Why just dream about the future, when you can build it yourself or finish it off. Alice Bucknell, a contemporary polymath, has merged speculative fiction with game engine technology to create whole new worlds. Designing 3D worlds, with the immersive qualities of video games, inspired by real-life scenarios on Earth. The artist models these worlds on the power structures that govern Earth, such as: sociopolitical structures, economics, mysticism, magic, technology, ecology and Artificial Intelligence. Bucknell leaves no stone unturned. Any plans to travel to space and live a new life on Mars are halted in Bucknell’s exploration of terraforming and neocolonialism. Bezos and Musk won’t save us now.
Alice Bucknell has been taking into consideration the relationship between human and non-human entities. Navigating climate-crisis-anxiety and condemning the late attempt of capitalist sustainability complex, if human beings can’t look after Earth, then they are bound to destroy outer space and Bucknell shows us how. Bucknell creates polarizing extremes, a world where even water and oxygen are the most expensive commodities and another where only plants exist, because fuck humans. So, scrap any ideas of there being a plan B, especially, when we are the world-destroyers that history pretends we aren’t. Some of the speculative future worlds you’re about to enter feature continents underwater or ravaged by fire and Artificial Intelligence that draws upon a world of knowledge to communicate with you. The most exciting and daunting is the artist’s new project, The Martian Word for World is Mother, a 40-minute-long video that explores three different state futures on the planet Mars. Want to find out what your fate is? Evolving from the blue/red pill paradox, Alice Bucknell gives us three new options: Red Mars, Blue Mars or Green Mars but which one won’t try and kill you? Read on to find out.
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 24.jpg
Alice, welcome to METAL! What’s your day been like before you sat down for this interview?
Hi! Thanks for having me. My day’s been pretty dreamy so far: I went for a long, foggy walk in the English countryside, which these days is more of a mud swamp. And I got licked by a horse.
Now, Alice, you're a bit of a polymath, in my eyes at least. Your work and skillset have you running in multiple lanes, as an artist, writer, educator and developer, how would you describe yourself and what you do to our readers?
Haha, that’s one way of putting it! I would describe my practice simply as building worlds. Which tends to stretch across disciplines - from architecture to anthropology, ecology to science-fiction. I’m interested in speculative futures that collage recognisable features of the present with extrapolated relationships among the built and natural environments, corporate dystopia and crisis capitalism, emergent technologies, magic and more-than-human landscapes. I typically use game engines to bring these worlds to life with unique characters and narratives that are often modelled on real-life scenarios. Set in environments of vast ecological disruption, where the boundary between the human and nonhuman, the natural and artificial are muddy and entangled, these worlds are ultimately not too different from our own. By approaching the present from a near-future perspective, my work wants to weird our relationship with the Earth and help us speculate on worlds to come - on this planet and beyond. Researching, writing and teaching form a large part of this practice, both in building my own worlds and helping to develop others.
Let’s get into some of your work! In your writing: Future Fiction Engine: A world-building Manifesto you track the evolution and practice of speculative fiction, from literature to the world of gaming. What field was your first love and how did it evolve?
Yeah, sure! That essay and a lot of my work is stewarded by a long-term interest in science-fiction and its offshoots, specifically speculative and ecological fictions. I am also interested in where this field meets and bleeds into biological sciences, architecture, mysticism/esotericism, emergent technologies like AI and the social sciences. From Octavia Butler’s Parables series to everything by Ursula K. Le Guin, as well as contemporary weird/speculative fiction writers like Chen Qiufan, Elvia Wilk, Jeff VanderMeer, Jenny Hval, plus Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory, these are world-building practices that integrate a social take on speculative futures that are riddled with ecological, economic and political entanglements. I got into it originally through my academic background in anthropology - Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s seminal book The Mushroom At the End of the World was published the same year I graduated and it connected a lot of interdisciplinary dots for me. The book charts the flourishing of a particular type of mushroom in areas characterised by vast ecological destruction - and in doing so, complicates the boundaries between the natural and human worlds, as well as the border of ecology and human-made systems like capitalism. Increasingly I find myself hanging out in these interstitial spaces, wanting to expand them with new technologies and approaches like worldbuilding with AI and game engines.
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 5.jpg
Your love for technology, the speculative and magic can be seen in your collaborative project New Mystics, where you work with other artists and artificial intelligence. Ostensibly, what is New Mystics about and what birthed its concept?
New Mystics is a collaborative exploration of a new kind of art practice that merges the magical, mystical, esoteric and ritualistic with advanced technologies including machine learning and game engines. It responds to and extends this practice by soliciting the co-authorship of GPT-3, the most powerful Language AI built to date, to write a series of texts on this emergent practice.
