UNKNOWN FIELDS: THE DARK SIDE OF THE CITY Review

By Sukhdeep Singh Saini, MA History & Critical Thinking student
(with additional reporting by AA Fifth Year Tané Kinch)

26 March 2017
Architectural Association, London

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UNKNOWN FIELDS: The Dark Side of the City, Saturday Gallery Talk. Photo by Valerie Bennett.

Taking the audience on an exploration of their unique investigations, Liam Young and Kate Davies, directors of the intrepid design research studio Unknown Fields Division, gave a thorough insight into their explored worlds during their Term 1 lecture at the AA.  The unique event was aptly described by AA Visiting School Director Christopher Pierce as one where “the audience has a trio- an exhibition, a book, and a lecture” and then introduced the pair’s new book ‘Tales From the Dark Side of The City’. The book details the numerous investigations led by Kate and Liam under the umbrella of their pioneering research studio.

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Photo taken at the Unknown Fields exhibition Saturday Gallery Talk. Photo by Valerie Bennett.

Unknown Fields sees a “group of photographers, students, and a busload of people” whose aim it is to go behind the scenes of seemingly idyllic worlds to reveal their dark underbellies. Many explorations have probed how our demand for material things – phones, sapphires, gold, and electric cars, to name a few- are met, while unearthing the cost the planet pays for it. The lecture metamorphosed the world as a global city, interconnected by fast transport, electronics, and our growing appetite for the earth’s natural resources.

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Photo taken at the Unknown Fields exhibition Saturday Gallery Talk. Photo by Valerie Bennett.

While maintaining a somewhat unbiased position while exposing these truths, the careful, deliberate, and uniquely edited quality of the films couldn’t help but bare the gritty realities of some of the world’s most powerful systems. Focusing on six different expeditions undertaken by the research studio, a narrative was formed that connected investigations from large ship container ports and the toxic waste production of China, to huge gold mine pits in Australia, to Lithium lakes in Bolivia, to Area 51 and its mysteries in the USA, to the sapphire trade in Tasmania which is thriving on the back of cheap labour, or to Alaska, a place being drastically affected by climate change.

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Photo taken at the Unknown Fields exhibition Saturday Gallery Talk. Photo by Valerie Bennett.

Unknown Fields have used a variety of journalistic techniques such as hidden cameras, drones, concealed microphones, and interviews, yet Liam and Kate emphasised that their ambition was not to generate an exposé of industrial practices but rather to study them as designers and architects, questioning what can be done about such issues, with the objective being to understand how they could affect the global “interconnected city”.

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Kate Davies and Liam Young at the Unknown Fields exhibition Saturday Gallery Talk. Photo by Valerie Bennett.

Alongside the lecture, a life-size steel-frame ‘bus’, accompanied by curious experiments in glass vitrines and a film splicing snippets from their various quests, was until recently exhibited in the Gallery at no. 36 Bedford Square. It exposed visitors to yet another dimension of the duo’s work, giving the audience a 1:1 taste of not only the expeditions themselves, but a tangible experience of life behind the lens of an explorer and researcher; sitting in the bus, out on the trail to uncover some of the world’s darkest secrets.

 

The work of Unknown Fields raises questions that are difficult to grasp let alone answer. Questions such as how a harmless remote-controlled toy helicopter is a culprit for increased toxic waste levels in China, or how an electric car proposed by an enigmatic entrepreneur as an alternative to petrol-driven vehicles will drastically change a country’s landscape. This ability to create connections between seemingly disparate occurrences across geographic distances is what propels their research forward and gives it wider meaning.

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Photo taken at the Unknown Fields exhibition Saturday Gallery Talk. Photo by Valerie Bennett.

As long-running tutors of Diploma Unit 6 until the last academic year, Kate and Liam invited students to join them on excursions to various sites and to penetrate deeper into the project briefs. Their final year, for example, saw the unit follow the threads of the fashion industry from the catwalk runways and high street stores, to the cotton fields in Ahmedabad, India, and the sweatshops in Bangladesh, laying bare the faces and many hands behind the clothes we wear.

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Photo taken at the Unknown Fields exhibition Saturday Gallery Talk. Photo by Valerie Bennett.

Their unit may have come to an end yet the pair continues this legacy of research and investigation through their AA Visiting School. With ever-changing locations taking groups on ever-bewildering expeditions, their aim is to venture through unknown landscapes and unfamiliar ecologies, unraveling the connection between the global and everyday life.

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Tales From the Dark Side of the City is now available in the AA Bookshop. Photo by Valerie Bennett.

For more information:

Unknown Fields Lecture: 24 November 2016

Unknown Fields: The Dark Side of the City Exhibition Information

Unknown Fields Division site

History and Critical Thinking MA

HCT Microsite