In recent years, the speculative design arms race has accelerated to a dizzying blur. In taking stock of the provocative fictions like those exhibited by Dunne & Raby, augmented by Keiichi Matsuda, or broadcast on Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, one can’t help but wonder: how do weird hyper-mediated futures translate into print? I’m happy to report that N O R M A L S new eponymous graphic novel series picks up where the 2011 Warren Ellis, Matt “D’Israeli” Brooker, and BERG comic SVK left off and really answers that question with gusto. For the past few months, I’ve been flipping through creative duo Cedric Flazinksi and Aurélien Michon’s three 80-page self-described ‘design research journals’ and I’ve been simultaneously awed by the gritty clarity of the near-future scenarios they delineate, and floored by the interlocking networks of ideas that are at play. This work is a strange combination of vital, sardonic, disturbing, and brilliant, and has some meaningful contributions to offer to conversations about representation and prototyping in design fiction related practices. In celebration of the forthcoming release of a limited-edition 500 copy run box set of the first three books in the series (which just became available for pre-order), Cedric and Aurélien have participated in a super-detailed interview about the graphic novels and their broader practice. We’re really excited to have N O R M A L S contributing to the first issue of HOLO and I strongly advise that you don’t sleep on this publication.
The first several panels of your graphic novel portray a near-future resident who awakens and dives into navigating a complex interface before they even rub their eyes—and then they ‘print’ their morning coffee! This scenario is sufficiently grounded in everyday reality to be familiar, and a sufficient exaggeration to feel alien. Could you provide a quick overview of the overarching narrative and describe how it reflects your studio mandate of ‘anticipating’ future scenarios?
This balance you mention between familiarity and alienation is by far the most mind-wrecking thing for us, because it’s very arbitrary. And quite honestly our admiration for sci-fi production designers and writers has grown by the ten-fold over this process. One common denominator to our favorite science fiction pieces, across all media, is how the most trivial things are carefully represented and coordinated. If you look closely at Stanley Kubrick’s future depictions, for example, there is such an insane level of details it makes the whole completely believable, mostly because of how immersed you become as a spectator. But it isn’t only a matter of complexity, this is just excellent design work in essence, exhibited through movies, interacted with, confronted with. It makes sense on its own, remains relatable while being very successful at projecting a mutated culture. This very essence can be found today in the fiction-induced design work of people like Noam Toran, or Dunne & Raby.
In our case, rather than working on ‘pieces’ per se, we’ve spent quite some time doing foundational work which consisted of imagining a world where everything would be 3D-printable, full of templates, and administered through some sort of wiki-governance, in a nutshell. The storyline itself focuses primarily on two very different characters. The first one tries to get the best out of the possibilities offered by such a connected world, while the other one tries as much as he can to stay away from digital fixes.
Ever since we started toying with the idea of bridging design and anticipatory stories back in 2009, the most basic ritual of ‘waking up and having a cup’ has been like a test-ground for trial and error. Most future depictions today, and especially corporate ones, tend to stage a seamless future, where everything works right away. Some white clean guy wakes up in a white clean room, orders a white clean cab from his white clean bed, finds what to wear, makes coffee through a perfect interface responding perfectly to all of his gestures, while brushing his perfect teeth with a perfect toothbrush that tells him his friend Julie ‘likes’ his teeth-brushing… Corporate futures are, by default, rid of the notion that if there’s a way of misusing things, people WILL misuse them. A notion that today’s flat future makers should have remembered from cyberpunk fiction: technology isn’t necessarily a win-win.
All of this makes this particular first scene you’ve picked something like a v4.8 by now. At first, the character would literally be having ‘coffee’ in a ‘futuristic’ environment. But then it turned out he would be one to reject using templates at all, preferring full control over his food-and-drinks-printer in an effort of sophistication. Then again, all sorts of trick questions would arise: where does coffee come from in a world where nearly everything is makeable at home?—what happens to the notion of ‘home’ anyway?—do people still have a sense of property? We’ve actually worked a lot on the background by exchanging trick questions like those.
