by Devanshi ShahMay 09, 2021
I have always believed that the three key creative disciplines – art, design, and craft, are separated by a thin, yet definite line. Design has the primary purpose of solving a problem, of having a function. But, can the very idea of design help in critical thinking? Can it create an imagined, a hypothetical instance aimed at exploring possibilities? Will that be a more potent way to present critical analysis for unique paradigms for the future?
Superflux does just that. A creative collective that cannot be introduced in a simplified way! Founded by Anab Jain and Jon Ardern in 2009, the collective does not ascribe to a defined boundary of discipline. “Having worked across the worlds of design, foresight, technology, climate change and humanities, we have formed a highly multidisciplinary practice. We are foresight thinkers, researchers and analysts, but also creative practitioners, designers, and artists”, they say.
I interview the duo, Anab Jain and Jon Ardern, Co-Founders of Superflux.
Rahul Kumar (RK): What triggered you to establish Superflux as a studio that works at the cross sections of “technology, politics, culture, and environment, to imagine new ways of seeing, being, and acting”?
Superflux (S): Operating both as a consultancy and as a ‘laboratory’, our hybrid, experimental practice has produced projects for various clients, commissioners and areas of our own interest in the spaces of design popularised as speculative design, design fiction, experiential futures, and design futures.
We set up our practice way back in 2009 from the bedroom of our shared home in North London, just off the back of the global credit crisis in 2008. At that time, we had only recently graduated from the Royal College of Art, and whilst we had worked at Nokia, Microsoft Research and other companies, we really wanted to dig deeper into how design might help surface critical thinking, questioning and self-reflection about the status quo. The primary driver of our work therefore has been to bypass established narratives about the present and future that create the hypnosis of normality, and instead find ways to generate emotional connections with the raw weirdness of our times in order to open up an array of unexplored possibilities.
We believe innovation, insight, and new perspectives come from ‘the edge’ - from outside of established systems of power and control. For over a decade, we have operated on the edges of the ‘normal’, helping our clients to see new vantage points, to enhance their understanding of their own positions, environments, markets, and systems. We construct speculative worlds and experimental scenarios that allow our clients and wider audiences to imagine and explore alternate futures. This could mean examining our relationships with AI assistants, diving into the ideological roots of the 21st century’s nascent culture clashes as seen in Trigger Warning, or envisaging domestic arrangements in a world ravaged by climate change, visible in our work Mitigation of Shock.
Having worked across the worlds of design, foresight, technology, climate change and humanities, we have formed a highly multidisciplinary practice. We are not only foresight thinkers, researchers and analysts, but also creative practitioners, designers and artists. We believe it’s this ability to be able to move dynamically between seemingly disparate modes like the structured and emergent, scientific and the artistic, geometric and loose, between existing paradigms and new paradigms - that helps us ‘imagine new ways of seeing, being, and acting’.
RK: A recurring theme in your work is the ‘climate change’. Research shows that the digital space accounts for about half of the global CO2 emission. How do you balance this aspiration for action on climate emergency given many of your projects involve digital intervention?
S: Our practice around climate change is very rooted in material exploration which often manifest as embodied experiential installations and films. We believe that climate change is a predicament we all need to navigate, rather than a problem that can be immediately fixed. And therefore, our work focuses on bringing to life these alternate paths, and worlds that we can navigate towards. Best examples of this are both instantiations of the Mitigation of Shock project, which was a physical installation in the form of an apartment that people could visit and spend time in. For such works, we use digital tools primarily for archiving and dissemination purposes, rather than for data-heavy streaming needs.
RK: How does your work as a curatorial agency and a creative practice come together? Does one influence the other, are there overlaps?
S: We are primarily a research-led experiential futures and design practice. Occasionally we have taken on curatorial projects - actually a show Anab is co-curating a show for the Vienna Biennale For Change 2021 titled ‘Climate Care: Reimagining Our Shared Planetary Futures’. In this show, Anab’s focus has been on the themes of more-than-human care and politics, resurgent ecological relationships as well as regenerative and redistributive economies.
