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True writing and (ethnographic) fiction

I’ve been writing fiction.

I don’t think I’m very good at it and I want to get better.

There are loads of books and websites and quotes about writing and story-telling, but right now I’m allowing myself to be guided by one piece of advice from Ernest Hemingway:

“Good writing is true writing.” (By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, p. 215)

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” (A Moveable Feast, p. 22)

I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean “true” in the sense of being completely factual or correct, as much as he meant it in the sense of being honest and faithful enough to actual experience, actions, knowledge and emotions that a reader could not help but be moved. And that kind of “true” is really hard–especially when you’re making things up.

“I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced.” (Death in the Afternoon, p. 2)

Death in the Afternoon is non-fiction, but Hemingway turned a lot of what he actually experienced into fiction, and this resonates with my interest in ethnographic fiction. But, again, doing this is hard.

When asked how a writer can train, Hemingway responded:

“Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed into the water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you have.” (By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, p. 219-220)

I like the value he places on observation and description; these are the same two things upon which all good social and cultural research is built. But mostly I like his explicit recognition that the point of writing is to affect a reader.

The lesson I take here is that this doesn’t happen by telling the reader what the writer thinks. And it doesn’t happen by telling the reader what to think, either. A good story gives a reader something else to think about.

“Some days it went so well that you could make the country so that you could walk into it through the timber to come out into the clearing and work up onto the high ground and see the hills beyond the arm of the lake.” (A Moveable Feast, p. 91)

“What I’ve been doing is trying to do country so you don’t remember the words after you read it but actually have the Country.” (to Edward O’Brien, 1924, Selected Letters, p. 123)

“[Y]ou are beginning to get what you are trying for which is to make the story so real beyond any reality that it will become a part of the reader’s experience and part of his memory. There must be things he did not notice when he read the story or the novel which without his knowing it, enter into his memory and experience so that they are a part of his life.” (unpublished manuscript from the Kennedy Library collection, Roll 19, T 178)

“That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best–make it all up–but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.” (to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1934, Selected Letters, p.407)

There’s plenty going on in these quotes, but I’m most struck by the possibility that a story’s capacity to affect a reader depends on how successfully a writer can bring people, places and things to life. And what I take from Hemingway here is that this requires a writer to blur the line between fact and fiction, to write truly without writing the Truth.

In any case, I want my writing to inhabit, and evoke, this space–and moving in this direction is, I think, the key to merging researcher and writer to create good ethnographic fiction.

Now I know there’s a lot more I need to think about, and a lot more that could be said, but I want to end with a speculative fiction quote (via Jeffrey Callen) that suggests one way we can go about making up true stories:

“He was engaged in a serious search for the meaning of his own existence…. To do that, Cinnamon had to fill in those blank spots in the past that he could not reach with his own hands. By using those hands to make a story, he was trying to supply the missing links. From the stories, he had heard repeatedly from his mother, he derived further stories in an attempt to re-create the enigmatic character of his grandfather in a new setting. He inherited from his mother’s stories the fundamental style he used, unaltered, in his own stories: namely, the assumption that fact may not be truth, and truth may not be factual. The question of which parts of a story were factual and which parts were not was probably not a very important one for Cinnamon. The important question for Cinnamon was not what his grandfather did but what his grandfather might have done. He learned the answer to this question as soon as he succeeded in telling the story.” (Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, p. 525)

Oddly enough, I think Hemingway would have approved.

The Show!

Fieldwork–or more specifically, participant observation–has always been what I love most about my research, and event-based fieldwork has been an important part of my current project. This year’s National Agricultural Fieldays gave me a thorough introduction to agricultural technology and rural computing in NZ, and the Merino Shearing and Woolhandling Competition showed me a new dimension of human-animal relations. But I’ve been waiting all year for the 149th Canterbury A&P Show, and that’s where I’ll be Wednesday-Friday this week.

