Reassemble Lab: On creating spaces for fictioning

Bilyana Palankasova

The first part of Reassemble Lab, took place (online) from 14 June to 27 July 2021. Under the title Weaving With Worlds, we collectively investigated the possibilities and potential of worldbuilding to give imagination to much needed planetary transformations. Our sessions ranged from crafting stories through worldbuilding eco-fiction, applying non-human ways of story development with machine learning and exploring scanning and simulation technologies used to construct characters and environments. There are many prototypes still being developed by collaborators from the lab, some of which will be presented at the upcoming FIBER Festival October 28–30.

Reassemble: Weaving with Worlds, FIBER’s nomadic lab for art, technology and ecology, set itself the ambitious task of cultivating a space for creative encounters and worldbuilding. As a programme of workshops and collaborative exercises, Reassemble brought together artists, performers, designers and technologists to consider how creative technologies could help us reimagine the present and future. The initial moment of the lab was delivered by Alice Bucknell and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz and considered eco-fiction in literary and artistic practices, with a particular attention to the work of Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Image from Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s presentation

Le Guin’s legacy has been solidified in the literary and cultural landscape for decades as illuminating and critical feminist sci-fi embracing hope and turning a male-dominated genre on its head. In the past few years there’s an observable obsession with Le Guin in artistic contexts and her work is exceptionally influential to contemporary artistic and critical practices, particularly in approaches to exploring new perspectives to the eco-catastrophe and worldbuilding. Le Guin’s worlds seem to speak to our unceasing anxiety about ecological disaster, techno-capitalism and pervasive sense of dread.

In her essay, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula Le Guin suggests that the bag was the first tool, rather than the spear, extending an argument about the feminine, story-telling beginnings of reason, rather than the masculine hunter-gatherer ones. What is the form of a beginning and what is the form of a story? It is sensible to think of stories as bags or containers — they can fit ideas, characters, entire worlds, you can carry them with you, shape them or share them. In that sense, how can we think of the lab as a carrier of narratives in its own right? The Reassemble lab as a world-building exercise, gathering interdisciplinary practitioners to exchange ideas and collaborate, using technological world-building methods, such as machine learning, CGI and photogrammetry, to speculate on eco-futures and weave new knowledge into imaginary worlds.

Lee Bul, Drawing for After Bruno Taut (crystal architectural landscapes), 2006. Illustration for Ursula K. Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ignota, 2019. Image courtesy of Studio Lee Bul.

As part of the lab, in contemplating strategies of change in worldbuilding environments, Lili Carr introduced Feral Atlasan interdisciplinary digital project exploring the ecological worlds emerging from the entanglement of nonhuman entities and human infrastructures.¹ She spoke about affecting environments, tensions, and exchanges between organic and built matter. Such as the unintentionally introduced new jellyfish to the Black Sea in the 1980s — most likely brought in the ballast water spaces of ships.² This presentation laid the foundations of thinking about the landscape as being transformed by infrastructure and how such processes affect existing ecosystems and facilitate interactions beyond human control.

One of the curators of Feral Atlas, Anna Tsing, speaks inspiringly and poetically about form; how we fill it and give it shape. In reflecting on the conception and creation of Feral Atlas, she emphasises the importance of form as an immersive ceremony, be it a predetermined formal package, such as a game, or a vernacular form; form as a way to include people in a storytelling process.

“Our form is indeed a carrier bag. We offer an argument to say that even the most planetary trajectories are carrier bags full of stories, and full of difference. Feral Atlas shows us how the great changes that have reshaped the Earth were made in the interaction across patches of difference. The Anthropocene is a carrier bag.”³

Video Still, Crowd, Feral Atlas. Video by Feifei Zhou, Isabelle Carbonell, Duane Peterson. Image courtesy of the artists.

With this in mind, what is then this form of Reassemble? Does it hold patches of difference? What makes it a lab? The lab’s presence as a format in the cultural landscape emerged from the interface of art and science. It is rooted in collaboration between culture and nature for the purposes of articulation, speculation, and wonder. Labs are about experimenting and social science techniques. In World as Laboratory, science historian Rebecca Lemov suggests that the laboratory replicates its own conditions in the form of results, stressing that scientists in the labs are working on an experimental world of their own design, setting experimental conditions as they wish, but also altering the world in the process. Such experiments cause ripples both inside and outside the lab.⁴ It’s curious to reflect on this with subjectivity in mind and to consider an embedded form of thinking and being with, as opposed to the perceived objectivity of scientific work in the lab with its removed and distant nature.

In weaving new worlds, how do we depart from anthropocentric concepts of the world and knowledge? Could collaboration create that space, which holds, in Anna Tsing’s words, patches of difference? Could collaboration and interdisciplinary experiments between creative practitioners, with technology and other-than human entities, reassemble what it means to be an artist, a human, a machine, or a river, and how does that transform their subjective experiences? This is an approach to work and knowledge production, the union of art and science “came to remake worlds.”⁵ These worlds could be institutional spaces for knowledge production or worlds beyond the institution, arenas of cultural, political and ethical discourse shaping our social and environmental context.⁶

In that sense, it is worth considering the context for Reassemble and how the pandemic conditions determined the lab. Like most gatherings and forms of cultural production in the past year and a half, Reassemble took place online, scattered over various conferencing and collaborative pieces of software. While bringing its own challenges, however, this format certainly allowed for an expanded sense of the lab, which hosted participants from various corners of the world and delivered its programme across systems, countries and time zones, existing in a enormously complex context of interlinked entities.

Weaving With Worlds lab participants during our second Community Meeting. The function of these meetings was to allow empty space in an otherwise packed schedule. These meetings were a chance to for lab participants to present their individual projects, raise questions and connect with other participants. We used Zoom as a hosting platform for the first session, but switched to a hybrid of Zoom and Gather.town for our second meeting, to give some variety to our online meeting space.

This laboratory model in cultural contexts, emerging from the interaction of scientific and artistic knowledge and incorporating technological methods, seems to be particularly well suited as a format for incubating speculative ideas and fostering worldbuilding. It is curious to think of the Reassemble Lab as a critical space for fictioning, as a carrier of new knowledge, by facilitating exchanges between diverse planes of inquiry and practice and experimenting with collaborative methods. Such collaborative, incubator approaches facilitate knowledge-making practices and open a forum for interaction through creating stories, imagining new worlds and building a community of practitioners.

[1]: Anna L. Tsing et al., Feral Atlas: The More-Than-Human Anthropocene, October 22, 2020, https://doi.org/10.21627/2020FA.

[2]: Void spaces in ships used to store ballast water to stabilise the ship during journeys.

[3]: Anna Tsing and Sarah Shin, “EXTRACT|Carrier Bag Fiction,” TANK MAGAZINE, accessed July 8, 2021, https://tankmagazine.com/tank/2021/06/carrier-bag-anna-tsing/.

[4]: Rebecca Lemov, World as Laboratory: Experiments with Mice, Mazes and Men (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 232.

[5]: Irene Hediger and Jill Scott, Recomposing Art and Science: Artists-In-Labs (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, Inc., 2016), 55, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/gla/detail.action?docID=4691400.

[6]: Hediger and Scott, Recomposing Art and Science: Artists-In-Labs, 55.

Written by: Bilyana Palankasova

Edited by: Rhian Morris

Bilyana Palankasova is a researcher and curator based in Glasgow. She’s currently working on a collaborative practice-based PhD focusing on digital art, festivals and value.

Amsterdam based platform and festival for audiovisual art, digital culture and electronic music. Upcoming events: FIBER Festival 2020, September 24–27.