Jimmy Loizeau: Speculation needs to be inclusive or it risks being bourgeois and elitist

June 5, 2020

Sara Božanić talks with SpeculativeEdu team member and Speculative Design pioneer Jimmy Loizeau on the importance of responsible practice.

Jimmy Loizeau is a Senior Lecturer in design at Goldsmiths’ internationally recognised Design Department. His projects are intended to exist on, or just inside, the peripheries of possibility. These new systems, schemes or products provide an altered view on how we might interact with infrastructures, technologies for better or for worse; exploring design possibilities through inclusive speculation. Projects with Auger-Loizeau like Afterlife (2002) offer contemporary systems for dealing with mortality; proposing a chemical afterlife for the “new needs” of “new believers”. The Audio Tooth Implant (2001) proposes the next stage of in-body communication technology; the project was deployed to explore ways for the dissemination of issues surrounding technology through engagement with mass media. Since 2015 Loizeau has been working with refugee communities in France and Greece initiating numerous collaborations that explore archiving, mapping and media representation of, communities, spaces and lives of people who have been forced to leave their countries, Recently The Illegal Town Plan, with Matt Ward, explores inclusive structures and strategies for local engagement and education through the framework of a “speculative town plan”.  The project provides inclusive platforms to mediate community engagement with local government in the re-imagining of their town’s future.

Where does your own practice sit within Speculative Design?

Perhaps the early days of Speculative Design were about the opening up of a broader landscape for design. Before that I’d existed somewhere between design and fine art practice. When I found myself at the RCA in 1998 with tutors Tony Dunne and Durrell Bishop I enjoyed the breadth and space to experiment with new ways of thinking and making. It was unsettling and inspiring though I felt a comfort and freedom in this strange new realm of practice that felt like a space or a community of its own. As students we all felt a little confused and really excited. This was where James Auger and I met and came up with the Audio Tooth Implant and from that point started working together.

Where does my practice sit now? I don’t quite know. I’m not sure my practice ever intentionally sat within speculative design, perhaps the work accidently fitted the genre at some point. Labels and titles are not something I stick to, preferring flexible, sprawling spaces to operate. Whilst constraints can be useful for designers, I don’t let disciplinary lines or labels limit my practice. I am involved in a kind of speculation-based practice and education. We (always collaborative) definitely talk about the future and the deployment of “possibility” or “speculation” with colleagues, students, participants and relevant stakeholders. We talk about the ripples in reality that can happen if you play with speculation hard enough in the right places with the right people. It’s these movements in reality, however small, that I’m interested in.

Perhaps I’m cagey with the term Speculative Design because over the years it has developed dogmas, contexts and themes, in crowds and out crowds. Perhaps people take it too seriously. Matt Ward describes the time when Auger-Loizeau’s work looked most like “Speculative Design” as  the time when we did a lot of sanding and polishing. This is true.

Audio Tooth Implant, Auger-Loizeau (2000).

In your opinion, what are the key benefits of using speculation and fiction in the design process? 

Most designers will say design practice is always speculative. Speculation is an imperative state necessary for projection about all design, about futures and the things we may or may not want to see. It’s just a word for things that haven’t happened yet but are thought to be worth talking about. In design education this is useful for probing possibility and obviously happens almost everywhere.

My own practice / process is collaborative, messy, and by necessity takes a while. Conversations (lots of them) are fundamental for design. You prototype ideas on or with other people. Conversations help to settle an idea in the right place and help frame it in the right way. Often it’s not an idea that’s bad, it’s how the author articulates or positions it in the world. I don’t make “Speculative Design” objects anymore, at least not in the sense that they were conceived ten or twenty years ago. Work can stagnate on plinths in galleries, it can be almost pointless, repetitively reaching out to the same audiences – though at times my work has done this too. The practice with James Auger has often had an element of inclusiveness or wider participation, an attempt to draw in people from outside the discipline. Audio Tooth Implant was the first and probably the most successful output to do this and we learned a lot from actively deciding that the work should communicate with people well beyond the discipline.

Here I’ll introduce some contradictions. The production of objects. I love objects and love making them. The emphatic object-ness of completed outcomes can be important to provide positive or negative fixed focus points regarding ideas that may furnish our futures. These days these objects are usually one element in a larger project, whereas in the past the objects were the project. These objects’ context of operation in galleries, or publications – curated to reveal an “emerging” genre – this was perhaps valid at a time when design needed to be loud about its functionality other than as a market-based discipline. This has happened. Now we are interested in how fictions and speculations can inform or drive social change, and with these intentions will come all manner of critique, which I embrace as imperative in the honing and challenging of this kind of practice. It’s part of the conversation.

