Reconstrained Futures: SpeculativeEdu Exhibition at BIO 26

November 5, 2019

SpeculativeEdu exhibition at the 26th Biennial of Design in Ljubljana showing projects developed in an educational context.

The recent BBC serial Years and Years follows a turbulent path 15 years into the future of Britain through the eyes of one family. In the first episode, Daniel, one of the main characters, talks in a monologue about how we have lost faith in the future.

Years and Years, Russell T Davies, BBC and HBO, 2019

Our time period, the so-called Anthropocene (or Capitalocene), also referred to using terms like “New Normal”, “Postnormal” or “Hypernormalisation”, is marked by increased uncertainty at all levels – for individuals, society and the planet. As we witness the “slow cancellation of the future”, our future imaginaries are being colonised by the dominant economic model of capitalism. It is a time in which we have lost our ability to imagine alternatives. The world as we know it is disappearing, together with our faith in what is possible, probable, and desirable. The dominance of dystopian scenarios, themselves a reflection of the “Netflixisation” of the future, is a result of the dominance of dystopian art and media and the demands of consumer society in the second decade of the 21st century, which leads to the issue of projecting expectations of the future back onto the reality of the present. Projections of desired futures directly impact the present, creating a sort of “temporal loop” that blocks the possibility of radical improvement. The present to which dystopian futures refer very often generates those same dystopian futures. Trapped in such a “temporal loop”, we struggle to create the alternative positive visions of the future that we so badly need today. Instead of multiple possibilities and different paths, we often seem to have only a single narrow future.

“Netflixisation” of the Future / “temporal loop”, Oleg Šuran, Ivica Mitrović, 2018

Design, as the wheel of modernism, has itself participated in bringing about the current period and opening us up to extreme catastrophic scenarios in the near future – more so than ever before in human history.  In reaction, Speculative Design has brought forward a different approach, questioning the dominant socio-economic model and the role of design in such a context, as shown by some of its practitioners:

The Basel, Switzerland-based practitioners circumflex.studio provide a very clear definition of what Speculative Design means in their own work (just as many other practitioners also define their own sense of the term). They state: “Speculative Design should be an informed projection that brings into question the reality we ground this projection on. Informed means that it’s not about making up just any alternative future, present or past but grounding this speculation in prior knowledge, emerging tendencies, existing technologies, and human behaviours. Through creating an alternative reading—set in the future, present or past—the predominant reality is put into question and inherent biases are revealed. This is our very ideal understanding of Speculative Design.”

In the twenty years of its existence, from its emergence as English Critical Design, which was created in an educational environment as a reflection of the mainstream market and technologically oriented design practice, speculative practice has become a “school” or “method” or even a “trend”, and has been criticised for its “universal solutions” and the “privileged” position it inhabits in some of the major centres of the Western world. However, speculative practice is still being developed, and discussions about its role, methods and metrics are ongoing. That is why it seems important in the present moment to take a fresh look at the practice and its role in design education.

The social (and media) context in which Speculative Design exists today is a context in which disasters are considered unavoidable. The predominant tendency “to read the potential of ‘salvation’ into disaster is questionable in many respects”. Speculative designers act within local contexts, working from the bottom up, trying to initiate small changes, to generate hope for a different future than the dystopian one that seems the most likely. Their role is mostly reduced to a catalyst role in spontaneously organised social practices, but without the possibility of wider structural social change. However, there is still a great number of different imaginaries and there is still hope to continue developing new future narratives. The Reconstrained Design Group published a manifesto with the intention of challenging the current trend towards narrowing design discourse, instead seeking to overcome the limitations of design thinking and practice. Today the fundamental challenge of Speculative Design, particularly in the field of education, is how to build a successful process that adopts a critical approach in order to facilitate a shift from traditional design practice to generating action in the real world.

This exhibition will present projects developed in an educational context, from the projects developed through the Interakcije platform to the projects developed at (or reflecting on) SpeculativeEdu events in Maribor and Rome.

