Liam Young speaking at Lighthouse's April Monthly Talk (c) Roberta Mataityte
Liam Young speaking at Lighthouse's April Monthly Talk (c) Roberta Mataityte

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24 April 2013

Impressions of Liam Young's talk at Lighthouse on 4 April by Lulu Allison

Liam Young talking with Honor Harger at Lighthouse Monthly Talk April 2013 (c) Roberta Mataityte
Liam Young talking with Honor Harger at Lighthouse Monthly Talk April 2013 (c) Roberta Mataityte

Last week, we held a talk by speculative architect, Liam Young, which acted as the launch of our ‘making the future’ programme focus for the next year. Artist, Lulu Allison, was amongst the audience, and she’s written our guest blog chronicling her impressions of the talk.

She writes:

The phrases Liam Young uses to describe his practice are intriguing enough to make going to his talk at Lighthouse well worth a curious trip. I had no idea what ‘speculative architecture’ and ‘design fiction’ might be but it already sounded like something I wish I could say was MY job. (I’m toying with the idea of trying to get away with it anyway.)

The talk was interesting and gave a great deal to think about, offering new thoughts and ideas as well as some that chimed happily with existing strategies and even better, gave options for expanding them into greater diversity and new shapes.

He began with an explanation of a project that involves a large model of a city, post-oil Dubai, a new old city. The project was being created by architects, designers, writers and artists, modeled in the real and digital world.

Something that Young said made me think about a much-used phrase in one of my statements. Writing artist’s statements can be interesting but it is mostly difficult and faintly embarrassing. Thus when you hit on a way of expressing something that explains without spouting downright nonsense or causing too much cringe, it gets copy-pasted so often that it can become unclear whether it actually means anything. I can’t remember what he said, but my faithful copy-paste sentence it triggered, is a matter of clicks away and goes as follows:

“The built environment provides a way of exploring dreams, mistakes and ideals. I am interested in the way built things hold traces of both human intent and natural entropy, eventually leading to decay and desolation. This study gives me a strategy for exploring the human occupation of the world without needing to narrow the gaze to any individual.”

I was curious about whether this was what was happening for the people involved in the city building project. Whether they were looking at the human without looking at a human. And I was curious about what is the difference and whether, if it is by design that this happens, what is the advantage in excluding the individual. So much of our learning comes from stories and almost always these are told from a particular protagonist’s point of view. Literature can been a great source of learning and inspiration. However, whilst it is wonderfully generous in depicting aspects of all-humanity, it usually remains dependent on the means and ways of very specific characters. Not all kings are as vain as Lear, not all fighter pilots have Yossarian’s baffled, frenetic energy, but both tell us about the whole world. It is a cliche that this is so.

Back to the city. The architecture of the city, an entire city, is an exciting prospect. A city holds many imprints of the mass of our lives. There are movements, strategies, stories, accidents, designs, as well as the quoted intent and entropy. A city specifically being created by a group in order to understand or explore or manifest something – but what? The geography of a city? The stories within that city? One of those speed-filmed views of a busy street came to mind, the entity of human street occupation moving smoothly through gaps, crowds pulsing in cityspace. That view is almost individual, almost admitting the many one humans. But it is the human as a multitude, still not the individual carrier of a specified fictional narrative. The range of practitioners involved in the project seems to leave many outcomes open and the collaboration between the project’s participants, in echoing that ultimate end-game of human collaborative endeavor, the city, must itself be one of the strands that will come into view.

Later in the talk, Liam Young took us through a different geography of the world, a world mapped by data and data held in fields of desert-dwelling, air-conditioned machines. This information has been used to produce new topographies of, for example, islands formed by data relating to fashion item environmental footprints. This is one of the projects at Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today, a think tank run by Young and Darryl Chen. The amount of information, the massive quantity of little things known that can be pieced into a huge amorphous knowledge of everything or nothing suddenly seemed to have the qualities of a swarm. A swarm of something whose sheer size and density makes it frightening, monstrous even, in the way that a human is repelled by many things in a multitude, a response to locusts, small things, anything in a billion cloud.

And yet there is another manifestation of the multitude that is beautiful, almost rapturously so. The flock or school, making new organs of intention within the ever-changing body of movement. Anyone who has watched the starlings here in Brighton, or scuba dived where fish school or noticed the slow expression of space-sharing that happens in a tree canopy knows the heart-catching quality of the multitude in the flock, the multitude that is not a swarm. The bubble of ash, as my daughter once described the starlings.

There is a great difficulty in understanding humankind as a whole, because the scale of behaviors, the range of possibilities is so extreme. Hope for our future is so very easily confounded by observation of our present and past. It is for many of us undesirable, simply wrong, to be a pessimist, for many reasons, and yet the evidence would indicate that the trajectory will continue forever to veer between abject failure and wonderful faltering achievement that can never secure its own legacy. The only response to these extremes is to recognise the absurdity of us. To quote again from the same statement :
“There is a simultaneous frailty and ferocious grip present at the point where we hold on to our place in the universe […] There is a point of banal absurdity that interests me, in the endless imbalance between our grotesque human failures and enchanting victories.”

The link then, is between the extremes of human behaviors, between the flock and the swarm, between these things and the study of the built or architectural environment as a device for looking back at them.

The conversation at the end of talk included the question from Honor Harger, Lighthouse artistic director, as to whether science fiction had lost its way, that perhaps design fiction was better placed at this time to act as format for exploring future possibilities and current-world refracted views.

I would suggest that it is to do with the flock and the swarm, it is to do with the slider that goes from beauty to catastrophe on which we try to locate ourselves. What design fiction offers, is indeed a way of looking at humans as an entity. Perhaps that is a position that is particularly valuable now, because of the new ability of technology to net the swarms of data, the huge monstrous, relentless mass of small squishy infos, enough to choke us, enough with which to build new islands, enough to drown us with the acknowledgement of our devastating impact and casually hefted destructive power. We have to be able to look at this as a whole. We have to find ways of looking at ourselves as a whole, we have to find the narratives of networks, of swarm, the gliding beauty of flocks, the choke of trivial mass.

There will always be individual fictional narrative that triggers within us a frequency that hums the sound of the whole, the collective. However, these narratives may be in relationship to negotiating what has already been done. Design as an act is inherently forward-looking because it takes place before existence, before use. It is hard to imagine taking hope, however it is framed, out of design. It may be a hope for power or control, or a hope for grace and enlightenment. A hope for a good return. Both design fiction and design fact offer us a gantry view of aspects of the whole of us.

Happily, I can go back to my well worn statement with renewed confidence that it does hold value. Even more happily, I find that there is a whole flotilla of unexplored other ideas rafted behind it. I love it when that happens.

Written by Lulu Allison, Brighton, 8 April 2013
Published originally at: luckylulu9000.wordpress


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