Fiction is a space to project and play. Maybe in this type of practice, the mistake is to view it as conceptually watertight, a done deal, or as an emphatic statement. I think of it instead as a starting point that plays with object resolution. It can look like a real thing, but the “real thing” is what happens when people play with the idea or react for or against these fictional proposals. The object or the artefact on the plinth has its place, people gather around these things and that may be useful. My issue is perhaps that the gallery space is not yet as inclusive as it could be. These curated moments sometimes need to be taken out of the formality of a gallery space where statements on plinths and creative hierarchies are replaced by dialogues, suggestions, and collaborations.

Mono Rail ctrl c ctrl v, Jimmy Loizeau and Matt Ward (2015).

What is your key method and/or tool when creating/approaching a new project? 

The building and playing with these proposals is something I love. To enter into the logic of a new idea and allow something to emerge through speculation, or fiction; imagining through dialogue can move something from just an idea to something that has materiality or real world implications. It just depends on how you frame an idea and with whom you discuss it, and what emerges from the conversation. This is a scalable formula that can happen between two people or a hundred. It can happen in a pub, or a council meeting, or in a school.

Entering the reality of a fiction with logics and behaviours as a kind of “method”-based activity is usually reserved for actors. You begin to believe in your own role and an idea. You find ways to talk about it with people outside of design and then as a shared endeavor, explore their readings of a speculation. Then things get interesting. Fictional landscapes are contrived for developing; dreams and dystopias, characters and characteristics. They are “built” in a factual and fictional blur: the fictional being the proposed, and the factual being the elements we are familiar with so that we can engage or not be completely alienated. Speculative Design is addicted to ephemera, objectyness and stuff around which conversation may occur. It can thrive on attention, hoping to be noticed and discussed, and this can be useful, like a kind of alternative applied advertising.

Working with both James and Matt [Ward], conversations about these landscapes are not enough. These imaginary landscapes have to have something material taken from them, something manifested so that they exist in the world – to be scrutinised, laughed at, shouted at, and sometimes agreed with. In this space the practitioner searches for a way to bring thingyness and engagement. Engaging with and exploring fictional landscapes through a scenario, object or architecture may cause negative reactions or draw criticism, make people argumentative. This is all part of the spectrum of the possible, the ridiculous, the plausible, the desirable or the undesirable. Speculation needs to be inclusive or it risks being bourgeois and elitist. 

In 2015 you delivered an amazing project together with James Auger called Real Prediction Machines. These machines use data to predict specific future events. Can you tell us more about the project and how you reflect on it today, after several years have passed?

Yes, it was a collaborative project where we explored the scenarios of people allowing large amounts of their data to be used for personalised predictions. The project was meant to explore how data might begin to fulfil more unusual future events, banal or deeply personal. Things like arguments between couples, a heart attack, the likelihood of a crash on a bicycle or a traffic accident could be predicted given a range of information like location data, banking data, beer consumption data, and so on. The project purposefully went against the concept of data protection and explored the idea of data liberalism as a way to find out what we could or would like to predict.

If I’m honest … I don’t like the object itself. It’s one of the most boring objects we’ve ever made. It looks like a stand to put jewellery on. The object, unlike other work didn’t really illustrate the narrative of the project, it didn’t really engage with me or others as an object, except perhaps for putting a diamond ring on. In short at the time it was an interesting idea but the object was a little disappointing.

The Illegal Town Plan (Twin Town) project explores strategies for local engagement. Through these speculative town planning schemes you mediate communities’ engagements with local government. How can this be done? Can you explain the method?

Yes … messy, massive, contradictory, slow. 

The Rhyl University of Music and Media (on the world’s longest pier), Neil Crud with Matt Ward Jimmy Loizeau (2017).

The Illegal Town Plan is a long ongoing project that Matt Ward and I have worked on for over six years. It will only end when the town that it is about (Rhyl) has escaped its status as one of the worst towns in the UK. It started as an angry arrogant response to a design agency claiming to have redesigned Rhyl (my hometown). I declared that I would redesign it and do a better job than them. They’d suggested a paint job, some stripes on some of the local seaside architecture.  Doing better than them would be easy. Theirs was a lazy and superficial speculation. If anyone was going to redesign Rhyl, it was going to be me. I enjoyed the bravado and stupidity of the claim. This bravado was fuelled by the failure of previous attempts to reinvigorate the town. I was  aware that I was someone who had left the town. I’d been part of the exodus of its youth,  escaping a town that offered an abundance of drugs and little future. My mother had just died, so motivations were tied up in all kinds of emotion, perhaps some nostalgia or longing to reconnect allowed me to speculate freely about the future whilst referring to Rhyls and my past. These were early days in the project.

