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Form x Content – Planet City: Ryan Griffen and Liam Young
Wednesday 21 April, 1pm
N'arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM: Mirambeek beek. Boon wurrung Nairm derp bordupren uther willam. That means welcome to our beautiful home, the lands of the two great bays, Nairm, Port Phillip Bay, Marrin, Western Port Bay. We're here at the Monash University campus and it is about celebrating knowledge, yulendji. It's also about respect, respecting the Country that you're now a part of. And it's also djeembana, how you will build a stronger community, how do we unite community within Monash University. And it's about respecting sacred ground or Parbyn-ata, Mother Earth. These are the guiding pillars of Wurrung biik, the law of the land. Come with a purpose. Womindjeka mirambeek beek. Boon wurrung Nairm derp bordupren uther willam. Ngondjin.
Alex Brown: Hi everyone. My name is Alex Brown and I'm a Senior Lecturer in Architecture here at MADA Art Design and Architecture. And we have another installment of the Form x Content series today. I'd just like to introduce the series briefly, I guess, by saying that Form x Content is a series that engages with the ideas, histories, sites and critical questions of our time. And in Semester 1 the series is focusing on sustainability, collaboration and the ways in which First Nations artists centre Country in their practices.
So the first thing I suppose I would like to do is acknowledge that I'm recording this process here from the Caulfield Campus in Melbourne, on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Boon wurrung people of the Kulin Nation. I'd like to pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging and acknowledge that this place where I am is on land that was never ceded. And I might just dive straight into it and introduce our speakers for today.
We're really lucky to be joined by storyteller Ryan Griffen, he's joining us from Sydney, and speculative architect Liam Young, who's based at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles. And I thought I would just hand over to Liam and Ryan from there to talk about their work and also their project and their collaborative work on Planet City. So hi Liam and hi Ryan. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ryan Griffen: Thank you.
Liam Young: Thanks. Thanks so much Alex. I'm just going to share my screen briefly. What I thought we'd do, I'm going to introduce myself just generally, a little bit and then I'm going to hand over to Ryan who's going to do the same and then I'm going to come back and talk a bit about the collaborative project Planet City that Ryan and I both contributed on and worked on together as a bit of a framing for a broader conversation about the roles of speculative fiction and worldbuilding. So we'll look through the lens of Planet City to start that conversation, but then more broadly start then to talk about Ryan's extraordinary work on shows like Cleverman and the associated comic book series.
So let me dive in. I'm going to start here which is a little showreel of some of my stuff going on in the background. So my name is Liam Young and I am a speculative architect. And really what that means, is that I don't design buildings, but instead I work between documentary and fiction to tell stories about the global and urban and architectural implications of new technologies.
So we borrow from the techniques of fiction, film and performance to collect and visualise stories of both real and fictional, in order to engage audiences in the extraordinary ways that technology is changing our world. In many ways, perhaps my practice is best understood as a form of worldbuilding. We construct worlds for film and television productions here in LA, or for companies like Ford or Mitsubishi or the Dubai Government, or for our own films, Planet City being one of them, and immersive experiences, games and so on.
We try and engage the extremes of the present and even our speculative work begins I guess in documentary projects. So just very quickly, a few things that we've done. To start with a documentary project called Unravelled, you're seeing glimpses of it here. This is an immersive installation that takes audiences behind the scenes of the fast fashion industry, because we're interested in this idea that before we wear them, our clothes make journeys of tens of thousands of miles in the process of production across the planet.
So this film depicts the sacred procession of a young Indian textile worker who is walking slowly on a sacred procession from her home village amongst the cotton fields, through the textile mills, factories and vast textile industry supply chain, where she works. And her journey suggests this walk along the fashion catwalk or the path that our disposable fashion takes in its process of production, or the path that so many women like her have taken in their journey from village to factory to city.
And this is the work that I do with a studio called Unknown Field, which is a documentary studio based out of London, that I run with another architect called Kate Davies. And I just throw this in here to say that so much of our work, even in the context of science fiction, begins in this process of engaging with the present moment. For example, another film, Where the City Can't See. What you're seeing here, is an example of how driverless cars view and understand the world as these kind of 3D point clouds.
These are scenes from a science fiction film called Where the City Can't See. It's the first fiction film shot entirely using this laser scanning technology. And it positions the audience within the embodied viewpoint of this autonomous car, seeing the world through the eyes of these technologies. And the film tells the story of a group of young factory workers drifting through a future smart city and a driverless taxi. They're part of an underground rave community, and they work on the production lines by day, but at night, they adorn themselves in machine vision camouflage, and they dance in the hidden spaces of the city.
