A second project from the Royal College of Art graduate exhibition which remains open until 3 July 2011 on Kensington Gore.

Last year, stories of families forced to spend their holidays inside Heathrow airport due to bad weather conditions and volcanic ash clouds have made the headlines of newspapers. Inspired by the misery endured by the passengers, Lisa Ma, a graduate from the department of Design Interactions, is now offering stranded travelers the possibility to spend their waiting time in a tour of the area surrounding the transport hub.

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Heathrow Heritage is a series of excursions run in cooperation with the activists, historians and residents of the villages around Heathrow. Most of the locations visited typically look like postcard pretty English villages but are threatened by the expansion of the airport. Lisa Ma also enrolled the complicity of the airport deacon who gets in touch with stranded passengers and informs them of the possibility to spend some time outside of the terminals on a bike tour around the ancient villages.

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Passengers are first transport on a free bus then hop on a bike to cycle around and learn about Richard Cox, the inventor of the Cox apple, who was buried in the 12th century village church, to see a Medieval barn rumoured to be the oldest and largest in England....

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visitors will be told about the astute plan Greenpeace hatched to protest against the Third Runway. The activists bought an acre of land and sold it to 100,000 people around the world for £2 each. The plot is now used as an allotment for locals and protesters.

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View of the Airplot

The Heathrow Heritage activity brings two communities together: disgruntled' travelers passing through the airport on their way to other cities and local residents who are deeply affected by but rarely in direct contact with goings on the other side of the airport fences. The tour leaves entertaining and memorable experiences for the passengers and constitutes a new form of activism for the protesters.

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Village of Harmondsworth from the church tower

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Narrative map of Heathrow Heritage (hi-res version)

While working on the project Lisa Ma also met Raj the homeless and 'unofficially authorised resident of Terminal 5."

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The atmosphere inside the Terminals is miles away from the lovely cottages and pubs located a few minutes away from the airport.

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Quick questions to Lisa:

How did the airport authorities react to your project? After all, it's both a lovely way to handle stranded passengers but it is also potentially annoying for them if you let activists point to the problems involved in the expansion of the airport.

You are absolutely right, we are very careful about approaching the airport authorities in case the project becomes prohibited or subverted. If BAA should take on the project, it would be under their campaign of being "committed to being a good neighbour".

I had a conversation with someone from Air France, who was interested in inviting the project over to Paris. They seemed to understand that a combination of self-criticism and debate in a local-run service could actually improve the reputation of the aviation centre. I'm told about the further terminal expansions at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport and imagine a similar situation to Heathrow may happen in Roissy.

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Drunk tour guide

Can you tell me again the story of the bank robber? How did you get in touch with him?

The bank robber is one of my favourite characters. When K first approached me at the squat site he asked if I was Japanese and wore leather jackets because he was following the instructions from a fortune cookie. I was terrified when I heard about his experience initially. But he's very sweet and lives in deep regret, even though everyone now thinks of him as a super hero in the recession. He is the drunken tour guide's best friend. With silvering hair a posture that looks like he should be on a Miami beach, K is a charmer with a philosophical approach. I hugged him the last time I saw him.

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Map of the tour

Is the project still ongoing? how many tours have taken place already?

The tours are dependent on me at the moment, so are pausing whilst I am exhibiting at the RCA show. I'm hoping to record the responses and prove to the activists that what the project is strong enough for them to take over and have a life of its own beyond my direction.

We've been aiming for at least 2-3 tours a week so that all the stakeholders could become accustomed to the routine. Some of the tour numbers are smaller than we expected -we were about the only people in the airport wishing for volcanic ashes to stay for longer. I've spent so long with the activists that they've asked me to look after their site when they left it to make hanging baskets in the village!

Thanks Lisa!

All images courtesy of Lisa Ma.

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Back from a quick visit to the Royal College of Art Summer Show in London. I stayed 3 hours there and only managed to speak to 5 students, that's how ridiculously inefficient i am.

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Urban Stargazing team ready to catapult stars into the London night

One of the most fascinating and clever projects i've seen so far comes from my favourite Design Product platform: the one headed by Onkar Kular and Sebastian Noel.

Because they spend most of their time in an artificially lit environment, city dwellers have long stopped paying attention to those natural night lights coming from billions of light years away: the stars.

With his project Urban Stargazing, Oscar Lhermitte attempts to have us raise our head again up to the stars in the city sky by adding new constellations that narrate contemporary myths about London. Twelve groups of stars have been designed and installed guerrilla-style at different locations in the city. They can only be observed by the naked eye at night time and from the ground they look so uncannily like the old constellations that you might never notice that any change has occurred. Each of these new constellations have a story that is directly relevant to the Londoner.

