within that realm of projects, metrics depend highly on context as well as intentions. However the common factors we usually use to measure success are the clarity of the intention behind the project – whether the aim is to spark conversation and debate, highlight potential caveats, or propose a more “critical” vision, etc. – the execution, the means through which the intention or message is being crafted – design considerations – and the distance between the response from the targeted audience, stimulated by the execution, and the original intention. The shorter the distance is, theoretically the more relevance. Obviously this is highly theoretical and does not necessarily have any relevance when not contextualised within a project.

Time Conditioning

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