Unit 20 [2023-2024] AWESOME!

Jake Moulson, David Hemingway

This year, we want you to feel awesome. By finding prompts to elicit this feeling, following it to see where it leads, and opening up to new perspectives and perceptions, our aim is to produce new forms of knowing and un-knowing via awe’s capacity to connect us to the microcosmic, macrocosmic, the fearsome and the ecstatic.

Awe allows us to get outside ourselves, and integrates us into larger patterns – of community, of nature, of ideas and cultural forms – that enable our very survival.

In an era marked by rapid urbanization, environmental crises, and a growing disconnect from nature, it has become imperative to reshape our approach to design, acknowledging that humans are not isolated entities but part of a web of life that extends to animals, plants, microorganisms, and ecosystems. Unit 20 proposes that, in order to work proactively and cooperatively with the myriad species with whom we share our planet, and to produce new forms, structures and ideas, we need to cultivate a renewed sense of ‘awe’.

Following on from last year’s brief, ‘Troubling Matter’, drawing on possible histories, presents and futures, Unit 20 will, this year, take awe as a starting point from which to engage with alternative intelligences and world views, to reconnect with our planet, and to reposition ourselves within it. Frequently, interactions between humans, animals, plants, ecosystems and the technosphere are limited by established patterns of perception – perception informed by presumptions, biases and selective interpretations. What strange forces, relations and possibilities remain hidden as a result? What strategies, approaches and tools might we develop to reevaluate these perceptions and to generate new ways of relating? How do we identify our ingrained patterns? How might awe disrupt and reorient us?

Tears rise in our recognition of those larger patterns that unite. And the chills signal to us that we are seeking to make sense of such unknown with others.

As we navigate awe’s potentially limitless realms, we hope to move beyond human experience, and to become alert to the relatedness of all lifeforms. We aim to seek out awe and to champion sensory awakenings. To reach these insights, we must shift from our limited, anthropocentric perspective and embrace the wisdom of indigenous cultures, fantastical narratives, and the unfathomable. Awe not only connects us to ‘society’ in the broadest sense, making us more altruistic, it might also unveil the sublime, the spiritual, and the euphoric. Imagine architectural structures conceived in collaboration with other lifeforms and intelligences, conceived in a state of elation. Imagine translating the untranslatable. By using awe as our primary design principle, we will engage in ‘fictioning,’ ‘weirding,’ and ‘wilding’ to craft novel possibilities.

Experiences with these wonders…so often transcend the reach of language and tendencies…to define, measure, and hypothesise within linear cause-and-effect theorising. – Above quotes from ‘Awe: The Transformative Power of Everyday Wonder’ by Dacher Keltner, Allen Lane 2023

In our pursuit of awe, we invite you to feel its awesome presence, to nurture it, and to let it guide you towards renewed awareness – of the mysterious, the overlooked and the extraordinary. Through art, philosophy, natural history, science fiction and science itself, we will weave disparate objects, artifacts, ephemera and experiences into alternative narratives and worlds. With awe, we will observe, catalogue and re-perceive, puncturing the veil of received knowledge. Our journey will be one of exploration, not imposition, opening up to that which is beyond ourselves to access the awesome realms around us.

“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” – Franz Kafka