Pecha Kucha at CSM's Narrative Environments.

I went and said some words for the MA grads and friends at a Pecha Kucha event at Central Saint Martins a few weeks back. I've got the video here and decided since it was a short one and the sound is a bit on and off that I would write those words - or a resemblance of them - for you to read.

World building is essentially one of the first things you start doing as a child. Constructing fantasies and fictions - playing - is a way of reconfiguring the social rules around you to understand how people and interactions work and helps in constructing a vision of the world. As a kid I played Sim City religiously as probably the earliest outpouring of my love of world building.

All my projects involve some sort of constructed world. I'm not doing this for pure fantasy, like some films or novels, but because it creates a psychological playground where you can manage and frame difficult ideas to lend them a clearer perspective. Suspending disbelief allows people to engage more wholesomely with reality in some ways.

Good stories and fictions are always informed by reality. They're not just plucked out of thin air but are reflections and focused pathways into the world around us. By building a world to put complex ideas in, you can reshuffle them and make the more readable.

This is kind of how I see reality. There's a lot of things that are really happening that are often obfuscated or confused by the complexities of the world. It's hard to figure out, to an outsider, what's important and how it relates to other things.

Building a fictional world to place these things in allows you to become an editor of reality. You can amplify previously unnoticed things and remove a lot of the 'mess.' You have to be careful not to go to far. Your world must be believable, if improbable. If the world you've built is impossible then it's easy to dismiss and if it's too real, then it's hard to engage with properly.

You must also be very careful of 'topias. Both utopias and dystopias are fundamentally nefarious and misleading. They always have an agenda attached which tends to be leading people coming to them down a set chain of thought or belief. They exist together as a carrot and a stick.

Utopia, the carrot, is the unachievable dream. The promise of advertising and fantasies that are used to distract and sell impossible ideas. It's used to seduce and to sell.

Dystopia, the stick, is used as a constant threat of reprimand. The way things will be if you don't do x. It's used to opress, terrify and decieve.

The sweet-spot is the uncanny normal. A world that is recognisable and understandable, that we can relate to easily but where the rules are just slightly different. Where something has been changed. The familiarity drives the imagination into asking questions about what might have lead to these changes - the right kind of questions.

World building precedents were largely established in the seventies. Where two approaches were recognised.

JRR Tolkein is one of the finest examples of a 'top-down' approach to world building. Before he'd written a word of the Middle Earth saga, he constructed the history, the mythology, songs, language, arts, culture and history. He drew maps, family trees and designs for objects. Through this intricate universe he threaded the stories and it's through these that the universe is revealed.

Mervyn Peake is one of my favourite examples of a 'bottom-up' approach. The Gormenghast trilogy is allegorical and limited. We're presented a handful of characters in, mostly, one setting and from that we ourselves extrapolate the world out from the relationships, interactions and histories of this limited cast.

This, in design, is often referred to as diegetic prototyping. This involves the use of objects that clearly aren't from 'our' world. People are then invited to expand the world outwards and ask questions about the kind of world where this type of object exists.

Stanley Kubrick is a great example of the use of diegetic prototypes. He invented the iPad in 1964 for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Through a handful of characters and the objects and routines on one ship-setting, we can build an image of the kind of wider universe that Kubrick envisioned.

Recently I've started to write an allegorical fiction for a new project. This story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and I've considered it a fable. I want to provide a microcosm where the story itself is the diegetic prototype but one of our world, just seen through a slightly more compressed view.

This allows us to see a lot of those complex and hidden interactions and ideologies better. At a place or space where all the rules and ideals are compressed, it's easier to handle, see and manage the whole.

In the past I've worked at a lot larger scale. This timeline was part of a sprawling project around the history of power. I worked up a timeline that was a mix of real history and projected future. Combining the two to show their influence over each other and how through hindsight we can start to see why things have happened a certain way.

And this allows you to challenge the major consensus narrative, the accepted version of events.

Weeknotes 13; The monthnotes edition

Dirigible future fantasies

Balloons, balloons, balloons
Following on from my previous post about balloons I've begun a collection of them. I'm particularly interested in their symbolic rather than practical use. How they seem to be a new (or perhaps ancient) form of aspirational object. If you have any links to the dirigible darlings being used to sell a product or service then hook me up.

Also in relavantly bleak news, North Korea has promised to shoot down any balloons it sees. The dictatorship feels that the propaganda they gently waft over the border poses a threat to regime stability. Nasty, subversive balloons.

James Bridle also shared some words about a more practical interpretation of balloons and his work with them at Fabrica recently. Check it out. 