And yes certainly, we chose to focus on these aspects because these are also themes, we are currently grappling with in our practice and projects. If through curatorial projects, we can share the works of so many other scholars, artists, designers and activists who are really pushing the boundaries then that is very rewarding.
RK: What was the intended outcome of your recent project titled ‘trigger warning’ presented as part of a larger show with a thematic focus of ‘one day you wake up and there is no Internet?’. Was there significant commentary on the precarious relationship we humans share with the digital technology?
S: Actually, our project ‘Trigger Warning’ was commissioned by Kristin Alford from the Museum of Discovery, Adelaide “Is it possible to proactively and aggressively pursue peace?” It was this counterintuitive question that provoked their landmark show ‘Waging Peace’. Our short fiction ‘Trigger Warning’ was part of this exhibition until in 2019.
We were responding to their brief ‘Waging Peace’ and had started out with a research interest in the potential for AI to manipulate our reality in order to enforce peace. Then, in the process of talking with experts and investigating this topic we found ourselves struck by the complexity and influence of the overlapping space where culture, ideologies, algorithms, business and political interests collide. From there, the process of research, observation and contemplation very much led the way.
Peace is precarious. Today, ideological conflict is rife across countless digital battlegrounds, as the polarization of belief is aggravated by algorithms. Deep ideological fissures are beginning to divide society, which has been invaded by the fractured narratives of post-truth. People form beliefs based on feelings rather than facts. Reality is oversimplified, then weaponized by master manipulators of information warfare. An ancient and subversive form of propaganda has found a contemporary audience. Everyone believes their own brand of truth. The film ‘Trigger Warning’ is a fast-paced journey through a city of memes. An urban hinterland of embodied ideas and warring ideologies. Switching between various first-person perspectives, the story embodies the current culture clashes bubbling away beneath the surface of the city. The algorithmically mediated networks which amplify opinions, manipulate biases and shape beliefs have caused widespread civic unrest. People emerge from behind memes and screens to bear arms for their beliefs. Allegiances continue to fracture and fragment, until individual emotions and opinions reign supreme. Eventually, any sense of certainty evaporates.
The show ‘one day you wake up and there is no Internet?’ happened almost two years after we made this film and as the film was relevant to the themes of the exhibition, we were invited to show our film.
RK: Please talk about your ongoing and upcoming projects that we should watch out for.
S: We are currently working on a number of projects set to be released from May onwards. Couple of them are client works for Museum of the Future in Dubai and Omidyar Network that we cannot yet talk about yet. However the two works we are particularly excited about and can share are - ‘Refuge for Resurgence’ to be exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 opening 22nd May, and ‘Invocation for Hope’ to be exhibited at the Museum for Applied Arts (MAK) for the Vienna Biennale 2021, opening 28th May.
Although completely different in scale and outcomes, both these projects explore a perspective that favours de-emphasising human exceptionalism in favour of such multispecism. The projects are immersive installations that reflect on our fragile, interconnected relationship with the natural world, and invite audiences to imagine practices of more-than-human care through resurgence, redistribution and rewilding.
Climate change can be seen as a consequence of the attitude of viewing nature as a resource that is systematically exploited, rather than as a unique and interconnected life support system in which we humans are also just part of a much larger ecological whole. With these installations, we explore the relationship of humans and the environment through a mytho-poetic framework: Instead of a direct representation of the dynamics of this relationship, the installation takes a more abstract and symbolic position. Our proposal for a way out of this dilemma is to completely change the way we view ourselves and our relationship with nature. Instead of seeing us humans as separate from nature, we need to understand that we are a part of it. By radically changing our attitude toward natural systems and the ecology of our planet, we have the best chance to reverse the damage we have done. How might we - humans and non-humans truly engage in collaborative living? What possibilities emerge?
Anab Jain, the co-founder of Superflux, is on the jury of Dezeen Awards 2021.