Interview: Markéta Dolejšová

March 19, 2019

Speculative Design practitioners – Markéta Dolejšová: Our aim is to shift the “Bohemian Speculative Design” from its current non-quite-yet state towards a real thing.

Markéta is a design researcher exploring social and ethical implications of digital technology in everyday-life contexts, with a specific interest in food and health issues. Her research combines the approaches of Speculative and Participatory Design, which involves co-designing provocative artifacts together with citizens to generate knowledge about the growing datification of everyday food-health practices. A majority of her work takes the form of workshop-like experiences and performative situations which she documents using qualitative ethnographic methods. She wrote her dissertation, “Edible Speculations: Designing for Human-Food Interaction”, at the National University of Singapore. Currently based in the Czech Republic as a postdoctoral research fellow, she is experimenting with the possibilities of Speculative and Critical Design methods in the development of post-industrial smart cities in Northern Bohemia. She runs her own Speculative Design practice as MaTerie and collaborates with enthusiastic design thinkers and practitioners from around the world.

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

Frankly, Speculative Design was never a core part of my formal education, and none of my alma maters had SD in their official curriculum. In the Czech Republic, where I did my BA and MA, Speculative Design is not a well-known discipline. Even in 2019, local academic design is still mostly about making aesthetically pleasing objects and various techno-solutions. While the gap in the Czech design landscape might sound frustrating, it is also a good playground for us to explore and fill with content. A few months ago, we founded a small collective of Czecho-Slovak designers, artists, theorists, and curators called Alt.Tab, trying to map SD-like activities in the region and find out in which disciplinary drawers are they hiding. Through workshops, field trips, discussions, and various experimental activities our aim is to shift the “Bohemian Speculative Design” from its current non-quite-yet state towards a real thing.

At the National University of Singapore, where I completed my Ph.D. probing the possible uses of participatory SD in the food studies context, the situation was not much different. I don’t think there was someone else doing SD at the department during my studies, except for my advisor who unfortunately had to leave shortly after I started. I became a sort of hermit-like figure, but I really cannot complain about it. The need to find resources and collaborators elsewhere pushed me to become a Ph.D. hitchhiker wandering through speculative galaxies all around, stopping and camping in various formal as well as independent venues to do my research. My fieldwork took place in hackerspaces, community gardens, farmer’s markets, and street corners in South-East Asia, Eastern Europe, Australia, North America … this hitchhiking attitude very much influenced my understanding of SD, which I see as a participatory practice that should be open to inputs from diverse publics. I like Laurie Anderson’s quote: “Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories”. To me, SD is a form of a campfire, where people of various social and professional backgrounds share all sorts of stories and critical reflections of the everyday world.

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

I generally like participatory and performative speculations that are playful and easily accessible for broader audiences. One of my favourite projects is Kristina Andersen’s Magic Machines workshop series, where participants co-designed prototypes of imaginary technologies from DIY materials. The goal here was to create simple low-tech prototypes with imaginary “magic” functions and speculate what would the world be like if these Machines and their functions were real. At one such workshop, elderly participants crafted “seriously silly” Magic Machines to express their problems and anxieties they experience when communicating with the local city council. One person made a “plastic cup blinder” – a body prosthesis made of two plastic cups and a string designed to curtail hearing and sight abilities of council clerks. The point was to make the clerks “hear and see like the elderly” and increase their empathy with old people. I thought that was a really handy and honest use of SD. I really enjoyed the GoatMan project by Thomas Thwaites, where he built a DIY goat exoskeleton and spent some time roaming around mountain meadows in a goat herd, while pursuing his research goals. This makes really good sense to me – I think it would generally be quite healthy for designers to venture out of their studios and get some fresh air.

Food Tarot

Some favourite examples from my own recent SD work include the Extreme Biopolitical Bistro, where we perform various future food enactments such as a Nutrigenomic Dinner with menus tailored to diners’ DNA or a Turing Foodies Banquet where dishes are designed by algorithms. We also run workshops on DIY electrolicable candies and experiment with chewing sensors to translate our chews into blockchain transactions and quantify our guiltiness of eating ethically-heavy food. Our goal with the Bistro is to taste, digest, and make sense of various biopolitical issues around emerging data-driven food practices. I also like our recent Food Tarot project, a performative SD oracle where people discuss possible food futures as Tarot prophecies and create data-driven diet scenarios.

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

I would provide some examples from my SD practice, since using my own embodied experience is the easiest way for me to discuss pros and limitations of any creative practice. Sure, there is a whole spectrum of viable practical applications of SD these days, including corporate design contexts and the use of SD as a fancy brainstorming tool; criticool art gallery installations; lab- and studio-based inquiries … these might be great, but I wouldn’t know much about it. So I would highlight the “practicalities” of the in-the-wild speculations that form my own research practice. I have had the privilege to work with amazing SD practitioners of various backgrounds; including scientists, artists, design researchers, biohackers, fermentation geeks, kids, hipsters, homeless chefs … I think everyone can find some sense in practicing SD, it just depends on what you want to achieve. I am sure SD can help you make $ or build an academic career, same as it can help you understand the world and build meaningful connections with other species – including colleagues, fellow citizens, magic creatures, or goats. SD is a really versatile tool.

A good SD sensitively combines the elements of provocation and practicality; criticality and participation; aesthetic spectacularity and social involvement.

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

Sharing stories, cooking and digesting fantastic things, experimenting, playing with reality and fooling in and around it, camping … But seriously, SD is such an important method to provoke reflective activities in public contexts as well as meaningful interdisciplinary collaborations. I recently relocated back home, to the Czech Republic, and started a small postdoc at the local Jan Evangelista Purkyně University. I am there to help advance a Smart City project bringing together sociologists, geographers, designers, and economists around the topic of smart life in (post)industrial North Bohemian regions. However, everybody there in the smart interdisciplinary team speaks a different language, and things often get lost in translation. My role now is to run workshops to help overcome this issue and support the shift of the ideal of interdisciplinarity into actual practice. Using SD props and provocations at the workshops has so far helped to do the thing: prototyping various scenarios of what smart city means to each of us has helped to build the bridge between our distinct disciplinary micro-worlds and nomenclatures. As for the metrics – I am not sure that there are some general criteria to define a successful SD, but to me personally, a good SD sensitively combines the elements of provocation and practicality; criticality and participation; aesthetic spectacularity and social involvement.


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