ENGL/ARTV/CMST
T/Th 12:00-1:20
Location: Cobb 403 and Gray Center

Instructor: Patrick Jagoda (patrick.jagoda@gmail.com)
Instructor: Thenmozhi Soundararajan (thenmozhi@uchicago.edu)
Course Assistant: Sean Dotson (sedotson@uchicago.edu)
Office Hours: By appointment

Imagining Futures: Speculative Design and Social Justice

This experimental course seeks to disrupt dominant narratives about “the future”: a monolithic concept that often comes from technologists and policymakers. Instead, we explore what alternative futures might look like when imagined by and with marginalized communities. Beginning with movements such as Afrofuturism, we will read speculative and science fiction across media, including short stories, manifestos, journalism, critical theory, novels, films, transmedia narratives, and videogames. These works will help us think relationally between the historical present and imaginable futures.

Rather than merely analyzing or theorizing various futures, this course will prepare students in hands-on methods of “speculative design” and “critical making.” Instead of traditional midterm essays and final research papers, the work of the course will consist primarily of blog responses to shared readings and collaborative art exercises and projects. After an introduction to futurism and speculative design, we will move rapidly through a series of alternative futures of six broad areas: climate change, reproductive rights and gender, algorithms, prisons, surveillance, and immigrant labor. Each Tuesday, we will discuss shared readings about each topic. Each Thursday, we will participate in short artistic exercises that explore futures of each area. These exercises include future object design, bodymapping and story circles, tabletop gameplay, serious game design, and experimentation with surveillance technologies. The most substantial work of the quarter will be an ambitious multimedia or transmedia project about one of the core course topics to be completed in a team.

The work in this course will be challenging, transdisciplinary, and will blur expectations about the relationship between theory and practice at every turn. As such, it is not a course for the craven; it is a course for students who wish to explore the complexities of collaboration and the sociopolitical possibilities of art.

CLASS EXPECTATIONS

  •  We only meet a handful of times so make the most of each seminar/workshop session. Arrive on time!
  • Do the reading and take the activities seriously. Meaningful discussion depends on your engagement with our core texts and artworks. All readings are to be completed for the date on which they are listed.
  • Bring your notes and annotated readings to class. Just because we’re discussing digital works, in many cases, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t jot down ideas that will strengthen your participation in our group exchange. These notes may also serve as the starting point for your midterm papers and projects.
  • Participation is mandatory and important. If you absolutely can’t attend one of the events, you must pre-approve this absence and play the game prior to our class discussion.
  • Always feel free to ask questions either in class or during office hours

COURSE TEXTS

The majority of texts for this quarter are either available via links on this syllabus or as PDFs via our course Chalk page (under “Course Material”). The only books you will have to purchase are Futureland Nine Stories of an Imminent World (for Week 2) and The Handmaid’s Tale (for Week 5). You may also have to purchase, rent, or borrow a limited number of films throughout the quarter.

GRADING

  • Attendance, Preparation, Discussion, and Participation in Exercises: 20%
  • One group overview on selected theme and discussion session: 15%
  • Blog Posts (Individual 5 and short weekly responses): 25%
  • Final Group Project: Group Abstract (300-400 words), Group Class Presentation, Group Project, and Individual Reflection (2-3 pages): 40%

COURSE SCHEDULE (Subject to Revision)

Week 1: Course Introduction

Tuesday, January 3: Introduction

  • Shared Introductions and Syllabus Overview

Thursday, January 5: Afrofuturism

  • IN CLASS VIEWING
  • The Last Angel of History (John Akomfrah)
  • Faces At the Bottom of the Well: Space Traders (Derrick Bell)

Week 2: Introduction to Futurisms in Theory and Fiction

Tuesday, January 10: Futurist Manifestos

Thursday, January 12: Futurist Fictions

Week 3: Introduction to Speculative Design Methods

Tuesday, January 17: Speculative Design

  • Speculative Everything (Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, various chapters, PDF pages: “Chapter 1: Beyond Radical Design?” p. 16-21, “Chapter 3: Design as Critique” p. 43-52, and “Chapter 5: A Methodological Playground: Fictional Worlds and Thought Experiments” p. 70-82)
  • “On Speculative Design” (Benjamin Bratton)
  • Extrapolation Factory projects

Thursday, January 19: Speculative Aesthetics

  • Speculative Everything (Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, PDF pages: “Chapter 7: Aesthetics of Unreality,” p. 92-128)
  • “children who fly” (Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, p. 249-254)
  • “Star Wars and the American Imagination” (Mumia Abu-Jamal, p. 255-258)
  • World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt, short animated film)
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (Ursula K. Le Guin, p. 1-4)
  • “Saving the Real World Together” (Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal, p. 296-344)

Week 4: Climate Change

Tuesday, January 24: Fiction and Theory

Thursday, January 26: Critical Making

  • Exercise: Create an object from a future of climate change that is evocative of a world.