Today’s NZ Herald has a story about The Show that does a great job of conjuring the event:

“Look at the power in this Angus bull. It looks like a Mac truck and there’s a tonne o’ meat in him. He’s got a nice expression on his face, a calm temperament, a fine pair of testicles. This is a helluva good-looking bull.”

“This South Devon cow, she’s bright-eyed and feminine. And she has nice feet, firm on the ground, and a pretty, chubby calf. There’s a good udder set on her, too.”

Six judges for the Beef All Breeds competition have made their winning choices. They talk about the animals with knowledge, enthusiasm and humour. I’m a city slicker and had no idea that an Angus bull could be so interesting or cattle judges such showmen. The judges, and most of the male onlookers, wear their R.M. Williams boots and belts, their best jeans and town-shirts – cotton, ironed nicely, sleeves rolled up and the top two buttons open showing a tuft of chest hair.

I’m at the Canterbury A&P Show. A&P means Agricultural and Pastoral so this show is all about things rural; the country comes to Christchurch. There are no competitions for sewing, baking or growing and arranging flowers that some shows have … The focus is animals.


In the livestock pavilion, a vast, covered area, I inch between myriad pens, starting with cattle, moving on to goats, pigs, llamas, alpacas then, finally, sheep. It smells of hay, lanolin from wool and coconut sunscreen from the people walking by. Some animals have rows of ribbons tied to their pens. Others haven’t been lucky and sit, blink and chew, waiting to go back to their fields.

The show is on for three days and these hundreds of animals must be fed and watered; 30 tonnes of grass is trucked in and an enormous amount of hay. There is even a milking machine to which dairy-cow owners dutifully take their prize cows twice a day. The logistics behind this (and the mucking out that must go on because the pens and animals are all immaculate) is impressive.


I find a shady seat near farmers who are drinking Speight’s and yakking with their mates in a low-toned rumble. Some hold their winning certificates and happily accept congratulations. It’s convivial and friendly in a blokey way. As I leave I notice I’ve had a nice sit-down in the Sheep Exhibitors’ Club.

The Sheep Maternity Ward is nearby and I, with a flock of wide-eyed children, watch a lamb being born. It’s a grunty, messy, bloody process and the floppy, dazed lamb that slides out seems to be yellow. Mum is licking it in a jiffy and when I return half an hour later the smart wee thing is staggering around its mother’s wool looking for a nipple.

I, too, need food but the A&P Show is no place for a vegetarian. Avenues of food stalls are selling pies, hot dogs, burgers, beef sandwiches, beef noodles and lamb kebabs; nothing, anywhere, that is remotely vegetarian. I settle for a ham roll and pull out the ham.


The Canterbury A&P Show has delighted visitors for 149 years; the first one was held in 1862. It’s a fun day out and a rare insight for townies – these days that’s most of us – into heartland New Zealand.

Yes. My animal and meat-loving self is super excited. Stories and photos to follow!

Some thoughts on cultural heritage visualisation and materialisation

Proboscis’ Urban Tapestries: Public Authoring in the Wireless City project (2004-2007) changed what I thought digital storytelling could be and do, and its desire to explore what might constitute a 21st century Mass Observation still resonates deeply with me. I found myself thinking about this after the Powerhouse Museum‘s Seb Chan and Luke Dearnley presented on culture + heritage + digital at last week’s Web Directions South conference.

A few things from their preso have stuck with me, not least because they talked about some approaches to knowledge creation and dissemination that I think academics could put into practice more often. For example, over the past ten years museums have had to learn to give up some of their authority and control, or at least to understand authority and control a bit differently. Describing the current situation, they say:

“Now it is all about being a data provider, getting our knowledge and collections out into the community where they can be debated and gather feedback and attract interest. The social web and now the mobile web has made this possible at the kind of scale that wasn’t possible in 2001. At the same [time] we now have ‘contextual authority’ rather than what we previously imagined was ‘overall authority’.”

