Liam Young - "I don't think there's anything new or radical about VR"

This November, renown speculative architect Liam Young honored the Impakt festival: haunted machines and wicked problems with one of his atypical video performance, depicting a brave new world of digital myths and natural catastrophies. Internationally acclaimed architect, his works plays of the thin line between design, fiction and futures. He is at the origin of the think tank Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today and also co-runs the nomadic research studio Unknown Fields Division. From the death of VR to the designers duty of critical thinking, here’s what we talked about.

You were educated as an architect, what made you take this radical shift into speculative design throughout fictional story telling?

Liam Young: I was trained quite traditionally since in Australia the dominant form of architecture is based around genius local place specificity. It inquires the meaning of designing something on a particular site or context. Yet, as the conditions of that context are now mediated through technologies, it's no longer sufficient to use the skills of traditional architecture. To understand these new relationships I moved toward forms of speculation, of story telling and future making. In order to apprehend the room we’re sitting in we need to think about the shadows casted by the iPad you are reading your question on, the landscape that produced it and the mines which were hollowed out in order to make those things. And that's really what I do, telling stories about this messy present and how we might start to engage with it in ways that are productive.

"New City: The Edgelands" (vidéo)

Would you say that there is a disparity emerging between storytellers and traditional designers?

L.Y: No, I just think designers need to open up their forms of practice to include methods that allows sufficient engagements with the complexity of our reality. We are at a time where Facebook is a new kind of public space, and it is not managed by an elected government but by a dude in sneakers and hoodie. And if a designer confines himself within the realm of its own discipline, based on what he expect the public space used to be, then he denies this kind of mediated reality that we all occupy. You know, we use words like “virtual” and “real” and describe them as being different but those terms are just outmoded. Our modern context is just a contradictory reality formed of all kinds of influences, some of which have a physical footprint, some of which don't.

"Rare Earthenware: Radioactive Ceramics by Unknown Fields"; Film Still © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

Your projects are deeply involved in revealing the new victims of modern industries and by that dealing with urgent topics such as mass surveillance, technology everywhere… Is being a speculative architect a form of political activism?

L.Y: Telling stories is a primarily political act, I mean, fiction is an extraordinary shared medium, it is how cultures have always disseminated ideas and that is the way I seek to operate. Within the film we make and stories we tell, I encode important critical ideas about what it means to exist today… And hopefully they will operate like Trojan horses in these mediums of fiction and popular culture. We are in this urgent reality where we desperately need to change our relationships to computers, to technologies and this is not going to happen with small, incremental steps since it needs to be, and will be, a cultural change. Therefore, storytellers, film makers, game designers are on the front line of this battle for a preferable future.

How do you deal with the paradoxe of using the the technology you/we are ethically questioning?

L.Y: I am a techno optimist actually! This claim for a return to the hills to live off the lands and grow carrots is not a reality I believe in. I see localism as a myth especially since we are not going to retrieve from this glittering luminous world we have created for ourselves. What I'm trying to call for is a way to be more critical consumers of these new medias and readdress a certain balance when the dominant narratives are solutionists ones.

What do you mean by solutionists?

L.Y: Our predominant relationship to technologies is that we sit and wait for “the market to bring out a new iPhone which will hopefully change our lives and make it better. But we should be able to talk about the sacrifices that we make for this new world that we all want to live in. This has to be done with sufficient complexity to engage both the wonders and the catastrophies those technologies generate. None is going to solve all the problems that we are talking about since they are the very exaggerations of humans complexity.

About human/machine fears and wonders, you mentioned the post-anthropocene during your performance, but what does it actually means?

L.Y: At the moment we use this therm the « anthropocene » to try and grapple with our present time. The problem is that it induces that this is the geological époque in which humans are the dominant form on the planet. The post-anthropocene suggests that we are not at the center of things anymore, we might have been in the past, but now it is the technologies we have made. Large-scale networks infrastructure, autonomous mining machines, GPS guided containers… All these things put us at the margins of society. The post-anthropocene suggests that époque that is beyond us and where the systems we have created took us out of the equation.

In the Robot Skies: A drone Love Story, the world’s first narrative shot entirely through autonomous drones. (teaser)

But don't you think there is a possible grey zone for human-machine collaboration?

