Amphibious Trilogies

The passage of co-design fiction and the NSR

The Northern Sea Route is a complex, emergent and Arctic phenomenon that is remote for most of us. Yet, it is increasingly in the news as a venue for marking the passage of climate change, from melting ice to navigable waters for shipping. Carbon fuel extraction. Nuclear energy and militarisation. Methane and anthrax exposure on its adjacent land mass. Much here is undergoing transformation and movement is central to these changes. The ice as solid, surface, barrier and a given is under erasure.

What are we moving toward? And through? What might we enact as artistic researchers who draw together, that is co-design, choreography, narrative, design and mediation?

Context is everything for this is a zone where ‘development’ has been central to massive and at times brutal state driven change. It is important them to look into the rapid and long terms changes of these arctic waters and passages, but not merely as routes and opportunities for the movement of goods and military shipping. There are deep systemic, historical and current policy related matters at play. These are closely entwined and they are dynamic geo-political and globally significant manifestations of a choreography of arctic transformation that is always discussed as movement as change.

Yet seldom is this change addressed in terms of wider analyses of mobility that has been applied in other areas of public policy, culture and technology, such as in urbanism (e.g. Bucher et al. 2011), and of course public art. What might we co-create when the canvas is a vast global passage undergoing rapid, contest and motivated change?

‘Building a poetics of design fiction’ (Markussen & Knutz, 2013) in the wider context of ‘being ecological’ (Morton, 2018) in an ecosphere in which design, ecology and politics are entwined via design (e.g. Boehnert, 2018). This entwining would be shaped through a transdisciplinary co-design mode of connecting movement, critical play, and the facilitation of ‘anticipation-oriented thinking’ (Kerspern, 2019).

I’ll expand on this below with reference to the work of our partner in this project, Bastien Kerspern from Design Friction and their ludic approach to design fiction. In short, we wished to develop a mode of co-design fiction to address this entanglement as Bastien presented on prior work at the 3rd International Conference on Anticipation in 2019 at AHO in Oslo. He visualised this threading and its generative verbal futures kinetics as follows:

In addressing the range of issues, possible, likely and conjectural survivable futures and the NSR, we would need to engage people in a design fiction that would both play with and play the future. However, those given and contemporary projected futures, form utopian to supremacist, linear to dystopian, would need to be repositioned to facilitate a mode of ‘replaying futures’. Here we intended, both as a transductive method and a multimodal digital rhetoric, to use irony as a key mode of address and engagement.

This would allow us (note the movement verbs!) to shift, to transverse, to evade and even to land on critical connections, diversions, disjunctures and separations via humour and by way of asking readers to consider, position and differentiate their own responses to sets of scenarios and potential outcomes and consequences.

For us this is a matter of probing further the shaping and performative illocutionary force of ‘Trust and the illusive force of scenarios’ (Selin, 2006).

It was also a matter of enacting and indirect discursive dialogue space generated through scenario building (Selin, et al., 2015). The intention here was to provide a means for an interplay between the personal and potentially interpersonal, whether distributed or physically face-to-face, engagement with the options, contradictions, effects and sensibilities generated. In this sense, the decision to develop a set of scenarios situated within and across timescales of the NSR, would realise a number of discursive movement acts: to pose and expose, position and propose, directly and indirectly.

In developing OCTOPA especially with Amanda and Bastien, we have been interested to engage in matters arising concerning the conceptualistion, enactment and critiques discourses of the Anthropocene. Where there is important focus on being in a non-dualist relation to other species and beings, creatures and living entities, landscape and the bio-spherical, we sought to articulate a kineto-discursive narrative of animation and enlivenment. This contrasts for us to the compelling work on reading into and through the Anthropocene in terms of ‘ghosts’ and ‘haunting’ (Tsing et al., 2015) and historical ghosts and monsters

In ‘Introduction. Haunted landscapes and the anthropocene’, Gan et al., (2015: Kindle) note that

To track the histories that make multispecies livability possible, it is not enough to watch lively bodies. Instead, we must wander through landscapes, where assemblages of the dead gather together with the living. In their juxtapositions, we see livability anew.

We arrived at a design fiction on the NSR as a follow through on work on the persona OCTOPA in the project as an act of multi-species critical worlding (Dunne & Raby, 2013, 2016). Our intention to make an installation like work quoting the scenographies of Russian constructivists, such a that of Lyubov Popova for the play The Magnificent Cuckold, was interrupted by the Covid-19 global pandemic. In effect a lockdown or limitation of assembly and movement. We needed to shift mode into an online rendering of the NSR in ways that would hopefully engage participants in troubled times. We certainly felt we were ‘staying with the trouble’, as Donna Haraway phrases it (Haraway, 2017).

With OCTOPA and the 28 scenarios we co-devised, we wanted to escape ghosts and monstrous sea creatures. Instead, the being of a multi-brained, many armed and shape shifting character would demand of us similar tenacity, regenerative acts, distributed and connected thinking and an ability to move amphibiously, literally and physically.

Join OCTOPA on her arctic journey in the NSR

Taken together, in and over an experience of ‘counterplaying’ futures, as Bastien calls it, this would employ irony and satire to make apparent and to reveal entanglements and potentialities that would accentuate the fictions of proposed developments. We designed this as a way of ‘gaming futures literacy’ (Candy, 2018) in which movement and language are intertwined. It would also reveal to some measure that we are in such play engaged in acts of alternate world building in which narrative is a central co-creative futures resource (Raven & Elahi, 2015).