And when discussing collections, they raise some interesting points about location and scale:

“The other big change is that of scale. A collection like that of the Powerhouse used to feel ‘large’ but in actual fact it is tiny. Its value in the digital space now is no longer as an island but only in what it can contribute to national and international collections – a collection of collections. That’s a tough challenge for a State-funded museum whose majority of ‘visitors’ walking in the door live in Sydney. But at scale new possibilities emerge.

What this boils down to, at least in terms of traditional social and cultural research, is the necessity of being comfortable with the fact that we create only one of many types of knowledge, but also being comfortable with the fact that we already create the kind of contextual knowledge that can be used by others in ways we can only imagine. (I think that empirical researchers with a background in participant observation or action research are already well on board.)

But I’m reminded that I never learned about Mass Observation in my anthropology classes and, in retrospect, I think it was because in an era of privileged anthropologists exclusively studying the exotic Other, MO sought to create “an anthropology of ourselves” by recording the everyday lives of ordinary British people. In other words, “their” knowledge (both subject and object) wasn’t as good as “our” knowledge–and it didn’t belong in a formal education. But what if all ethnographic data were put together into a “collection of collections” with which people could do all sorts of things? Yale University’s Human Relations Area Files project has done a brilliant job of compiling a wide diversity of cultural materials, but when I used it to create the re/touch interaction design encyclopaedia, well, let’s just say that its digital format did precious little to help me. My point here is that we also need to work with digital media folks more often.

When I think of data visualisation and cultural heritage, I see extraordinary, but still largely untapped, potential–especially in terms of working with qualitative data that do not easily lend themselves to snappy charts and infographics. Locative media have, I think, fared much better in being able to represent less clear-cut or ephemeral information distributed across space and time, allowing us to see over and under things with extraordinary detail. (As an aside, I’m really looking forward to seeing the upcoming Convergence Special Issue on Locative Media.)

But I also remain convinced that data visualisation, either quantitative or qualitative, could be productively complemented by more critical explorations in data materialisation. I’ve written before about how materialisation can be more affective than visualisation, and while Timo Arnall and BERG get a lot of much deserved attention for gorgeous wireless visualisations like Immaterials and Wireless World, my favourite video of theirs has always been Nearness:


That single video did more to help me understand how RFID works than dozens of other papers and visualisations put together, and all because it didn’t just make the invisible visible, it made it physical or materialised it. As Jack Schulze explained:

“RFID is a complex and fairly abstract technology to grasp. We have to be careful in how we communicate with it. There are many leaps of imagination and understanding required to grasp it and hold a useful model of how it works and what is happening, let alone see how it maps usefully and elegantly into the world around us. The familiarity of the chain reaction form, means the audience quickly grasps that the normal kinetic transfer of force in the sequence is replaced by invisible forces that work very closely together. Like invisible digital breaths between objects. Because the form was familiar, our hope was the concept of nearness without touching would be clearly understood.”

But back to Seb and Luke’s presentation. They showed a bunch of interesting work, and I was completely taken by the New York Public Library’s historical menus project. Oh, how I wish that radishes would become popular again! But mostly I would love to see these data materialised as cookbooks and servingware.

The UK’s National Maritime Museum and Citizen Science Alliance‘s Old Weather project is also pretty impressive. As Fiona Romeo and Lucinda Blaser explain:

“A programme of citizen science allows our museum to link cutting-edge science and issues with our historic purpose and subjects. The Old Weather project also delivers a reusable interface for the distributed transcription of archive materials … The logbooks, which date from 1914 to 1923, contain previously untapped information about the weather, ships’ movements and daily events onboard. This data is not available anywhere else, and has the potential to advance scientific understanding of climate variability and change. By taking part in Old Weather, members participate in and gain an understanding of how climate science research is undertaken, data are processed and results used, allowing them to contribute towards important climate research activities.”

Of particular interest to me is how the project treats participants as collaborators in knowledge creation rather than as mere informants or labourers:

“The Citizen Science Alliance is guided by a philosophy that all projects must answer a real scientific research question. The projects must never waste the ‘clicks’, or time, of volunteers, who should be respected as collaborators, including, where appropriate, recognition as co-authors of academic papers.”