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The V2 / 51.52892, -0.05971

Take the V2 for example. This constellation refers to the bombing of London during the Second World War. During 'the Blitz', V-2 rockets were hitting London over a period of several months, destroying over a million of houses and killing around 20,000 civilians. Bethnal Green tube station was used as an air-raid shelter but on 3rd March 1943, after a false alert, 172 people died of suffocation while rushing into the shelter. The V2 constellation now shines above Bethnal Green.

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The Brick / 51.54249, -0.05883

Lhermitte told me the fascinating story behind the Mosquito constellation. It has recently been discovered that the London underground houses its own peculiar species of mosquito. Apparently, they mutated from the bird-biting form that colonised the underground when it was built in the last century to a variety that nips rats, mice and maintenance workers. Underground mosquitoes are reluctant to mate with their outdoor cousins, indicating that they have become a separate species -- a process that normally takes thousands of years rather than decades. These underground mosquitoes naturally deserved to get their own constellation.

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The Mosquito / 51.52873, -0.04058

Each constellation is a triangulated structure made out of clear ø 0.6mm nylon line, ø 0.2mm polyethylene braid, ø 0.75mm fibre optic and a solar powered LED. During the day, the battery is being recharged by the solar panel and the circuit switches ON the LED when it is dark enough to observe stars.
In order to have the constellation in the air, the team uses a telescopic catapult to fix the structure on top of trees.

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Poster of the constellation

Check out the google maps that points to each constellation with their corresponding coordinates.

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I think that the question i heard the most when i visited the work in progress show of the Design Interactions department at the RCA, London last month was "Have you seen Milan's project?" The second most asked question was "Have you seen the duck project?"

My aim is to virtually live like a male Mallard duck in order to find friendship and who knows, maybe love, writes Milan Metthey. His self-assigned challenge to establish a personal connection with a duck is less absurd than it sounds. If a swan can fall in love with a plastic swan-shaped pedal boat, why wouldn't a duck fall for a man?

Metthey's project Love Ducking looks at how technology can help bridge the gap between human and non-human species. In his attempt to try and seduce a female Mallard duck, the designer tried to integrate the world of ducks.

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First, he scanned his face into a 3d modeling software and morphed the result with the head of a duck. A radio controlled duck was then fitted with the hybrid head and sent swimming among the ducks and recreate their mating ritual.

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After that, the designer dressed like a duck, filmed the result and submitted a lady duck to a screening of the impersonification (not sure one can apply the word in this context but hopefully you'll get my point.)

Since that wasn't good enough to impress the duck, he invited it to a romantic dinner in his studio:


Love Ducking - Experiment 3, Romantic Diner

Extract from an email interview with the designer...

Hi Milan! What gave you the idea of trying to establish friendship with a duck? And why did you chose the duck? Why not a cat for example?

The initial idea came after thinking about the complexity of human relationships and how someone could want to break away from those. Technology allows us to be super-connected which dramatically increases the amount of communication between each other. We are constantly exposed to huge amounts of information from this ongoing process of updating ourselves, and that can become very quickly overwhelming.
So I wanted to break up from this flow, find a way to escape this complexity. The language and sign barrier present between animals and us seemed to be the perfect place to initiate new kinds of relationships.

The reason why I chose the Mallard duck is because I wanted to find an animal that is still perceived as wild, but who would also be living in cities. The cat has been living with us for thousands of years, they already have quite complex relationships with us; they have been completely assimilated in our human lifestyles. The relationship we have with some pets can already be quite complex, there are so many stories where the master is under the control of his pet and this is what I wanted to get away from. Therefore domesticated pets were simply not good enough candidates. And also, ducks are pretty darn funny animals to watch.


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You documented 3 experiments so far. Was any of them more successful than the others? Are you planning on developing new strategies to establish friendship with them? Do you think that you're progressing in any way?


It's pretty hard to tell accurately which one worked best because in the case of the Romantic Diner experiment, there was a magic element to trigger an interaction: food. The other ones were trying to test if the duck would recognize a specific movement or understand a 2D projection. Also ducks need a time of adaptation before they accept and welcome the robot-duck newcomer. So I would say that the flirt experiment with the radio controlled duck is the one I enjoyed most. And from what I saw, the costume projection is the one that the duck enjoyed most, she wasn't cautious or distant about the object, she just hanged out there as usual.