Or this film, Seoul City Machine. It's a short film that is developed in collaboration with a chatbot that we trained on operating systems. And it's a love letter from the Seoul City operating system to the citizens that it affectionately manages. It's an autonomous city of machines, where the sky is filled with drones, the cars are driverless. The city is draped in a layer of augmented reality, and everyone is connected to everything. So these are a few examples of some of the work that we've made, stories that we think are valuable in exploring who we are today, and how technologies are starting to affect us.
And with that, I'll segue over to Ryan, who can introduce himself. Because I think there's probably shared ideas, in a way, about how imaginary worlds can start to engage in some of the critical discussions of the present moment. Hi, Ryan. Thanks for hanging out.
Ryan Griffen: Hey, thanks Liam. So, my name is Ryan Griffen. I'm a writer, producer, director. I just generally, like to see myself as a storyteller. I created the TV series Cleverman, which also spun into some comic books. I'm currently creating an animated series called Lustration, which is a noir story set in the afterlife, which is also based off a comic series that I created, and currently also writing a pilot set during the gold rush in Australia, which follows a native police officer.
For me, I guess, everything that I work on or I create, comes from a cultural place. As a single parent, just in an industry that is very time heavy, I guess I create things that can also educate my son in some way, shape or form. And so Cleverman was originally created for him, the superhero in that show is named after my son. And again, everything from there, all the other projects are exactly the same, that they're trying to reflect certain things that he's going through in life and put that on page, screen, big screen, small screen, it doesn't matter.
And for me, it's also important to make sure that there's a cultural connection in there for me in some way, shape or form. I work in I guess sci-fi sort of space, superhero realms. Even the Western that I'm writing, set in the goldfields of Ballarat, I talk about that in a way that it's essentially a Black Batman story. So again, for me, it's playing in the fields that I enjoy being in, that I've grown up on, but putting a modern spin that can educate my son and others.
Liam Young: Great, thanks Ryan. And I guess the reason we're both sitting here today, is this project Planet City which hopefully some of you have seen. It's currently on show at the Melbourne Triennial, at the NGV. I wanted to set this project up a bit to frame the conversation. I thought I might play just a one minute trailer to get us in the mood and then I want to talk a bit about the city and the book and then start to talk about Ryan's contribution to the book. So let's get into a trailer here.
So really Planet City is the worldbuilding of an imaginary city for the entire population of the Earth, I guess in its simplest form. To begin this project, I was interested in this idea that following centuries of colonisation, globalisation and economic extraction, in a way we've remade the world from the scale of the cell to the tectonic plate. So Planet City is a project that asks this question, like, what would happen if we reversed this planetary-scale sprawl? What would happen if we reached a global consensus and retreated from our vast network of cities and entangled supply chains into one hyperdense metropolis housing the entire population of the Earth?
So the work is a film and a book, and it explores the productive potential extreme densification where 10 billion people, the projected population of the earth in 2050, surrender the rest of the planet to a global wilderness and the return of stolen lands. So although while they're provocative, Planet City kind of ensues or moves away from this techno-utopian fantasy of designing a new world order, this isn't meant to be a neocolonialist master plan imposed from a single seat of power, but rather it's a work of critical architecture, a work of science fiction, but a fiction that's grounded in statistical analysis, research and traditional knowledge.
It's a collaborative project and not really my project. But it's a work of multiple voices and cultures supported by an international team of scientists and technologists, theorists, advisors and of course writers, like Ryan. So in Planet City, we see this idea that climate change is no longer a technological problem, but rather it's a cultural problem, it's an ideological problem, it's a political problem, because in many ways the technology is to dig us out of the hole we've created, but it's perhaps already here.
So perhaps we think of it as a fiction shaped like a city and the film itself follows a continuous festival dancing through the city on a 365-day-loop, where we meet this cast of characters and costumed people, where each day the parade intersects with a different carnival culture or celebration. So with Ane Crabtree, the costume designer of The Handmaid's Tale and Westworld, we created this collection of masks and costumes, in relationship and in collaboration with a series of Indigenous makers and crafts people, to imagine the inhabitants of the single city for the entire population of the earth.