The transcription tool also allows for the recording of additional data that keeps volunteer participants interested and engaged:

“While there may be an initial pleasure in encountering the poetic language of the weather scale, there was a risk that the task of extracting observations would be considered ‘dry’ or repetitive after a short time. But our volunteers have been inspired by the real human stories that they discover in the logs and they capture weather data in order to follow the stories of vessels and people through to the end. In doing so, they gain an insight into life at sea during this time period. For example, they come to understand that enemy combat was not as common as they might have imagined, and there is much more in the logs to do with the practicalities of living life at sea.”

Again, the richness of this information and the experience of working with it really makes me want to see people making some ship dioramas!

But the final lesson from their project, I think, is relevant to all public cultural heritage data visualisation and materialisation projects:

1) Provide a platform for volunteers to share their data, findings and challenges;
2) Ensure that professional researchers enter into discussion with the volunteers, both to set specific challenges and provide feedback, but also to respond to the questions and interests that emerge from the community itself;
3) Release all of the analysed data back to the community, as soon as is practicable for the project.

And now, writing all this down just makes me realise how much I want the Counting Sheep project to be a solid exploration of what socially and culturally focussed design research can contribute to the visualisation and materialisation of cultural heritage…

Science fiction, fantasy, design and cultural invention

True Blood fans are familiar with the kind of story-telling that comfortably puts vampires, werewolves and witches right in with the rest of us, and over the past few years I’ve read a lot of “urban fantasy,” a sub-genre characterised by the inclusion of fantasy elements in an otherwise recognisable and often contemporary (urban) setting or, as one fan site puts it, the type of story “where para is normal.”

Now I laugh when friends and colleagues tease me about my taste in reading materials–after all, there’s no guilt in my pleasure–but I’m also intellectually captivated by these stories and think that might be worth trying to unpack a bit.

I remember wandering around Chapters on Ste Catherine in Montréal, looking for something easy and fun to read. I had just finished watching the entire Buffy series and was in the mood for some more tough-chick ass-kicking, and a young gay salesclerk suggested the Anita Blake series. While I devoured every book on my weekly work commute to Concordia, I had no idea that I would eventually find myself in a multitude of Canadian, American, UK, Australian and New Zealand bookstores joyfully talking with complete strangers about which urban fantasy series had the smartest and strongest heroines, the most brutal fights, the hottest sex. Through these books and conversations I felt connected (like I didn’t know was possible) with the middle-aged mother and housewife who dreamt of being a warrior in epic battles against the forces of evil, with the young MtF transsexual who fell in love with so many fierce and playful shapeshifters. I was amazed that despite our differences, we could find ourselves, and each other, within these narratives. And to this day, these are the only times I’ve actually felt what Maffesoli meant when he wrote about taste and tribes.

But is there anything about these stories that can be put to good research and design use? STS and HCI researchers, futurologists and designers have long shared an interest in science fiction, and I’ve been talking about fantasy fiction. As Joanna Russ suggests:

“Science fiction is not fantasy, for the standards of plausibility of fantasy derive not from science, but from the observation of life as it is.”

I think she meant this to back up her claim that science fiction is superior because of its “truthful” and didactic nature, but it also allows us to consider the possibility that urban fantasy can be appreciated precisely because it seamlessly brings together the natural and supernatural, the mundane and the extraordinary. To be aesthetically successful, it doesn’t have to be scientifically plausible but it does need to be emotionally recognisable and moving–and that has important implications for those of us interested in using speculation rather than simulation to help people navigate possible presents and futures.

Of course, as Charles Elkins noted in 1979:

“The relevant point is not whether these fictions are ‘true’ or ‘false’ but whether they are useful. We must have them because it is only through them that we are able to think or act at all.”

Unlike the rational and predictive models favoured by more positivist futurologists, Elkins points out that science fiction (and I would add speculative design) functions according to a dramatic model:

“Where the rational models of the futurologist might be best described by the paradigm of the classical syllogism ─ ‘if this … then this’ ─ the model for a literary work might be best described within the structure of  ‘what versus what’ or ‘who versus who,’ with its final statement given, not in the form of a conclusion based on valid inference, but in the form of a proverb.”

