A Sense of What's to Come
Susana Camara Leret & Mike Thompson
Thought Collider






V2_Institute for the Unstable Media, rotterdam

interview by Noortje van Eekelen

Mike Thompson and Susana Cámara Leret focus on the exploration of the meanings and values that can be derived from alternative ways of experiencing built and mediated environments, motivated by emerging technologies. Thru their experimental, critical art and design research practice Thought Collider they work on self-initiated projects and they develop consultancy work for industry and academia to activate novel insights and innovation. Our conversation covers their artistic approach and the relation to the theme of this year's Open Set.

In The Institute for The Design of Tropical Disease, the designers appropriate tropical disease as a medium for art and design to address the complex relationships that stimulate disease transmission. (photograph by Gyalpo Batstra)
The Data and Ethics Working Group probe the processes and authoritative gestures that legitimise the collection of personal information and how informed consent is attained and defined. (photograph by Thought Collider)

I have quite a complete first impression of your work and background. Could you explain yourself a bit further? What is the ‘urgency’ of ‘Thought Collider’ at this very moment?

Our interest lies in exploring other ways of relating with our (built) environment, beyond the problem/solution paradigm. You could say that we’re interested in exploring alternatives to a given context, or what could be, by opening ourselves up to the uncertainty this creates. In this sense, we see our ongoing projects as their own worlds within which various questions and sub-explorations take place. Often these are interrelated. These micro-narratives allow us to remain focused, while zooming-out to consider the wider implications of reshaping existing systems and technologies.

In our most recent project, The Institute for The Design of Tropical Disease (IDTD), we attempt to shift the dialogue surrounding Tropical Disease from the pragmatic to the imaginative, acknowledging the manifold, intertwined factors that stimulate the spread of Tropical Diseases such as Malaria, Zika and Dengue. As witnessed recently with the hysteria surrounding the Zika virus, the vast resources targeted towards the eradication of insects largely underestimates the complexities surrounding vector-borne diseases. The Institute is therefore imagined as a virtual platform comprised of several overlapping research topics, to examine the rationale of technological developments, their application in the spread and control of such diseases, as well as the roles that creative experimentation and policy might play. This, as is the case with much of our most recent work, implies a blend of lab based "in-vitro" and public "in-vivo" research to break through traditional domains of knowledge production.

Do you consider design and art as good mediums to be critical? What does it mean to be critical as an artist? What are you responding to? Some form of political correctness in design? Or its seriousness?

Art and design offer other relational ways of understanding reality, for example, and particularly in the case of our work, as an alternative and compliment to classic scientific discourse. In that respect, we are responding to the processes that led to the production of information and ‘knowledge’ and its materialisation in everyday contexts. Therefore the "critical" aspect is more a matter of difference rather than of acceptance of set norms and structures. This in some manner explains the experiential focus of our work. We do not aim to merely speculate on technology, but to ‘explore things possible’ through a more open enquiry. This implies moving beyond the reductionist ‘right or wrong’ way of doing, towards an ongoing process of reflective enquiry, stimulated by creative, hands-on experimentation and experience with materials and technology.

You are both members of The Data & Ethics Working Group. What do you aim to achieve with the group? What is the ethical perspective of this group of researchers on the phenomenon of memory and data?

We do not intend to adopt a specific perspective on the handling and distribution of personal data, rather to publicly explore the boundaries of what can be considered acceptable or desirable to society at large. The group's work responds to implicit behaviours and exchanges which result from the ubiquitousness of current data-driven systems. The format of the collective is intrinsic to the nature of the work, as an international network that comes together to develop art-led experiments in response to a concrete context/theme. To date, we have posed questions such as: how is informed consent obtained and achieved when your body has become platform for the exploitation of biodata. How can people understand the value of their body’s information and actively engage in this exchange which we are exposed to regularly within everyday systems and services? Through public research acts and interventions our aim is to transform mundane acts of data exchange into performative acts, enabling participants to reflect upon their roles and rights within the information economy.

The Rhythm of Life offers participants the possibility to listen in on the electro-chemical messages transmitted by their bodies — in exchange for donating their personal biodata to scientific research (photograph by Gert Jan van Rooij)

As a society we have experienced over the last few years numerous examples of the effects of digital memories on our social fabric. If we were to move towards a more bio-based future, which of our current problems might resolve themselves?