And as well as the film and the costumes and masks... Planet City, yes I should say, is also a book available now in hopefully decent bookstores around the world. It's a collection of nonfiction and fiction texts, it's a chronicle of the present moment as much as it is a speculation of a world to come. It's in a way, a city or the city in book form. It's a city built from non-fictions that define the temporal and ideological site that Planet City occupies and narrative fictions like Ryan's story that captures the sorts of narratives and tales that might occur within the city itself.
And in terms of the book, no distinction is made between these two forms. Between the nonfiction and fiction texts. In layout or sequence, they're the same and interchangeable where we slip back and forth between genres and disciplines, because really what we're trying to get into, is the extraordinary and difficult truths that underscore this present moment, are in many ways just as fantastic, implausible and incalculable as any science fiction imagining. The real strangeness of Planet City, is in fact, the way that we currently make cities, as opposed to the provocation of the fiction of Planet City itself. And that's what we were trying to get into.
And I guess that's also my way of setting up Ryan is a collaborator and Ryan's short story, because as Ryan was mentioning in the introduction to his own work, so much of fiction is really about contributing to an engagement with today, and science fiction is not really about predictions, predictions is the side effect of science fiction. Science fiction is actually about the moment that science fiction was made. So with that, I want to throw back to Ryan and ask you Ryan, perhaps you could tell us a little bit about your short story Inala, and your contribution to the book and how you approached that?
Ryan Griffen: Yeah, sure. So Inala is a story of a young girl and her grandmother. They're trying to keep culture alive in a new world. So much of our culture and our stories are embedded in the land that we live on. And so the removal of that and being placed in the city that doesn't house that, is problematic and that's something that would need to be worked on to try and achieve and to continue the story and community engagements and just overall, cultural connection I guess. The story that I wanted to tell is, again it was written in a way of young adult storytelling, engaging a younger audience, but also leaning heavily on culture.
So it's a story of a young girl being brought into her inner circle of her grandmother and other aunties and being granted stories. So for me and for Aboriginal culture, stories are earned, they're not a right. Information isn't a right, you need to earn the right to hear certain things, to learn certain things. And again, that's something that I want to ingrain in all my storytelling. I think it is such a Western construct that, freedom of information, or the ability to, if you want something, then you are deserving of it.
And for me, I like my stories to reflect the notion of earning, earning the right to hear it, whether that be for our characters or whether that be for the audience. So, making an audience work to try and understand things, not throw it all, every bit of information out on the table, and hold the audience's hand to go through. But to strip all that back and to make them piece it together themselves. That's one way that I look at it, the other is ingraining, that sort of idea of earning knowledge, through our characters. And Inala, the granddaughter is the one who is earning the right to hear this story, and is set on a journey to collect elements from traditional lands, and to bring them back into this new world.
Because I think it's quite interesting again, if you have a look at the notion of people being nomadic, can often be brought down as a negative. Again, I feel that's a very Western construct to plant your roots in one location and live. Whereas, through culture, for example, even though you have your clan, would have their boundaries, they would often move within that, according to the seasons or certain sort of— So you can access food, at certain times of the year where you couldn't in other times. And which, really leans into the notion of what Planet City is, is to allow, you spend time in a location, then you move on and that will allow it to regenerate its food sources.
So traditional back burning, if you will, having the ability to burn out a whole section of woodlands to allow kangaroos, for example, to come in and start feeding off the saplings. Like you've essentially created a fridge, where you could walk in and grab the meat that you want to grab and then exit, and then you would travel around your Country doing that in certain locations. So that's something that I wanted to lean on here, is that, even though in our story, we're removed from Country, there's ways to go back and still collect the things that we need to collect.
Liam Young: Yeah, thanks for that setup. I mean, I was so excited that you accepted the invitation to do this. Back in the before times, I think we met in a pub in Sydney and had a conversation about it. And I don't think you've actually seen the book yet. It's pretty fresh off the press, but a lot of the other fiction contributors— There's two authors from China, there's a Jamaican, there's a Caribbean Canadian author, there's Kim Stanley Robinson, the token kind of seminal science fiction, middle-aged white guy.
But I tried, as much as possible, to make it a planetary project in all senses of the word, I suppose, and to bring in voices that, certainly in this town outside my window is Los Angeles and Hollywood, bring in voices who're not normally part of that science fiction machine, that aren't normally part of discourses around mainstream features of popular culture. So I was thrilled that you were able to offer that perspective I suppose, because so many visions of the future, assume that we advance as our technologies does, and that process of evolution somehow erodes away relationships to tradition, to mythology, to story that certain cultural practices get sanitised in most visions of the future.