Drawings were made as a representation of a reversal of the town’s fortune, whilst reading Delirious New York. Somehow Koolhaas’s depiction of Coney Island as a space drunk with ambition fuelled my own spirit as I made images of Rhyl’s renaissance. These were not architectural drawings, I was not an architect. I was an “illegal architect” and released from legal, professional constraints I made naive and impossible depictions for a future Rhyl. They were intended as prompts for an internal dialogue about ambitious futures that rebuilt and doubled the size of the demolished fair ground; used historic architectures as units of construction for new futures. The idea for the “real” redesign had to be shared and inclusive, so the “illegal” informal drawings became schemes or icebreakers for engagement. A way to nudge other people’s spectacular visions and a way to set a benchmark for their ambitions.

For a while the project had stalled. Matt Ward saw the Illegal Town Plan as more than the musings of a homesick middle-aged man. He believed in the project’s value and potential impact. And suggested a field trip. Our version of town planners would be curated groups driven around in taxis that included taxi-drivers, historians, artists; in fact anyone who was not usually involved in town planning. The resulting collaboration moved the work past beyond just a declaration, and we began to take our role as illegal architects seriously visiting the town regularly and actively engaging with people. We talked with middle-aged punks in Wetherspoons, drank with politicians in pubs, spoke to the woman selling rock on the promenade, and slowly we began to find opportunities to produce ideas and artefacts made not for exhibition but for further activation in the town. 

Looking for artefacts to bring back to London, Matt and I decided to buy some Rhyl Rock. To our dismay the production of seaside rock from Rhyl had ceased as it was no longer economically viable. I had worked selling the rock in my town for years. This was a step too far. We saw a manageable intervention, and by working with a confectionary company we reintroduced the town’s rock. A miniscule step in the reversal of the town’s fortunes, but the rock became a story that local media responded to and it began to function in numerous ways. Through the reintroduction of the sticks of rock  we were able to talk to lots of other people about the proposed illegal redesign of their hometown.

Rhyl Rock, Matt Ward and Jimmy Loizeau (2015).

We wrote a brief, we took students and they interacted with people from the town. We brought focus to the creativity and the ideas of the people from the town. Being from a recognised institution like Goldsmiths definitely helped. (Here exists another contradiction about inclusivity.) A man from the town (Neil Crud) asked for a pier with the university of music and media. It also had to be the longest in the world. Realising that the pier could take a while, we asked local musicians to contribute songs for an inaugural album to prematurely celebrate the opening of the pier. Musicians who contributed were awarded professorships of departments of music of their choosing. Now we have professors of something that only exists in our heads, but a community has been activated, the album is being pressed and we’ll see where these speculative ripples lead us next. Illegal town planning is never linear.

The project now is big and has too many parts to be covered here. But what had started as something that purposefully excluded those usual suspects involved in the town’s future has drawn their attention and now politicians, councillors and local bigwigs are asking to be involved. Who knows, maybe they’ll be useful.

Since 2015 you have been working with refugee communities in France and Greece, initiating numerous collaborations that explore archiving, mapping and media representation of communities, spaces, and the conditions and lives of people who have been forced to leave their countries. Can you please explain how your previous work/experience is connected with this project?

The work began in late 2015 with a series of visits to Calais working as a volunteer, building and repairing shelters. A group of four of us went (Liam Healy, Dom Robson and Robin Blackledge). We were never intending to operate in the space as designers – the idea of looking for practice seemed vulgar. 

Initially I was apprehensive, even scared to go to the place that was called “the jungle” for all kinds of reasons, and as I have mentioned before, I may have accidentally become a racist. There is nothing good about attributing the word racist to yourself. I had never considered myself to be so. I had found myself scared of a context and apprehensive of the people there. People with a burden of constant negative media portrayal and they were specifically from the Middle East. I have never been to Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan or met many people from there. I decided (perhaps conveniently) that the media was to blame for my new found racism. This fear of the “other” or the “media other” is important to discuss. To admit. The constant negative portrayal of entire countries had put something negative in my head, and I was certain I wasn’t the only person it had happened to. The compulsion to explore this experience and these thoughts not just by volunteering but through practice and through intervening slowly crept in.

