To Better Days: Optimistic Design for an Uncertain Future

Stephen Bogner, Philipp Schmitt, and Jonas Voigt, "Raising Robotic Narratives," 2016. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

If it’s common knowledge among architects, engineers, and urban planners that design determines quality of life, the Designs for Different Futures exhibition, currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, suggests that, as the twenty-first century staggers on, design may prove to be a matter of life and death. In fact, most of the Different Futures designs, collected from around the world, have been conjured for the purpose of ensuring that we humans have a future at all.

The featured designers juxtapose products already on the market and those imaginable on Walmart shelves tomorrow, with whimsical art projects and prototypes for machines that automate away the very activities that make human life worth living. These designers are, like all of us, children of the Anthropocene: most seem motivated by an interest in the ever-more urgent question of how to achieve a sustainable way of life.

The human body emerges as a site of ambivalence and inspiration for many of the designers. Icelandic-born Ryan Mario Yasin’s contribution is a new form of children’s clothing made from recycled water bottles designed to grow as its wearer does, with special fabric that can expand from dimensions suitable to a growing child, eliminating the waste generated by manufacturing, purchasing, and discarding clothes during this period of accelerated growth. In a short film about the Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, who has created uncannily lifelike androids, a humanoid robot reflects on what it is that makes humans unique, irreplaceable. After all, “the body,” an android narrator asserts provocatively, “is important, but it doesn’t seem essential to being a human.” Another section of the exhibition includes examples of “teledildonics,” a nascent field in “sextech” that allows one partner to remotely control phallic instruments designed to erotically stimulate the other. Still in the experimental phases, one model from Amsterdam is app-based and intended to connect physically distant partners while the Brazilian-designed Neurodildo is controlled by brain signals and was conceived of as a way to repair or replace sexual function in people with disabilities.

Sustainability means different things to different people, and the most profound question raised by Different Futures is not how we can sustain our existing way of life as the waters continue to rise, but whether we should. Many of the designers featured here make proposals that involve consciously disposing of traditional categories for making sense of human experience. To this end, visitors encounter Q, The Genderless Voice (2019), an installation-as-antidote to the default obsequious femininity of popular virtual assistants Siri and Alexa, which have been criticized for reinforcing archaic and damaging gender stereotypes. This well-intentioned installation misses the mark. Instead of true neutrality, which perhaps the Danish/English design-team determined was unattainable, The Genderless Voice gives us polyphony. We hear several vocal lines superimposed, this one more masculine, this one more feminine. The effect is encumbered, processed – the impression of too much gender rather than a single human entity unbowed by the binary.

Lisa Hartje Moura, “Alien Nation: Parade 0,” 2017. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Other designers seek to transcend nationality and ethnicity. German-Portuguese artist Lisa Moura’s Alien Nation: Parade 0 (2017), proposes a post-national geopolitical world order. Headless mannequins in futuristic white-flight suits pose on an abstracted platform resembling the prow of a ship. They carry a white flag marked with only a black circle, emissaries from a time and place where citizenship affiliation is determined not by one’s nation-state of origin but by flexible and authentic affinities between “aliens.” In Trump’s America, where aggravated nationalism is turning border zones into sites of appalling suffering and cruelty, Moura’s vision has an undeniable attraction. The pristine whiteness of its physical manifestation, however, also carries a certain secessionist connotation that becomes uncomfortable in an American context—these mobile, unmarked bodies escaping rather than confronting the mess they’ve made of history. One can’t help but wonder what new power dynamics would emerge to fill the void left by national governments, and whether the same people would thrive while the same groups continued to suffer under the new-world order.

The exhibition’s sprawling heterogeneity is both its strength and its weakness. It features a German design team’s Raising Robotic Natives (2016), a mechanical arm capable of bottle-feeding a baby without human caregiver involvement, and a Philadelphia-designed “bioprinter” capable of producing human cells for medical testing and – perhaps one day – transplant-ready synthetic-organic human organs. But alongside such potentially paradigm-shifting designs, Different Futures also displays the “groundbreaking” forty pigment tones of Rihanna’s new Fenty foundation makeup, now available for sale – an unkind juxtaposition that made the latter feel decidedly less radical than it might in another context.

Agi Haines, “Circumventive Organs Electrostabilis Cardium” (film still), 2013. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The premise of Different Futures is fundamentally hopeful: we have the power to shape our tomorrow and the ingenuity to surmount the fearful limitations we face. The exhibition nevertheless left me feeling demoralized, hoping that I wouldn’t be around to see most of these imagined futures come to pass. For every project aimed at preserving beauty and meaning – reconstituting the fragrances of now-extinct flowers (Resurrecting the Sublime (2019) by Christina Agapakis) and new books written by authors including Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell that will only be read in a century’s time (Future Library (2014) by Katie Paterson) – half a dozen other projects emphasize the crunch of our datafied future, or the ugly distillation of life into the pursuit of efficiency.

We have never needed sustainable solutions to the world’s human-made problems more urgently. Let’s hope we choose wisely what deserves to be sustained and what ought to be consigned to the slagheap of history.

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