To reflect some of these issues, the SpeculativeEdu project, funded by the European Union’s ERASMUS+ programme, has been initiated with the aim of strengthening Speculative Design education. This exhibition will present nine projects developed in an educational context, from the projects developed through the Interakcije platform at the Arts Academy in Split, where the SpeculativeEdu project was initiated and built on a solid foundation of educational, research and practical experience, to the projects developed at (or reflecting on) SpeculativeEdu events, including workshops in Maribor and Rome.

Museum of Native Dishes and Splitska dica were created at the workshop Interakcije 2018 in Split, dealing with “life after disaster” (in the local context). Museum of Native Dishes represents a dystopian scenario of the future in which climate disasters have led to the disappearance of traditional cuisines, so that traditional dishes and ingredients are available only in the so-called Museum of Native Dishes. Splitska dica (Children of Split) deals with a scenario of the future in which climate change has brought about a prolongation of the tourist season. This prolongation additionally aggravates the present-day issue of a lack of residential space due to “apartmentisation”, which affects the student population. The project offers models of student self-organisation aimed at achieving the students’ rights to accommodation, i.e. their right to a place in the future. Although from viewing these projects it might seem that it is easier to begin a new life or a new, different and more just social system from scratch after a disaster than to initiate the required drastic structural changes here and now, Splitska dica is primarily focused on the present – that is it tries to reflect and generate action in the present, in order to directly impact the future.

Fjaka (Let’s Party – DIY Politics), group work, Interakcije, 2016

Fjaka (Let’s Party – DIY Politics) is similarly focused on present-day reality. The work was created at Interakcije 2016. Participants designed their own DIY political party, and through the workshop process and a satirical approach familiarised themselves with the methods, techniques and language employed by political parties in their communication with citizens, aimed at critically reflecting on our personal understanding of politics.

The Future Is Unwritten was created at the Arts Academy in Split, through individual single-semester projects at the masters level. It is primarily oriented towards the present, and in the context of the brief—which focused on alternative (non-technological) presents—it deals with textiles and materials, and the meaning of clothes in the transfer of local traditions. In collaboration with local craftspeople, the project offers concrete artefacts of the future (present) that communicate coded messages and knowledge to future generations. The Future Is Unwritten has achieved the goals of shifting from the market role of design to critical practice; through the educational process, a number of methods and tools have been adopted that can be used to raise awareness and open discussion. It eventually achieved a certain (social) action in the real world, although still at the level of creators/designers/associates, i.e. within the context of the work itself. However, the project offered concrete techniques and instructions for action that could shape scenarios of the future in the local context.

The Future Is Unwritten, Alejandra Robles Sosa, Interakcije, 2019

AAA (Amazon Actively Aging)/Maribor+ is a project created at the Future Friends workshop as part of a SpeculativeEdu event in Maribor. The brief of the workshop referred to the design of a new social system of the near future, i.e. a reflection of global “disasters” in the local context. Although it began as a utopian scenario of the City of Maribor of the future, a city safe and pleasant for growing old, its future was determined by global corporate futures and local migration, and it ended up as a dystopian scenario. Even in the dystopian scenario, however, the local community found a way to hack the complex system and open it up to hope for a different future. Alternative Friends was created at the same Future Friends workshop. Participants wrote two speculative episodes of the popular 90s sitcom Friends. Projects employed the popular entertainment format as a way to rethink the complexities of future technologies. Using a “situated speculation” approach, participants from all over the globe produced two storylines in order to give an alternative voice to many of the speculative futures that circulate in the technology and design press and used this format to bring comedic dialogue to the dystopian views of our nihilistic futures.