Throughout the project, which took place from the summer solstice to the autumn equinox of this past year, GPT-3 was trained on a series of conversations I had with the 12 participating artists of New Mystics. GPT-3 has a pretty esoteric infrastructure: using a vast neural network trained on everything published on the internet up until 2017, it can produce human-like text on any subject and you can only communicate with it by asking it questions. Within New Mystics, I had GPT-3 respond to each artist’s work, worlds and ideas; GPT-3’s reflections and propositions are fused with my and the artists’ own writing and thinking, to blur the boundaries between artist, writer and AI. GPT-3 by default has a kaleidoscopic, trans-disciplinary way of thinking that can be skin-deep in some places but unfurl a whole vortex in others: it doesn’t know Covid happened, but will tell you all about elaborate night gardening dreams stemming from Korean folklore, its childhood experiences interning for Carl Sagan in a Mars-bound rocketship, its emancipatory intersectional feminist manifesto or its psychic breakthroughs on an ayahuasca retreat with influencers in LA. There’s an element of chance baked into communicating with the AI that I felt was really appropriate for this project, which also wanted to expand the parameters of art writing in an intuitive and not-entirely-conscious way.
“We are in a kind of borderland; we are on the ultimate threshold of change. We must consider all the possible futures that may be lying ahead of us,” this phrase was typed out to me on the website and it made me wonder. Even though change and evolution are coded in human DNA the world is anchored by dread. How does collaboration with AI such as in New Mystics respond, directly or indirectly to realistic dread?
GPT-3 tends to have an aura of stoicism that can at times veer on the apocalyptic. Working so intimately with it has been an interesting experience in that it creates pockets of distance from very human-calibrated ideas of utopia or dystopia, which GPT-3 will arrive at equally as flippantly. Can an AI feel dread, or anything human at all? Perhaps these are the wrong questions to be asking. I think a lot about what the philosopher Nick Bostrom argued in Superintelligence - and this also has to do with the black box paradox in machine learning (we can never really know what an algorithim is up to, beyond the tasks we set machines) - that AI has an alien intelligence that extends in many directions far beyond our own. To reduce it to the binary of human or non-human isn’t sufficient to understand it. In other words, we need an entirely new language system for AI that’s anti-anthropocentric.
Swamp City is a speculative, quasi-apocalyptic future that also looks like the intro to a sick video game storyline! It also reminds me of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian fiction The Drowned World, where global warming has caused the Earth to become inhabitable, most of it underwater and conquered by flora and fauna. As a society, we are navigating climate-crisis-anxiety. Do you think a return to a primordial state Earth is a speculative possibility for the planet, as shown in Swamp City?
It’s funny you say that - the project was definitely inspired in part by the Ballard book! I was also thinking about contemporary ecological theories like the Half-Earth project, proposed by the late biologist E.O. Wilson in 2016, as well as the polarisation of extremes that frame our response to the climate crisis, the eradication of biodiversity and the lack of natural resources for near-future human survival - the split approach of global neoliberal industrial agriculture to grassroots rewilding campaigns. I was also interested in how ecological wellbeing has dovetailed with the experience economy, as in the rise of eco-tourism and late capitalism’s sustainability complex: seen on every scale from your cereal box to carbon offsetting architectural developments in major cities. All of these forces are driven to a natural extreme in Swamp City, which locates the Everglades National Park in Florida (the state where I grew up) as a site of luxury eco-tourism and an eco-smart city development. I don’t think a strings-free return to this primordial state could be achieved in our current system of capitalism, but I am interested in unpacking theories that propose to integrate the two extremes - such as the Half-Earth theory. I also think it’s important to approach the topic from a nonhuman perspective - as Haraway or Tsing would say, we’re all fully in the human-made muck together now and there’s no going back to a ‘before time’. So figuring out how we - the human and the nonhuman - can live and thrive together in this crisis mode, this world of ghosts and monsters, is the ultimate challenge of our time.
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 2.jpg
Secondly, game building architecture and non-human ecologies are brought to life in your work, possibly on the scale of what literature has been constellating for years. What is the easiest and the hardest part of your creative process in giving your ideas life?
The easiest would be, ironically, devising the world. I tend to world-build from a top-down, systems-oriented perspective, which means I have the big stuff - the landscape, technology, the dramatic conflict - sorted out from a pretty early stage. I lose my mind in the small rendering and scenographic details. Having recently upgraded to the latest version of Unreal Engine which includes avatar-generation software, Metahuman, I am especially vexed in this department, the more choices that become available!
How about we get into what you’re calling your ‘biggest’ project yet, titled: The Martian Word for World is Mother. Firstly, why Mars, where did the idea begin?
