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12 Nov 21

Sampling the Future

Sampling is a process of analysis, where ‘sample’ groups are studied to make informed observations or predications about whole populations or systems. This process allows us to understand what is going on at a moment in time, or perhaps to predict what is about to happen.

When we consider some of the driving forces reshaping the future of design practice, such as technological shifts, geopolitical, economic, or environmental change, it is interesting to examine how these forces are understood and responded to by designers. The design projects in Sampling the Future each serve as exemplars or indicators of the shifting approaches and thinking of designers, as they observe and react to the world that surrounds them.

The near future

Looking first at the near future, tomorrow or a few years ahead, the exhibition presents a series of projects that are illustrative of the collaborative nature of design practice today and the spirit of invention that underpins much of what designers do – especially for designers with deep connections to the world of academic research.

Designer, researcher and scuba diving instructor Dr Pirjo Haikola and designer Alex Goad both work at the intersection of science, engineering and technology to search for ways to combat climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Although they work on separate projects, there is much common ground between them. They have both have joined forces with other disciplines as creative innovators in groundbreaking underwater design projects, which emulate nature in structures that can heal damaged ecosystems and accelerate biodiversity.

Dr Pirjo Haikola is developing new uses for sea urchins, a species that has overrun parts of southern Australia’s waters. The soaring sea urchin populations overeat kelp forests and seaweed habitats, creating underwater wastelands called barrens and pose a major threat to the ongoing survival of many marine species and habitats. In Urchin corals, 2020–21, Haikola has developed a landscape of 3D-printed corals from a new material manufactured from the shells and spikes of the purple sea urchin (Heliocidaris erythrogramma) and the black sea urchin (Centrostephanus rodgersii) mixed with organic plastics called biopolymers. The sea urchin material is part of ongoing investigation into the beneficial properties of sea urchin shells and has led to a collaboration on material development and testing for coral reef restoration purposes.

Similarly, Alex Goad’s research and practice looks to help mitigate the increasing effects of human activity on marine ecosystems by creating 3D-printed Modular Artificial Reef Structures (MARS). The damage to coral reefs globally is a well-documented reality caused by a myriad of environmental pressures. MARS is designed for constructing reef habitats in tropical and temperate waters. The innovative reconfigurable design creates a large surface area within a small footprint, while also providing protection for smaller fish species. The detailed surface skin pattern of the modules is designed to aid the colonisation of coral and filter feeding species, such as oysters and mussels. This system could be strategically positioned to reintroduce biodiversity in ecosystems damaged by coastal development or act as natural filters for waterways experiencing increased sediment deposits.

The other practitioners looking to the near future are architects Roland Snooks and Leanne Zilka, and textile designer Jenny Underwood, who examine how, in our digital age, small-scale, distributed and high-tech manufacturing within a circular economy, may replace the large-scale ‘linear’ or factory production that defined the last century. In a circular economy, designers, manufacturers and brands work to eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials (at their highest value), and regenerate nature. These new systems for high-strength, lightweight construction promise a more ecologically balanced future – a future that will be defined by material efficiency, minimal waste and the capacity to manufacture and build considering the common needs of people, ecosystems and other species.

Roland Snooks’s structure Unclear cloud, 2021, uses an experimental technique of infusing a carbon fibre structural skeleton within robotic 3D-printed polymer skins. The work illustrates how digital design processes, 3D printing and composite materials could transform the production of architecture. New methods of digital fabrication are increasingly available, allowing structural performance, ornament and architectural expression, once separate ‘layers’ within a building, to become one integrated whole. The sound work embedded within the architecture, by sound artist Philip Samartzis, reminds us that a future increasingly defined by big data and interconnected digital systems (the cloud) must also consider the accelerating data-carbon footprint of architecture and design.

The textile structures Knitted architecture, 2021, by Leanne Zilka and Jenny Underwood investigate the use of digital design and 3D-knitting technologies as an architectural system. Seamless knitting technologies, which ‘print’ 3D forms stitch by stitch (pixel by pixel) allow the designers to produce whole pieces of extruded textile tubes. These works are prototypes of textile ‘skins’ that once combined with emerging digital design and advanced fibres, could feasibly offer ways to rapidly knit high-strength, lightweight forms for green facades and other architectural elements with material efficiency and minimal waste.

Deep time

Thinking forward into deep time, generations or millennia ahead, Sampling the Future also features a set of speculative design projects focused on supply chains, extraction and materials. These projects reveal that there exists an increasingly important conversation within aspects of the design world about materials, where they come from, and where they end up. This conversation is as much about ecological concerns as it is about social ones – with the implications of mining, extraction, manufacturing, and consumption being increasingly understood as a complex and entangled set of relationships that designers must begin to ‘untangle’ if we are to shift to a more circular economy.

Within the projects we see that designers are using their ideas and skills to offer us objects, environments and images that expand our understanding of design’s place in the world, or our individual relationship to a material or artefact. It is increasingly common for designers who practice in a field known as ‘critical design’ to use their design skills to communicate and instigate conversations. Striving towards systemic change, the intention of these projects is to awaken the public consciousness to important contemporary issues.

The collaborations between jeweller Kyoko Hashimoto and designer and artist Guy Keulemans examine and critique the waste generated by industrial materials and processes, while proposing alternative supply chains and degrowth strategies in response to climate change. Across a series of projects by the duo within the exhibition, they present artefacts loaded with questions. They point out that as natural processes degrade artificial materials into finer and finer particulates, over deep time new forms of sedimentary rock will emerge, perhaps dormant under oceans and rivers. They ask what might this material look like and how might it be used by our far future descendants? Vases presented in the exhibition are designed as a simulation of this process. Materials found in the city, including aluminium, waste plastic, copper and iron debris are rolled, pressed and hammered in mimicry of geological sedimentation, and then milled by machine.

Similarly looking eons ahead, a collection of four mirrors by Alice Springs–based designer Elliat Rich are offered as artefacts from a future, and/or parallel society, where Western and non-Western scientific knowledge converge and find equilibrium. The mirrors and accompanying audio story of the Weaver offers a ‘mythic lens’ to ‘reweave’ ourselves, as one of the trillions of ‘patterns’ that make up the living world. Looking into the mirrors is intended as a ritual of reconnection to the ancient world.

Finally, the film Aurum, 2020, by architect Georgia Nowak and filmmaker Eugene Perepletchikov traces the shifting relations between material, society and place, while examining the growing environmental influence of contemporary extraction and production industries. Aurum juxtaposes today’s extraction and production processes of gold against historical narratives and mythologies, revealing the power of gold to transform societies. Today, the demand for gold continues to rise; it is essential in the manufacture of electronics and is increasingly attractive to investors as a safe haven. Old goldfields are reignited, and new open pits begin, as we once again bank on the stability of gold to store wealth during the uncertain times of COVID-19 and the pending environmental threats to come.

Together, these projects question how people in a distant future might make sense of today – through the materials, waste and relics we have left behind. Extracted, manufactured and proliferated through the epoch, now called the Anthropocene, how will the materials that define our current age be read or understood in the distant future? What will our material legacy tell us about today?