This may seem a minor, or even obvious point, but when it comes to the relationships amongst fact, fiction, research and design, the ability to move beyond utopias that become boring for their lack of conflict, or dystopias that become boring for their lack of hope, is crucial. This is the difference between actualisation and potentiality. As E.M. Forster famously wrote in Aspects of the Novel, and I try very hard to get my design students to understand:

“‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot … Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’”

A lot of design is very good at stories; far less design is good at plot–and I’m convinced that we need the latter if we want design to serve, as Jack Schulze puts it, as a form of  “cultural invention” instead of problem-solver. And I think that these differences are related to differences between speculative design and design fiction, a point to which I’ll return shortly.

I’m not a huge fan of magical metaphors in technoscience and design, but I do find a few related concepts to be helpful in understanding how we can use speculative design to bring about significant cultural change. For example, utopian futures often use technoscience to enchant, while dystopian futures often use technoscience to disenchant; in both cases, design functions as an incantation of sorts. As Elkins explains,

“[Science fiction] must destroy old beliefs, furnish us with forms of passage from the old to the new, and finally inculcate new values in place of old beliefs. Art does the first through a symbolic process of ‘de-mystification,’ the second by eroding fixity in meaning with metaphors, and the third by ‘consecrating’ the symbols charged with new values and beliefs. This process is not done solely or even primarily through appeals to logic, to reason, or to the ‘hard facts.’ It is done through the communication of specific symbolic forms (parody, satire, ridicule, burlesque, comedy, tragedy, melodrama, etc.), which we all use in communication with each other but which are perfected in art, especially literature. As old beliefs are destroyed, we uphold new beliefs through the artistic presentations of tragedy and comedy and melodrama, through tragic and comic ‘victimizing’ of those who would trespass on our sacred symbols. It is in the dramatic presentations of art that values and beliefs are upheld or destroyed and men [sic] moved to either accept, reject, or doubt the principles which sustain their social order. At the same time, the artist keeps channels open to change through the creation of equivocal, playful, and comic symbols which allow audiences to hypothesize in symbolic action, to rehearse in imagination possible actions and attitudes before they must realize them in irrevocable moments of the complete act. This creation and destruction, this experimentation, while individually shaped, has objective social meaning because the artist must use the socially validated symbols of his [sic] culture.”

Wow. A more aesthetically-inclined sociology of translation/actor network theory anyone? And is it just me or does this sound more like fantasy than (hard) sf?

As I’ve alluded to, the differences between speculative design and design fiction intrigue me, and the question of what each actually produces is of particular interest to me because my work is motivated by the desire to create not just potential spaces, but spaces of potential. Adam Rothstein defines design fiction as:

“[T]he theory and practice behind conflating design, ‘building things that exist’, with fiction, ‘making up shit that doesn’t exist’. Design-fiction–either through its own limited fictional proposition or on the back of pre-existing works of fiction–links a fictional narrative regarding a proposed object, with some image, shadow, ghost, dream, or otherwise hologrammically-real design of that object.”

This, I believe, positions design fiction firmly within the realm of simulation–which I would associate more with a potential space than a space of potential. Along similar lines, Justin Pickard recently suggested that design fiction is “propositional” but “without framing or labelling, seeded in the real world, such objects and material scenarios blend awkwardly into their surroundings. Fiction passing as truth.”  Interested in the possibility of a “propositional ethics” for these simulations/simulacra, he continued to ask “to what extent is this thing we call design fiction built on deceit? What of consent? Is this even a problem?”

But if the aesthetics of fantasy can be distinguished from the aesthetics of science fiction, it may be worth considering how speculative (i.e. fantastical) design differs from (science) fictional design in terms of its aesthetics and ethics. For example, Carl DiSalvo has explored how design constructs publics and how speculative design can become publically-engaging design, rather than merely fictional design. This relates to concerns I have that the intentions of critical design are quite distinct from its consequences, and if the former is where its strengths lie then we have a problem if we hope to engage in cultural invention.

