by Devanshi Shah, Anmol AhujaJul 09, 2021
A curatorial question, thematic, or a call to action, by its very nature invites ideas that lie at the opposite poles of the problem-solution spectrum, and then some in between. They inspire and incite, encourage thoughtful discourse as well as even fierce debate. I, personally, have a tendency (and tenacity) to lean towards ideas that trigger, maybe even shock. The fundamental thought behind that seems to be exposing or bringing to the fore, possibly, one’s deepest fears, plucked from so far into your deepest imaginative chasms that you would consider it an impossibility. Author Amitav Ghosh, in his book The Great Derangement, talks about the genesis of that thought in the context of the word “recognition”, or re-cognition, stressing on the “re-” as a method of meeting that thought, idea, cognition: again, perhaps in a new light. To put it plainly, we all have a sense of what the future may look like, but apart from the bleakness we invariably would associate with it, that shapeless enigma of a vision would be tied down through certain common criteria. In a zoomed-out context, that is essentially what forms the vast foundation of most science fiction, through Orwell, through Huxley, through even modern auteurs on film. Paired with satire, the idea is then a potent cocktail and an inescapable reflection cast upon us: and think, think you must. Chicago-based British designers, Tim Parsons and Jessica Charlesworth, and their eponymous studio Parsons & Charlesworth employ that idea to give vision to an Orwell-meets-Cronenberg fever dream of sorts, a curated, multi-part catalog of products that would, in theory, enhance the human condition for us as a workforce to “keep up”: against fellow employees, and omniscient threats including robotics and artificial intelligence. “How will we live together if we are forced to augment ourselves to stay competitive?” is the question they ask instead, through their bizarrely imaginative display at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021.
Catalog for the Post-Human is a set of practical augments that carefully take into account our current behaviours, and adorn our not-so-implausible future with impeccably carved and pleasantly coloured products with a dubious intent. The thought for this intervention stems from the very real statistic of more than 40 percent of the US workforce comprising contingent or flexible workers. Keeping that population in mind, and modern conglomerates, potential employers, investing more and more into automation and efficiency through real-time tracking, the Catalog imbues them with tools that wishfully grant them a fair fighting chance of sorts. The installation of the same at the Biennale is “an immersive space that mixes the familiar design language of a commercial trade fair, with an unfamiliar collection of objects relating to the future of work, productivity, labour, and the body”, states an official release by the designer duo. The products find themselves and operate in a future where success would depend on our ability to stay permanently cognitively sharp, and “able to work the long and irregular hours assigned by algorithm-led corporations”.
Displaying four product ranges addressing different needs of the future contingent worker, the installation at the La Biennale di Venezia, built using the Abstracta system consists of these four eponymous ‘zones’ - namely zones of Cognitive Management, Expedited Recovery, Optimised Wellness, and Enhanced Productivity. Within these zones, put up like prized displays at a high-end mall, you have an espresso-machine-like kit for micro-dosing in the morning, a wearable alarm that peculiarly wakes you at your most alert, probiotic lollipops, an IV jacket for administering intravenous drugs while on the move, headgear that advertises for alternative income streams, and a device for measuring stress levels via a saliva cortisol test. If that all sounds too improbable, read the exclusive conversation between STIR and the project’s chief designers at Parsons & Charlesworth for a deep dive into this future.
Anmol Ahuja (AA): Your response to curator Hashim Sarkis’ question for the Biennale is a question in itself: a marked departure from the overtly positive outlook of the Biennale that looks to a hopeful future. Would you say that the future the Catalog imagines is a more pragmatic one, or a more plausible one than the other entries at the Biennale?
Tim Parsons and Jessica Charlesworth (P&C): Our response, and perhaps the responses of some of the participants, is not to directly answer Hashim Sarkis’ question with solutions, but to expand upon the question through their work. Our project does not present a proposal for how to live together, rather, by presenting a fictional collection of objects, it encourages reflection on the way technology is being applied today and how this impacts personal liberty. We think the future that the Catalog depicts is a plausible one, but it is one we hope does not happen!
The optimistic, problem-solving mode of design is prevalent but needs to be counterbalanced with a critical mode that draws attention to its limitations. This is sometimes incorrectly described as pessimistic, but its goal is ultimately to improve society by highlighting ethical issues and encouraging debate.
By presenting a fictional collection of objects, it encourages reflection on the way technology is being applied today and how this impacts upon personal liberty. We think the future that the Catalog depicts is a plausible one, but it is one we hope does not happen! – Tim Parsons and Jessica Charlesworth
AA: In the title of the project, does 'Post-Human' allude to the user group post the current human, or an age in temporal terms?
P&C: It alludes to a user group - and to the fact that we are already post-human because we are augmented by technologies. The project is about how we are being forced to become even more post-human, and the deleterious effects of this.
Obviously the term 'Post-Human' is used in many different contexts and has different meanings. In very broad terms it could mean anything that gives us a kind of superpower, or extra sense, in the way that digital technology does. Academically, it describes a new focus upon what humans merging with technology will mean, ethically, philosophically and practically. How technology is applied is not inevitable, as Shoshanna Zuboff points out in her book Surveillance Capitalism. Through our project, we want people to think about this post-human turn and how post-human they would be willing to become.
AA: The very nature of this experimental outcome seems to be strongly inspired from cyberpunk as a genre, and other such popular subgenres in science fiction. Did that serve as an inspiration in any way?
P&C: Definitions of cyberpunk describe it as dealing with future urban societies dominated by computer technology. Compared to 20 years ago, I would say we are living in that reality now. Algorithms and AI systems are embedded in how corporations operate and contingent workers bear the brunt of this change.