The other weekend was punctuated with both an extremely painful game of rounders and a day in Hackney for the Stacktivism unconference. There's still a lot to be digested here. A wide range of people were assembled looking at different layers of things generally circulating the idea of the stack/Stack/stacks but what ultimately perhaps came out of it was an interesting dialectic between optimists and pessimists/realists. Ultimately it was a great gathering of folk and there were some great talks from Paul Graham Raven, The Department of No and Georgina Voss for instance, but what they mean together and whether we're any closer to understanding what it's all about/for remains to be seen.

I refer you to Metahaven's interview The Cloud, The State and The Stack.

The 'boat project' is going back on exhibition in September at a show in Dortmund called Requiem for A Bank. I'm not sure on a lot of the other artists but the Department of No will be there also. Hopefully there'll be some stuff out there soon. I've also decided to go back to render school with a lot of it. Amazing to think how much my abilities with 3D have accelerated since then. 

Into Your Hands They Are Delivered
Done, shipped, packed off. The website's built and will probably go live in the next week or so. I'm heading out on Friday to start set up and then there'll be some exciting and dramatic photographs on this very website. Woot.

SKIP Summer School
The beginning of last week was spent giving a lecture and taking part in a panel as part of the SKIP summer school between Kingston, the Royal College of Art and University of the Arts London. I wasn't there for it's entirety but there were a lot of great conversations including stuff around situating critical design in the design world as an agonist element which I found to be quite provocative. So much so that I'm considering removing 'artist and' form 'artist and designer' in my title. Reflections on this welcome.

Improving Reality - Sept 5th
I'm genuinely excited to be talking at Improving Reality on the 5th of September in Brighton. Some of the other folk are people I look up to a huge amount and it's a genuine privilege. It's also a really dazzling lineup of people. Check it out.

More soon hopefully...

Forever Robot

The word 'robot' was coined in 1920 by Czech writer Karel ńĆapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). The word figuratively means 'hard work' or 'labour' in Czech and he coined it to describe artificial people that performed menial labour in the play. Of course the concept of an automated humanoid predates the name by perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of years but this is the same word we still use today to describe the tens of thousands of automata that permeate culture both real and irreal.

I invite you to consider the backbone of the 'robot' - the quest for the artificial human. This has remained unchanged since Eric (left) debuted in 1928 and even before. It has been continued up to the present and future incarnations of Honda's omnipresent Asimo. Over 90 years of pursuing the same technological goal - a humanoid robot. And for what prize? We all know they're falling into the uncanny valley and no matter what AI says, we won't want them in our homes. It's not as if this is even terra incognita. The critical debate of humanoid robots spans through endless cultural incarnations, with much the same result: Off the top of my head Star Trek, Blade Runner, Real Humans, Ghost In The Shell, the aforementioned AI, Isaac Asimov, I, Robot, the Alien franchise, S1MONE, RoboCop, Not Quite Human, Terminator not to mention the miasma of novels. Even robot naming seems to crash headlong into cliches, providing ground for some sort of robots of fact or fiction quiz - the Care-O-Bot with a name straight out of the Jetsons for instance.

Most other technologies seem to get torn up, critiqued, branded, rebranded, rebranded and then either doomed to obsolescence or just stripped of all useful advances and turned into something else. Take the spaceship:

The name has kind of stuck and that's good. This is because like 'robot' it describes a purpose rather than describing the object itself. A spaceship is a ship for space, whatever form that is while a compact disc, for instance, can only be one form. But it's not like there's one categoric reality of what a spaceship is. The child in the imagination is drawn to the Tin-Tin style; all pointed tail fins and shiny red, more cadillac than zero gravity craft. Failing that you could probably say that the space shuttle fills a cultural gap, but now that's been mothballed with no viable successor. Besides which it was never really for space flight so much as a trip to the shops in astro terms. Ok, so maybe the Millenium Falcon? Yeah maybe, but most women I know hate Star Wars and the idea of a spaceship is at best some phallic and inexplicably moving tower which I would call a rocket. Say 'robot' and I bet we all draw the same picture.

The spaceship suffers from obvious problems though. While the imagination for spaceships is vast, probably vaster than robots in fact. The criteria for their construction is somewhat... limited. Essentially they have to perform a very difficult task and no matter how much we might lust after falcons, the phallic objects are the only thing we can muster that actually does the job. There's probably only a few dozen actual working spaceships.

The same is not true of robots. The constraints are pretty much minimal, they could be as varied as life on earth but at the same time have none of the demand for life's foibles; heat, light, air, water, shelter etc. There are already thousands of robots operating in the world. Maybe not the human type, but in the broadest terms something that can make decisions and move itself. The imagination struggles to deal with such a vast definition and such a multiplicity of outcomes that perhaps we just default to the humanoid as the marker at the center of the theater of robots.

Perhaps that's why we're still pursuing humanoid robots. The road is so smooth, so wide and limitless to a robotic future that there's been no need to pause and rebrand so far.