Nested Betters

Disegno #24 (2019)

Image courtesy of Daisy Alexandra Ginsberg.

“Don’t look at the folder called fake tits.”

Well, you can just imagine the first thing I wanted to look at after a statement like that. One hour into my interview with designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg in her London studio, we’re perched delicately between two schools of tits – real and fake. “It’s going to be called Machine Auguries,” says Ginsberg, clicking on her computer to play the sound of great tits chirruping and warbling. “We’re looking to bring attention to the effects of urbanisation on the dawn chorus. Birds are singing higher, louder, earlier and for longer, which affects their ability to find mates and dictate territory.” Real tits dealt with, it’s now time to fire up the fake ones. They sound like Megatron screaming.

Machine Auguries is a sound installation commissioned for 24/7, an exhibition that will open at Somerset House in London in October 2019. Created with support from Faculty and the Adonyeva Foundation, and commissioned by Somerset House and A/D/O, Ginsberg’s installation will bathe visitors in the sounds of competing choruses, real and synthetic, with the latter employing machine learning to gradually improve the quality of its simulation. “You’ll have this call and response between the birds and the machines,” says Ginsberg. “In the end, the machines will take over but they’ll sound increasingly lifelike so, hopefully, it will still be beautiful. And that’s the catch – you’ll be sucked and in and think it sounds incredible, until you realise, ‘No, wait, I’m meant to be thinking about how sad I am about birds dying.’”

Upon its release this autumn, Machine Auguries will complete an annus mirabilis for Ginsberg – a year in which she has launched four major projects in exhibitions at the Cooper Hewitt, Centre Pompidou, Triennale di Milano, London’s Design Museum and the Royal Academy, as well as staging a solo exhibition, Better Nature, at the Vitra Design Museum Gallery. It is a prodigious output, and one that positions Ginsberg as a heavyweight voice within contemporary art and design’s engagement with science, technology, and the looming threat of climate collapse. “As someone who has a roof over my head, living in London, I have the luxury of not having to focus on my urgent survival needs in the here and now,” she says. “A good use of the privilege of making artworks is to make stuff about these issues and get more people thinking about them.”

The quadrilogy of projects of which Machine Auguries will prove the culmination engages with this territory. The Wilding of Mars is a digital simulation that generates alternative versions of the red planet given over to nature – a game of Civilisation in which civilisation is conspicuous by its absence in a neat reversal of the well-trodden sci-fi trope of colonising Mars. Resurrecting the Sublime, meanwhile, uses genetic engineering to identify the fragrance-producing enzymes of extinct plants. The resultant smells, reconstructed by artist Sissel Tolaas, are subsequently piped into glass vitrines in which they are free to mix in different concentrations to create variations upon the plant’s original scent – a fragrance that remains fundamentally unknowable. Finally, The Substitute explores the 2018 death of Sudan, the last-known male northern white rhinoceros. Working with visual effects studio The Mill, using archive material from rhinoceros vocalisation expert Richard Policht and research from the DeepMind AI lab, Ginsberg developed a digital projection of a northern white rhino that seems to pace and snort around the gallery space in which it is installed.

Ginsberg’s rhinoceros flickers in and out of pixellation as it struggles to resolve itself, eventually manifesting in eerie photorealism to make fleeting, tragic contact with its audience. “These four projects are bigger in terms of scale from what I’ve done before,” says Ginsberg. “They’re also thematically broadening out from what I’ve done previously.’”

After graduating from Cambridge University’s architecture programme (2001-04) and the Royal College of Art’s prestigious Design Interactions MA (2007-09), Ginsberg was rightly celebrated for her early work’s prescient engagement with the emerging field of synthetic biology. Projects such as Designing for the Sixth Extinction (2013) posited a series of synthetic organisms that might fill or otherwise support ecological niches left by extinct or endangered creatures; E. chromi (2009), executed in conjunction with James King and Cambridge University’s iGEM team, imagined a medical future in which genetically engineered bacteria could secrete coded pigments into human faeces as an early-warning system for disease prevention; and Seasons of the Void (2013), with Sascha Pohflepp and Andrew Stellitano, tackled the GM food debate through a series of conjectural fruits that might be grown in space through electrosynthesis. These projects were all couched in the language and methodology of synthetic biology, establishing Ginsberg as a kind of in-house conscience for the utopian aspirations of that burgeoning field – a Cassandra posing questions as to the values behind the fervid aspirations of bio-engineering.