In terms of new strategies, I am currently working on creating tools to enhance and facilitate cohabitation with the infamous urban Fox. I have been monitoring the foxes in my street for the past few weeks and I am just about to start implementing those tools and see what happens. It's very exciting to see another species interact with things I've made, it's very candid and naïve, but mind blowing at the same time.
I do go back to flirt with the ducks from time to time but in order to really see if there is a progress I should ideally leave my robot there all the time. Something I will certainly do when the next mating season starts in October/November.


Love Ducking - Experiment 2, Costume

How about you? Have you developed a stronger sense of affection? or just more respect for ducks?

You inevitably do get closer to the animal when you design for it. Spending so much time with the duck in mind does have a big impact. However I do force myself to keep the relationship I have with them strictly professional. I don't want my feelings interfering with the project. I still eat duck from time to time even though now I take a different look at my plate. I guess it is a sort of curious respect, I respect the fact that they undergo my experiments although they don't really have the choice. You do get to learn from other species when you analyse their lifestyles. The political systems are really fascinating to look at, because they are driven by nature itself, not brains.

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Did you pick up one in particular for your dinner? How did you select it?

I did all my experiments in Surrey Docks Farm in London. It's a wonderful place where they happen to have a duck pond in addition to all the usual farm animals. Barry Mason, the farm manager, kindly accepted to let me test my installations over there.

Ducks like to live in community so the staff had to pick up one duck that wouldn't be too stressed when left alone with some strange projections and objects. The same female duck was used for the different experiments. We didn't expect her to be so relaxed during the experiments, but it went really smoothly.

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And do you feel you need technology to reach your goal?

Yes, it was clear from the start that technology was going to be a big part of the project. I had to find ways to transform the human body shape into something that would be closer to a duck. In addition I absolutely had to bring in some motion to integrate a sense of "life" into my designs. Using electronics was the best tool to use for creating and simulating behaviours. I have also been using technologies such as 3D scanning and 3D printing to build unique duck heads that would then be fitted on my Radio Controlled duck. These kinds of tools allowed me to integrate my identity into my objects. But it is also important to keep some natural elements into the process. For example when I am impersonating a duck with my costume, I need to do it physically in order to have a true dialogue going on with the animal. When natural things are combined with technology, it creates some hybrid results that are very interesting. And seeing how nature reacts to it is even more astonishing.


Love Ducking - Experiment 1, Radio controlled duck

Have you consulted with any scientist or community of duck amateurs to develop the project? And if you did, did they encourage your experiments or did they suggest that was a bonker idea?

I have been in touch with many different people who are connected in various ways with the duck. When I started my research, I wanted to get opinions and views from everywhere. I started by watching hours of documentaries about ducks in order to have a basic knowledge of the animal and then I started getting in touch with various people linked to the duck in their everyday life. People like duck farmers, duck hunting shop owners and many various duck associations, both amateur and professional. I did a lot of research on youtube, this tool is exceptional for the casual aspect of my research. Of course it's not the most valid tool for scientific facts but it really shows the human in all his splendor. The amount and diversity of videos you can find about people interacting with ducks is insane. It's a very rich database that contains the worst as well as the best on pretty much any subject. An invaluable tool for me.

When I started contacting farms and duck owners to test my designs, I had mixed responses. Some of them simply refused to get their ducks involved into these experiments and saw no interest in doing such experiments. Others had doubts but were curious to see what the hell I was talking about. I think in the end it is all about the mindset of the person, exactly like a situation where parents are against having their kids going out and mix up with strangers. Surrey Docks City Farm manager Barry Mason was very keen to let me come and hang out with the ducks. As soon as I started setting up the experiments, even people who had doubts on the farm entered into the game and started being curious to see what would happen.

Where is the role of the designer in your experiments with ducks? I'm assuming it's not in the wired cutlery.

My role here is to design the experience that the user will go through. I built these objects with the aim to give a quick and comprehensive feedback to the user when he is using these tools. The design importance here isn't in the beauty of the object, it's in the way it is going to be believed by the animal and in how you can control it in function of the ducks response. The other challenge was to find interesting and entertaining ways to communicate the story of a human seeking simpler relationships, tired of the human-to-human interactions. I chose iconic human tools and situations, then tried to put myself in the skin of a duck so that I could see from his perspective and adapt my design to a duck's point of view. My job was then to combine this duck approach with our human habits.

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Thanks Milan!

All images courtesy Milan Metthey.