So talking about belonging and talking about relationships to Country, even in this context of this most extreme science fiction, I think was a really extraordinary contribution. And I guess it makes me wonder, how is it that you approached the genre? From your perspective, what is your attitude towards science fiction and contemporary science fiction in that process? Are there other storytellers that you admire in that space? Are there other works that you get into or are you endlessly frustrated by the cyberpunk dystopias, and see no futurism that has become placeholders for anything future?
Ryan Griffen: Yeah, I guess like the one thing that I really look at is, is science fiction really is the story of hope. It doesn't matter what it is, it's addressing things that we have issue with today, in hopes that we can fix this, so we don't get to the worst-case scenario. So it's interesting, we have a lot of sci-fi, there's events, catastrophic or whatever, or we're in the apocalypse. The thing is, there's a lot of First Nation communities around the world has already lived that. It's not a new concept, it isn't something that's in the future, it has happened.
And so I think it's, and I'm surprised that, there hasn't been more storytelling or more bringing in of Indigenous voices into this space, because essentially, they've got firsthand experience. They're writing what they know. Sure, we can set it in the future, but you've still got to lean on what you know as a writer and what you can tell. So for me, first and foremost, it's always a story of hope and fixing 'the now'. I guess, as we progress on that, there's still the level of education that needs to be put into this as well of informing people of the issues that have occurred or will occur.
So that's really how I approach all science fiction, is— I guess, I sometimes start as one idea or one scene that I would really love to see or read, and then take that and then start to build the world around that. I don't build the world first, I feel like the world is built around the initial concept of whether it be a character or scene, and then we go from there. So I think that sort of answers what you're asking is like where I start from, or why I am in this sort of space?
Liam Young: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, it's funny you mentioned that kind of scene that you begin with. For me, Planet City was always a festival actually. Again, it's a bit of an antidote to the Blade Runners and the cyberpunk dystopias. I was interested to try and depict the city and the film does that, has captured the city in this moment of celebration. We did a very early exercise, where we mapped every cultural festival and holiday onto a calendar. And we saw that there's literally like, there's no days without some kind of moment where someone around the world is living at a moment of joy.
So we imagined that the city, when you collapse all that together, would be this constant 365-day-party, somehow. At any given moment, in any point of the city, someone is celebrating, is caught up within a carnival. So the film tells the story of this snaking Carnival, but just continuously every day of the year for the next decade.
It's constantly rolling through the city and changing its form as it goes to the costumes which appear in the book as a photo essay, are a big part of that I guess to try and look at what a future might be, that's both culturally diverse and rich but it also is playful and oftentimes messy, but it's somehow both utopian and dystopian at the same time. And yeah, there is hope embedded in that I suppose the hope of possibility of people sharing a space and living together.
Ryan Griffen: I think there's several levels of hope within this. There's the notion of coming together as one to discuss a problem and addressing a problem as a group and not as a singular government or entity that the government says, "This is how it's done." There's the hope of allowing the earth to recover from what has happened. The hope of using technology as a positive and not as a negative. I think that these are the things that sci-fi offers so easily, more than just straight dramas or anything like that, is you can really look at things that you would like to change as a creative or a storyteller, and place that in some sort of format that is entertaining, that doesn't feel as preachy, but enough for an audience to question certain things that they do in their everyday life.
Liam Young: Yeah, exactly. I mean it sounds like it's funny, but some of the projects I was showing before in my intro— Generally we operate as storytellers producing counter-narratives. Like at the moment, the dominant narratives around technology are either like extreme dystopias or the techno-solutionist views of a future presented by someone like Elon Musk where they're like, "Oh, I've invented this battery. Don't worry, it's all going to be fine. I've figured it out, and if not we're going to go to Mars and I'll invent for that too." They're very singular visions where technology is a blanket solution to everything, denying the deep embedded cultural problems that exist.
So normally, we make quite complicated visions, what I would describe as productive dystopias, like trying to be a counter-narrative to the way that technology is generally sold to us. Something like Where the City Can't See that I was showing and also Seoul City Machine are trying to present it like the sub-cultural implications of technologies. What happens to the kid in Detroit who wants to go to a fucking party in the smart city that sees everything. They want to be drivers, they want to have sex, they want to listen to music, but the surveillance city doesn't allow spaces for that to occur in the way that it used at an abandoned warehouse rave. Where do those cracks exist in the context of technology, and that's a story.