L.Y: We are in that grey zone right now as the machines we built are made with the same contradictions that exists within ourselves. I don't believe in the myth of singularity, neither in this world were robots are going to take over us. The future is going to be about an argument with our connected toaster rather than an affair with our robot nanny. I am interested in what it means when you give agency to your fridge, your toaster, your vacuum cleaner… as they have tendencies, twitches and glitches of their own. I would not go as far as saying it is a collaboration but it is certainly a conversation. Our film “Where the city can't see” is told from the perspective of a driverless taxi, another one called “In the robot skies” is shot entirely through autonomous drones. By trying to prototype new human position we play out this emerging strangeness in order to be more prepared if it actually happens. We want to remind ourselves that technologies are exaggerations of our tendencies, vulnerabilities and wonders.

In Where the city can't see you chose Detroit as "the smart city" while it is the symbol of industrial “failure”, why this site?

L.Y: All the fictions we do are extrapolations of present conditions that we see during our expeditions around the world with Unknown Fields Division. « WTCCS » is based on observations on China's special economic zones (SEZS). We investigate metropolis which are entirety built around industrial ecosystems and as it is a city which was produced from earlier practices of automation, Detroit seemed to be a very critical place to play this out. We are retelling the story that happened when the industry left, creating this extraordinary vacuum that filled out thanks to amazing urban subcultures.


The film follows a group of factory workers going to a rave party just like they used to do in the 70-80’s. But in this fictive Detroit they wear light out camouflages, screening themselves from the next generation of CCTV cameras; they dance with a new vocabulary of movements built on distorting the body's silhouette in order to evade skeletal detections; they dance to a type of music with a particular bass frequency creating fuzzy image in the lasers scans. All those stories embedded in this larger film are prototyping a new model of subcultures along with forms of resistance and agency which might emerge in the context of a « smart city ».

Your new film “Renderlands” depicts the life of a 3D rendering proletarian escaping his alienation by joining his virtual white, blond, lover in a cliché-like westernized 3D landscape. Do you think new technologies, like VR (virtual reality), can escape the corporate domination to become emancipation tools?

L.Y: No… ahah. I don't think there's anything new or radical about VR. These technologies have the potential to create new forms of experiences but for the most those are still mediated through the framework of large infrastructures. It is very hard to imagine how to locally produce VR headsets. That said, I think the most interesting things happens when technologies get democratized and our interest in drones occurred as they moved out of the military context while VR is not at this point. I am attracted by mixed reality, I think VR is just a temporary thing that is awaiting for the technical problems of AR (augmented reality) to be solved. Soon those two things will merge into a button that controls the transparency of our reality.

Renderlands Liam Young, 2017
Still from Renderlands, Dir. Liam Young, 2017. (vidéo


Unknown Fields Division is your nomadic design studio, together with Kate Davies, exploring remote places and revealing their narratives to the public. Those spaces are physical per se but would you consider doing an expedition in non-tangible areas such as the internet?

L.Y: What we do during our expeditions is to try and map the contradictory realities of the present, some exist both online and offline, some have a physical footprint while some don't. So, I think it is a great provocation to inquire what does it mean doing a tour on the landscape of google or an expedition through Facebook? For the most part, that is what the FBI is doing by uncovering the links behind the fake news network. They are going on google adventures, following the lines and connections to see where certain sponsored adds and posts actually began. This is extraordinary revealing on the way our reality is constructed as we notice how our experiences are curated by actors that we did not anticipate. So yes, there is a certain urgency in doing that online as well.

You present a lot of your project through 2D videos while dealing with “3-dimensional topic”, why this choice of medium?

L.Y: I think contemporary designers have the duty to make work that transcend disciplinary margins but most importantly goes beyond the boundaries of consumption. It is not sufficient to make projects existing only within a small sphere, artists and designers are screaming in a vacuum while we need to find means of expression that will spread ideas to audiences that would typically not have access to it. This said, the most efficient medium through which many of these stories drift across the world is the 2D screen and any designer, artist or storyteller who is interested in effecting change should be exploring those media. We could be more radical and start thinking about how to make films for Instagram, curate exhibitions on Snapchat or do a twitter festival? Nevertheless, when we can get our work “out of the screen” we do.

For our performance “The drone orchestra” together with the musician John Cale at the Barbican (London) we took drones which are normally "out of sight" and placed them in such proximity that it would demystify them. They drifted through the space above the audience, dressed in crazy costumes, forecasting the different musician’s instruments sounds as we wanted to create a kind of violent vicinity which could be meaningful. To conclude I would say that our current generation has the responsibility to find ways to decode those technologies thanks to critical ideas. 

Juliette Pépin

Photo title : « New City: The Edgelands » at Z33; Photo credit Kristof Vrancken/Z33

LOOP 60Hz: Transmissions from The Drone Orchestra

Integral film from the Performance: Liam Young, during Impakt Festival 2017, Utrecht .The Netherlands