Amphibious Trilogies

Personas, futures and kinetics

In the past decade especially attention has been gathering on climate change, the environment and troubling dynamics of living and working in the Anthropocene. In this time, I’ve been fortunate to be in a transdisciplinary project called Future North at AHO that’s looked into emerging and prospective arctic futures in the domain of landscape studies and landscape architecture. One of the themes that came through for me from the project was interest in the Northern Sea Route (NSR) between Europe and north East Asia across Russian arctic waters. This can be seen in a Google image search, as below, that suggests the matters of mapping and mediation, data and policy all entangled across distance and a prospective future view. This may also be understood as an ‘arctic imaginary’ (e.g. Steinberg et al., 2015), as we addressed in Future North and as covered in projects such as Dark Ecologies.

In the context of Amphibious Trilogies, the NSR became one of our key interests in the main theme of Passage. This route is a massive, changing environment, ecologically and economically, strategically and climatically. How might one go about beginning to understand it more fully? What mix of design and artistic inquiry might be fashioned in order to do so? How might a specifically humanities art and design dynamic be put into play to convey some of its complexities and the changing character of its operations and implications? What modes of address and mediational means might we deploy as a transdisciplinary team?

These questions become all the more interesting and difficult when one considers ‘Passage’ in futures terms, less planning, more design fiction. Here futures are plural, dynamic, unpredictable, contingent and in processes of becoming. They emerge, turn back on themselves, jet off into unexpected directions and turn in on and reach beyond their aspirations and spread beyond simple polarisations as being utopian or dystopian.

In earlier work into cultural perspective in and through interaction design and digital culture, I’ve been interested in multi-species configurations and narratives as part of how we shape and critique our socio-technical imaginaries. In such ‘worldings’, and nudged by the writings of Donna Haraway amongst others (Haraway, 2006), I’ve been motivated to explore the potential of personas and scenarios in the emerging field of design fiction. In particular I’ve been preoccupied with how these naratively located devices might operate in shaping and articulating practice based design inquiry and creative expressions in realising possible, preferable, and prospective worlds.

Important too has been to look into ways to reach in and beyond and from within settings and scenarios to conjure up and surface alternate ones. Here a key concern is to work with notions and prospective locations and events situated in deep time, with reach into longer term and sustainable futures. This has been ‘co-present’ with work into developing and articulating near future imaginaries with more direct feedback into the present.

It’s taken a while to see what’s perhaps obvious to onlookers. This is namely that the personas that have been conjured up – on my own, in relation to other designers and researchers, and together with teams – have movement as one of their central characteristics. Let’s take a quick look at the design fiction personas I’ve developed and shared with others in our making.

Rumina, a wifi enhanced cow in post animal liberation future, roams the post-smart city and is an experimental voice entangled in an experimental design research rhetoric that critiques technology determinism (Morrison, 2011). Adrona, a rogue female drone (Morrison, 2013), displaces her allocated aerial policing to focus on the surveillance of movement of migrant persons in the context of airborne un-‘manned’ militarism, posing contradictory views on the same terrain, a device to articulate concepts on design fiction inquiry (Morrison et al. 2014).

Fiscialla is a physical steel framed tigerfish travelling from Cape Town to Windhoek across the Namibian desert, with a group of design students and teacher-researchers stopping in different environements and communties en route to becoming a post-colonial exhibition installation in conference on Participatory Design and subsequent additonal emerging locative and diffractive design pedagogies (Morrison, & Chisin 2017).

Narratta is a trans species persona that allows a group of researchers to pose transdisciplinary perspective on changing arctic landscapes, ecologies and geo-political strategies through the very characteristics of narwhals that are not in actual fact found in the waters in which she swims and leaps, in and out of time and between different technologically and environmentally challenged points of view (Morrison, 2018).

These diverse, yet not unconnected imaginary creatures are inspired by the rich character and characteristics of existing animals, not merely critters, but special beings in our existing worlds and the stuff of legend, survival, and spirit.

As Michelle Westerlaken suggests in her recent PhD thesis (Westerlaken, 2020), one I was fortunate to review as an external examiner, we may see these creatures as imaginary hyphenations of the fictive and the factual, as personas through which we are able to further embody and perceive processes and potentials of ‘multispecies worldings’ as she calls them. In her work, Michelle presents a bestiary of 10 creatures in a wider post- and trans-humanist view in which the ‘ecological polyverse’ in which we all live requires appreciation of the human and non human and a de-elevation of the human or anthropomorphisisation of nature.

The creatures I have created and co-generated are still spoken through human subjects giving voice, ironically, through pastiche and by way of absurd, impossibly inhuman achievements. They are deliberately diegetic as is the view of design fiction (Stirling, 2009, 2017). They are designed dramaturgical articulations to offer options, improbable vantage points, challenging scenarios and un-real and non-mimetic narratives to inspire, challenge and even up end our imaginary flexibilities (Ravan & Shirin, 2015).

