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Liquid Life: On Nonlinear Materiality

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Rachel Armstrong, Simone Ferracina, Dr Rolf Hughes



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).


From an era of ecocide, this book outlines and details an alternative metaphor of “fluid” that frames our experiences, perspectives and encounters with “life”, thereby providing a counter narrative of human development to that that has shaped the modern industrial age. At stake is our ongoing impact on the living realm and how we may reconstruct our relationship with Nature in ways that do not consume and pollute our environment, but may ameliorate and even invigorate our collapsing ecosystems. The dominant metaphor of “machine”, currently frames the way that we encounter, work and design with living systems in a modern era, which is based on a hierarchical, object-centered, deterministic view of reality whose principles of thought and practice began to condense during the Enlightenment around 500 years ago. However, the reductionist paradigms that underpin the philosophy and practices of the resultant machine thinking from these cultural and technological developments are simply not sufficient to deal with dynamic and hypercomplex phenomena that underpin the living realm recognized by ecological thought such as Timothy Morton’s notion of “hyperobjects” that exceed classical definitions and expectations of bounded bodies. Contemporary biodesign practices that engage with advanced biotechnologies are deeply steeped in a modern, scientific understanding of biological systems, which denotes a particular quality of design practice that is based on a study of (soft/wet) materials, rather than in proposing alternative philosophies of life, or modes of embodiment. The implications are that biology-inspired designs are fundamentally modern and accept the mechanical ordering of living things, creatures are made of (tissue/organ) parts, and are rational, efficient, functional, beautifully designed to neatly fill particular niches, arise from comprehensible causalities, become extinct for equally fathomable reasons, and are constructed in the manner of soft machines (and are deployable as such). Changing the protocols for life also changes how we imagine, design, and engineer the living world. In an era plunged into ecocide, new ways of imagining our ecologies may help us synthesize new relationships with Nature so that we may generate qualitatively alternative environmental impacts than the consumptive, polluting practices that modernity has set in motion. By imagining the living world through an alternative lens than that which has been adopted by modernity, we may be able to alter the course of humanity’s impact on planetary systems. Outlining the philosophical, scientific and technological advances, the book explores how it may be possible to design and engineer with living bodies by imagining them through the science and technology of fluids in ways that alter our relationship with the natural realm. The importance of this emerging field is no less than establishing founding principles and counter narratives to those of the industrial age – to enter an Ecocene, an age that deals with the conditions of hypercomplexity, uncertainty, incompleteness and change. Uniquely it uses an applied philosophy approach by interrogating theoretical possibilities through living technology. Employing the Bütschli system, a particular agentised form of chemistry, as a visualization tool proposed material relationships that are possible within a pre-biotic realm may be interrogated, before biology (with all its modern assumptions) emerges. The book provides a detailed account of how the Bütschli system works. This semi-living artificial cell and “living” visualization tool is derived from analogue “chemical” computational processes that are powered by a simple metabolism. This apparatus transforms the theory of fluid relations into an experimental practice where new insights and discoveries in the living realm are revealed. In the first part of the book Rachel Armstrong documents the science and technology of fluids at far from equilibrium states, their capacity for “natural” modes of computation and their ability to transform “base” matter into strikingly lifelike systems. She also establishes the principles for the second part of the book – a radical phenomenology and series of discoveries that are responded to technically. These phenomena are also explored using different approaches through creative and critical writing (prose poetry and fiction) with co-author Rolf Hughes to investigate the unique experiential implications of an account of fluid-based life that contrasts the machine based view of being. The text will accordingly be relevant to art, design and the humanities, as well as the sciences. The third aspect of the book is a series of detailed notations by Simone Ferracina, who composes a new language of hyper complexity based on an oceanic ontology of thought underpinning the multiple transitions, transformations and phase changes implicit in the Bütschli system. Examining moments of technological, scientific and phenomenological rupture, the book argues that “fluid” life qualitatively differs from mechanical life through its subjectivity, modes of thought (which are embodied not symbolic) and environmental presence. This implies in turn an alternative design practice with life and ecology as its core design materials. Such readings are explored through poetic encounters that begin to suggest new languages that invite alternative qualities of life than are critiqued in machine metaphors and includes an epistemological rethinking of life’s expressions through groupings such as phantoms, moods, erotic charge, immunity, phase transitions and radical love. Finally the graphical encounter with these hypercomplex fields of exchange begins to establish a fundamental set of notations from which designers may establish alternative practices and designs for a radically enlivened realm, a realm where our extinction through planetary ecocide is not obligatory but may be transformed into alternative encounters and experiences of Nature through which we have a real chance of ongoing survival.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Armstrong R, Ferracina S, Hughes R

Publication type: Authored Book

Publication status: Published

Year: 2019

Number of Pages: 600

Print publication date: 18/12/2019

Acceptance date: 19/02/2019

Publisher: Punctum

Place Published: New York


DOI: 10.21983/P3.0246.1.00

Notes: EISBN 9781950192182 (ePDF). The Living Architecture project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement no. 686585.

Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

ISBN: 9781950192014