And when we started planning Planet City, that was kind of the tone, I guess. But the bulk of the production happened during 2020, when we were living out a live action dystopia, unfolding around us and the tone of the project shifted and that's where the festival started to appear, because in a way, we didn't need the dystopian world we were living reflected back to us, but rather we wanted a vision that we could rally around.
The alternative, became not constructing a dystopia, but the alternative became about constructing some kind of vision of a hopeful future or an aspirational future or at least a future that would get us starting to ask questions about what might come in a context where our future is decidedly broken. In a strange way, architects have a terrible history of doing that where, there's another star architect called Bjarke Ingels, who you probably don't know Ryan, thankfully he hasn't entered into your world, probably.
He's got another project called Masterplanet, which is basically Bjarkes has cloned his vision of how he's going to redesign the world to save us. And those kind of visions would just seem to repeat the problems that got us here in the first place, where he's trying to tell a story about a global consensus that was really playing on global movements like the Global Climate Strike for the Climate March or the Women's March that we saw in the US.
These are gatherings of human bodies organised through the network from a Facebook page or a hashtag organised from the ground up sometimes by 15-year-old activists that actually play a much more significant and substantial role in foregrounding a discourse on climate change than what any singular nation state is doing. And that seemed to be this moment of hope that we would get to a point of saturation where globally, we would all just come together and say, "Enough is enough. We're not going to wait for the United Nations or for the US to get their shit together or get rid of Trump. We're just going to come together, plan an anchor and start to build a new future." And that's kind of the impetus for the city, I guess.
Yeah, hopefully. That's it. I don't know. It's interesting that you used the word hope because it's not something that, it's very difficult to tell a story in a future where everything's worked out. In a way, that's why Hollywood loves the dystopia because it plays into the western stereotype of the hero's journey, like the world's fucked up, but there's one single white male that's going to be able to hack it and figure it out and overcome it.
This is hopefully a different kind of story. But this is also my segue into talking about Cleverman, another kind of story, because if so much of dystopian future narratives revolve around the singular hero's journey, the confrontation of that as a business-as-usual model that Cleverman presents I find really fascinating. Maybe you can introduce into the conversation, an expanded discussion of where you think, Cleverman sits in the superhero genre. And in the context of the Western, kind of, Joseph Campbell hero journey model.
Ryan Griffen: Yeah, look, I guess for me, I look at Cleverman, as poking its tongue out at the superhero genre in a way. Like you said, there's always the white male hero saving the world from itself essentially, where the minorities are often ignored in that space. And for me, again, it was addressing issues of the past, presenting them in a modern context, because not much has changed. When we first released the series, we had our premiere in Berlin. And Germany was just getting an influx of refugees themselves. And a lot of the interviews were like, "How did you see this coming?" They were asking like, "This is exactly what's going on right now."
And my answer was, "This has happened thousands of times throughout the world, to so many colonised countries, and continues to happen today." I wanted to place a Black hero in that space to let people know that the system is the problem, more than anything else. We also wanted to make sure that it's about coming together as a group. We have at the forefront of it two brothers fighting for power, one that doesn't really want it, one that really desperately wants it. Again, it's addressing not sitting down and talking things through, there is infighting within the Black community on it as well. It's not just an outside issue.
So again, for me, it was again, leaning on hope, and showing all the things that I'd like to see fixed, and putting in something that should be entertaining. I want to make things that are final or sometimes hard to watch, because it's going to take you on a journey of some way, shape or form. But it's certainly— I wouldn't say it's a traditional superhero story. We take elements of an origin story or a hero learning their powers for the first time, like we have all those sorts of things. But for me, it's a greatest story of correcting the wrongs in our society.
Liam Young: And I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about the roles of fiction in this sense, I always think about the William Faulkner quote, that "Fiction is often... the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism". There's something about, where the Cleverman operates, to renarrate to reframe our relationship in Australia that is just staring at us in plain sight. But there's a process of journeying to these imaginary worlds and to these fictions that is really not about fetishizing that destination, but about returning back to the place where we started and seeing things anew with fresh eyes.
