A letter to the visitor
Dear collaborators and critics, mentors and friends,
I spent the fall of 2019 working on a speculative design fiction project 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 in the context of an independent study. 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 disease–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-19. It 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 all of my research for this project has illuminated for me the vast networks of microbial relationships that are absolutely critical not only to 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 agents. Yet beyond the specter of the super bug lies a world of microbial wonder ripe for (continued) study and for design that stands a reasonably good chance of transforming 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.
(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.” In fact embracing such projects is a potential path 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.