I recently gave a talk on ethnographic fiction and speculative design in which I used the following quote from Bruno Latour’s essay “A Cautious Prometheus?” (pdf):

“[T]o design is always to redesign. … Designing is the antidote to founding, colonizing, establishing, or breaking with the past. It is an antidote to hubris and to the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings, and radical departures.”

Although I have issues with some of the related arguments he raises–a discussion for another day–I think this is a lovely way of understanding design because it shifts our focus to cultural reinvention as well, and that puts us back in the space where plausibility is tied not to science or technology per se, but to the contexts in which they are found. As I’ve long argued, and Matt Jones recently reiterated, “The network is as important to think about as the things.”

But my point is this: when design fiction creates things without context and critical design doesn’t escape the exhibition, I think the best we can achieve is preaching to the converted. More specifically, we won’t be creating new publics that can reinvent culture–and that means that for all the potential spaces we create, we will have missed the opportunity to create spaces of potential.

And, really, I’d like to see more animals at the tea party.

Further reading
Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels Series & The Edge Series
Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson Series & Alpha and Omega Series
Jennifer Estep’s Elemental Assassin Series
Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire Series
Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changling Series & Guild Hunter Series
Rachel Vincent’s Shifters Series

And TV Binging
The Holy Trinity: Buffy + Angel + Firefly
HBO: True Blood
Showcase/Syfy: Lost Girl

Dialysis Sheep, sacrificial lambs, Black Sheep, and speculative design’s publics

In an era of xenotransplantation and human-sheep chimera, Revital Cohen‘s Life Support project (RCA Design Interactions, 2008) asks “Could animals be transformed into medical devices?” and “Could a transgenic animal function as a whole mechanism and not simply supply the parts? Could humans become parasites and live off another organism’s bodily functions?”

Interesting questions, and I find myself deeply affected by Cohen’s Dialysis Sheep concept:

A patient suffering from kidney failure gives a blood sample to the lab, the scientists cut from the patients’ genome the regions that code for blood production (bone marrow tissues), and immune response (the major histocompatibility complex). They then extract the genome from the nucleus of a somatic cell taken from a sheep and substitute the corresponding regions of the sheep’s genome with the DNA cut from the patients’ genome.

This recombinant DNA is then inserted into the nucleus of a pre-prepared sheep egg cell. Cell division in the egg is initiated and after a few divisions implanted into the receptive ewe.

The surrogate ewe gives birth to the transgenic lamb, which is given to the donor patient.

During the day, the dialysis sheep is free to roam in the patient’s back garden, graze to cleanse its kidneys, and drink water containing salt minerals, calcium and glucose.

At night, the sheep is placed on a special platform at the patient’s bedside. The transgenic sheep’s kidneys are connected via blood lines to the patient’ s fitsula (a surgicaly enlarged vein). During the night, peristaltic pumps remove waste products from the patient’s blood by pumping it out of the body, through the sheep’s kidney (a natural, organic filtering system) and returning it, cleaned, to the patient.

This happens over and over again throughout the night. Each time the “clean” blood is returned to the body, it picks up more waste products from the cells it circulates through, and brings these newly-collected toxins back to the sheep’s kidney to be removed.

The sheep urinates the toxins.

Okay, first things first. When I say I’m “deeply affected” by this design, I mean that despite being struck by the beauty of some of the images, I am utterly horrified and disgusted by the concept. (How could someone think it’s acceptable to use an animal like this when we have machines that can do the same thing?!) But I’m also intellectually fascinated by it, and can’t stop thinking about it.

In principle, I share the desire to (re)vitalise what can be utterly dehumanising medical processes. For example, Elio Caccavale‘s Utility Pets (2003) project asked “What if we shared our homes with pigs bred to provide replacement human organs?” and part of the intention was to imagine a close relationship and emotional exchange between patient and organ donor. I like this idea and no more harm comes to the pig before it is killed/sacrificed than to a typical meat animal.