I'm thinking about the way that other fictions might do this, like District 9 is obviously a reference here where Blomkamp reframes contemporary White and Black South African relationships through the lens of alien refugees, the way that Cleverman operates to retell some of these distinct stories and relationships that are going on now. And, I wonder if you can talk about that, in a way, and starting to do that with what this might mean to your son, actually which is really amazing. Fiction has this amazing capacity to... And then the imaginary worlds have this amazing capacity to create a distance view, when we can stand outside a reality, which maybe comes to claustrophobic or too familiar for us to start to acknowledge and to look back in on it?
Ryan Griffen: Yeah, totally. I think it's very much about creating a story that is a heightened sense of the world that we live in, which I get excited about, because we're telling stories to change something. Like representation is really important, telling stories can save lives. If we get to reach out to a minority and say, "It's okay to feel this way, that these problems aren't uniquely yours. These are things that we can lean on." And that's so much easier to explore than just having someone come out and address the problems and preach to you.
I guess, for me growing up, I couldn't really read or write properly through the majority of my high school. Television and comic books were my only end. So I really didn't enjoy school at all. And there was always those times where you would have a guest speaker come into the school and say this thing, and I'd always just quickly tune off because I always felt like I was preached to, but films and stories never did that, because I felt like I was in a different world. I was playing in a different space, that rebellious nature didn't, sort of just, block off. And I think that's what stories can really do. And that was what was the first and foremost with Cleverman.
Originally, Cleverman was created, was being developed as a kid series, and is far from that now. But for those who don't know, I started to create it because both my son and I had a real love of the Ninja Turtles. And I just wanted to create a superhero that he could play, he could dress up as, or whatever. And that was the key to creating the story, was how do I empower younger generations to do so? And after the series, and getting him to go to set, this is almost seven years down from the original conception of the show to actually airing.
His love for superheroes had changed to his new love was wrestling, the WWE. And I remember sitting in my lounge room one time, and I could hear the theme music from Cleverman playing in his room. And I was wondering what was going on and I opened the door, and he's wrestling a pillow, he had a Mexican wrestling mask on, and I was like, "Bub, what are you doing?" And he's like, "My wrestler's name is The Cleverman, and that was his walkout music." And so, for me, it was like, that's all it needed to do. It had clearly done its job of empowering him or giving him the strength to really be proud of his culture in any field that he ever wants to be in whether that be a wrestler at the WWE or someone wanting to write or become a lawyer. Whatever it may be, it's about the empowerment.
So telling stuff about our history and all that in the story, isn't just for educating those outside our culture, but it's about empowering those who are Indigenous people to go, "I'm proud of this, I'm happy to talk about this, I don't need to conform to a set narrative." And again, that's something that I want to make sure that I put into everything that I work on.
Liam Young: Yeah, that's fascinating. I mean in a way, this is another strange segue, but my job seems to be today to try and make connections between these two very different projects. I mean Planet City, I guess starts in a similar way in that, I spend a lot of time in landscape like this is Ivanpah Solar field, just outside Los Angeles, that ultimately in some way, gets reframed and reshaped and evolve into the solar walls of Planet City or this is in Western Australia, the pink algae lakes, they get translated into the algae canals and hydro energy networks of Planet City.
And I guess the idea is, and what we were trying to talk about it, it's a cultural narrative but it is, in a sense, that so often when we engage in something like climate change, which in many ways has embedded within it, it exaggerates problems of massive economic inequality and systemic racism all bundled up in this strange beast of an evolving climate and its consequences, but we approach that as a technological problem, currently. But what we've done is travel around to these kind of landscapes, massive energy fields, hydroelectric dams.
All these kind of places, this is really what Planet City is, is looking at these phenomena that exist in the present tense and then... Just imagine what would happen if something like the solar field in Ivanpah gets all the funding that it desires, all the political backing that it needs, and gets rolled out at scale. And that all of the technologies, in fact, in Planet City, I describe as a very pragmatic form of speculation.
All the technologies that are in the city, are here today. There's no magical floating, buildings, built from Mega Graphene. We haven't sold fusion energy, everything is built on real calculations and real technologies of the day, but we just imagine what would happen if the political and cultural boundaries that are preventing them being implemented are taken away and what will be the lifestyles and cultures and relationships that start to form when we build a community around these kinds of systems, as opposed to systems of global resource extraction that we currently have.
So I guess, it's trying to leverage real phenomena and re-present that phenomena in a way that forces people to look at an existing condition or the existing technologies, and to see them in their lives in a way that they might not do. Anyway, that's where we start. That's where we started Planet City, was going on this kind of global tour of these mega infrastructure projects in a way and collecting that material, meeting the people that built them and made them, and asking them what would happen if you rolled this out for 10 billion people, what would that look like. And that's how we started I guess.
