Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thrilling Wonder Stories: Speculative Future for an Alternative Present

Of recently with a lot of time on my hands, contemplating the future (mine and my design career's) is one of the luxuries that my unemployment status entertains. And now that I have jumbled together words like future, design, contemplation, etc with the cunning use of commas, it would be worth elaborating on The Thrilling Wonder Stories ,a symposium co-ordinated by Liam Young (AA INTER 7 / Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today) and Geoff Manaugh (BLDGBLOG). The list of Speakers was:
1) Geoff Manaugh
2) Peter Cook
3) Vicktor Antonov
4) Squint Opera
5) Ian Macleod
6) Nic Clear
7) Jim Rossignol
8) Warren Ellis
9) Francois Roche and Stephanie Lavaux
Consisting of collection of presentations, interviews and group discussions chaired by Geoff Manaugh of the BLDGBLOG. I had the opportunity to see the first 6 speakers talk on the relationship between the built environment, architectural design and speculating the future through the medium of images, movies, gaming environments and literature.

(seminar poster from the AA website)
Geoff Manaugh with his extremely fertile mental archive of things big and small, of cities, images, translucent concrete, living glass, interview with Lebbeus Woods, Science Fiction of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, √Čtienne-Louis Boull√©e's Cenotaph for Newton to SMLXL was able to vividly lay foundations for the intent and direction the discussions of the day would assume. His pitching the idea to a predominantly architectural audience as need for Architecture (which as a field strategically positions the architectural community to dwell within mixed careers) to mutate through the recession and create alternative careers, according to me was a very encouraging start.

(image from Design Museum website, Archigram section. The image was done by Ron Heron)
There could have been no better person to talk after such a talk than Peter Cook, the pioneering spirit of Utopian futurism within Archigram. Having heard his talk before, most of his presentation sounded vaguely similar, with borrowings of personal experiences, Avante Garde Radicalism and last but not the least Gossip. But he made one very interesting point, he said "the architectural profession has a moral responsibility of provocation, pushing the boundaries of our field and if it isn’t that, we can all just leave it to the computers and go home to do something more rewarding". Here what interested me is not the provocation and radicalism part but the possibility of leaving everything to the computers. I remember few days back when my friend Kostas was talking about a Utopia where what would it be if we could leave everything to the machines and could there be a society that did not NEED to work but CHOSE to work (or not) in what interests the 'spirit' (?). Peter Cook's advocacy for radicalism though encourages experimentation, it also tends to ascertain radicalism as having an aesthetic rather than a theory, and by complete coincidence it seems to be along the lines of Archigram.

(one of the stills from the animation Renaissance, from Vicktor Antonov's website)
Vicktor Antonov's ideas of designing Fantastic Capitals of Urban utopias, their representation through different styles of renderings and infusing the geometry of design with layers of multiple subjective perceptions was quite interesting. His intention to capture the spirit/rhythm of a city through renderings that do not actually correspond to a particular city geography or do not hint any urban landmark but just get the image of the city, was also quite an interesting exercise. Inspite of him coming from a background of graphic design and gaming, he made points that were clear, precise and extremely structured. He explained his methodologies for speculating future utopian geographies as adding "What if..." within the historical narratives of the past, present or somewhere in the future, (with some interesting examples provided by Geoff with regards to mutational moments in time or material revolutions) that allowed one to imagine multiple parallel strands of realities...what if the Romans had structural steel? opening up whole new possibilities to envision Roman Architecture and its implications on the present. His examples of his ongoing animation project The Prodigies and already released movie The Renaissance are something that I would like to follow up on when I do get an opportunity.

(Book cover of Song of Time authored by Ian Macleod for which he received the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2009, sourced from his website)
The next speaker Ian Macleod's talk on the difficulty of writing about the future and science fiction today was the point in the seminar when the conclusions actually started forming a more comprehensive and realistic structure. He said the utopian spirit of the past allowed for writers to write and readers to 'buy' into ideas of cheap space travel, cure for diseases, eradication of poverty and mankind finally having solved the energy crisis and settled in a state of equilibrium with nature, but the future has become the present and now we see most of the predictions have not been met, this is a future that readers don’t buy into today. His exercise of writing science fiction with kids proved that most future predictions were dystopian Ballardian visions. But none the less he did take efforts to end his talk on a positive note as he read a text written by student which ended with..."But the moon is not that far away..."
Nic Clear who teaches at the Bartlett, (this is when I realised the difference between the undergraduate and post graduate programmes) according to me was an absolute star in the seminar. He was the one who actually anchored the future speculations into the present by talking about the methods of production of spaces and how architects today have rather aggressively embraced capitalism. He spoke about the architect's future being completely utopian not as a matter of belief but more out of a need to sell. On the other hand the writer's speculations of the future tend to balance between being utopian and dystopian, like J G Ballard's writings (here is a very good interview with Nic Clear by Ballardian).
Squint Opera who came after Nic Clear being an agency that works towards making happy-pink renders exquisitely done for the architect and his clients, turned into one such example of what Nic warned about! And their defence seemed to be "it depends where you look"...
The seminar was inspiring and very well co-ordinated, it encouraged people to think and formulate their ideas for "What if" interventions within design (a field that has no boundaries and can flow through different disciplines assuming different forms of media)...and it just might be that even in these difficult times, we can say to ourselves "the moon is not that far away"...

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