The title of the project that Ilona Gaynor presented at the Idea in Progress show at the RCA, London a few weeks ago could be applied to almost every single story that graces newspaper front pages nowadays. I've actually stopped counting the times the word 'chaos' has been used in connection with unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. What surprises me is how often the news of ongoing 'chaos' in Libya or Egypt is associated with 'Western' fears of a rise of oil prices or spike in immigration numbers.

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Image Ilona Gaynor

Everything Ends in Chaos fascinated me because it is somehow related to all of the above and much more. The project attempts to design, then reverse engineer a single, spectacular Black Swan event. Black Swan events are unpredicted but of such magnitude that they have an important impact on history. Nassim Nicholas Taleb exposed this theory in 2007, in a book that has been credited with predicting the banking and economic crisis of 2008. According to Taleb, the rise of the Internet, World War I, and the September 11 attacks as examples of Black Swan Events.

Ilona's research topic is ambitious, it spans economics, finance, global markets, risk management, insurance and mathematics. I aim to explore the paradoxical nature of policy by examining and speculating on the 'invisible' negotiations and momentary instances that affect, compromise and twist policy for means of financial and / or political gain as well as its implications.

0a0awahtit2worthu.jpgWhat are your body parts worth? By Insure.com, Dec. 7, 2009

For the work in progress show at the RCA, Ilona presented two fictional scenarios that intertwine real documents revealing actual insurance practices (such as the existence of kidnap and ransom insurance, of dismemberment insurance and charts listing the worth of your body parts, etc.) with imaginary stories. The result is an exploration of the seemingly fictional paradoxes that could occur and unfold as a result of precautionary bureaucratic policies.

Follow the project on twitter!

Could you take us through the scenarios? In the first one a bomb is hidden inside golden trophy hangs above the heads of directors in a boardroom. In the second scenario, the wife of a rich insurance broker is kidnapped. What lies behind those snapshots of the whole story? How are both scenarios related to one another?

Ilona Gaynor: The first scenario takes place within a boardroom at an underwriters firm called A-Corporation, the firm specialises in the insurance of military assets, from missiles to the transportation of assets between geographical borders. The 24 carat golden missile that hangs so delicately above their head's, was commissioned and hung by the CEO of A-Corporation as a commemoration, a beacon of hope, and inspiration, a celebration for the last profitable decade of underwritten contracts. There are 6 board members that sit within this room, all of whom are exceptionally well paid and each have a severance contract attached to their position within the company. A-Corporation is considering a merger and through its decision decides to blow up the boardroom, with the intention of killing its 6 board members, and therefore rendering the severance agreements null in void.

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A-Corporations Board Room (scenario film still). Image Ilona Gaynor

The second scenario takes place around a family called the Henderson's. Mrs Daphne Henderson is the wife of Frank Henderson, a wealthy senator. Mrs Henderson is kidnapped. She was taken from their family Mercedes state car on a highway in Arizona, which the kidnappers mistook for the Senators motorcade vehicle. The kidnappers cut off her wedding ring finger and sent it via FedEx to the Henderson's family Insurance broker Mr Bowery of Hiscox, along with their ransom demands. Upon receiving her finger, the broker was ordered by the senator for the ransom money to be sent immediately. In the expecting return of Mrs Henderson, the senator decided to throw a small party to welcome her back to their home. Not knowing how hideously disfigured she might be, he took the liberty of inviting their plastic surgeon.

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Welcome home party at Henderson Manor (scenario film still). Image Ilona Gaynor

In the exhibition the two video scenarios were accompanied by various artefacts relating to each of the stories. The artefacts are made up of designed and doctored legal contracts, mostly insurance related to pull the fiction back into the reality. The contracts, fine prints and stock snapshots are offered up to the audience as evidence, physical coordinates that lead to and highlight the very real motives involved and reveal the benefactors. The scenarios will eventually relate to each other in a larger narrative, made up of a series, 5 events to be exact.

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Pages from The Hiscox Corporate Brochure 2009. Image Ilona Gaynor

Your scenarios are fictional but how do they relate exactly to the current economic situation? Do they have relevance on a global level or do they mostly apply to the UK situation?

Ilona Gaynor: Over the last 3 years, we have all been confronted by a global economic crisis. It seems to be all too easy to critically attack and lay blame to bankers, market traders and corporations.

I think it's more important if not more interesting to contextualise and frame the infrastructure that was able to facilitate such media projected 'atrocities' and make sense of something that has such impact on our lives and our future. The scenarios are hypothetical, an exaggerated microscopic look at a system that exists within our proximity, that often goes fairly un-noticed, or is deemed too complex to be understood. My research for this project has led to such potent content; that moving beyond the 'highlighting illustrative' and pushing it into the designed hypothetical is really important. We can all relate to insurance and the frustrating paradoxes that crop up within mundane bureaucracy, but we might not all be aware of the circumstances that need to occur in order for the various systems in play to spit out a sizeable profit.