These books are rife with near future technologies that have permeated every aspect of moment to moment experience. The most omnipresent one seems to be the ‘i’—a non-invasive retinal implant that has ushered in an era of augmented vision overload. You summarize the capabilities of the device as follows: “The display quality might be mediocre, autochthons would tell you lo-def is a small price to pay for a permanent and real-time access to everything.” Given these overlays are a signature characteristic of the illustrations, I’m wondering if you can talk about the centrality of the i to your visual narrative.
In our first book we put an emphasis on how digital overlays—through augmented reality and its neighbouring technologies—would break form and function apart in all manufactured things. Following the example of email, we posit that most visual information, and generally semiotic elements, ranging from product labels to one’s lucky pants, will eventually be digitized, and remain as such once we successfully stick a smartphone in every eye. After a few thousands ‘ok glass’, being more than used to existing and navigating in these two realms simultaneously, people will be likely to appreciate this layer as what it is, rather than recycle attempts at making things look ‘realistic.’ The quote you’ve picked hints at this specifically—how digital 3D information is appreciated, and the more general notion of ‘digital authenticity.’ We personally don’t think that there will ever come a point at which we’ll be able to virtualize and mimic enough signs of reality to trick a Glass-oïd wearer into mistaking polygons for real matter. Rather, looking at how computer artists have been embracing pixels, bits, glitches, and polys, there is much more to be said about how digital signs are being cultivated, and much more to be discovered from their relationship to reality.
Which brings us to how we chose to separate the real world from its semantic counterpart in our illustrations. One crucial point for us was to actually try and constrain ourselves into having one echo through the other, while being able to distinguish them as a reader. May it be our characters’ digital dress-up, or their singular approaches to interfacing with fabrication and communication—everything digital, every semantic element is projected via the ‘i’, which we’ve systematically been illustrating with computer tools (most of which are simple vector tools we made with Processing). Under this, lies a representation of reality drawn with ink on paper, and i’s been quite a challenge having to select deliberately what stays real, and what’s digital.
So it sounds like the sustained interest in parsing the tension between the physical and the digital in the narrative is echoed in your approach to delineation. Could you describe your technique, influences, and goals, with both the illustration and computer-aided drawings?
Before doing anything visual, we usually try to work the background first, and as much as possible with themes, which we break down into a sort of cloud of rituals: our fictional context. Illustration is in the continuation of this process. Since it is the ‘i’ we’re trying to represent, the ‘i’ being a form of computer vision system, we‘ve looked into how one would eventually be ‘wearing’ such capability in the future, in a non-invasive and trivialized way. So we‘ve skipped through goggles, lenses, retinal implants… Keeping in mind our future society prioritizes speed and quantity over ‘realism’, and everything displayed is in a chronic state of transformation, we‘ve quickly been attracted to rather skeletal graphics. And this is probably where our influences come into play. We’re very fond of early computer graphics and their surrounding culture of getting the most out of little processing power. Beyond nostalgia, there is this very artful practice computer artists have developed by abstracting familiar signs into only a handful of pixels, which we love to find in today’s demoscene and old video games, especially the wireframe stuff. All this has gotten us very excited about working with points, dot matrixes, and lines overall which have somewhat of a digital brutalist feel that corresponds to our expectations.
Now, working on N O R M A L S has also been the opportunity to embed software programming in our entire process. At the very core of our work, we put it on display in a fictional society that has completely integrated programming in its modes of consumption and communication. As for illustrating, our intent in working with code is to represent just that. And Processing has been a very very dear friend in tooling up. Although the small apps we’ve made for ourselves—a vector drawing tool, a parametric font and a few other specific things—are very rudimentary, the experimental and goal-driven process of turning visual ideas into custom functions has been way more rewarding and personal than using presets in ‘big A’ software. We’ve gotten used to having Processing open because it’s a great tool for rendering very specific things, like a disembodied piece of creative software. If you want a pencil, you make one in three lines of code, then understand everything in it is a variable you can play with. And little by little, you end up building an actual app for yourself. For instance, the vector tool we made most of the digital illustrations with, had us draw or render drawings with points that would automatically connect based on proximity which in a nutshell, is meant to be reminiscent of how the ’i’ works. It’s gotten bigger with time, with four different ways of drawing, layers, point manipulation, I/O, but still is a sketch, next to an entire suite of one-trick-pony apps.