Given these qualities, its perhaps no surprise that the polymorphous, historically monstrous figure of the kraken and literal, biological characteristics of the octopus or cephalopod, zooms into view. This is a truly enchanting creature that changes texture and colour, transforms its shape, dissembles its outline in a cloud of ink in defence mode and propels itself through a variety of motions, in the water, tentacles rippling over rocks and even walking across the sea bed. In the Amphibious Trilogies project we have explored biological and environmental aspects of these most marvellous creatures of the seas.

So after some serious reading of scientific journals, popular science communication and accounts of maritime studies and aquariums, such as Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus (2015) this ‘bestiary of design fiction personas was extended in Amphibious Trilogies to include a new, imaginary, futures rich being called OCTOPA. Her name for us slips between the contemporary physicality of the Occupy movement and the always just beyond our reach, in the shadowy dreams of utopia. Her name symbolises a universal figure for some perhaps, god-like in her capitalised proper noun name, yet suggesting a state of preoccupation. None of these words fit, nor can they be bound together, to anchor her polymorphous, slithery selfhood.

OCTOPA is a new imaginary creature. She is a generation of our times, a creature beyond our ken, a deliberative, even ‘excessive’, device that is always skilled in her grasp but able to evade containment and reductionism. In Haraway’s words, she is able to ‘stay with the trouble’ (Haraway, 2016). She is a device to serve us our own troubles and ways to think about facing them, considering their construction and perpetuation, playfully and challenging asking us and provoking us to think, and to reflect on how we might act.

But OCTOPA does more than this. She is fluid, she jettisons herself between time and space and across distances, she swirls and hides, reveals and conceals, exposes and catches, grips and repels, all acts of sensitive embodied knowing, propulsion with repulsion, always amphibious, tentatively testing her distributed intelligence across the vastness of the Northern Sea Route and its technical, ideological, historical and projected immensity and complexities, making connections, challenging us to shape our own, to look into the fissures and shells that conceal and reveal way currents – cultural and conceptual, actual and projected.

OCTOPA is informed by research and practice in working with and teaching about digital narratives and design fiction, seen for example in writing up the un/natural, narratively (Alber, et al., 2010). It encompasses the multi-vocality of Narratta in the Future North project through reference to the writing of Bakhtin (1981) and Ryan (2006). Pastiche, irony, gender and technology critique are all voiced through the device of this speaking subject as she invites you to make crucial choices that will affect your own futures. The 28 scenarios have been developed to draw you into the complex systems melting maze of vested and emerging interests.

OCTOPA has also floated and darted the crossover between the two related futures facing projects: Amphibious Trilogies and FUEL4DESIGN with its focus on design futures literacies. In this shift and drift, and tangle of tendrils and tentacles, we have found shared interests and focus on movement, futures and language. The tags in this current project site and the entries on movement in the Lexicon in FUEL4DESIGN offer further shapes and transformations to follow and find. Join her in OCTOPA’S JOURNEY through the arctic waters of the Northern Sea Route. Its a satirical contemporary design friction!

Alber, J., Iversen, S., Skov Neilsen, H. & Richardson, B. (2010). ‘Unnatural narratives, unnatural narratology: beyond mimetic models’. Narrative 18(2): 113-136.

Bakhtin, M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M Bakhtin. (Ed.) M. Holquist. Transl. C. Emerson & M. Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Harraway, D. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble. Durham: Duke University Press.

Montgomery, S. (2015). The Soul of an Octopus. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Morrison, A. (2011). Ruminations of a WiFi cow’. In Proceedings of Nordes 2011: Making it Matter! 29-31 May 2011, Helsinki: Finland.  Available: www.nordes.org.

Morrison, A. (2014). ‘Design prospects: Investigating design fiction via a rogue urban drone’. In Proceedings of DRS 2014. 16-19 June 2014, Umea: Sweden.

Morrison, A. (2018). ‘Future north, nurture forth. Design fiction, anticipation and arctic futures’. In Kampevold-Larsen, J. & Hemmersam, P. (Eds.). The Future North. Changing arctic landscapes. London: Routledge. 119-141.

Morrison, A., Tronstad, R. & Martinussen, E. (2013). ‘Design notes on a lonely drone’. Digital Creativity, 24(1): 46-59.

Morrison, A. & Chisin, A. (2017). ‘Design fiction, culture and climate change: weaving together personas, collaboration and fabulous futures’. The Design Journal, 20: 146-159.

Raven, P. & Shirin, E. (2015). ‘The new narrative: applying narratology to the shaping of futures outputs’. Futures, 74: 49-61.

Ryan, M.-L.. (2006). Avatars of Story. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sterling, B. (2009). Scenarios and Speculations. Amsterdam: Sun Publishers. 18-29.

Sterling, B. (2017). ‘Symposium keynote’. Made Up. Pasendena: ArtCenter Graduate Press. 18-26.

Westerlaken, M. (2020). Imagining Multispecies Worlds. PhD thesis. Malmö University: Malmö.

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