And with that in mind, if we're still talking about the roles of fiction and science fiction is really about the present moment, or 1984, or it's really about 1948, and so on. I wonder if you can riff off that a little bit and talk a bit about how something that Cleverman began for you and what the process of collaboration, working with community, working with some of these stories that you were recontextualizing and reframing, what that process looked like. How your research, how your starting point ended up shaping what city, the imaginary world of Cleverman, started to look like.
Ryan Griffen: Yeah, I guess there's two things there because I think there was a level of research and permissions that had to go in with the Elders. So I reached out to my Country first and started with my Nan and Pop, and then Aunties, that then passed me on to some other Elders in that area and I traveled and spoke to them all and told them what I wanted to tell, and sit there and playing cards with a group of Aunties and listening to their stories and telling them what I wanted to tell. And that's not an easy journey.
There are certain things like Cleverman, is still something that's not meant to be discussed so much and it was in talking to some of the Elders first and saying, "Look I'm not talking about our Cleverman. We're creating one in this mythical world." It's funny I wanted to pitch to some of them because I was like, "Imagine we had a Black Harry Potter." And they were like, "Oh my God." And then, the story would open up and we would discuss more about. They got that point of like, being open to telling parts of our culture, not all of it, because it is an art thing.
And so that was our first navigating, in the cultural sense. In the worldbuilding, it came off the back of a statement from one of the Elders. And this statement is also part of the reason why I wanted to work on Planet City, an Elder took me to, I think it was... I'm pretty sure it was like a Red Rooster, or something. And he said, "This here, is actually on traditional land. Underneath all this concrete, underneath that carpark, is our land. Sure they've chucked something over the top of it, but it's still there and it's still living and breathing in some way, shape or form and we need to understand that." He goes, "We can't undo that, we can't undo what's been built here. We can talk about it and we can learn."
And that's the important thing about the dreaming, is that we look at the past, the present and the future. They're all encompassed into one thing and you need to glean from each of those, to be able to build on what you want to have or what you want to see down the track. So that for me, was something that I wanted to really embrace, but that was the structure throughout the creating of Cleverman. We shot in Sydney, but we actively avoided anything that looked colonial.
So there was no sandstone buildings, there was none of that sort of stuff, that we didn't look at any of the colonial past in that way. We often talked about, imagine that you dropped your brand new iPhone in the desert and it's cracked your screen and all the dirt's getting into screen, that's what our show is. It's technology that's been broken or a system that's been broken that has the earth bleeding into in some way, shape or form. So that was something that we took into all of our design whether it be in the costumes or the worlds that we were using, the buildings. But it's still being a modern platform.
So, our graffiti in the background would have reflections of traditional scarring on the body or on trees. We always made sure that we were making sure that our culture was branded on top of a modern structure, in some way, shape or form. And for me, it's just about making sure that we know what's happened, we acknowledge what's happened, we know the wrongs that have happened, and we are trying to fix that and still keep our culture alive today. So that's something that we bled through everything, all the way through even into editing and sounds.
We had this these creatures, in Season Two, we have a vial of this stuff that is a poison, but the sound design of how that function was the sound of wind and sand, but it's a virus. So again, we were making sure that it was always had an earth element in it. When we look at Planet City and how I describe everything, it's in a modern setting, but I described everything throughout that as something from the Earth. Descriptions of how an automatic car travels is similar to an ant. It always came back to nature, and that's the same thing that we did in Cleverman.
Liam Young: Yeah, fantastic. It's great to get an insight into your process, both as a storyteller and worldbuilder, but also through Cleverman and to get a little glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes when you were writing Inala for Planet City. So thanks so much for being involved in the project. It's so much richer for your voice there. I think I'll throw it back to Alex. Maybe Alex, you have some questions or things that you wanted to throw into the conversation as well.
Alex Brown: Yeah, that would be fantastic, if we have time. Thanks so much Liam and thanks Ryan. I got so much out of that discussion as well, just hearing so many extra layers there that are difficult to pick up on just at first glance. So thank you both. I guess, I was hoping to build a little bit on some of the conversation again, around this idea of the role of fiction. And I'm thinking here from my perspective, working at the university and seeing young people coming into our educational space.
