Thursday, 10 April 2014

Present Fictions

“All these are really great,” she said, shuffling through powerpoint slides depicting babies with gills, oil sheikhs practising terraforming in a luminous sandbox, a teeming rainforest populated by genetically engineered creepy crawlies. “Really interesting.” None of this stuff is real. At least, not quite. They are design fictions, speculative forays upon the product cycles of other worlds: a futurism of things. 

A 99¢ store on Flatbush Avenue in downtown Brooklyn holds a one-off sale on the inexpensive household goods of tomorrow: deuterium filters, personal air cylinders, degrees while you sleep. Giant energy-harvesting mushrooms stolen from a Dutch biotech lab flourish amongst the highrise blocks of a Mumbai slum. Nano-waste like bionic enhancers and optical metamaterials are traded and harvested in the aftermath of a World Expo in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the year 2020. 

But despite these fantastical scenarios, “science fiction,” we are told, “is not as intrinsically embedded in design fiction as some people think.” 

The speaker, wide-eyed and infectiously ebullient, is Cher Potter, resident forecaster at the Victoria and Albert Museum and a former director at fashion industry trend spotters WGSN. Potter is “definitely not interested in utopias”. Nor does she have much time for “trying to create betters in the world.” What she is interested in is ideas – especially ideas of the sort easily expressible in glossy images and a few lines of text. These she breezes through as though absent-mindedly scrolling through Tumblrs. What does it all mean? What are the implications of this stuff? What’s it trying to say about the world? Who cares? Doesn’t matter. No time. Everything is “great”. Everything is “really interesting.” 

But Cher Potter, and the industry she is an exponent of, are on the up. “Forecasting,” she tells us, “is one of the fastest growing industries in the UK at the moment.” A broadly-framed ‘speculative practice’, taking in everyone from radical artists and theorists to corporate trend spotters and government-backed predictive analysts, is here constituted as a single “emergent discipline”. As artist and film-maker Gareth Owen Lloyd, director of Peckham’s Food Face art space, prods from his seat in the audience: Would Potter forecast a coming trend for the forecasting of trends? When she looks ahead in time, does she see more and more people looking further and further ahead? 

Potter demurs at the question; apprehensive, perhaps, of its gordian implications. But the query is indicative of the kind of entanglements that arise when the language of marketing and promotions gets into bed with the respective blue-sky spiels of think tanks and exhibition curators. The future is so hot right now – and even more so, in the future.