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What Superheroes And Design Fictions Can Tell Us About Ourselves

London-based critical designer Tobias Revell uses myths, fables, and wasps to shine a light on human behavior.
September 17, 2013, 4:53pm

Whose world do you live in? Now, this doesn’t concern the debate over evolution versus creationism, nor does this discourse serve to demystify the principles behind our planet’s emerging economies. Take a moment from conjuring up that facetious ‘note to self’ you were about to broadcast in 140 characters, and think about the last time you consciously considered the forces that influenced the way in which you operate – what morals and values you believe in, and the decisions you make moving forward. Your perception of reality is unequivocally shaped by those musings of fictitious lands that you invented as a child, the heroes you looked up to, and those narratives you prescribed to growing up.

We’ve always been captivated by alternate realities – by stories overlaying the future and carving out the past, by tales of the incredible and even the believable. Our histories, creeds, and technologies are deeply embedded in fantasy, in fable, and in first-person accounts ­– crystallised for generations to come. This isn’t to say that human beings are at our core, escapists and therefore require fiction to survive in our realities. What fiction allows for is a more deliberately curated conception of society’s cultural context, a point of reference which we’re not typically afforded in real-time and at the human scale.

The fictions that inhabit our world succeed in lubricating our thinking because we are able to identify with the characters in those narratives. An individual necessarily identifies with a protagonist’s (or villain’s) morals, admiral traits, and likely acts in such a way that exemplifies those traits. When it comes to design fictions and even speculative architecture (for the sake of this argument, let’s just pretend they can exist harmoniously in the same realm), these devices aren’t meant exclusively to tell stories, but rather to communicate the implications of a changed world. However, does speculative design then, have the ability to transpose the same effects that identifying with a character in a piece of fiction might? Do we learn more, living vicariously through Bruce Wayne’s personal experiences, or are we more compelled by the circumstances that transpire in Gotham City as Batman – tempered with a dystopian sensibility of justice, and critical of the evils of unchecked urbanism – ventures out to right the wrongs of wealthy greed.

Into Your Hands Are They Delivered, image credit: Tobias Revell

For London-based critical designer, Tobias Revell, it’s not about the characters or worlds necessarily, but using fiction as a mechanism by which to quiet the turbulence around us and provide clarity in our perception. “By clearing the noise and amplifying interesting weak signals to a point of almost ridiculousness we can create a new lens on reality and begin to reveal critical insights into the shaping of our futures.”

His most recent work, Into Your Hands Are They Delivered  is constructed as a classic piece of fiction. The project is built around a core text from which images, documents and evidences are extracted to create a more malleable story, which remains loyal to the core themes. “It was deeply inspired by mythology and fables, with a spectacular and metaphysical dragon - wasp - in this case which demands the attentions of the hero only to find the hero (us) lacking.”

“The story deals with the wider fallacies of a culture based on doctrine, be it science or religion and how terms like 'natural' have gathered moralistic meanings through myth religion and even the debates around science. To deal with such huge historic concepts on a scale approachable in an exhibition it only seemed write to zoom out from the world and re tell our history as a fable.”

Into Your Hands Are They Delivered, image credit: Tobias Revell

While world-building has the potential to shape behaviour, it doesn’t necessarily model behaviour, the way the influence of a character in fiction might. There is more freedom in terms of how an individual translates the "facts" and therefore more variation in response when it comes to speculative design. An environment or a world, regardless of how utopian or dystopian, breeds variety. The whole spectrum is in response to the environment, and in some sense reflects it, but there's no one-to-one interaction.  There will still be heroes, villains, and everything in between. But the audience is just that, the audience. So then maybe it’s not about whether we relate to characters, or can place ourselves within context. Maybe the most important thing to consider is what will get us out of our foggy stupor. It’s like Tobias claims, “The world is full of weak signals, fragmented indicators that give us insight into our potential futures and reveal something about the present. But the world is noisy and hard to parse, full of tricks of marketing and the dazzle of technology.”

In contrast to the more fantastical nature of “Into Your Hands…,” Revell’s project, Mercenary Cubiclists presents a very technical narrative. The soft or invisible systems that preside over us today (i.e. “the cloud”) are reimagined as hardware that literally tethers us to our built environment. The seemingly intangible burden of these systems are revealed “in order that we might better grasp the reality of our situation in a very dramatic and physical way, with cables instead of signals, slaves instead of workers, deceptive games as labour and cities as surrogates,” Tobias explains.

Mercenary Cubiclists, image credit: Tobias Revell

“Huge amounts of effort is put into hiding the cost and weight of digitised capitalism, from simple terminology like 'the cloud' which actually means a vast sprawling network of undersea cables and server centres consuming around 2% of the world's energy, through to the strange physicality of an Amazon warehouse,” Tobias reveals.

Mercenary Cubiclists, image credit: Tobias Revell

The design fictions that we are confronted by, and even speculative architecture from the Metabolists, Archigram, and the lesser known collectives such as Antfarm; they all ultimately serve to quiet the noise and call attention to that other, whatever that may be. It’s not a matter of whether or not we can relate to these stories or characters or circumstances, but whether we are willing to listen.

So should we expect a Halloween-eve mass exodus of 20-somethings rushing down unpretentious alleyways around Shoreditch or Silver Lake, dressed up as buildings from Kiyonori Kikutake’s Marine City? Most likely not – beyond the context of some architecture school’s Beaux Arts Ball. Will you hear a song about Tobias’ mercenary cubiclists on the radio? It’s highly questionable. But, for a moment, you were transported into an alternate conceptual space. And emerging out of that suspended dis-belief, you may have even felt compelled to share your musings (via the plethora of social networking platforms) regarding a world where our current constructs are fundamentally skewed…and for the moment, that’s a damn good start.