Book three includes an explanation of stream that describes the rule of law on the post-web as “everything is debatable, debates are perpetual, and everything is decided in the stream”—this reminds me of everything I hate about the scrum of conversations on the web. You’ve gone a step further than critique ADHD discourse but done some structural analysis of it and created ‘debate strings’ and ‘rapid language’. How do these work and what do they say about contemporary internet discourse?
The idea of debate is our very foundation here. The stream can be seen as a form of hyper-twitter-type rendering of the web, pushing society to function entirely around debate and endless arguments about every little thing. On top of our current means of commenting and editing content over the web, the stream is full of information encoded from trivial actions and experiences. Imagine the equivalent of quantified-self data, such as in running exercise apps, but maxed out to “how many times have I looked left today?” This would in fact complement direct, personal debate with a heavy dose of micro-arguments, turning everyones expression of self into a sort of permanent comment.
In terms of anatomy, the stream’s entire fabric is made of ‘rapid language’—a fictionalized meta-language—which is not only based on semantic information but also opinion units, a legacy of today’s ‘likes’ and other quantified signs of appreciation. Similarly to code, rapid language is computable by machines and apprehensible by humans, with the particularity of being actually used between humans to communicate faster. Quick side-note: the concepts of ‘meta-language’ and ‘meta-text’ mostly come from Professor Pierre Levy’s research on collective intelligence and language, and more specifically his team’s efforts in developing an Information Economy Meta Language (IEML) which has been a great source of inspiration.
Now, what it says about discourse on the web is that if we’re seeing today’s internet as a serious candidate for a democratic and fair society through distributed executive power, it’s also going to require some advanced linguistic skills to sort out the loads of digital byproducts that make the ‘cloud’ brown.
While I’m tempted to ask about the ‘brownness’ of the cloud, I think I’ll pass on requesting clarification. The debate strings and rapid language are just one example of the way your narratives incorporate speculations and provocations about new technologies. One scene that really stuck with me from the second book was the woman giving birth in a special custom pool. The sequence ends with a page ‘one-sheet’ for the birthing pool describing how the pool is filled with “anaesthetic-mod sensory fluid” and how a “loading bar will keep you informed about the extraction’s progress.” Elsewhere in the novels we see the one-sheet for a ‘doof doof pillar’ (a rhythm synchronizing nightclub fixture) and an ‘existential poached unicorn fin’ (a synthetically fabricated snack). While it is not unusual for speculative fiction to invent products and related social rituals, you are essentially providing asides or footnotes for these technologies. Please tell us about this narrative technique.
The biggest problem we had to face while making up this fictional world has been to find ways to represent how complex, different, diverse this future looked. And we think it is a major issue for today’s science fiction makers, or any kind of futurist for that matter: it is one thing to speculate on what the future should bring us, it is a completely different exercise to try and represent the little things in a coherent and immersive way.
While previously widespread depictions of the future usually represented people all aiming at a common goal (usually based on the technological fears and hopes of the moment), we now face a future that cultivates individualism to the extreme, personalization, difference, and ever-changing obsessions and objectives, enthused by the possibilities of cyberspace for fixing IRL problems. There is no arch-villain to defeat, no apocalypse to survive, no death star in the making—only data ad nauseam, and an exaggerated cult of the individual.
These one-sheets we informally refer to as manuals (which are in fact templates ready to be fabricated) were a way for us to show a manufactured environment in accordance with the possibilities of the future society we are describing throughout our publication series. Taking a deep look into a variety of different technosocial rituals, with varying degrees of importance, seemed capital to the perception of how life in this utopia would feel.
The manuals were included very early in our creative process, along with the reality diminisher (a red filter allowing to see underneath the layer of augmented reality in the graphic novel). They both came from the same intention of revealing the context as much as we could. Again, bridging design and fiction meant for us that the background had to be dense and rich, and as much a narrative element as the story itself.