Interview: Time’s Up – Laboratory for the Construction of Experimental Situations

February 22, 2019

A series of interviews with Speculative Design practitioners: Time’s Up, Austria.

Founded in 1996, Time’s Up has its principal locus in the industrial harbour of Linz, Austria. Its mission is to investigate the ways in which people interact with and explore their physical surroundings as a complete context, discovering, learning and communicating as they do. Time’s Up’s research is based upon constructing interactive situations not unlike the normal physical world, inviting an audience into them and encouraging their playful experience-driven exploration of the space and its behaviours, alone and in groups. They use tools from the arts and design, mathematics, science and technology as well as sociology and cultural studies. Time’s Up seeks to collaboratively investigate the world and its possibilities with a general public, communicating and discussing these discoveries through workshops, publications, teaching and symposia.

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

On a superficial level, not at all. We come from visual design, printing, sociology, metalwork, mathematics, music and sculptural backgrounds. Just to name a few. No real design, speculation, trend forecasting or anything else. We have learned a number of handicrafts in the process of developing the work that we do, developing them in the process.

However as our practice has developed, we find that these skills, seen from the proper angle, are vitally important. For instance research mathematics is not about solving a “problem” so much as finding out “what happens if?” and this is often an important part of the process of imagining possible futures. Instead of looking at algebraic axioms and their interrelations, we are looking at social, political, economic, environmental and technological trends, developing ideas of what might happen within those transformed interrelations.

Then when we build an experiential future, we have found that sketchiness and handwaving is counterproductive. In order to create immersive experiences, groups such as ourselves or Punchdrunk have observed that we cannot just have something that is “good enough” but every detail that we build must be seamless. Questions and discussions around effectivity and efficiency, about “good enough” and the 80-20 rule arise here, discussions that would lead us astray at the moment. Skills from print and sculptural processes, as well as audio design, are about attention to detail. The scenarios need to be developed in detail where developed, and built as immersive experiences. Of course we do not create the whole world: we consciously leave large gaps, a “Mut zur Luecke” (courage for the gap) that encourages visitors to imagine and expand their perceptions and reminds visitors that we are only proposing a possible version of a possible future, not a blueprint.

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

We would have to speak about our latest series, based around a fictional small city called Turnton. We started with a foresight practice, Causal Layered Analysis by Sohail Inayatullah, based upon questions around the future of luxury and relations to oceans and ecosystem collapse. We then developed details of the storyworld, characters and institutions, imaginations of narratives and motivations, then objects and façades for the creation of an experiential future. We aim to tick the storyworld boxes of ethos, topos and pathos as tests for design coherence. By the time we exhibited in September 2017, over 100 people had contributed, whether as writers or builders, actors or textile designers. This underlined the fact that, in the same way that the future is not a given but is created by us all, acting together, the speculative culture experiential future of Turnton Docklands was not the product of an artistic director and design specialist, but a wide group of people bringing their expertise and enthusiasm together in order to imagine the possibilities and probabilities of that scenario.

How can we try to make the future more like the utopia we would like to live in? Speculative Design can help us do this.

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

People are debating whether or not we are living in a period of extreme change. There is much evidence to suggest that we are, however when one looks back, it seems that many other periods in recent and distant history thought the same about their own eras. So perhaps we all live in a time of extreme change, or perhaps we all always have.

Speculative Design is a collection of tools and practices with which we can be empowered to think about how we live in times of change. If this happens, what might our efforts mean? Where do we want to be? What is our preferred future? How can we steer our life path to better fit the future we want to be in? As China Mieville has said, we live in a utopia, it is simply not ours. How can we try to make the future more like the utopia we would like to live in? Speculative Design can help us do this.

In your opinion, what is the purpose of Speculative Design? Can you suggest a few key metrics for evaluating the success of a project?

Surprise: If a project and some results lead to something that you expected, then you probably haven’t dived in deep enough. As Jim Dator says, any useful idea about the futures should appear to be ridiculous.

Everyday: If a scenario talks about superheroes and explorers, and you are not one of these types, then the scenario is probably not relevant for you. We aim to break down speculations about possible futures to the effects that will be found in everyday life: not the lives of the super rich, but of you and us in our everyday towns and cities.

Experience: We find that creating an experience of a scenario is more valuable than a description. A narrative can be an abstracted experience of that scenario. By creating experiences one goes from an approximation of objectivity to involvement, from an idea to relevance.

Turnton Docklands, Photo by Elisa Unger

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