by STIRworldJul 31, 2023
Liam Young is an Australian-born designer, and BAFTA-nominated producer who operates in the space between design, fiction and futures. His films Planet City and The Great Endeavor are both extraordinary images of tomorrow and urgent examinations of the environmental questions facing us today. As a worldbuilder, his visionary films speculate on cities, spaces, and props of our imaginary futures.
Liam Young: Planetary Redesign is his first major solo exhibition in Australia, at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Through an immersive display of moving image works, photography, and costumes made in collaboration with Ane Crabtree (The Handmaid’s Tale), Young proposes thought-provoking redesigns of our planet that offer a radically optimistic solution to the climate crisis. The exhibition includes the Australian premiere of Young’s latest moving image work, The Great Endeavor, which presents an alternative future where humankind unites to reverse our carbon footprint. Also on display is Planet City, an animated short film that portrays the design of a new city housing the whole human population. Young’s work is determined to showcase striking visions of tomorrow as a way of examining the urgent environmental questions confronting us today.
In a conversation with STIR, Young tells us a little more about the substantial reasoning and technological advancements underpinning his creative work.
Keziah Vikranth: Tell us a little bit about how you got into doing work in cross-disciplinary media after being trained as an architect.
Liam Young: I really believe that architecture is the craft of making and telling stories with space. A lot of the skills of an architect can be translated into a whole range of different mediums, like film, performance, virtual reality and immersive media. I started out as a traditional architect, but I soon got sick of just making giant museums in the Middle East. I am really more interested in technology because that is the dominant force that defines our lives today. So, I am involved in work about the future of technology and exploring the cultural, architectural, and global implications of how emerging technologies are changing our spaces and cities.
Keziah: Your films so far, and the Planetary Redesign exhibit revolve around the concept of world-building. What does world-building mean to you?
Liam: Again, if you think about the traditional capacity roles that an architect has, oftentimes we are given a singular site, and our task is to design an object for that site. But in the world that we live in, every single point is part of an extraordinarily complex global network.
World-building is the act of thinking about an object, not just in terms of its singular point on the planet, but in terms of the entire world that it might sit within and set in motion. It’s a design medium that involves the entire constellation of cultures, technologies, systems, and landscapes that make up the world we live in. If we are not designing worlds, then we are not really engaging with the full complexity of who we have become and the sites that we exist in.
Keziah: Your film The Great Endeavor and the Planetary Redesign exhibit are centred on a specific world set amidst a climate crisis. What would you say is the inspiration behind these projects? In what aspects do you think redesign is necessary?
Liam: Planetary Redesign is an attempt to imagine what roles storytelling might play in the context of solving the climate crisis. In order to engage meaningfully with climate change, we need to create work in a cultural space, as it has become a cultural problem. We need a framework for people through which they can imagine a sustainable, and positive future.
Right now, the dominant images in popular culture of a productive future are based on the limited ideals of boomer environmentalism. Existing planetary scale design projects are currently negative, dystopian, or destructive. Planetary Redesign aims to be a collection of new narratives that are aspirational and hopeful. The Great Endeavor is a cinematic visualisation of a theoretical construction project, the design of a planetary network of carbon removal systems. That amounts to a task akin to a moon landing, the greatest endeavour that we'll ever undertake as a generation, involving unprecedented global collaboration. It is a controversial, scary re-engineering, a scale of project that we don't typically associate with productive, hopeful, and positive visions of the future.
The other project is called Planet City, and it's a proposal to create a single city for the entire population of the earth, based on a theory from the biologist Edward O. Wilson. His strategy, Half-Earth involves the mass shrinking of urban development by devoting half the earth’s surface completely to nature and restricting human development to the other half. If we contained every person on the earth in a density comparable to that of Manila, currently the densest city on the planet, the resulting city would only be about the size of Texas in the United States. Theoretically, you could actually shrink human development to 0.02 per cent of the planet, thereby returning almost the entirety of the earth to nature. You could create a planetary scale, a global national park that would allow the planet to heal and recover. This is a thought experiment for just how compactly we could live on the earth.
Keziah: While you are talking about the urgency of climate change on one hand, you are also using the medium of film and art, which can seem frivolous to certain cultures. How do you balance the two industries to bring about awareness?
Liam: As I mentioned, if we are truly defining climate change as a problem of culture and politics, we have to create some kind of shared narrative to mitigate this problem. What we think of as frivolous, including art, fantasy stories, or entertainment actually plays a critical role in defining our worldview.
Who we are and what we think of the world is largely defined by the stories that we tell each other. The mainstream stories that are being told right now are flawed because they are based on failed environmental ideals. We need the power of fiction to share and disseminate collective visions of a viable, pragmatic, aspirational future. Art has always gotten people to think about the unimaginable and to bring those ideas into popular discourse.
Keziah: Tell us about the design of the costumes in your film and how they are important to the story that you are trying to tell.
Liam: In globalised dystopian or utopian futures shown to be sufficiently advanced, folklore, ritual, and cultural practice are seen as primitive. We need to invent new cultural practices and stories to help us deal with the unfamiliar in the context of all the changes that will happen while dealing with climate change.
A big part of our projects is the costumes, which reveal the subcultural implications of technology. For Planet City, we worked with Ane Crabtree, the costume designer behind television shows such as The Handmaid's Tale. With her, we were interested in what would happen if we visualised the futuristic city in a moment of festival and carnival. To achieve this, we created a whole series of characters in the city. Together, we developed their uniforms, but also their carnival wear, to capture them celebrating their lives. We also worked together on The Great Endeavor. There, the task was to visualise a global construction project and in turn, the global workforce devoting their lives to building this machine. By starting with old uniforms that oil rig workers used to wear, traditionally utilitarian outfits, we reworked them to reflect the workers’ new identities as cultural agents, or heroes, working on reversing climate change. Now the garments incorporate embroidery and silks, based on the cultural patterns they are drawn from to elevate the status of their owners.
Another part of the cultural life of these two planetary imaginaries is the soundtrack. We worked with a Berlin-based composer, Lyra Pramuk, to develop what we call a planetary workers song that they would sing together, a chorus of a million voices singing in unison around this collective urban project.
Keziah: What is the main thing you are really hoping to achieve through all of these projects?
Liam: I hope that a key takeaway from the exhibition is the importance of collectively sharing stories about the futures we want to live in. And these two visions of the future are not solutions, they are thought experiments. So ultimately these futures aren't about predicting what will happen, they are tools to help us imagine a world beyond fossil fuels. I hope those who come to the exhibit are encouraged to start imagining futures for themselves and building their own worlds so that hopefully we can soon come to a consensus about our shared future.
'Liam Young: Planetary Redesign' is on view at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, until February 11, 2024.