Field Trips

A fascinating set of books from Unknown Fields, designed by Neasden Control Centre and City Edition Studio, explores the unseen global networks that spiral out from the contemporary city...

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For those of us who live in the city, it’s easy to think of the urban sprawl we call home as being relatively self-contained; as far as we’re concerned, the suburban outskirts mark the edge of the metropolis, and ‘city limits’ are something we think of in geographical terms. But what about the unseen networks and infrastructure systems that support and supply the cities we live in—and how might the things we use in our everyday lives have an impact within a broader global context? These are the questions explored by Unknown Fields, a design and research studio operating out of London’s Architectural Association and led by Liam Young and Kate Davies. Since 2008, the studio has undertaken a series of expeditions to diverse sites worldwide, from the Galapagos Islands to Area 51, tracing the hidden supply chains, resource streams and unseen connections that facilitate our contemporary way of life.

Unknown Fields have recently created a series of books, Tales from the Dark Side of the City, which draw together the outcomes of these expeditions, weaving a series of distinct yet interconnected narratives that explore the connections between technology, everyday life, and the wider world. They enlisted the talents of Stephen Smith of Neasden Control Centre, together with Jono Lewarne of City Edition Studio, to create a visual language for the books from the plethora of images, photographs, texts and data they collected during their exhibitions. The resulting set of books, handsomely produced and gathered in a holographic foil-debossed box, showcase a fascinating and thought-provoking visual approach to the display and dissemination of all that information, employing illustration, collage, handmade type and diagrams that carry the reader through each expedition. We caught up with both Unknown Fields and Neasden Control Centre to discover more about how the books were created…

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How would you describe what you do at Unknown Fields?
Liam Young + Kate Davies: Unknown Fields is a nomadic design research studio. We travel on expeditions into the shadows cast by the contemporary city, to uncover the alternative worlds, alien landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness set in motion by the powerful push and pull of the city’s desires. These distant landscapes—the iconic and the ignored, the excavated, irradiated and the pristine, are embedded in global systems that connect them in surprising and complicated ways to our everyday lives. In such a landscape of interwoven narratives, we use fiction, film and animation to chronicle this network of hidden stories and re-imagine the complex and contradictory realities of the present as a site of strange and extraordinary futures. We make make provocative objects and films from this expedition work, exploring the dispersed narratives that coalesce to form a contemporary city.
Where did the idea for this project originate, and how did it develop over the years?
LY+KD: We began the studio together within the Architectural Association in London. Trained as architects, we have always been interested in the changing nature of the city and we wanted to develop a new model of design studio that would be able to engage the emerging urban conditions that are being produced by technology. We wanted to develop a practice that would remap and reimagine the city and the technologies it contains not as discrete, independent collections of buildings and devices but as a network of vast but elusive tendrils that twist threadlike over everything around us, crisscrossing the planet, connecting the mundane to the extraordinary. Our cities are extraordinary constellations of products, goods and technologies. From the smallest and most inconsequential of objects to the most intricate and complex, these material things set in motion a vast, planetary scale infrastructure. Our cities cast shadows that stretch far and wide, and Unknown Fields is a practice designed to chase the stories hidden within these landscapes.

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How did you go about identifying the different locations and sites you have visited?
LY+KD: We always try and develop an expedition that is timely and topical. We begin with a phase of research that scours the world for weak signals and urgent issues that need unravelling. As an example, we developed the Lithium Mine expedition through Chile and Bolivia in response to Elon Musk’s keynote presentation of the Gigafactory, his new powerwall battery and his vision of a solar powered future. This was celebrated as one of the most significant tech announcements since Steve Jobs launched the iPod but we felt that they were presented an overly simplified narrative. We thought it was important to travel to the landscapes where all of the essential Lithium to produce these batteries would actually come from. We try to complicate the typical media narratives around technology and reveal more difficult and complex conditions.

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How did your working relationship with Neasden Control Centre develop, and what was it about his work and approach that felt appropriate for this project?
LY+KD: We first approached Steve when we were planning our expedition through Chernobyl. We invited him to travel with us, documenting the trip graphically and developing the visual language of the studio. In the same way that a journalist embeds themselves within a military division, we were interested in having an artist chronicle the sites we were visiting in the same way. As our work is engaged with narratives around technology, we wanted to collaborate with an artist that still works by hand, where the processes of making an image are embedded in its final form. His work has an authenticity and a grittiness that contrasts with the dominant media representations of technology. The mythology of technology is that it is produced in clean rooms by autonomous robots, but in reality a device like a mobile phone is handcrafted by a million fingers scattered around the world. It is this provocation that is evident in his design for the Unknown Fields books.
What's next for Unknown Fields—are there more projects and expeditions in the pipeline?
LY+KD: Our next project and book will be based around our expedition behind the scenes of fast fashion exploring the factories and textile mills of India and Bangladesh. Before we wear them, our clothes make journeys of tens of thousands of miles in their process of production making textiles the most globalized industry on the planet. Fast Fashion’s rolling tide dumps mountains of cheap clothing on the high street shores. Worn for one wild night and destined to be discarded, the whims of the style-minded have set in motion a global industry that is reshaping developing economies half a world away. We delve in the dressing up box, into the wild, whimsical, weird and wicked world of fashion, and look deep beyond what is reflected in its glittering gilded mirror.
Here along the supply chain, we are  making a new textile that chronicles this journey, and a film that witnesses the last generation of traditional weavers and garment makers whose ancient practices are now almost extinct—an unexpected byproduct of our desires for cheap clothes and fast fashion.