The aesthetics of the CFTPH work were not directly influenced by cyberpunk, but we can see the similarities in retrospect. We are both fans of Blade Runner for example. The main inspiration came from the theoretical research including interviews we conducted with experts in machine intelligence, synthetic biology, organisational structures, remote working, and psychedelics. Our visual and material inspirations came from multiple channels and sources, a sample of which includes Japanese packaging, spacesuit designs from the 60s, Korean electronic wellness products, Italian consumer products from the 70s and 80s such as the Brionvega TVs and Olivetti calculators.
We were also inspired by the work of other artists such as Jesper Just, Maywa Denki, Walter Pichler, Lucy Orta, and Atelier Van Lieshout, and we have an archive of objects, collected for over 20 years that we used to collage various forms and material qualities.
AA: Even if the project states that its intent is satirical and reflective, do you think that such a future would actually manifest? If yes, when do you foresee it, roughly?
P&C: Although satirical, there are actually early signals and pre-existing versions of these product proposals in what is currently available on the market. For example, microdosing tiny amounts of LSD is common within sectors of the tech community in the US. The MorningRitual object simply recognises this and asks “what would it look like if the process were as simple as making a cup of coffee?” However, the project is not really about predicting a possible future of new products nor necessarily a cautionary tale of what might be ahead but a reflection of what exists around us already. The project asks people to consider to what extremes we have gone and what are we prepared to accept in the name of progress.
AA: Going so far as stipulating that the Catalog for the Post-Human goes into mass production and on sale sometime in the future, do you have an affordability matrix/ model in mind?
P&C: Although the Catalog for the Post-Human products have been positioned as objects for independent contingent workers, there are plenty of examples of “enhancement products” that are bought by corporations for their workers. For example, Amazon has patented a wristband that tracks the hand movements of warehouse workers and uses vibrations to nudge them into being more efficient. During the pandemic, workers at some companies were asked to download software onto their home computers that tracked when and for how long they were working.
Proposing that the objects from the Catalog go into production is a thought experiment that we have not played out in full. As a slightly dystopian satire, we would obviously not pursue producing the objects ourselves - we do not want to see them produced. However, we imagine the items being priced at the upper end of affordability for the types of workers that would benefit from them. There is already a gamification of contingent work in certain corporations where if certain investments are made by the worker, there will be an associated pay-off, or they will access another level of income. A fictional example is the movie Lapsis in which a hapless gig-worker is made to invest in expensive cable-laying equipment in order to earn credits in a gamified workplace.
The project asks people to consider to what extremes we have gone and what are we prepared to accept in the name of progress. – Tim Parsons and Jessica Charlesworth
AA: Why not go entirely cybernetic with the extent and scope of this intervention?
P&C: We were keen to limit how far-future, and far-fetched, the catalog appeared to be, because we felt if it got too far removed from current experience, it would lose its power as a satire. We wanted it to appear like a plausible near future where people still have agency but they are being placed in a position where they are made to feel they need enhancement to keep up with an algorithmically managed workload. To do this, we developed a formula for the kinds of objects we wanted in the collection and one of the criteria was that the technology had to be proven - at least in a lab setting - now, rather than something that was 10 or 20 years away.
AA: What is the one product from the current manifesto that you think has an increasingly possible utility in the current world?
P&C: We intentionally created products that we felt were riding the line between a product looking and sounding feasible - something that could potentially already be on the market - and something fictional where the technology was perhaps not quite there for everyday use but could be any minute. The intention was to elicit a reaction where a viewer might think that they want the item and, at the same time, turn around and question whether this product or service offering was actually going too far.
In terms of what is most likely to exist in the near future, it is hard to pick one! MorningRItual, in some ways, is a possible product - we have had a few people ask if it is real - but of course LSD has to become acceptable and legalised before it would be feasible. The Nootdial could certainly be made, as the drugs in it are legal and available. Recreational use of IVs like the one we are depicting in the IV Apparel, already exists as an answer to jet lag or as a hangover cure, so it’s not so far removed to see IVs as part of a recovery, multi-tasking, or a wellness regimen. The main difference is the IV Apparel implies the idea of self-administration, which is certainly not advisable without proper training.
AA: How did the design requirements and processes for these highly unusual projects change with respect to the usual products you design?
P&C: When working in this way, we are effectively role-playing as the designers of this fictional company. So we are in-house designers for Catalog for the Post-Human, and we have to establish, and be guided by, a set of design constraints in the same way as any designer of consumer products would. So there is a lot of discussion between us about what these constraints are for each object and what functional and aesthetic choices should be made. By considering this carefully, and by working with graphic designers and web designers, we have created what we hope is a cohesive and believable brand identity for the Catalog for the Post-Human.
AA: Is there any product from the catalog that you didn’t add to the final collection but is still on the drawing board?
P&C: This kind of project always involves a process of narrowing down to a final set of objects from a broader collection, so there are things we worked on but didn’t make the final selection. Some were based on technologies that, in the end, we felt were too far away from being proven, or too abstract for viewers to grasp, such as gene therapy and brain-computer interfaces. Others were just too difficult to turn into an appealing product. For example, we were discussing the issue of contingent workers being denied time for bathroom breaks, and what the Catalog would offer in response, but it’s very difficult to make something alluring in that area!
Curated as a series of thoughtful engagements that enhance the contemporary debate and discussion on architecture, the STIRring Together series introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Tracing the various adaptations and following the multitude of perspectives, the series carefully showcases some incredible projects and exhibits, highlighting the diversity and many discourses of the show.