EEIC deals with economic policy. What could be the role of a designer in the context of economics?

Ilona Gaynor: I think the role of designers in economics is crucial and could be one of reflection and scenario based strategy. It is becoming more evident that the role of human behaviour in systems design, particularly those designed to monopolize tends to be neglected. Human nature makes mistakes, not the machines. How could we possibly manage risk without the acknowledgment of this key factor? Design has the power to stimulate the imagination and make abstract issues tangible. If we can use speculative design proposals to imagine alternative trajectories and reflect upon current methodologies, it might allow us to open up a meaningful debate before policies are written. Designers have been starting to contribute to many important fields for years, from medicine to politics. I don't see why economics should be any different.

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Coverage Kidnap, Ransom and Detention Insurance has secretly existed for many years. Petersen have determined that the public needs to know about this valuable coverage. International Kidnap/Detention and Crisis Assistance Coverage provides easy access and implementation

The project looks very cynical to me. The title itself is fairly daunting. What is the critical discourse behind the project? Do you really have such a dark view of economics?

Ilona Gaynor: I have a dark view of most things, but unlike most I don't think it's a bad thing... the world makes more sense in the dark... it's when it's viewed in the light that we should be worried. Economics, I don't think is necessarily so sinister... the Vatican for example is probably more riddled with corruption, scandal and greed then the banking sector. But I do think that as its complexity continues to grow and get increasingly denser, it starts to tangle and knots occur. It's becoming more and more difficult to control such a living organism and I don't think we can continue down a pathway that's so obviously treacherous. The critical discourse lies in my aim to celebrate such a system. It's a non-human entity with non-human goals, and it's deliciously destructive. It was designed for one thing only - to make a profit. The seduction is obvious, you only have to witness Oliver Stone's Gordon Gekko to empathise with such a honey trap.

We can do one of two things: we can witness it unravel and enjoy the complicated pleasure accepting that "greed is good", or we can move towards a rethink of how we design economic and financial systems.

EEIC is still a work in progress. How much research do you still have to do? And where do you think that it will lead you to?

Ilona Gaynor: The research will always be ongoing, I think it's important that the dialogue between the economics and finance communities and myself continues to be ongoing and stays strong.

But my quest overall, is to design and then communicatively reverse engineer a singular 'Black Swan' event. The work in progress (for the show in particular) was more of an exercise in communicating such complex abstract narratives viscerally. I intend to write a further three scenarios, drawing on the emphasis of which is to highlight the principal of cause and affect. The final project will take the form of films (five in total). The stories will highlight linchpin key moments that will merge to become a hypothetical Black Swan event.

A second layer to the project will then be an assessment made by five legitimate insurance underwriters. This will be carried out to determine how much actual profit (written in insurance premiums and contracts) in monetary terms is extractable from my hypothetical scenarios. Can we really insure for the highly unexpected? How much money is a chaotic collapse actually worth? Who might be the winner? And Is this something to aspire to?

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Gordon Gekko. Still from the movie Wall Street

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Morad Bouchakour, Ontario Canada, from the series Mexican Mennonites

I saw on your flickr set that you did some research to create a precise aesthetics for the project. What kind of feeling and ideas does this aesthetics try to convey?

Ilona Gaynor: The aesthetics need to be precise enough to pull you into a world. I'm interested in drawing upon the hyper-real, something that could be deemed uncanny, to reflect the hypothetical absurd nature of the world we are looking down upon. I want the audience to experience something voyeuristic, as if you were that third person in the scene, totally absent from participation but free to stand, observe and smirk... 'There's an elephant in the room and no one can see it but me'.

To give a sense of place, to me is thrilling. Places are made up of a very fluent language of detail and are therefore incredibly important and necessary in allowing you to dream and speculate beyond four walls. Taking into account color, perspectives, shape and texture... if all those things are correct and something catches your eye in certain way, with a certain kind of light and the right subtle movement you're gone, you're in heaven. I think the world I'm playing in is so distinctly un-explored, you can't go in and film it, unless you first build it first.

Thank you Ilona!

Other project from Design Interactions' latest work in progress show: Known Unknowns and BACK, HERE BELOW, FORMIDABLE [ the rebirth of prehistoric creatures ].
Credit image on the homepage: Dunne and Raby.

Second episode from the work in progress show of the Design Interactions department (Royal College of Art, London).