Between 2013 and 2017, however, Ginsberg began moving her practice into broader territory with the development of her PhD project, ‘Better: Navigating Imaginaries in Design and Synthetic Biology to Question “Better”’. While still rooted in synthetic biology and design, Ginsberg lifted her focus to address a more general question: with designers, marketers, engineers, scientists and politicians all continually promising that their work will whom; better in what way; and who serves as the arbiter of what that better may or may not be? “I became very interested in how this little word can take on very different meanings and manifest in different kinds of designs and things,” explains Ginsberg. “I wanted to do the PhD to look beyond synthetic biology, and I ended up doing these four projects at once because I wanted to test the ideas that I wrote about. They’re really all written with this question of ‘What is better?’”

As Machine Auguries neared completion, and with the recently opened Better Nature at Vitra marking the debut of The Wilding of Mars, Disegno met Ginsberg to better understand the recent shifts in her practice.

I was intrigued by your PhD and the idea of“better”– it anchors an awful lot of your work. What got you interested in better?
The starting point was my “failed” TEDTalk [from 2011]. I was speaking between Malcolm Gladwell and Neil McGregor, who are epic storytellers, but I didn’t really understand TED until I got there. I knew I wanted to talk critically about synthetic biology, and the role that art and design could have in asking questions about a technology and its ethics, but I think they wanted me to talk about how synthetic biology could make the world better. I was not sophisticated enough to find a way around that; I didn’t have the language or the tools. I talked about the work I had done in Synthetic Aesthetics, which was an international research project where we brought artists and designers into synthetic biology labs and put the scientists and engineers into artists’ and designers’ studios. It was this amazing opportunity to get those making the technology to ask, “What does it mean to design life or nature or biology and how do you do it? How do you design it well?” That’s what I was trying to explain in my talk, but I soon realised that I was in a room full of people who really wanted me to talk about how I was going to solve problems.

You saw that as your failure?
To some extent. All I could do was ask questions and explain that’s what this kind of practice can do – it’s not solving problems, but using design to open up new areas. My TED talk never went online. A couple of years later I was due to do a talk for Design Indaba, and this time I worked with a speaking coach! I knew that what I do is useful – critique has utility – but I just couldn’t communicate it to that audience. That was a real learning curve, and it helped me to identify this problem of better and explain my role. Admittedly, my role is confusing and complicated because I come from a design background and designers typically want to make better things. That’s the Herbert Simon definition of design; he described design as a process to change an existing situation to a preferred one. But that opens up lots of questions about preference, and whose preference we’re talking about. So, in that session with Lloyd [Bracey], my speaking coach, I remember picking up a plastic bottle in desperation and asking, “How is this better?”

Why a plastic bottle?
It’s the most basic, everyday object, so it’s such a good way into the problem. The PET bottle was created to solve a problem around carbonated drinks. There wasn’t a plastic bottle that could hold fizzy drinks that contain fruit juices because the acidity would melt the plastic. Engineers at DuPont solved this by inventing PET. Now, that PET bottle clearly fulfils a brief and it has created a whole new industry, but did those engineers imagine there would be billions of single-use water bottles sold as a result? Probably not, but these are unintended consequences that the original brief didn’t take into account because it only concentrated on the design object. My argument is that if you’re operating within that system, there’s no single “better”. You could say that the PET bottle is better for the water industry and plastic-bottle manufacturers, and it’s better if you want to be hydrated, but it’s terrible for everything else. So the bottle is a good way of showing that there are multiple betters that coexist. I gave that talk at Design Indaba using the plastic bottle as a way of saying, “This is a design object that fulfils a brief. It’s better than the bottle it replaced, but it’s also terrible [ecologically]. So how can a thing that is both better and worse be ‘better’? How can this be a good product of design? How do we deal with this?” I wrote my PhD proposal from there. That started my obsession with better.

Do you think society struggles with the idea that something can be better in some respects, but by another metric immeasurably worse? There seems to be a consistent desire for neatness and simplicity.
That’s what’s so weird. In 2014, one year into my PhD, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party both had election slogans that promised a better future. How can such different values be attached to one word? Meanwhile, Design Indaba’s logo is, “A better world through creativity”, and it’s the same approach with TED and all of these organisations that are interested in what design or technology can do. The whole idea is that designers are going to save the world or make the world better. Or, in synthetic biology, synthetic biologists are going to make the world better; or Silicon Valley is going to make a better world. How can this word be so powerful? The more I looked into the PhD, the more I began to understand that there is no one better and, crucially, better is different to progress. Whether you believe in the myth of progress or not, progress promises to uplift all of humanity through advancing knowledge. Better, by contrast, doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s just a piece of elastic between two points which you define.

