Interview: Nonhuman Nonsense

March 11, 2019

Speculative Design practitioners – Nonhuman Nonsense: Working in the embryonic stages of system transformation, in the realm of social dreaming and world-making.

Photo: Sara Kollberg

Nonhuman Nonsense is a research-driven design duo working at the intersection of art, science, philosophy and technology, consisting of Leo Fidjeland and Linnea Våglund. They create near-future fictions and experiments, aiming to redirect focus to underlying ethical and political issues, to challenge the power structures that enable and aggravate the current destruction of the (non)human world – allowing other entities to exist. Recent graduates from MA Material Futures at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, their work has been presented at the United Nations, in negotiations on the Convention on Biological Diversity. It has been shown at the Rhode Island School of Design, Dutch Design Week, MU Artspace and the Stockholm BioHackspace among others. Their background and approach is multidisciplinary and experimental, working in between the analytical and emotional – wishing to massage the corpus callosum.

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

We came to the field from opposite directions, Linnea from art and industrial design, and Leo from science and technology. In Speculative Design we found a marvellous mix that felt meaningful and like it could change things not only from within, but challenge the system itself. So we pursued a master’s together where we could practise this approach!

We see our work as an attempt to open the public imaginary of how the world could be different, but not necessarily how it should be. We seek to tell stories that lie somewhere between utopia and dystopia, allowing the complex entanglements of the world to remain complex, very much inspired by Donna Haraway’s thinking of “staying with the trouble”. For us this entails the use of contradictions and paradoxes, a sort of folding the story upon itself, which allows access to the underlying ethical and political issues. We are trying to redirect focus to the “why?”, and reveal the power structures that uphold the current narratives of inevitability – all while there are great forces asking us to forget and look away.

This is not really something that we were trained in, but rather an approach that emerged as a response to our education – where we felt pressured to “pick a side” rather than questioning the structure itself, and to care more about aesthetics and style rather than depth of concept and integrity of rationale.

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

Our favourite of our own projects is the Pink Chicken Project, where we speculate on the use of the cutting edge biotechnology called “gene drive” to modify the colour of all chickens on the planet, which would (surprisingly) change the geological trace of the Anthropocene, making it pink!

One thing that we like is that a pink “gene drive” chicken is entangled in so many issues – it becomes an example of how the world consists of many interlocking systems, all in crisis at the same time, which is what makes it so difficult to find a way forward. This means that we get to speak to many different people with different perspectives, so we learn a lot! Then it’s of course also fun to see the project being used to inform and enable debate, for example in the Anthropocene Working Group, ETC group, Stanford University, or now lately at the United Nations.

Through the project website, we have received more than 100 messages from people all over the world describing why they found the project hopeful, inspiring, intimidating, or distressing. During the last year we have been reaching out to these people, as well as philosophers, activists, writers and global thinkers who are somehow involved in the discourses that the project touches upon. We have been exploring how to take a speculative project beyond just an instigating scenario, using it as a backdrop for an active debate and engagement. We are currently working on a book that will collect this generated thinking and knowledge, further progressing the ethical and political discussions.

Pink Chicken Project

One favorite that is not our own is Pinar Yoldas’ Ecosystem of Excess. By revealing the impossibility of the proper separation of things (natural/unnatural, culture/nature, life/nonlife), she shows the intrinsic link between social and ecological issues. It opens a thinking away from anthropocentrism by imagining life after humankind, without telling you what to think. Considering the deep time implications of our current systems is something that really inspires us; it gives a glimpse of the immense scale of the current human terraforming enterprise, and makes you think about “why and for whom?”.

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

Well, we see ourselves working in the embryonic stages of system transformation, in the realm of social dreaming and world-making. Unlike the use of scenarios in business, military or climate science, our scenarios don’t try to bound uncertainty of the future, but rather unbind certainty of the most probable future. We are trying to enable more people (not just experts and policymakers or wealthy philanthropists), to take part in the discourses of what societies we want, and to create the conditions from which a multitude of actions can arise!

So perhaps from a professional point of view, it becomes a question of finding other people or organizations who value this approach, and who share similar values, of which there are loads!

When we went to the United Nations to present our Pink Chicken Project in the international negotiations on Gene Drives and how they could affect biodiversity, we were overwhelmed with the positivity people expressed towards the speculative approach. Politicians, NGOs, scientists, journalists, activists, lawyers, and even businesses and their lobbyists were so thirsty and thankful for stories that enabled them to talk about ethics and values. There seems to be a gap between what people are trying to say and the tools that the scientific method and its absolute language gives them. We feel like there is a need for people who can operate this in-between space of the rational and the emotional.

Then comes the practical question of figuring out how to collaborate and work together, where you have to get creative because it’s never the same. But we find that if we keep focusing on what we think is interesting and meaningful rather than on what someone else might need or what would make us “employable”, we keep finding opportunities like relevant Open Calls, or people come to us with ideas of how we could work together.

We value if our projects are based (appropriately) on science, but also on critical theory, philosophy and anthropology.

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

In short it’s about helping to change the world and how we relate to it.

But the world is very complex and a single project is always part of a bigger discourse, so we usually put up our umbrella when someone asks about measuring the effects of the speculative approach. Just like art, a project might have a huge impact on how it makes people think and relate to their world around them, which has cascading effects on all levels of society, but is not always measurable in a statistical sense.

Contemporary philosopher Federico Campagna shows how this constant rejection of anything that cannot be expressed in numbers and absolute terms leads to the deep crisis currently frame as the Anthropocene – a crisis that is profoundly metaphysical and spiritual in nature.

But at the same time, we are not advocating throwing our hands up and saying “it’s totally immeasurable!”. Some projects evidently seem to be more effective in creating new thinking or touching people in some way. We value if our projects:

  1. Instill a sense of opening and curiosity that allows people to explore and consider their position from different perspectives without having to identify strongly or attach themselves to views and opinions. The opposite of this would be working with shame or guilt or cynicism.
  2. Are multi-layered and allow for complexity, but at the same time accessible and simple (but not simplistic). If it gives you a direct response on first encounter but keeps giving a year later. The opposite would be overly simplifying by taking to dystopia, inevitability, or naive escapism.
  3. Are based (appropriately) on science, but also on critical theory, philosophy and anthropology. If the work builds upon the thinking of others, and contributes with something beyond theory, if it is a bridge between theory and practise. The opposite would be when the designer solely grounds the project in their own views or ideas about why things are like they are.

But these metrics don’t really guide us through a design process, it’s rather something that comes in the reflection after. While in the creative process we follow that which feels interesting, catches our attention or feels funny somehow – continually asking ourselves “why do we feel this?”


Pink Chicken Project

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