Admissions are now open for the final cycle of The Terraforming. Apply by November 7, 2021 to join the five-month, tuition-free design research program at Strelka Institute.
The Terraforming is a three-year (2020–2022) design-research initiative of Strelka Institute, directed by Benjamin Bratton and Nicolay Boyadjiev. The program runs as an interdisciplinary design think-tank and will host contributions from multiple faculty and experts including Lydia Kallipoliti, Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, Tobias Rees, Valerie Olson, Christina Agapakis, Ken Goldberg, Venkatesh Rao, Fred Scharmen, David Delgado, and many others.
The third and final cycle of The Terraforming program invites a group of thirty interdisciplinary researchers to join the initiative for five months, from February to June 2022. The 2022 program will have a hybrid format: it will begin on February 1 with an offline field trip, followed by two months of online seminars, and ending with an extensive design-push phase over a period of three months which will take place offline in one location.
The premise of the design research program is that a viable future depends on comprehensive terraforming, not of Mars to make it suitable for Earth-like life, but of Earth itself—ecologically, geopolitically, and geotechnologically.
Research from the first two years has reoriented foundational debates on how to conceive and model that viability, based on speculative analyses of synthetic intelligence, automation and ecology, food systems, space law, new modes of governance, the evolution of cities, and much more.
The final year returns to the question of the built environment at multiple scales, from the epidermal to the continental. Artificial environments are designed spaces for diverse functions and ways of being and knowing: the city, the laboratory, the factory, the home, the space station, virtual and mixed reality, the body itself, etc. All speak to the planetary as both the condition that makes specific enclosed worlds possible and also as a collective compositional project. In 2022, The Terraforming is adding a new chapter of motivating research themes: Artificial Environments, Astropolitics, Synthetic/Spatial Materialism, and Planetary Sapience.
The program is tuition-free (researchers receive a monthly stipend) and invites architects, urbanists, filmmakers, media theorists, historians, philosophers, science-fiction writers, artists, engineers, economists, political scientists, ecologists, anthropologists, and graphic designers to apply and work collaboratively on interdisciplinary projects at the intersection of cinema, text, and speculative design-research.
A viable Terraforming, supporting a rational and equitable organization of planetary life, depends on the design of microenvironments for specific purposes: dwelling, production, preservation, etc. The artificial ecology of the city represents a densely articulated pattern of all of these at once, extending from central cores to regional landscapes and circulation pathways. It usually does so, however, in ways that are far from being ecologically rational. Instead of giving shape to structures of expenditure, “Architecture” must now instead give form to systems of material organization, human and non-human, living and nonliving. The constitution of minimum viable (and maximum viable) environments draws on new vocabularies of programming, zoning, siting, habitation, mobilization, preservation, delimiting, closed loops and open loops, first cities, and final cities.
If geopolitics is defined by the organization of terrestrial States, Astropolitics is and will be defined by the organization of Earth’s atmosphere, its orbital layers, and what lies just beyond. Today these are drawn by satellites, science, and surveillance, but the political challenges of this century will be nothing if not planetary in scope and so that scope will itself be politicized. But how so? There is no Planetarity without Extraplanetarity: to truly grasp the figure of our astronomic perch is a Copernican trauma by which the ground is not grounding but a gravitational plane, and the night sky is not the heavens but a time machine showing us light from years before the evolution of humans. For this, the archaic distinction between “down here” and “up there” also fractures. Terrestrial planetarity and extraterrestrial planetarity situate not a metaphysical inside/outside but a living astronomical continuum, and because of this, the contemporary political renunciation of “space” as a “fantasy” will do less to prevent its wholesale exploitation than it will to guarantee it. Terraforming has always meant more than terra firma; it always adheres to exploration and composition of stacked and intermingling layers, from the sub-oceanic up to the Karman line and beyond.
Climate change is planetary in scope, but its measurement is based on the accumulation of carbon dioxide and methane molecules; its geopolitics is geochemical. The material assemblage of cities are also combinations of matter in specific, often undeliberate, ratios and combinations. Accordingly, what is called “synthetic biology” is not only the precise weaving of custom forms of critical matter (genes and germlines, organisms and organs, etc.) but ultimately of synthetic combinations of matter and materialisms in the wild. By this, boundaries are both unfixed and refixed in turn, including that of the always protean “human.” Framed by this is not an anything-goes extravaganza nor a bad faith naivete about the “natural,” but a more literally materialist materialism. This extends to planetary geochemistry: energy and waste cycles, carbon capture and sequestration, surface heat refraction, macrobiomes and microbiomes at once. Conjoined is the synthetic figuration of the microscopic building block, of the biological human, of the storm-like swirls of the city, and the planetary enclosure of the living atmosphere.
Based on both terrestrial and space-based technologies, Earth Sciences have allowed for historically unprecedented understanding of planetary ecological processes and also of their now precarious state. Considered more broadly, this represents not just greater awareness but the capacity for a more deliberate and constructive composition of planetary conditions. This focuses on the question: what is planetary-scale computation really for? Global advertising or planetary epistemology? The specter of planetary sapience points not to a theological or vitalist Noosphere, nor to some omniscient technological enclosure, but to the philosophical, political, and economic project to know, preserve, and extend complex life. Among the fundamental accomplishments of modern geology is the dating of the age of the Earth and the discovery of the deep time of the past. As planetary sapience recognizes the violence of its historical emergence, the prospect of the deep time of the future is imperiled. Next century: a culture war between those who believe worlds create various ways of “planet” and those who realize that planets create the possibility of worlds, the latter emerging from the former.