Could you not make a similar argument with “progress”? Progress depends upon what you define it as progressing towards and from.
I think progress is a myth; I’m not in the Steven Pinker school of thought that we are absolutely evolving towards becoming a better species. I think that we’re about to discover how much worse science and technology potentially make things as the climate breaks down. But better is a much slipperier endeavour because it really doesn’t mean anything. While progress has a set of values attached to it, better can mean anything. It doesn’t have a fixed meaning; it doesn’t have a fixed measure.

One of the contexts in which better seems to operate particularly successfully is marketing, which links in with your work’s use of speculation. Marketing is interested in imaginaries, hypotheticals and thought experiments – imagine what your life would be like if you had a pizza from Papa John’s, or a subscription to Sky TV.
I began to look at better as a form of social imaginary. It’s really powerful and all of this dismantling of “better” is not to say that it doesn’t exist. I can think the world is terrible, and still believe it could be otherwise, which comes back to humans as hopeful animals – crucially, we are able to imagine that things can be otherwise. But social imaginaries are interesting because a lot of our society functions around the idea of social fictions – the nation, the idea of money and so on. The social imaginary is a useful way to talk about how we buy into a fiction and these things are not just about futures – they can be about histories too. So “Make America Great Again” or “Take Back Control” are really nice examples of how powerful social imaginaries of golden ages are. Whether America was greater before or not doesn’t matter – the whole thing is a fiction that people buy into.

How do you employ that in your work because to an extent you’re also in the business of putting forward imaginaries and ideas of better?
Within this language of imaginaries, I’ve begun to propose something called the “critical imaginary”, which is a way of reconciling some of my problems with speculative design. For me, “speculative design” is not quite the right way of looking at things because it feels too much that it’s looking at various futures. I’m much more interested in the present and how we use these projects to effect change in the present. Rather than utopias or dystopias, the critical imaginary focuses on the idea of heterotopias from [Michel] Foucault – spaces that are different, not better. These heterotopias are “other” places, and they are spaces to reflect back on those that we currently occupy. Foucault wrote lists of spaces that could be considered heterotopias: cemeteries, cruise ships, Persian rugs, mirrors, brothels. It’s a really weird list, but they all have this common idea of being a space where you can reflect back on where you are. I thought that was a nice way of talking about these kinds of projects that create other worlds. They’re not propositions for better worlds – they’re spaces to come back here from.

I’m curious as to how you maintain that attitude, or encourage that interpretation. Whenever people see a possible world or different space, the temptation seems to be to read it as a utopia or a dystopia.
I’m enamoured with [JorgeLuis] Borges and his story ‘TheGarden of Forking Paths’. It’s became a really useful reference for me in that it offers the idea of multiple possible worlds in parallel. The story is of a garden that exists in time rather than space, and in which you can get to the same place from different locations. It’s an interesting way of thinking about contingency and it that has influenced my project The Wilding of Mars project. I was asked by the Design Museum to come up with something for its Moving to Mars exhibition and I really, really wanted to challenge the colonial narrative of the Mars story as it stands. Why would we want to go to Mars? Everyone would have a terrible time because we haven’t evolved to live there. We already have a really nice planet, and the rhetoric that we can trash the Earth and go somewhere else is dangerous. There is no backup to Earth, and we’re not going to suddenly become better people and behave differently when we leave Earth. Instead, I proposed to seed a wilderness on Mars – the entire premise being to send Earth life to Mars, just not humans. We would allow life to create a wilderness such that the planet becomes a repository for the mechanism of life. Maybe people will think I’m proposing this as a real idea, but I’m not. The point is to ask, “Why do we think we deserve Mars over other species?” There’s undoubtedly still a colonial aspect of taking on another planet, but I’m interested in the proposition that it’s not for human benefit. Is not exploiting something the most unnatural act we can imagine? Coming back to the critical imaginary and its potential for multiple timelines and generating “otherness”, I wanted to replicate that structure from ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, so The Wilding of Mars will always show at least two simulations simultaneously in an exhibition. There are always different ways that the world can go. You’re inhabiting two worlds at the same time, but which is better? Neither? Maybe one is better? By what measures could one be better? Then you get into the business of having to define your values.