But using an animal as a blood filtering machine is different, and using a sheep to do this invokes an additional set of cultural connotations that are conspicuously (purposefully?) absent from Cohen’s project description.

Most notably, it is impossible for me to overlook the fact that sacrificial lambs play an important role in Judeo-Christian religion. Furthermore, John the Baptist referred to Jesus as the Lamb of God, whose sacrificial death washed away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Such imagery can be seen in one of the most famous pieces of European religious art: Jan van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, or Ghent Altarpiece (1432), which depicts the sacrificial lamb surrounded by fourteen angels, and groups of male clergy, female martyrs, Jews and pagans.

More generally, lambs bound for sacrifice also appear in many Renaissance religious paintings and sculptures, such as Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbarán (1635-1640).

To conjure a lamb or sheep, then, as a cleansing machine is doubly powerful. Cohen’s images above show the sheep effectively bound by medical tubing instead of rope, but also bathed by soft light and lying in straw like so many lambs in nativity scenes. It may not be killed by the act of serving as a dialysis machine, but arguably its (quality of) life is still sacrificed; and while the lamb itself is not resurrected, another being effectively is.

Now maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I’m interested in how critical design can move people, or how it affects who we are and who we can become. Although this is more a matter of potential rather than actual engagement with design, I think it is related to the matter of audience, or whose potential we’re talking about. As Emily Dawson put it in her EASST 2010 paper, “Speculative design and the issue of public participation” (abstract, pdf):

“While some speculative design projects seek out alternatives platforms for engaging with diverse publics, for example workshops in community centres or with patient groups, there is a persistent tendency towards the exhibition as the central engagement format, often coupled with an online element. It is clear from decades of research in museums and galleries that exhibitions, both physical and online, are a fantastic way of preaching to the choir, and little else. Speculative design projects in this vein may not reach beyond an already interested audience of designers and scientists.”

As part of this already interested, and educated, audience I realise that my engagement with Cohen’s Dialysis Sheep is most likely atypical. Visiting an RCA Design Interactions degree show, or keeping up on art and design blogs, betrays my interests and education. In other words, as a researcher, I am part of a very narrow kind of public and I have no idea what other members of other publics would think of Cohen’s concept. For example, did the designer consider showing it to dialysis patients and their families? And what could be gained from such interactions?

Looking at the issues from another perspective, what can a movie like 2006′s Black Sheep do for public understanding and debate that Dialysis Sheep can’t?

One of the most fascinating things that has emerged from the first few months of Counting Sheep research is that designers and non-designers are responding to our designs quite differently. These differences in audience response have led me to seriously question my intention to hold an exhibition next year, and I find myself increasingly turning to diverse publics and means of interaction with our work. After all, if I’m seeking public engagement with the technosocial issues at hand then I need to be clearer on what kind of public(s) I’m talking about–and other researchers and designers simply aren’t it.

For example, the first set of videos we made on NZ merino wool turned out to be rather didactic exercises in digital storytelling that tend to fall flat with designers and researchers, but utterly captivate other people. It was this response that led me to make our Story of NZ Merino Wool content available for Mix & Mash: The Great NZ Remix and Mashup Competition and share it with public educators and NZ merino industry stakeholders, instead of just exhibiting it or writing about it in journal articles. In short, I wanted people other than the usual suspects to see our work, and I wanted it to be possible for other people to do something with it. There is nothing particularly critical about these videos, but they are helping us see what we can do with other people and allowing for the possibility that critique doesn’t only originate from research and design practice. Our Kotahitanga Urban Merino Farm is a clearer example of speculative design, and will hopefully offer further opportunities along these lines. For example, I’ll be taking the project to the 50th annual Merino Shearing and Wool Handling Championships next month to discuss with participants and attendees, and it’ll be interesting to see where that leads.

For now, I’m just trying to figure out who critical and speculative design is actually for. What do you think?

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