Liam Young <em>The Great Endeavor</em> 2023 (detail)

Liam Young: the worlds of tomorrow


Liam Young is a designer and film director who works in the para-fictional space between render and reality. Through installations, film and performance, he builds worlds that showcase striking visions of tomorrow as a way of examining the urgent environmental questions confronting the present world.

Young’s career as a ‘world builder’ – someone who visualises imaginary worlds and their complex systems and artefacts – spans the film and television industry as well as his own films. Since moving to Los Angeles in 2016, he has accelerated his design practice with the world-building machinery of Hollywood, including motion graphics, visual effects and storytelling, to dramatic effect. This is evident in two major works displayed in the NGV exhibition Liam Young: Planetary Redesign – both Planet City, 2020, and The Great Endeavor, 2023, are extraordinary provocations about the climate crisis.

Originally commissioned as a short film for the 2020 NGV Triennial, Planet City follows ‘a continuous festival procession [that] dances its way through the city on a 365-day loop,’ Young writes on his website. ‘Each day it intersects with another carnival, culture or celebration, changing the beats as it goes, endlessly cycling through new colours, costumes and cacophonies.’

The hero of Planet City is the titular character, a megalopolis that hosts the entire population of the world – 10 billion – in one location so the rest of the planet can heal as a vast wilderness. The work speculates on what might happen if we dramatically reversed urban sprawl, retreating into one super-sustainable urban agglomeration. This mega-megacity utilises current technologies across systems of production – energy, agriculture, aquaculture and so on. The city itself is built from the upcycled materials of our cities of today. Young imagines us dismantling what we have built over generations, taking materials with us as we retreat to our new home while the rest of the planet is left to rewild.

If Planet City illustrates how humanity could abandon most of the world to allow it to heal via ecological repair, Young’s The Great Endeavor, the second major work in this solo exhibition, turbocharges a process of healing through geo-engineering via carbon removal and storage at a planetary scale. It speculates on the infrastructures, number of workers and political agreements that would be needed to capture the vast quantities of emissions required to reduce the effects of anthropogenic climate change. Once captured by a global network of extractors, this carbon would be sequestered – pumped underground and stored in geology sinks made of basalt and other rocks. The technology would do in two years what nature would do itself over hundreds or thousands of years. At the scale required, Young sees this as the largest engineering project in human history, equivalent to rebuilding the infrastructures (wells, pumps, pipes, rigs and refineries) of the entire fossil fuel industry. In fact, in Young’s vision, the fossil fuel industry is dismantled and repurposed for this endeavour: ‘our generation’s moon landing’ as he calls it, with reference to the planetary-scale mobilisation of workers and their imaginations.

The recalibration of new, massive infrastructure projects for human salvation is not unchartered territory in architecture and design. The twentieth-century postwar vanguard was obsessed with megastructures: the Metabolists, Yona Friedman, Paul Rudolph, to name a few. These architects were united by their utopic projections to reform society through technocratic apparatuses. Time, however, was not on the side of many of these visions; their future did not arrive.

Like these architects, Young is also enthused by technological advancements and technocratic investigations as a way to face the future. Both Planet City and The Great Endeavor are underpinned by substantial fieldwork, including quantitative analysis and qualitative interviews demonstrating that Young’s worlds are possible. Also showing in the exhibition is Young’s documentary Feeding 10 Billion: 100,000 Seasons, which investigates new developments in agtech that have informed Young’s work: meat is created from cells without the need for farming or slaughter, plants grow without soil, and crops are harvested by vertically stacked robots. These technological developments foreground a possible future where it may be possible to ecologically feed Planet City’s 10 billion inhabitants, which also happens to be Earth’s projected population in 2050. Young’s research hints at the notion that it is not technology holding us back but the political and economic will and cultural and social desire to change.

This goes to the crux of Young’s work. He yanks the audience out of dystopic doom-scrolling by enticing viewers with the idea that psychological liberation from the climate crisis is possible through new rituals; by becoming an active participant in constructing the world through meaningful labour and playful behaviour. This is illustrated in Planet City where Young poetically portrays a plenitude of workers, including ‘zero-waste weavers’, ‘drone shepherds’ and ‘code talkers’. This echoes the occupational or trade-based surnames that emerged from medieval England like ‘Baker’, ‘Cook’, ‘Fisher’ or ‘Smith’, where labour literally became entwined with identity.

Young’s ensemble of characters in Planet City, who each represent distinct archetypes from this city of 10 billion residents, all wear costumes produced in collaboration with Ane Crabtree (costume designer for The Handmaid’s Tale and Westworld) and other artists and designers from around the world. The headdresses conceal the identity of the worker, including their race and gender, foregrounding the colossal cooperation that would be required to overcome the current world’s cultural and social differences. The ludic nature of these citizens has parallels to the imaginary inhabitants of New Babylon, 1956–74, a conceptual utopic project by Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys realised in drawings, models and writing. New Babylon’s inhabitants were ‘homo ludens’ or the ‘playful man’, where leisure and work or business merge (‘bleisure’ to use the jargon of the twenty-first century) because automation has liberated humans from industrious tasks. In New Babylon homo ludens drift through the city producing new spaces in an ever-changing environment constructed of modular components. Unlike many of the megastructure visions proceeding it, New Babylon did not call for a writ-large demolition of the present. Constant cantilevers the superstructure above the city and its surrounds while automated factories are embedded in a subterranean world. Young’s Planet City, like Constant’s New Babylon, is built on the present world rather than as a tabula rasa. It is neither a masterplan nor a blueprint. The architecture of Planet City is a collage of buildings and technologies from the current world made anew through a cultural shift and told through a cultural drift, or procession, of its inhabitants.

The Great Endeavor is also built on top and below the current world but with a new cast of inhabitants. While the characters of Planet City merge technology and animism, the chorus of The Great Endeavor are working-class heroes. This is demonstrated in the costumes on display in Planetary Redesign, which blend pragmatic workers’ apparel with the intricate details often associated with luxury. Apparel made from fossil fuels – once icons of centuries of industrialisation and extraction – are here transformed into cherished uniforms (with the insignias of Shell and Halliburton among others): protective gloves, aprons, masks and overalls are tailored from custom textiles and woven with geological data, infrastructure maps and cultural motifs inspired by the landscapes the workers now call home. Reflecting the union and pride of the workforce, the soundtrack to The Great Endeavor is a new planetary worker’s song composed by Lyra Pramuk.

The futures Young exhibits in Planetary Redesign should not be read as solutions to the climate crisis – even if his visions may be possible; instead, this exhibition offers two radical design ideas as provocations for how humans could work together to tackle a global problem that at times seems too large and complex to solve. Young turns the machinery of Hollywood away from a dystopic cautionary tale where the world is on the brink-of-the-end to something more optimistic and hopeful. His works are a call for action, a clarion call, for humans to collaborate at a planetary scale, beyond borders, beyond cultures, beyond economics, beyond species, and beyond architecture. Through these works, we see the potential for creativity and collective action to redesign the ecology of the planet.

Dr Timothy Moore, Curator of Contemporary Design and Architecture / Melbourne Design Week
Ewan McEoin, Senior Curator Contemporary Art, Design and Architecture