In Context… Dunne and Raby: Designing an Endangered Future

By Rada Georgieva 

How do you take the notion of ‘art’ and turn into a glimpse of the future; the image of a technologically mediated world? What happens when our traditional notions of the purpose of such ‘art’ are subverted to a response to global issues? Designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s work incites such questions among many others. As a result, by means of their imagination they address impending social issues, spark discussions and get people thinking about the future as susceptible to being, quite literally, designed. Dunne and Raby’s standpoint emphasized that “It is no longer about designing the things in the environment around us but designing life itself from microorganisms to humans.” 

Dunne and Ruby’s work has often been positioned at the intersection of art, technology, science and philosophy as a paradigm of contemporary critical design as opposed to affirmative design or rather, design which goes along with the status quo. Their work is unequivocally centered on challenging traditional conventions. Rejecting the traditional approach to design as a kind of aesthetic problem solving, they turn to speculating. Posing an endless string of ‘what if-s’ they address questions which have not yet received their answers. 

What if the UN’s recent prediction of global food shortage by 2050 comes true? In their project Foragers (2009) Dune and Raby offer a solution to our currently unsustainable way of life: they invent a scenario in which a group of people take the matter into their own hands. They start conceiving devices partly modeled on the digestive systems of other species which would allow them to use synthetic biology to extract nutrients from nonhuman foods. Accordingly, Dunne and Raby design a series of strikingly outlandish models, bordering on the kind of thing we’re used to seeing in science fiction movies. Essentially, this is a form of re-designing humankind itself, a speculative remake of the basic ways in which we function. The moral dilemma created here is ‘should we?’ as opposed to ‘would we?’, thus bringing into practice Dunne and Raby’s theoretical approach to design. 

The project might be seen as an absolute paradigm of the designers’ belief that there are no impossible tasks and unanswerable questions. It is about modifying humanity and confronting it with the underlying ethical and moral implication of taking control and facing a problem that has been developing for years. Dunne and Raby’s concept of design is not about art, because art in itself cannot offer a solution to our ecological issues. It is rather about bringing the sciences and the arts together in order to build a sustainable future. In a sense, Dunne and Raby are continuing the centuries-long dialogue between the arts and the sciences that began with the Enlightenment. 

In artistic terms, Dunne and Raby’s work can be traced to such radical and non-conformist individuals such as architect and designer Alessandro Mendini (e.g. Crystallo cupboard). Similarly to Dunne and Raby, he rejected modernist conventions of what design should be confined to. A broader, but nonetheless recognizable link can be traced to Italian printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi who envisioned magnificent structures and architectural amalgams which were way ahead of his time (Carceri d’Invenzione, 1750). 

Thus, Dune and Raby’s work fits into the context of the ideas behind the Royal Academy of Art’s upcoming exhibition ‘Eco-Visionaries’ (23 November 2019 – 23 February 2020). It will be comprised of the works tackling issues such as those explored by Dunne and Raby in order to promote awareness of the current ecological scene on Earth. The exhibition will aim to redefine the ways in which humankind interacts with nature, through showcasing the efforts of numerous artists, designers and architects, emphasizing the urgency of our ecological situation. Previously, Dunne and Raby have had their projects showcased in institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and The Chicago Art Institute. Their participation in the ‘Eco-Visionaries’ exhibition is a yet another significant recognition of their work.

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ST.ART Magazine