First of all, the digital need not be detached from the biological, for example the binary system allows us to understand the carbon-based (life) system. Perhaps we can explore other frameworks that allow us to embrace the grey spaces in-between. So in this sense, we’ll hopefully think of kinship and the relationships that we are developing with other organisms and systems. One of the studio’s aims is to investigate the shift from a human-centered approach, to embrace interrelatedness and the ecological mind. Moving away from this linear, cause & effect modus, has many implications, for example within healthcare systems and services. This so-called shift towards a bio-based future could allow a different understanding of health and disease, as processes that lead to balance or imbalance within a system consist of ongoing exchanges between human and non-humanactors.

Others (for instance Vilém Flusser) have previously argued that bioscience can play a leading role in challenging nature, and introduce new relations between humans and nature. Do you see yourselves as part of this challenge?

We certainly need to reconsider the way we relate to other non-human organisms. In fact, more and more we are seeing the need to question what it means to be human when, biologically speaking, our bodies are hosts to so many organisms that influence how we eat, smell, think, feel, etc. We cannot simply detach ourselves from ’nature'. One of the starting points of IDTD was that we noted the eradication of mosquitoes as vectors as a core strategy in disease prevention, and yet this approach largely ignores other critical societal, economical, political and environmental factors that are known drivers of disease transmission. The life sciences play a role in exploring alternatives, but we are also interested in other ways of understanding life processes, for example within traditional indigenous knowledge systems, and particularly in their understanding of their local habitat and promotion of other means of co-existing with other non-human lifeforms. An example is traditional plant knowledge from communities in the Colombian Amazon. Their holistic understanding of the environment highlights other values such as cohabitation, as a basis for these relations, which could also challenge bioscience. We also touched upon this when developing Aqua Vita some years back, as we attempted to merge biochemical data with experiential data based on physical symptoms and emotions to map the evolution of the human body over time. It was not so much the daily collection of biological fluids for analysis that struck us, but rather the way in which the acts of collecting and reflecting on this data made us conscious of the daily changes within our bodies and the interrelated factors that influence these transformations.

What kind of future scenarios can you see emerging, based on the developments and the role of memory and the future? What are possible alternative environments that could be introduced in the future?

Perhaps we should first ask what is memory when the capacity to store is so vast? How will this influence the way we relate to others and our surroundings? We are moving towards a time where the perceived distance between the micro and the macro will seemingly vanish, meaning that we will interact across scales in a manner that will profoundly alter the way in which we understand our bodies, the bodies of others and our relationship with the environment. Memory is multimodal, so in this respect we are very interested in the role sensory technologies can play as experience-driven systems that could promote more embodied experiences as opposed to a fragmenting of the senses. For example we’re exploring smell-memory, as a means to retrieve episodes from the past in a present context, by using the associative power of smells. The exposure to a given smell can trigger vivid recollections of places, people, colours, sounds linked to a past experience. Therefore molecular reconfigurations experienced in a present context, could offer windows into individual past histories which also relate to collective identities. The future is therefore rooted in the present through these sensory experiences and via the acknowledgement of a shared past.

Rain Rain Go Away! Exploring the natural processes producing environmental odours that communicate rainfall to mosquitoes (photograph by Gert Jan van Rooij)
FATBERG is a critical design research project by Mike Thompson & Arne Hendriks, focused on the construction of a floating island of fat — the FATBERG (photograph by Hanneke Wetzer)

What projects are we going to see in the future from you? And where do you see the challenges in achieving them?

We don’t see a specific end to the projects that we create, as they are envisaged as long-term investigations. Some of our upcoming activities will be a direct continuation of existing work, others more sub-plots or spin-offs that emerge from on-going explorations.

In the short term, within IDTD, we plan on further refining Rain Rain Go Away!, a hybrid research artifact we recently developed to explore the olfactory conditions that communicate incoming rainfall to insects. We’re experimenting with specific molecules in collaboration with the Laboratory of Entomology at Wageningen University, by considering environmental triggers as attractants and/or repellents. There are additionally further lab investigations and field trips planned, moving into other corners within the realm of Tropical Disease that we have yet to examine, such as looking into the architecture of insect breeding grounds.

Aside from this, Mike and Arne Hendriks are currently in the process of designing and constructing a production facility and visitors centre for FATBERG at NDSM in Amsterdam Noord. From Summer 2016, the plan is to not only scale up the production of the island but also to develop a public programme and community of FATBERG builders to explore society's relationship with fat. They hope to be ready to cast the island into open water in the IJ in 2017.

Given the scope of these projects, the challenge is therefore in juggling these manifold and overlapping themes. This explains why we think of IDTD and FATBERG as platforms in their own right, as opposed to isolated projects. This way we create the necessary space to slowly build insights, while generating networks of knowledge and expertise that allow us to embed our work within society.

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