It began by having ideas of things to do. We began to acknowledge the existence of the space and its precarity through mapping and publishing, sometimes even celebrating the architectures that emerged from nothing in a space the size of a town. Mistakes were made that were only noticed in retrospect. Time plays its part in conversations with speculation. I’m glad I engaged. Some of the early interventions were crude and formed on naive goodwill. Luckily we didn’t hurt or annoy anyone, in fact the opposite was the case, and I’ve learnt a huge amount about the people and the countries they have left. Now this is essentially a series of friendships. We still work, collaborate making short films, songs and poems together and we still talk about home and their families.

Still from the short film Swimming not Sinking by Mohamad Matter and Jimmy Loizeau (2018).

My blaming of the media for my fear provided an agenda, and a way of engaging with people in these situations. I became concerned with the mass media and its representation of refugees, and how through inclusive, collaborative relationships we can begin to create stories and outputs that are a very different form of broadcast to what the news channels show us. It will be a long process that I’m hesitant to label a “project” or attempt to formalise as research.

How it was related to my previous work is a difficult question. I had purposefully moved away from a kind of practice that I’d been doing for many years. I’d had a creative crisis; a complete questioning of the continued production of the work James and I were known for. Our work was all too often placed in media art galleries and I struggled with this context and the work itself. I wanted to do something that was at least meaningful to me. Of course you can’t leave yourself, so some of the approaches and sensitivities crept in.

Over the years, the Critical and Speculative Design conversation has made the genre self-aware to the point that perhaps it takes itself or is taken too seriously.

There is gossip you are currently working on the brief “The great design disco”. Can you share more info about it with us?

It was a subtitle for part of the launch of the Design MA expanded in 2019 and was intended as a metaphor for practice as something fun. The Design Disco – dance and design here is used to describe a levity of practice. The assumption is that design or practice has an obligation to be weighty, serious, logical, done with a furrowed brow. If we cannot play with our discipline then the discipline will struggle to move forward and will instead be colonised by the weighty gravity of lofty, carefully argued research. 

Dance is a form of practice that is not like that. In a disco, you dance, you move, you throw yourself around and you go to sleep. The next day you may regret some of your moves, perhaps most of them. You may however remember a few good ones and attempt to repeat them. If you continue this iterative process, eventually you might move like Madonna or Fred Astaire. You may come together with another person and discuss or further plan your moves. You are making something, you are being a practitioner – more importantly though, it’s fun. Practice is allowed to be, and should at least sometimes be, fun. 

The rationale for this is that a creative, a practitioner, never really stops. It is part of their nature; and to be able to sustain constant practice at least some of it has to be lighter. The contexts and subject matters of Speculative Design are now well established. A seriousness is gradually being superimposed over a style of work that existed initially due to a playfulness with design. Over the years, the Critical and Speculative Design conversation has made the genre self-aware to the point that perhaps it takes itself or is taken too seriously. Playing with design was my dance and I still use some of the moves.

What does the SpeculativeEdu project mean to you?

Speculative Design has drawn a focused criticism, some of it well founded. (Apart from the critique of being predominantly white European male, which was not completely true.) Maybe now it is perceived as having become predictable, formulaic, cliquey and probably deserving a bit of bashing. Perhaps it needed to move, progress, maybe take on the politics of what it was being critiqued for.

For me the SpeculativeEdu project is a platform to attempt to move the term or the discipline forward, to look for and explore new approaches, to move the term “speculation” away from perceived dogmas; to make the argument for reinvigorated speculation. I deeply respect practice, I respect people who do it. Especially those on the non-commercial fringes of it. I like people who attempt new things and this is why I like the SpeculativeEdu project. It feels like it’s moving things along.

SpeculativeEdu is a collection of ideas, approaches or conversations about actions that aim to reclaim or divert design from its hideous role as an essential component of catastrophic capitalism. I love the idea that we might play a small part in that. I like that it’s located outside London. I’m happy to be involved and flattered to be able to have a voice to talk about practice outside the constraints of the commercial design profession. I like being part of a project that promotes and explores fictions of things they want to see or want to talk about. I want to be involved in the understanding and propagation of new approaches to practice and to be part of a progressive, educationally creative community that operates as another voice of design practice.

Autonomous broadcast bike for Calais and Lesbos, Liam Healy, Dom Robson and Jimmy Loizeau (2016).


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