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Neasden Control Centre is the studio name of Stephen Smith—since 2000, he has worked on a diverse and engaging range of projects spanning illustration, design, hand-drawn typography, art and installations. We caught up with Stephen to find out how he and City Edition Studio developed the distinctive visual language within Tales from the Dark Side of the City...

How did the project come about, and what brief did Unknown Fields give to you at the outset?
Stephen Smith, Neasden Control Centre: I have previously collaborated with Unknown Fields, having taken part as Artist in Residence on a field trip to Chernobyl and the Russian Space Centre in Kazakhstan in the summer of 2011. Liam and Kate got in touch at the beginning of 2016 to commission this book series, entitled ‘Tales from the Dark Side of the City’. Having undergone many field trips over the past few years, Unknown Fields wanted to publish an overview of their research to date as a set of narrative-based visual essays. Unknown Fields were keen from the start that the books be designed as a series and for each one to have its own identity within the boxset. This also enables people to collect single books as well as the boxset. The project involved the art direction, design and illustration of six books simultaneously. I worked with Jono Lewarne from City Edition Studio in Bristol, with whom I had collaborated previously, to design this series. Jono's invaluable expertise in design, print and type was essential and it turned out to be a great collaboration.

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The books display a very distinctive visual language in terms of the treatment of both text and images. What references and processes did you draw upon to develop this?
SS: Thank you! We worked on the series collectively, but made sure that each book also had its own identity as well as fitting within the boxset. As the project was devised by Liam and Kate, it was very much the case of initially discussing the whole approach with them as editors, both visually and verbally. Several ideas were analysed at their studio within the Architectural Association in London, before the art direction was established. It’s important to state that the content of each book also differs wildly, so this was also part of our early discussions. Different narrative structures are embedded and interweave in unique ways within each volume, and each contains photographs from a number of different photographers who documented the journeys within each expedition. It was important for us as designers to treat the text and images in different ways relevant to each narrative. I should note here that for the 'High Strange' volume, Liam and Kate also commissioned Kristian Donaldson to produce the amazing rocket launch illustrations contained within.

What references and processes did i draw upon? Well, having known my work for many years now, Liam and Kate were keen to trust my approach to how these visual narratives unravelled and could be referenced. It’s always really great when a client has total trust in what you do.

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Tell us about your approach to the typography for this project—how did you create the distinctive title lettering?
SS: The title lettering, which was created by hand, came about quite quickly actually. We had explored other layout options but felt they lacked the energy of the field trips and content of the series. We utilised holographic foil for the box-set cover to reference dynamic multiverse narratives.

What kind of content were you presented with at the beginning of project, and how did you tackle its presentation and develop a format for the books?
SS: We were presented with a lot of data, thousands of photos, Word docs from authors, reference images, maps, field trip notes and more. It was our job, in liaison with Liam and Kate, to whittle this down somewhat to create the series. It was a challenge at our end to organise the data, especially given that time was short; the pressure was on, but that created a good atmosphere for the collaboration. We devised an overall type style and grid for each book to give the series unity, but also developed a visual style for each book. For example, in ‘The Breast Milk of the Volcano’, a book set in Bolivia, the images slowly get more glitched to reference the life of lithium batteries, as lithium is mined there. In ‘A World Adrift’, shipping container graphics are layered with factory waste to reference the material nature of the product in transit etc. The imagery resulted from the context.

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What is the rationale behind the use of colour throughout?
SS: We devised a colour palette that related intrinsically to each book using predominantly CMYK with one spot colour depending on each narrative. There was an overall budget for the series that we had to creatively use in devising the palettes and specification for each. The cover pages were printed in black and one spot colour.

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The books often combine scientific and data-based content with an analog approach to imagemaking. How much of your creative process takes place away from the computer screen?
SS: Most of it does—pretty much all of the drawings, elements, collages, marks, and the typeface are made by hand and photographed or scanned digitally thereafter. It’s just the way I make the most out of my process by harnessing specific elements that I want to contain. This series has enabled quite diverse visual languages to combine, we hope, effortlessly.

Was there a particular reader reaction that you wanted to provoke?
SS: We would love for people to notice all the small illustration and design details we obsessed over for so long in the making of the volume. But overall, we wanted to give the viewer a sense of the nature of the type of projects and work that Unknown Fields has developed over the years and how this can be brought to life in print.

Tales from the Dark Side of the City is available to buy from the AA Bookshop.

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