Arjeplog (Gemenkap) is a speculative scenario from the SpeculativeEdu NeoRural Futures workshop in Rome, which focused on a brief about co-living neo-rural futures (characterised by mass migration and climate change) in a small village in northern Sweden. The new social values of this utopian post-capitalist society are based on the traditional rural wisdom and sharing culture linked to urban technological innovation. The bunkers (as the infrastructure of the former system) were transformed into a large, sophisticated dwelling built both under and above ground in order to respect, restore and renew the ecosystem. Bio-domes were constructed for biodiversity preservation, also serving as farming pods for growing food. They are an experimental ecolab hub for plant research which includes advances in plant cognition and behaviour.

Arjeplog (Gemenkap), group work, SpeculativeEdu NeoRural Futures, Rome, 2019

The last two projects share a common intention to reflect (on) a Speculative Design approach and the role of the (speculative) designer today. Including these works in the exhibition helps us to additionally reflect on the practice itself, especially in the educational context. The We Did Something for Africa project, also from the SpeculativeEdu NeoRural Futures workshop, focused on a brief situated in the small village of Lushoto in Tanzania. The brief (and process) introduced a number of questions that focused on the speculative practice itself, which were embodied in the self-reflexive project as it attempted to address current criticisms. The discussion is embodied in the satirical representation of uncritical and constrained approaches in speculative practice, which are unfortunately still common. The_Designer.TMP is a project about the shifting role of the designer in today’s world. It presents a semi-fictional script about the role of the designer in a changing world, realised as a soundscape. The discursive part was based on points raised during the SpeculativeEdu Future Friends discussion in Maribor about the state of Speculative Design.

We Did Something for Africa, group work, SpeculativeEdu NeoRural Futures, Rome, 2019

Reconstrained Futures: Speculative Design Education

26th Biennial of Design, Ljubljana, Slovenia

14.11.2019 – 9.2.2020

Exhibition curators: Ivica Mitrović and Oleg Šuran

Producer: Institute for Transmedia Design

Projects: Museum of Native Dishes, Splitska dica (Tent Community), Fjaka (Let’s Party – DIY Politics), The Future is Unwritten, AAA (Amazon Actively Aging) / Maribor+, Alternative Friends, Arjeplog Gemenskap, We did something for Africa and The_Designer.TMP

Authors: Marija Banić, Anamarija Buljan, Bruno Dubravec, Dejan Zobenica, Marija Matulić, Neva Zidić, Alejandra Robles Sosa, Sara Poljak, Dora Stupalo, Mate Žaja, Marija Polović, Pina Šegula Seršen, Otto Kušec, Nika Tecilazić, Anja Kepert, Milica Novaković, Jelena Strugar, Helena Tošić, Ana Sutlović, Elin Engström, Adrian Rovina, Miljenko Dujić, Anamaria Buljan, Felicia Nilsson, Lara Benevides Da Silva Fernandes, Heather Griffin, Upendra Vaddadi, Marketa Dolejsova, Joatan Preis Dutra, Jasmina Weiss, Tara Mijalović, Lourdes Rodríguez, Lesley-Ann Daly, Yuxi Liu, James Delaney, Ladipo Famodu, Aliki Tsakoumi, Masafumi Kawachi, Sjef van Gaalen, Susanne Wieland, Katja Roškar, Kristina Kontrec, Rita Trombin, Jennifer Gasser, Su Wu, Giulia Mangoni, Leonardo Gerritse, Eliza Chojnacka, Markel Cormenzana, Sabrina Haas, Elena Hess-Rheingans, James Hillman, Yang Li, Camila Monteiro Pereira and Erik Peters

Supervisors: Demitrios Kargotis, Ted Hunt, Marija Polović, Ivica Mitrović, Oleg Šuran, Jimmy Loizeau, Matt Ward, Dash Macdonald, James Auger, Salvatore Iaconesi, Oriana Persico, Federico Biggio, Alessandra Del Nero, René Put and Jellichje Reijnders

Founded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union.
Supported by Center for Creativity Slovenia and 26th Biennial of Design, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Alternative Friends, group work, SpeculativeEdu Future Friends, Maribor, 2019