Week 5: Reproductive Rights and Gender

Tuesday, January 31: Fiction and Theory

Thursday, February 2: Critical Making

  • Exercise: Body Mapping and storytelling (with Marquez Rhyne)

Week 6: Algorithms, Trolling, and Cyberwarfare

Tuesday, February 7: Fiction and Theory

Thursday, February 9: Critical Making

  • Exercise: Dread tabletop storytelling/roleplaying game play or design.

Week 7: Policing and Prisons

Monday, February 13: FINAL PROJECT ABSTRACT DUE

Tuesday, February 14: Fiction and Theory

Thursday, February 16: Critical Making

  • Exercise: Create a card game or board game that explores the futures of prisons and policing, rapid prototyping workshop (with Ashlyn Sparrow)

Week 8: Surveillance

Tuesday, February 21: Fiction and Theory

Thursday, February 23: Critical Making

  • Exercise: Counter-surveillance and doxxing workshop

Week 9: Undocumented Immigrant Labor

Tuesday, February 28: Fiction and Theory

Thursday, March 2: Synthesis and Lab Time

  • Culminating Discussion and final group meetings with instructors

Friday, March 3

  • Extended session (possibly evening) for final group presentations and crits

Week 10: Final Projects

Saturday, March 11

  • FINAL PROJECTS DUE BY 5PM

ASSIGNMENTS

Blog Posts and Responses

Over the course of the quarter, you will contribute to a class blog (located on this WordPress site) through original posts and responses to your peers. These posts are intended to influence and extend the conversations we have during our shared meetings. You are required to post at least 5 entries over the course of the quarter. Each entry should respond to that week’s media or theoretical reading, expand substantively on an ongoing topic of class discussion (without simply reproducing or documenting an exchange), or call our attention to articles or media about related phenomena. The 5 minimum entries can be posted anytime over the course of the quarter but you may post no more than one post a week for credit (so plan ahead!). Each post must also comment on a topic from the week in which it is posted (so you can’t, for instance, return to a topic from Week 2 on Week 9 unless it is in some way related to a current discussion). While the content of these entries can be wide-ranging and less formal than your essays, you should observe formal citation standards and be mindful of your prose. You are also required to read posts by your classmates and respond briefly to at least one entry per week.

Group Overview and Discussion Session

By the end of week 2, your group will be assigned a primary topic (e.g., climate change or gender) that will be covered during weeks 4-9. During the week that maps onto your topic, your group will offer a 5-10 minute overview of the topic on the Tuesday during which we discuss media and theory. Along with the instructors, you will then be responsible for the discussion that follows on that day.

Final Group Project

For the final project, you will be assigned to a group of approximately 5 students. You will also receive a topic taken from our course syllabus that will serve as the foundation for your imagination of a multimedia or transmedia imagination of an alternative future. For this project, you can work in any medium or form that feels most appropriate to that topic. For instance, you might create a short film, a comic book, a videogame, or any other approved form.

Project Abstract (Approximately 1 page or 300-400 words): As a group, write a brief abstract for your final project that is due approximately one month before the project deadline. In this abstract, introduce your project and comment upon the type of research and technical knowledge that will be necessary to complete your work in the final month of the quarter. Moreover, what production work will be necessary? And how do you foresee the division of labor within your group? Finally, what are the narrative, formal, social, and artistic innovations of the project? You can adjust this as you continue, but it’s useful to have a starting point, well in advance of the deadline.

Final Project In-class Presentation and Critique (20 minutes): During the final week of the class, you will present your project, or some subset of it, to the class. After this hands-on session, you will turn in a finished version of your project, plus documentation, approximately a week after these presentations.

Individual Reflection (2-3 pages): Along with your actual group project, we’d like each of you to turn in a brief (2-3 pages) individual reflection about your project that does three things. First, offer an artist’s statement on the formal significance of your project. This is your chance to reflect on the theoretical dimensions of your project and to give a reader a frame for encountering the speculative and social justice dimensions of your text. Second, comment on the collaborative experience. Collaboration is a difficult process but it can produce astonishing results. In writing this response, consider the following questions: What was it like working with peers from other (or in some cases, similar) disciplines? What were the benefits and challenges of collaborating on this kind of design project? What did you contribute to the group? What was the balance of work like in your group? Third, how would you revise and expand your project if you had more time?

Final Project (Variable): Since the media and forms of the final projects are variable, the nature of the submission must be discussed with the instructors in advance. However, all submissions should have two components, one per group. First, you must submit your finished speculative design piece (e.g., the paper pages of a comic book or a file or Vimeo link to a short film). Second, you must submit well-organized documentation of your project. For the latter component, we are imagining approximately 10-12 pages of double-spaced writing per student. Here, you might, for instance, turn in an extended artist statement or Game Design Document with analytic and theoretical components.