With BACK, HERE BELOW, FORMIDABLE [ the rebirth of prehistoric creatures ], Marguerite Humeau, attempts to ressuscitate the sound of extinct animals by reconstructing their voicebox (lungs, trachea, larynx + vocal folds, mouth and nose). Made of soft tissue, the vocal tract does not fossilize. The only elements which have been preserved through time are their bones. By comparing them with the larynx CT scans of their closest modern relatives, Humeau hopes to be able to deduce what the vocal organs of the extinct animals looked and sounded like. With the help of a specialist of each animal, the designer plans to remodel the soft tissues of the modern animals on the basis of the bone structure of the extinct one. The structure of the soft tissues will then be printed in 3D.

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Image courtesy Marguerite Humeau. Lighting by Diego Trujillo

Hi Marguerite! "Back, Here, Below, Formidable" That's quite a title for a project. What's behind this long and cryptic (at least to me) title?

Marguerite Humeau: The idea of resuscitating the sound of extinct animals by reconstructing their vocal tract is quite straightforward- but could be seen as problematic on the scientific point of view: because made of soft tissue, the vocal tract does not fossilise. The only things which have been preserved through time are their bones. The idea is to compare them with the vocal tract CT scans of their closest modern relatives. Then we can predict how their vocal organs used to be like.

What was originally a simple idea has now become a quest, a contemporary epic tale. I see this quest as being very romantic and also fetishistic in a sense.

I want to bring back creatures which have existed millions and millions years ago, far before humanity was born. There is something almost mystical in this idea.

In general I am very interested in the fictional potential of scientific experiments and in the role of science in the creation of contemporary mysteries. We seem to live in a ongoing fiction: speculations and stories about what happens in the labs are as powerful as the Real itself. What we know about this Real in only through medias: they are the storytellers. It is really opaque. That's why we start to invent stories about these experiments: "science- fictions".

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Image courtesy Marguerite Humeau. Lighting by Diego Trujillo

The object i saw in the exhibition space is quite impressive and curious. Could you describe it for us?

Marguerite Humeau: This prototype is the first of a larger series of reborn extinct creatures. Lucy (Australopithecus Afarensis) used to live 3,85 to 2,95 million years ago. It was one of our human ancestors- actually one of the first hominids- the mother of humanity. The remains of Lucy were found in 1974 in Ethiopia. Lucy In the Sky was playing on the radio when they found it, that's how she is called Lucy.

For this prototype I used the data from a vocal tract ( trachea, larynx- including the vocal chords, mouth, nose, pharynx, and sinuses) CT-scan from a human, and compared it with the data of a chimpanzee and the skull of Lucy.

Lucy's vocal tract is, scientists believe, actually really close from the one of a chimpanzee. The part of guesswork is then quite easy.

The same process for other animals is not always as simple as it sounds, as some extinct animals do not have any modern relatives, or, happened to evolve and become two or more different genus. For example, the sabre-toothed cat belongs to an extinct genus. From the same family, I could then use a wild cat like a tiger, or, a domestic cat. They come from the same family "felidae". But these two genus have two very different vocalisation systems- therefore it is hard to predict how the sabre-toothed use to sound like. Maybe it was not even roaring. This is when the prediction part becomes interesting!

Once the vocal tract is reconstructed, I just had to connect it to its artificial lungs ( the air compressor). This part of artificiality gives a curious and, maybe scary impression.

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Image courtesy Marguerite Humeau

How did you get interested in the sound of extinct animals? Did you get some scientific help during your research and design process?

Marguerite Humeau: It all started with a synthetic biology workshop that we did last year, with James King and Daisy Ginsberg. At that time I discovered the work of Hideyuki Sawada who is constructing a "talking robot"- his research is the first time in the history of human voice simulation that the sound is actually made by reconstructing the vocal production system itself- so the voice sounds more natural. I connected this research with a talk from Anthony Atala on TED, about growing organs by 3d printing cells straight from the printer.

It meant to me that not only we are able to reconstruct organisms but we can enhance them. We could print living vocal tracts, and scale them, modifying the vocal cords, to create extra-ordinary voices- which would still sound "human" because coming from an actual larynx.

There was also this episode from Inside Nature's Giants on Channel 4 in which a team of veterinaries throw air from an air compressor inside a dead lion's throat- the lion starts to roar again!

I was fascinated by that and I wanted to add an imaginary dimension to it. Because we have never known these extinct animals we project a lot on them- how they use to be like, to sound like etc. They have become icons.