You’ve mentioned the importance of a neutral presentation, but there seems a clear strain of melancholy to your recent work. The Substitute has such a mournful quality, while Resurrecting the Sublime positions a lost portion of our world as being tantalisingly close to resurrection but still out of reach. It’s got a real element of tragedy.
Some people will look at Resurrecting the Sublime and think, “Ah! Look what humans can do!” but we very purposefully framed it around a poetic melancholy. I’m not depressed! But Designing the Sixth Extinction, for instance, is a melancholic project. Synthetic biologists are utopian and that project was a direct response to conversations in synthetic biology as to whether we could engineer species to help save them. But that project still wasn’t overt enough for me [in its criticisms]. One of the reasons I’ve now stepped outside of synthetic biology is that I want to look more broadly at issues of nature, ecology, biodiversity and loss. We’re fucking up this planet and I’m not hopeful that we will stop.

A lot of discussions about climate crisis from campaigners such as Extinction Rebellion or Greta Thunberg have focused on exasperation with the fact that we already know what the solution is, but we refuse to act upon it. One of the emerging tendencies is an irritation with continual reflection and speculation at the expense of direct action in the here and now. How do you situate your notion of the critical imaginary in light of that?
I would be much better off joining Extinction Rebellion and/or becoming a politician. There are lots of ways I could contribute more and I’m not saying that any of my work is contributing to solving the issue – shipping artwork is not green either. But there is something potentially useful about getting these stories out there and creating an emotional connection with an audience, bringing attention to the issues, and making sure that people are saturated with them. There are different arguments as to whether we should be in panic mode or not, but I suspect that everything is ultimately useful.

There seems to be a growing sophistication and directness about your communication within these projects. The Substitute, for instance, is heart-breaking and you seem to be cultivating an interesting tension between the physical and the digital. There’s something very seductive about the digital, but a rhinoceros is almost supremely physical – nature documentaries always comment on their heft. There’s something traumatic about something so physical now only existing as a digital trace.I can’t watch rhinos on TV anymore because it makes me too sad. For The Substitute, we got 23 hours of rhino footage from Richard Policht, a scientist in the Czech Republic who worked with the last herds of northern white rhinos. Watching 23 hours of these rhinos – who were in a quite depressing Czech zoo – snuffling about and failing to mate was the closest I’ve ever been to spending time with northern whites. It’s this precious, precious archive of footage that’s the only connection I will ever have to their physicality. We used those videos as references for the animators at The Mill, who actually adapted a pre-existing model of a southern white rhino from an energy drinks commercial. For a project called The Substitute it’s interesting that our rhino is an actor we’ve repurposed. We changed his features, but he’s not a perfect northern white – and he has no balls, because I couldn’t face adding that budget line. So he’s a reproduction shipped digitally from LA, whose behaviour is based upon tapes shipped from the Czech Republic. We’ve ended up with an archival copy that’s imperfect, but the best approximation that we can have.

Do you see the work as confrontational? The digital sphere tends to prioritise the visual, whereas a lot of your work confronts the audience with information from their other senses – sound in the case of The Substitute and Machine Auguries, and scent in Resurrecting the Sublime.
That’s what I’m testing for – how do we create these moments of connection? How do you play with this thing of complete artifice? The Substitute is a flat projection and there’s no interactivity in the video work, so how do you make an emotional response? Sound helps and we’ve designed the animation to try to force the illusion. We’ve worked to orchestrate these moments where he looks at you, which is all taken from the real footage of rhinos behind bars looking at the scientist filming them. The brief for the animators was to give the audience goosebumps.

That direct, emotional quality hasn’t been so prominent in your work in the past. A few of the earlier projects seemed to generate confusion as to what exactly was being put forward, some of which seemed to be down to their being couched in the language of synthetic biology. Has there been a purposeful move to make your work more legible?
That makes me happy to hear because I understand them better now as well. One of the things that has been really good about working on the show at Vitra with Viviane Stappmanns [thecurator] was having to return to some of these old captions and make sense of this stuff in light of my move away from synthetic biology itself. The same threads have always been there in my work – the interest in nature and the construct of nature – and all of this new work is still about designing life. But the earlier work was purposefully couched in a neutrality, whereas to me those projects don’t feel neutral. I was so deeply embedded in the field of synthetic biology that the earlier work was very much aimed at the scientists as the audience. So there’s an impetus for me to reword some of that stuff. A lot of the work has been about the notion of fiction and all of these things – models, fictions, simulations – really fascinate me. How do you make work about fiction within a design context, where we’re not used to seeing fictions in those ways?