And what I sometimes see is, or I sense is, this learnt sort of minimisation or this almost a hierarchy emerging in people's understanding of the world, where people's personal narratives and experiences and fictional speculations and ideas are somehow minimised. Or there's this search, I suppose, for things that people might think of as somehow quote unquote, "real" or "true" or, sort of, "factual". And what I was struck by when I picked up... I do have a copy of the book. And when I picked up the book and got to read through it, coming back to your point about the way that this publication stitches fiction and nonfiction and the way Ryan, you were talking about your work as aimed, almost, at that young adult genre. These ideas of fiction and nonfiction of sort of young adult literature versus, for lack of a better term, adult literature, and all of these kinds of sewing together of different kinds of ways of thinking about Planet City.
It really felt incredibly valuable to me because, and hearing you both talk about it, both of these projects, both Planet City and also your broader work Ryan and your other films Liam too, they involve this process of prioritising the personal and the narrative and the experiential and the fictional and not necessarily accepting that one is somehow more real than the other, or not necessarily accepting that push that we might see in the broader context or a lean towards facts or whatever these kinds of things might mean.
And I found that really inspiring. That's a very long way of just asking, how do we begin to communicate the way that thinking and personal stories and choosing what to share with people from your own experience? Do you have any thoughts on how we start to encourage young people who have this sense of urgency, who want to be involved in the world, and who obviously want to help find ways of navigating through complex conditions? How do we underline for them the value of these intensely personal stories?
Ryan Griffen: I guess, for me, I sort of take the approach that it's not always one-size-fits-all, you need to have the ability to bend and shape and listen. And I think now more than ever, the world needs that. At the moment, it just feels like it's right or wrong, there's no discussion happening in the middle to get to a set goal. It doesn't matter what side you're on, you've got your agenda, and that's what you got to follow. For me, fiction has the ability to break that sort of down. And unfortunately, it's the arguments that come post that, that still lend themselves to either side of an argument.
And so for me, the idea of presenting a world or presenting a piece of fiction that you try and allow more than one point of view in that space. And again, not preach of what you're trying to educate on. Because obviously as a creative, you're imposing your beliefs in that storytelling. And sometimes that may be very wrong, but you need to also have the ability to take that criticism, or take that critique and listen to the rights and wrongs. And for me, that's what science fiction is. Is just purely starting the conversation. It's not saying, "This is how it's done." It's just like, "Can we all grab a beer after we watch or read this and just talk." And for me I think that's the most important thing.
Liam Young: Yeah, it's interesting to hear you speak on that. For us, and I'm speaking as an educator now, when I'm here in LA, I also run this Master's program in worldbuilding and visual storytelling at SCI-Ark. And one of the places we start is, trying to think through with the students, what are the stories that only they can tell in a way, or at least what are the contexts where they're able to offer a unique perspective. This town especially, it's filled with storytellers, all trying to find their voice. How can the students contribute to that discourse in a meaningful way. And I think a part of that is finding their own particular relationship to a context or a subject. And speaking from that position is something that we all try to do.
And I guess in various forms, that might be called someone's directorial voice, or in some forms, it's called their brand, I guess. But trying to locate yourself as a creative within that, is important. Yeah, and it might be small, it's just like, how can I tell this story differently than someone else based on my own perspective? And that's where we begin. Because we do think that, if we start with a real issue that we're trying to engage with through the lens of fiction, that real issue is genuinely really complex and nuanced. And there's something about the fiction that allows for the subtlety and representation of that nuance that other formats don't.
The aestheticisation or aesthetic practice, or practices of storytelling, are really great means to engage with the complexities of the world as it stands, and this binary or this black and white, left or right that Ryan's talking about, the impossibility of gray spaces and complexity between things. As I said, Planet City is both utopia and dystopia, both at the same time. That kind of nuance, is really well carried through story. Less though through a news reader just kind of stating facts or genres of data visualization, like turning climate change into a rising, little snaking red line on a graph. The power of fiction to communicate complexities, is great. So trying to encourage students to find their fictions, is part of encouraging them to tackle something, and a meaningful topic they want, that they're passionate about, in this way.
Alex Brown: Yeah, I couldn't agree more, those sentiments around nuance and complexity and sitting with that. So I realise we're probably getting to the end of our time. I think I just wanted to thank you both so much for this incredibly rich conversation and for sharing your work and also for sharing some of the things that you have been thinking and working with behind those kinds of outputs that we're more familiar with. It's been incredibly and illuminating. So thank you both for joining us, and it's been fantastic.
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