I then started to contact many different people. At first, I met Professor Hideyuki Sawada (who is working on the talking robot) in Japan, and then, palaeontologists, veterinaries, radiologists, engineers, etc. My goal is to get in touch with the world experts of each animal so the research is well grounded. Prof. Joy Reidenberg (also part of Inside Nature's Giants) was really helpful, she is specialised in animal's larynges. Alexandra Freeman, researcher on Walking with Beasts program on BBC helped me a lot as well in the beginning. I also got in touch with Dr. David Weishampel, specialised in the vocalisation of dinosaurs- he was Steven Spielberg's adviser for Jurassic Park. I also had great discussions with Prof. Adrian Lister from the Natural History Museum in London, who is a mammoth specialist.

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(image source)

Another great meeting was with Bernard Buigues, French Explorer, who discovered three frozen mammoths in Siberia. It was fascinating to hear him talking about this beasts. Some of them have been completely preserved in the permafrost, with their organs, and even their fur. They even still have the "smell" of wild animals. Can you imagine what it must be to be able to see and touch these animals, which died thousand of years ago?

And then this week I went to visit the Institute of Wildlife Research in Berlin- they have the scans of many animals vocal tracts and have very good knowledge especially of elephant vocalisation- it was great to meet them as well.

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Image courtesy Marguerite Humeau. 3D model made by Clifford Sage

How far are you in the process of resuscitating the sound of these extinct animals? What have you achieved so far and how much is there still left to do?

Marguerite Humeau: To recreate the sound, I need three things: the lungs ( which are the air compressor), the resonance cavities (mouth, nose, etc.), and the vocal folds which sit inside the larynx. Now I found almost all the data for the resonance cavities reconstruction that I need.

What I am working on now is the vocal cords. In reality they are composed of five different layers of tissue of different softness. I am working on creating variations and getting a replica the closest as possible from reality (in terms of frequency, elasticity, tension etc).

Do you plan to work with non-extinct animals? Such as imaginary animals (unicorns or creatures from World of Warcraft for example)?

Marguerite Humeau: I find it really interesting to work on animals which have actually existed. Bringing the dead back to life is fascinating and scary. It also creates a mix of time periods. I like how this project lives on an edge. I think this ambiguity comes from the fact that the project is grounded is very precise scientific data.

As a starting point I have decided to work exclusively on prehistoric mammals because they use their larynx for the production of sound. Birds for example ( as the dodo) use a syrinx which is a completely different system. Dinosaurs used to have a very complex web of air sacs for their vocal production.

There is a "scale of exactitude" of course. For the long-extinct animals we usually have very few fossils, the guesswork is therefore more important. We have a lot of information on the mammoth because it has only been extinct for 5 000 years, especially because of we have found some frozen carcasses as well.

I want to play on this edge of exactitude and prediction, but I think it is really important that there is always a part of real data, if I want people to connect and speculate on the specimens.

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Image courtesy Marguerite Humeau

And then there the furry red thing you showed me the other day at the show. Can you explain us what it is about?

Marguerite Humeau: It is going to be part of the collection- I would like to involve more abstract pieces in my bestiary, next to the Vocal tract series.

This piece is a synthetic woolly mammoth. I see it made of synthetic bright red hair, almost alive, slightly moving.

There are so many stories about the cloning of the mammoth, like two weeks ago, the team of Japanese researchers who said they could make it happen soon. There are very big hopes that this could happen one day- this speculation is what I am interested in. Do we really want this to happen? What would it mean for us? Will we have to actually make it happen to realise the impact of our cloning technologies?

The reality of what is actually possible to do or not is unclear, we- as the public- don't really know. Every three month there is a new headline about cloning the woolly mammoth. All this is really abstract to us and we can speculate about it. This is what I want to play with in my next series.

Merci Marguerite!

Also at the show: Known Unknowns.

My last stay in London brought me to the work in progress show at the Royal College of Art and i, very unsurprisingly, spent most of my visit there in the exhibition space of the Design Interactions department. Over the next few days, I'm going to highlight a couple of projects i found particularly engaging and/or puzzling. Known Unknowns, by Steffen Fielder and Jonas Loh, for example questions our relationship to randomness. The designers explored the importance of randomness in our daily life but also investigated whether randomness actually exists or if it is just a lack of knowledge which makes things appear random to us.

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Image by Steffen Fiedler

This first part of the project focuses on the generation of random numbers using two different seeds:

The Random Event Harvester is based on a Geiger counter that notices radioactive particles, producing a bitstream that is afterwards converted in real numbers. The portable object collects random numbers in the environment and stores them with associated geographical information.

