In recent years, there has been a lot of talk in design education about the possibilities of ‘design fiction’. These are speculative projects that use imaginary content to explore key issues in design and its relationship to society.
Information Skies, the latest film from the Dutch team Metahaven – Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk – is an ambitious example of design fiction applied to experimental film-making in pursuit of a topic that couldn’t be more timely: how is our deep immersion in the globalised sphere of digital communication changing our perceptions of what can be said to be true?
Metahaven describe the 24-minute film as a sequel to their previous film on this subject, The Sprawl (Propaganda about Propaganda). That feature-length documentary has been shown in galleries but owing to copyright issues it has yet to receive a wider release, which it certainly deserves. Both films are currently on view (until October 30) in an installation at the Auto Italia gallery in London; Information Skies can be seen online.
Where The Sprawl employs found footage and interviews with expert thinkers on the digital sphere, Information Skies is a form of science fiction, an imaginary world somewhere in the not-too-distant future. The film has three visual levels often blended together in the same image: live action, anime-like animation and a graphic overlay composed of coloured abstract shapes – familiar from other Metahaven projects – which the designer investigators refer to as “interfacial ruins”.
The fourth level is a score by M.E.S.H. (Berlin-based producer and musician James Whipple), which suffuses the story with an otherworldly and often Far Eastern inflected soundscape of chirps, plinks, drones, stutters and searing washes of electronic sound.
A young couple, first seen wearing virtual reality headsets, has retreated into a forest. A woman’s voice speaking in Hungarian (with a choice of English, Korean and Hindi subtitles) announces that something happened on the way to work that morning: “It began raining facts from the ceiling.” The old world has broken apart, she continues, advising us “this story exists only if you want it to.”
The man is wearing a top with a dragon on it and the couple may be playing a VR game in which they see themselves as dragons and fighters, “newborn from the mouth of an unverified source”. The voiceover, often full of non-sequiturs, is the only source of information about what is happening. Nothing can be verified – “Who knows what’s true?” – and it isn’t clear whether the forest, where the couple do a lot of standing around and looking soulful, sometimes by running water, is a real location or a VR projection, or is the VR what we see unfold in the animation?
In this place, whatever it is, the weight of the soul is “measured in terabytes”, “Death is virtual reality” and there is always Snapchat for distraction. When the VR headsets come off – “Our laptops, our visors, globes, turn dark … switch off the haunted gaze” – it may be a moment of rebellion and a rediscovery of the beauty of the real.
If the voiceover meditations on supermarkets, undone washing-up and long-nailed girlfriends suggest the everyday texture of young love in a novel by Douglas Coupland or Haruki Murakami, the magisterial landscape and mystical shots of sheets blowing on a line recall the films of Andrei Tarkovsky.
By the end the tone has darkened and the jagged animations of faces that have drifted through the film turn red. The woman, now confirmed as the speaker, appears to be addressing her words to a judge, as though everything she has said has been a deposition that he can never understand because he didn’t experience the couple’s time in the virtual refuge.
Information Skies is a fascinating hybrid, fusing three genres – live action, animation and experimental abstraction – that would normally be distinct, and it’s a highly original piece of film-making. It looked stunning at cinematic scale, filling the wall at Auto Italia, but the internet is its natural home. As a visual experience, the film has only the loosest of narratives and the voiceover’s jump cuts and odd turns of phrase make it close to being a prose poem at times.
In content, the viewing experience lies somewhere between an art film and a cinema short, but the graphic elements would be found in neither, and these will probably be the strangest touches for anyone coming to the film without knowledge of Metahaven’s graphic approach. The designers also use these signature devices in The Sprawl and I wasn’t convinced they add much there to arguments that need to be articulated as cogently as possible, though they certainly express the sense of a technosphere out of joint.
In Information Skies, though, the graphic elements are integral to the construction of this estrangingly nebulous imaginary realm. The film may even be a new kind of graphic cinema.
Rick Poynor is Professor of Design and Visual Culture at the University of Reading. Information Skies by Metahaven can be seen at informationskies.com; The Sprawl is at sprawl.space – both films are currently on show at Auto Italia, 44 Bonner Road, London E2 9JS, until October 30, autoitaliasoutheast.org
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