Roll up - roll up for the fabulous mystery tour… a reflection by Bruce Snaddon

Andrew Morrison of our Centre for Design Research beckoned, promised and delivered a delightful day filled with speakers promoting multiple takes on what fabulation, design fiction and speculative inquiry can mean to us all. Each speaker was followed with a designated commentator who managed to tease a bit more from the truly varied and, at times encyclopedic proceedings.

Main points of the six Fabulous Seminar speakers:

Einar Martinussen spoke of the role of design as production of (incredibly detailed) spectacle and also very real comment on social issues projected into the future (the familiar made strange) – and the concern that the ‘future may be boring’ as voiced by J.G. Ballard. Einar’s collection of sci-fi genre movies and illustrations by key designers was a very good bookend to what Jérémie McGowan later presented as a need for a history of fiction in design that is more accessible than ‘mere visual theatrics’ in the white cubed spaces used to show examples of speculative design a la Dunne & Raby. Jeremie presented Banham’s use of the Baede-Kar audiotape (in Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles) as a kind of design fiction comparing it with the Wunderkamer ‘cabinet of curiosity’ and its weirdly wonderful factual and fictional juxtapositions.

In between we had Tau Lensjold who took us into the world of the elderly in a project that started with ‘what if?’ The work speculated what value there may be in providing elderly with a means of interacting with birds outside through bird-cams and bird calls. Ironically for a place supposedly interested in the well being of the elderly, when a bird started to react to the attentions of the residents it was removed, most likely to prevent it being a ‘nuisance’ to cleaning staff.

Synne Skjulstad then showed the work of her graphic design students using speculative scenarios for a world dominated by GEORAIN, a company having the monopoly for outrageously priced water from Mars – a visual identity developed revealed a rather conservative brand in a far-fetched scenario. She then drew us to the world of fashion and the question of ethics and aesthetics arose – it would have been useful to pursue this further but time didn’t allow.

Ståhl Stenslie then boldly stepped up with his Body Bio-Fictives and the designing of future affordances (W. Gibson). His presentation added to the growing archive for our history of design fiction with several examples ranging from Stelarc’s third ear implanted in his arm, to the fictive zero gender and its reality in the form of nullo ‘man’.

Laura Watts and her Pixels and Pencils presentation (a non-improvised talk on improvisation as method for writing futures) brought us all into a very reflective mode of considering our roles and reading of marginal landscapes. Her video of the Orkney Islands sliding into foggy view and disappearing again emphasized the notion of ‘frontier’ and its shifting status, and that “seabirds are resistant to transduction into numbers” and baselines. I would have liked her to read her evocative ‘poem’ (with its beautiful shape-shifting words) along with the video perhaps, the elusive island echoing her words, “I am standing in the field, my field, your field”. A generative talk that drew me into and out of my body to respond to new visions and thoughts of what counts as ‘field’, a field of practice, a field of research, a field of dreams and fictive futures? I was also prompted to think of my own research and of frontiers crossed with design students on several journeys into marginal spaces, contested spaces in transition that have been forgotten or been impacted by the anthropocene. Her point about the many different ways of transducing data struck me as being particularly interesting and pertinent to the notion of speculative design being a means of drawing our attention towards future possibilities. A writing of futures in ways that are able to transduce meaning from fictive scenarios into the everyday moments of the present. There’s an interesting hither and thither movement here, a shifting of modalities; present, past and future that is healthy, I feel. This articulated movement is the stuff our brains are tailored for, and I believe that meaning making is the richer for it.

The day ended for me feeling like I’d been in a fast car with my (receeding) hair blown back, and a sense of wanting to squeeze a word in but not being able to due to a very full programme. But maybe its in the nature of a fabulous mystery tour to ride the carousel with a mouthful of popcorn and a desire to do it all again. So here’s to the next one, with more time for comments from the P(eanut)hD gallery!