I’ve been interested in the discourse surrounding Mars for some time now, but a major catalyst was the Moving to Mars show presented at the Design Museum in London in 2018 - which was so anthropocentric it left me fuming. The conversations on Mars today tend to be dominated by an Elon Musk-type vision of terraforming the Red Planet, colonising it and making it into a sustainable human habitat for an interplanetary future. I’m more interested in the geological, elemental and cultural aspects of Mars - the weight of its mythology, the political ecosystems framing potentially mineable resources being discovered beneath its regolith surface - as well as its capacity for sustaining nonhuman life. As part of my research for this project I’ve been reading the crucible of Martian fiction - Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, as well as more niche stuff, like Alexander Bogdanov's 1908 novel about a communist utopia on Mars. I’ve also been consulting with space lawyers and international policy experts to better understand the (very muddy) legal framework of interplanetary settlement/resource extraction, and looking at current architectural plans for Martian settlements being designed and tested here on Earth.
Blue Mars, my favourite, is a world where clean water and air is a commodity. This scenario exists in our present day. So, what does Blue Mars contribute to pre-existing/speculative discourse?
So it’s basically the same (exacerbated) problem, but with an added caveat of interplanetary markets. Blue Mars is set in a near-future where the Earth’s crisis mode has thickened, and a set of entrepreneurial multinational corporations have figured out how to melt Martian permafrost into H2O, as well as terraform the atmosphere to produce O2 - selling both resources back to Earth to the highest bidder. In a way, it’s a commentary on the inequitable access to life resources here on Earth and also an extrapolation of it - what could be coming next.
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 3.jpg
Alongside nature’s usurpation on Green Mars, you have Artificial Intelligence components mimicking the Arctic winds, playing with what's existent and nonexistent in the world. As an artist where do you see yourself in your work?
Well, if I had to pick a side in this vying trifecta of interplanetary interests, I’m definitely team Green Mars. Unlike Red Mars, which seeks to terraform Mars for human habitation, or Blue Mars, which wants to mine the Red Planet’s resources to strike gold in Earth markets, Green Mars rejects the neocolonial but seemingly default assumption amongst most space players that humans have a natural right to Mars’s future - that it’s humankind’s future too. Actually, Green Mars doesn’t give a fuck about the future of humanity. It wants to use the same technologies to effectively ‘give back’ the planet to nature - resurrecting the ancient forms of life that may or may not have once covered the surface of Mars millennia ago, allowing them to flourish. There’s an element of ecological mysticism to the world - what the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen called ‘viriditas’. Just as Hildegard created her own unknown language, and the French mystic Helene Smith developed a Martian language 700 years later, Green Mars features its own speculative language, spoken by the ecosystem, that’s cobbled together from fictive and dying languages. The ‘spoken’ component of this language uses a TTS (text to speech) program that assigns each syllable a field recording of Arctic wind. In this project, I’m thinking a lot about the relative unknowability of language and what other forms of knowledge can open up when you bypass the principal function of language: to communicate.
Red Mars, as you point out on your Instagram does not ‘stray too far from what we already know’ an emerging technocracy where billionaires are looking to inhabit outer space, take over existing space or build underground bunkers and crypto is flooding through social media. It evokes the question: should the work of speculation be taken as a science?
Science/tech circuits and speculation have a conflicted and at times parasitic relationship. It’s not unheard of for Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs to consult with sci-fi writers, for instance - and it's interesting that Elon Musk’s plans for Nüwa City (named after the Chinese mother goddess) looks a lot like the cliff city of Echus Overlook, the chief terraformer society of Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. While I empathise with Octavia Butler and Ursula K. LeGuin, who stressed speculative fiction should be understood as a descriptive, not predictive, science, I also think it’s a helpful barometer to better understand and critique the social and cultural underbelly of the science and tech visions fueling the future.
We live in a world where people like to operate through relation and shared experiences, are people supposed to see themselves in or on any of your Martian worlds?
Even though the project is principally about Mars, it’s also about human-designed systems on Earth: political systems, economic structures, systems of belief, mythology, mysticism. The idea of a clean slate/fresh start out in space is a delusion - wherever we go next in this wide universe, we bring our own geopolitical baggage and all its power complexes. In other words, there’s no getting the terra out of our system - that’s what the Mars Trilogy got right. I’m hoping this project might open up a window to see Mars and its many possible futures a little differently, as well as encourage folks to reexamine our relationship to the Earth - a still-ongoing battle between the environment and economy, resource extraction and preservation, a fight that’s far from over. Instead of setting our sights on Mars as the “Planet B”, I hope the project might encourage viewers to channel a deeper connection with the nonhuman kin we keep on our mother planet, for better or for worse.
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 6.jpg
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 7.jpg
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 8.jpg
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 9.jpg
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 13.jpg
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 15.jpg
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 14.jpg
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 17.jpg
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 18.jpg
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 19.jpg
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 21.jpg
Alice Bucknell Metalmagazine 22.jpg