A Letter to the Visitor

A letter to the visitor

Dear collaborators and critics, mentors and friends,

I spent the fall of 2019 working on a speculative design fiction in the context of an advanced landscape architecture studio at UPenn that was taught by Professor Chris Marcinkoski. I am currently in the process of refining and completing that project, with continued guidance from Chris. This website is a sandbox to put out work in progress and to solicit feedback from you, whom I count among the friends and colleagues I trust, admire, and love to learn from the most.

The project brief asked us to use the methodology of speculative design to imagine and represent a possible mid-century future for public space in one of the cities of the Pearl River Delta in China. My design fiction proposal is based in the beautiful city of Guangzhou; it imagines what parts of the city’s domestic and public spheres might look like when it is waist-deep into the transition towards becoming a “microbially-activated” city. Research into futuring work on biotechnology led me to imagine how advances in these technologies might intersect with the rising threat of infectious diseases–specifically in regards to growing antibiotic resistance. I speculated broadly on how these forces in tension might reshape ideas of bodies in the (built) environment. In this imagined future, Guangzhou’s infrastructures and all of its residents cultivate microbial diversity from the micro to the macro scale and in every aspect of their daily lives.

The fictional transformation at the heart of this speculation was precipitated by a whole-of-society response to a devastating pandemic that was also fictional when I first conceived of the project. Today, this speculation has become frighteningly relevant in light of COVID-19It feels strange to have spent four months imagining a world twenty years past the first wave of a devastating pandemic only to find that we are all living in the midst of a frighteningly similar pandemic. While the specifics of my story focus on the havoc caused by a bacterium that develops resistance to all known classes of antibiotics (a critical difference that I will address in a future post), many of the themes of the project are relevant to the situation we currently find ourselves in.

It is more important than ever that we reconceptualize our relationality–with/in our bodies, with each other, and with our broader environments–through the lens of our relations with microbes. I worry that this pandemic will reinforce collective perceptions of the microbial world as a threat that needs to be scrubbed clean, sterilized, eliminated. In my mind, COVID-19 reinforces that we need to be smart–with all of our socio-scientific curiousity–in regards to getting to know and understand the microbes with which we cohabit our bodies, our buildings, and our landscapes. If nothing else, we have learned that we need to take the potential threats that an extremely small number of pathogenic microbes pose very seriously. But my research for this project has made clear to me that we are already embedded in vast networks of microbial relationships. Many of these relationship are absolutely necessary to sustain our own physiological well-being (as we have come to see through scientific research on the microbiome) but also to ecosystemic functioning more broadly (both in environments that we might consider “natural” as well as those we might consider “artificial”). It turns out that we are not very good at eradicating microbes, and our efforts to do so sometimes put pressure on them such they evolve into increasingly dangerous agentsYet beyond the specter of the super bug lies a world of microbial wonder ripe for (continued) study and for design that could transform personal and environmental health in the next century. (1)

As I bring the current iteration of this project to a point of completion, I will transition this website to a launch page. In the meantime, it is a password protected playground in which I hope to gather feedback and stimulate critical conversation that will push the project to be more boldly imaginative, engaging, rigorous, sensitive, and beautiful.

I ask that you feel free to respond to any part of the project–as it stands currently in its whole, on its graphic representation, story telling, soundscape, contextualization through the materials on this website, anything! To my design critics and colleagues, the kind of feedback that would be helpful here would be something along the line of critique you might give at a 3/4 review. That being said, also feel free to visit and check it out with no pressure to respond; I am, in part, putting this website up as a measure of accountability for myself.

With gratitude,

Zuz

(1) A caveat on the promise of biopower–There are those in the futuring business who see great promise in biotechnology, and who are quick to predict a new biological industrial revolution whose promises are limitless. It feels obvious to me, but I will say it here nonetheless: while new technologies might have unpredictable outcomes in empowering small minorities that were previously marginalized, they will largely reify the existing power structures and inequalities of the current political regime. A techno-optimistic view of the world that presumes limitless growth will result in economies of extraction in the biological industrial revolution as much as it did in previous overhauls of the systems of means of production. That being said, I find Donna Haraway’s introduction to Staying with the Trouble helpful in considering how we might engage with specific technological projects as part of our efforts to live more gently with each other (wherein our circle of kin is defined as broadly as our imaginations allow). While she dismisses “comic faith in technofixes, whether secular or religious,” she reminds us that “sometimes it is hard to remember that it remains important to embrace situated technical projects and their people.” Embracing such projects is a potential path to overcoming the potentially more destructive “position that the games is over, it’s too late, there’s no sense trying to make it any better, or at least having any active trust in each other in working and playing for a resurgent world.” (Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 2016, p 3-4). This project is my own small way of thinking with the many microbiologists–both the scientists and the artists–who are exploring the vast potential of biopower.

Process Video V1

Here is the current version of the video, warts-and-all. There are still a lot of moments that are blank, missing footage, missing animation, etc.

The password (and my mantra) for the video is: microbeshavenomorals

Note: this version is currently best viewed in the embedded window rather than full-screen as it is rendered at a lower resolution than the final will be.

Process Video V2

Please find the next version of Microbial Guangzhou (still very much in process but making progress!) here:

https://upenn.box.com/s/4mmlel3mu9t4qlzt8w4155cesy26w3s3

The focus in this version was to push the environments of the canal, the market, and the tea shop to a greater level of development. I am also trying to see if I can make the themes of microbial ecosystem cultivation come alive without dialogue. So far it seems like there is a lot missing without the dialogue, but I think it will push me to animate more critical pieces, and perhaps I’ll bring back a more limited dialogue to supplement.

Guangzhou

I found a lot to be moved by on our trip to Guangzhou: the fluidity between indoor and outdoor in its historic architecture, the lushness and expansiveness of its public spaces, and the animation and liveliness of those spaces filled with people who clearly live their lives both indoors and out. Here I try to share some of aspects of the city’s landscapes and built form that I am inspired by and continue to look to as I develop the graphic and design sensibilities of Microbial Guangzhou. The photos below are mine unless otherwise credited.

This ancient city was built at the meeting place of White Cloud Mountain (Baiyun Mountain) and the Pearl Sea (the Zhujiang or Pearl River).


It is the city at the root of Lingnan culture.


Guangzhou lives up to its name as the Flower City with exuberance, with lush landscapes not only in parks but also in the smallest of alleyways and even in medians and on overpasses.


Vegetation is not only reserved for gardens.


Open space–parks, plazas, canals, etc–are well-loved and well-used by residents.


The exercise equipment distributed throughout the city—both in parks and tucked away into small spaces in dense urban neighborhoods—is used by people of all ages.


The traditional architecture feels porous: spaces flow into each other. Interior blends with exterior.


The practice, infrastructure, and knowledge production of Traditional Chinese Medicine is thriving.


The Qingping Medicine Market is the largest Traditional Chinese Medicine market in the region. Buyers come to make personal and wholesale purchases from over 3000 sellers.

When we walked through this garden with our guide he told us that he, like many other people in Guangzhou, has a working knowledge of the properties of more than 100 plants that he feels are useful in regulating/caring for his body.