This is not for play itself but for moving into, being moved by and moving on discourses the of the NSR in not only the time but the dynamics of the Anthropocene. Here were we reminded of the practice differentiations Matt Malpass (2015) makes between associative, speculative, and critical design. In his paper at Anticipation 2019 Bastien (Kerspern 2019) charted this as follows:

Octopa’s several brains, munificent sensory tentacles, many armed simultaneous and yet directed movements (probe, secure, jettison, reach, propel etc) not only a vocabulary of articulating potential thinking and acts of transformation.

They also allow us to think through the role of scenarios and narratives as modes of agency and articulation that have potential to further interest in agency and engagement, for designers, by way of choreography and as forms of mediated communication that take critical news articles, policy drives and environmental critiques closer to our imaginary selves and our identification with others, places and changes.

These may be species and environments that are geographically and even temporally remote but are in our own minds and extended choreographic perception and sensory connections that reach beyond given hands and brains and actions to coordinated, dynamic and connected change.

Today, in the midst and mists of the global pandemic, some go as far as talking about a trans-arctic or polar passage not only a NSR or North East or North West Passage. The expanse just expanded. Expanding choreographies.

In ‘The Arctic shipping route no one’s talking about’, Bennett (2019) discusses how ice breakers, once a future technology and currently a needed companion to most passages across the NSR, may become an obsolete technology. She further observes that it is only China that has fully engaged with these possibilities and seems bent upon strategising long term trade and geo-political programmes and influence.

OCTOPA’S JOURNEY just got re-routed by an alternate future pathways, with new players. Extending choreographies in new passages with new scenarios needing to be imagined, shared, shaped and shifted.

Speculative fabulation is something everybody sitting around this table does. Taking fabulation seriously entails proposing possible worlds, inhabiting them with different sorts of work practices, or disciplinary skills, or whatever. Such proposals are not made up. It is a speculative proposal, a ‘what-if’. It is a practice of imagination, as a deliberate and cultivated practice. And it is a deliberate and cultivated practice that we know a little bit about how to do. It is not a ‘set-up’, and you do not really know if anything is going to come out of it, or not. People may decide to work together on something, or not. But it will grow out of somehow having affected each other’s imaginations. (Haraway, 2016: 555).


Auger, J. (2013). ‘Speculative design: Crafting the speculation.’ Digital Creativity 24 (1): 11-35.

Boehnert, J. (2018). Design, Ecology, Politics: Towards the Ecocene. 1st ed. London: Bloomsbury.

Bennett, M. (2019). ‘The Arctic shipping route no one’s talking about’. Editorial. The Maritime Executive. 05.08.2019.

Büscher, M., Urry, J. & Witchger, K. (2011). Mobile Methods. London: Routledge.

Candy, S. (2018). ‘Gaming futures literacy: The Thing From The Future.’ In Miller R. (Ed.). Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century, 233-246. New York: Routledge.

Dunne, A. & Raby, F. (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Dunne, A. & Raby, F. (2016) ‘Critical world building’. In Coles, A. (2016). (Ed.). Design Fiction. EP / Volume 2. Berlin: Sternberg Press. 47-68.

Haraway, D., Ishikawa, N., Gilbert, S., Olwig, K., Tsing, A. & Bubandt. N. (2016). ‘Anthropologists are talking – about the Anthropocene’. Ethnos, 81(3): 535-564.

Haraway, D. (2017). ‘2 symbiogenesis, sympoiesis, and art science activisms for staying with the trouble’. In Tsing, A., Swanson, H., Gan, E. & Bubandt, N. (Eds.). Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 25-50.

Kerspern, Bastien. (2019). ‘Game design fiction: Bridging mediation through games and design fiction to facilitate anticipation-oriented thinking’. Paper presented at the 3rd International Conference on Anticipation, Oslo School of Architecture and Design, 9-12 October 2019.

Malpass, M. (2015). ‘Between wit and reason: defining associative, speculative, and critical design in practice’. Design & Culture, 5(3): 333-356.

Malpass, M. (2017). Critical Design in Context. History, Theory, and Practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Markussen, T. & Knutz, E. (2013). ‘The Poetics of Design Fiction’. In Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces, DPPI 2013, 231–40. New York, USA: Association for Computing Machinery.

McCorristine, S. (2018). The Spectral Arctic: A cultural history of ghosts and dreams in polar exploration. London: UCL Press. (Kindle edition).

Morton, T. (2018). Being Ecological. Kindle Edition. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

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

Selin, Cynthia. 2006. ‘Trust and the illusive force of scenarios’. Futures, 38(1): 1-14.

Selin, C., Kimbell, L., Ramirez, R. & Bhatti, Y. (2015). ‘Scenarios and design: Scoping the dialogue space’. Futures, 74: 4-17.

Tassinari, V. & Staszowski, E. (2020). Designing in Dark Times. An Arendtian lexicon. London: Bloomsbury.

Tsing, A., Swanson, H., Gan, E. & Bubandt, N. (2017). (Eds.). Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


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