The second device is the Cosmic Ray Detection Chamber which is inspired by current approaches to generate true rather than pseudo random numbers. The design is based on a Wilson Chamber that visualises tracks of cosmic rays that are energetic charged subatomic particles that originate from outer space. These tracks are then used to generate random values.

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The Cosmic Ray Detection Chamber

I had a quick interview with the designers about their project. And i'm glad i did because what appeared at first to be a curious and quirky project turned out to be a source of fascinating discoveries:

The page about your project refers to 'true' random numbers and 'pseudo' random numbers. Can you explain what you mean by that? how can a random number be 'pseudo'?

The term pseudo random describes a set of values that are not uniformly distributed; some numbers occur statistically more often than others. This especially happens when they are generated by computer algorithms. To act by chance is supposed to be the most difficult task logic machines can achieve. That's why computational produced sets show patterns that recur and therefore are unsuitable when it comes to applications that need truly unpredictable inputs. An example is represented by our steal etching displayed in the show. Those numbers were generated by the Random Event Harvester that uses the binary system to produce values between 0 and 255 (combination of eight digits, either 1 or 0). The visualisation shows a fractal because the chance is most likely to have almost the same amount of 1s and 0s within one binary set.

Services that offer true random values generate these by reading noise in quantum scale. The idea inspired us to search for ways on how to make such phenomena tangible. The Cosmic Detection Ray Chamber is an experimental setup to display energetic charged subatomic particles that surround us, whereby we use computer vision to track trails of passing radiation.

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The Random Event Harvester

One of the devices that you designed collects random numbers in the environment and store them with associated geographical information. Why would you want to associate geolocation to random numbers? Is there any purpose to that?

We have been inspired by present methods of simulating scenarios and case studies as a way of predicting the future or establishing frameworks for decision making. Large amounts of random or pseudo random sets are needed that have no relation with the actual subject or space. Our approach with the Random Event Harvester is to create this connection and to support a more conscious relationship with the unpredictable and our environment.

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The Random Event Harvester

How important can random numbers be in our daily life? if you're not a gambler that is!

Our fascination for random numbers comes from the paradox that they represent chaos, but yet are essential in processes that aim to produce reliable and precise outcomes. Security encryption and simulations in various fields (i.e. predictions in economics called Monte Carlo Studies) rely on random numbers. Such approximation methods are widely applied in various domains: designing nuclear reactors, predicting the evolution of stars, forecasting the stock market, (etc.) The bigger question behind the project is whether randomness actually exist or if it is just a lack of knowledge, if we could introduce the very natural chaos to our daily life driven by security, patterns and determinism.

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The Cosmic Ray Detection Chamber

The devices have a retro futuristic look. Can you tell us something about their design?

I think especially with the second one (The Cosmic Ray Detection Chamber) you are totally right. We were joking as well that it looks a bit like a future space station from the 70s. A reason for that is that we see technology as a creative medium and are basically researching through practical experimentation. We often discover new possibilities and ideas through this approach, maybe a bit similar to the way an inventor works. Also, we think that especially fictional products become more believable when distinctive parts function. The design of the Cosmic Ray Chamber was strongly influenced by that. We decided to keep it very utilitarian and transparent ‚'bauhausian' in a way, to make the process of how it works quickly understandable. For example one of the difficult parts regarding the functionality, was that the chamber has to be cooled down to -20¬∞C which is usually done with dry ice. We discovered that the cooling process is also possible using Peltier elements in combination with a water cooling system ‚which then influenced the whole design again.

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Fractals (etching and millings) made using the Random Event Harvester

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Fractals (etching and millings) made using the Random Event Harvester

Do you plan to push the project further with new devices, new applications or scenarios?

Yes, absolutely. The current state of our project opens a whole new set of possible scenarios and applications. Rather than narrowing it down to one specific application we want to keep it more abstract; enabling different interpretation layers. At the moment our intent is to develop different ways to communicate the bigger picture. It could be a services or institute which is offering random numbers & specific patterns generated through radioactive radiation and cosmic rays. We like the idea of using the random numbers for political and social purposes: The distribution of resources and money could be organized by random numbers. We could also imagine random number driven immigration politics. Would they be fairer than the Australian-style point system where people are actually rated after their skills? And if not, could you blame the higher instance, the cosmic rays?

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Random number distributions based on more than 90.000 randomly generated values by the Random Event Harvester

Thanks Steffen and Jonas!

All images used in this post were kindly provided by the designers. They have uploaded more images of their work on flickr. See Jonas' set and Steffen's.

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