Damjan Jovanovic is an architect, educator and software designer, based in Los Angeles. He currently works as Full-Time faculty at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). Damjan finished the post-graduate Master of Arts in Architecture degree at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, Germany in 2014, where he afterwards worked as design faculty. Damjan’s work centers on the development of experimental architectural software, and his interests lie in investigating the culture and aesthetics of software platforms, as well as questions of contemporary architectural education, authorship and creativity.
DB: One of the underlying elements that informs your focus revolves around systems thinking where on your site worldmaking.xyz you draw from a multitude of theorists that have laid down the foundations for systems thinking i.e. Jay Forrester, Reza Negarestani, to Micheal Sellars’ Advanced Game Design – a systems approach, as well as Donella H. Meadows’ Thinking in Systems as well the rendition of systems thinking especially through gaming a la Will Wright’s Dynamics for Designers. How have these works shaped your understanding of gaming systems as ‘toy models’ or ‘legibility machines’ for better or worse of a term, that lay down the seeds for grasping complex systems, and perhaps we can extend it to ask, how can they reengineer and remodel ‘types of worlds’?
DJ: I think this is exactly right. I think all these things that you mentioned are key references for thinking about this. I also especially appreciate that you mentioned Reza Negarestani in this context, because one of the extremely important points for me was his interview for Nero magazine, where he was talking about this idea of engineering the mind and crafting the world. I think that is precisely where I think we should operate with design. But thinking about system I think, it’s something that I was really interested in from the beginning, because it presents us with fundamental problems.
Especially games, because they kind of come with this baggage of being non-serious or being non-essential. I think they are very good at being able to not only model systems, but also lead to represent the outcomes and the conditions of a system, which I think is, for me, the main part of being interested in, for example, Will Wright’s work. And another game that I looked at, which is SimEarth, which is kind of a less well-known game from 1989 or 1990. The game was essentially his attempt after doing SimCity, which is based on Jay Forrester, his urban dynamics, his question was, what if we extrapolate from there? And what if we tried to model an entire planet, which is an extremely ambitious endeavour I think, how he approached it, by using the same ideas about systems. Thus, modelling, stocks and flows, these kinds of feedback loops, a cybernetic type of thinking, but in his case, it became kind of a multi-force for the game. And I think, if you look into the game, I think it’s extremely ambitious also, because it’s trying to be more than a game. It’s a point, which I’d say it’s almost like a philosophical toy. He explains, basically, toys are different because we can do many things with a toy. Simulation is more like the classical definition, has its own state, and has a clear outcome. And I think another thing, which ties into this question is the idea of infinite games, which is a concept coming from James P. Carse, I think, always the same as with anything, it’s really an interesting idea of using this concept of infinite game, but applied on a large scale to an environmental problem. So I just find that fascinating. There is another scaling software thing there, the manual itself is about like 300 pages. And its features, let’s say a primer on earth science, the last 100 pages are focused on science, and the introduction for the manuals, was written by James Lovelock. James Lovelock kind of worked actively, right on this game. And there is also a Gaia scenario that you can play within the game. Thus, I think that’s really one of the core interests in looking into the system. And, of course, there is a whole dark side to that, basically, that the well known precepts of SimCity as leading to a certain kind of urban outcome that is basically failing and perpetuating a neoliberal mindset. I think this is, of course, a well-known critique. And obviously, I think, rather than, let’s say, just doing away with this approach, I was more interested in seeing what we can do with this approach and go further with it. And I think, you know, simulations I think that’s a big topic. I take simulations as basically a form rather than somehow just an outcome of what we do, what we think, especially in architectural design. There is an age old practice dealing with two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional objects. And I think, even in architecture that is, I mean, obviously outdated, and how buildings are built for their design. Essentially it is kind of software that is multi-scale and multi-level.
DB: Further, can you reflect upon how we can utilise gaming to grasp, track, and test and especially how we interface with complex phenomena. On your site you have the quote from Espen Aarseth and his assertion that “simulations are somewhere between reality and fiction, they’re not obliged to represent reality, but they have an empirical logic of their own, and therefore, should not be called fictions.” And you’ve also written as well that a simulation is not a fiction by default, a mathematical law, a model, and it could produce its own coherent, testable reality. And I’m really interested in this idea of when we’re talking about simulation and how do you build up those coherent worlds? In a way, if necessarily, we think those worlds have to be validated, or it has to conform to something in our real world. Whereas here, this kind of border between reality and fiction, it becomes blurred when we think about simulation.
DJ: The difference between reality and the world, something I learned from this talk between Federico Campagna and Stefano Gualeni, it’s one of the amazing talks that I listened to recently. And I mean, they talked about it in a way where reality is something that you cannot grasp. That happens, and it’s happened on so many levels, and it’s almost inaccessible. But the world is constructed, right? The world is where you live in, where you’re able to have some agency where you’re able to operate in a way where everything that happens, we use the world. And I think this is the design issue, this really becomes interesting, because it’s this question of: What can model the world? What can go beyond metaphor? Or what can go beyond some kind of description? Right? If you want architects and especially in the world, which I operate in, like many people have a desire or interest in operating planetary issues. Talking about multi-scale and multi-level loops, which are not just tied to anything that has to do with building right. So we kind of left this idea of building an action vacuum designed by itself, or design as kind of being the main driver for changing or for understanding the world. This is, I think my first thought, where I examined the tools that we have, to see how we can do something, because one of my ideas was always that it cannot operate without immersing yourself within the technical substrate of a given problem.
And I think that’s where this question of tools comes in the end, you know, the idea of tools, then expands into questions or medium questions of the platform. So I think these are all related concepts, because they’re trying to actually tackle this problem. How do you actually without falling back on to purely descriptive, purely metaphorical relations? And I think this is where the fictions concept was very useful. When I started, I gave a lot of different lectures back in the day talking about software as a fiction, I think the study of fiction was there, in my understanding, tied to this problem, how you structure something, and actually the fact that everything is already constructed. And this is what I used to call the ‘fiction’. And I think simulation, I think goes one step beyond because it is partially fictional, but it’s also partially testable, if that makes sense, like it is a type of an abstract model. That is, what can be tested, or what it can produce are actual results that are internally coherent. Within this logic, the fiction was there, that the format does not allow for forecasts, going one step beyond the coherence of the world. But if you work with the simulation, then it becomes real, you’re starting to kind of interface with a different intelligence, you’re suddenly faced with a different kind of agency, even if it’s like extremely simple or abstract, it still presents you with this open question, like what is actually happening, and how to respond?
DB: Another key figure you are engaged with is Nelson Goodman and the concept of ‘Worldmaking.’ Perhaps, we should differentiate from something such as ‘Worldbuilding’ where, typically with world building, we are associating the idea that there’s lore and mythology making just character creation. Whereas it seems for Nelson Goodman, it’s more thinking about how can we work with the extant resources and the tools of a so-called ‘given world’ that we’re occupying in this case to unmake and remake its conceptual and symbolic practices. Could you talk about the relation of Worldmaking to your work.
DJ: I think this idea of Worldmaking versus Worldbuilding is where Worldbuilding has this Hollywood or Marvel Cinema dimension. It is a world definitely and it’s a very successful world, that has been world built by a lot of different authors. Worldbuilding always has this connotation, of somehow being geared or aligned towards certain kinds of economics and certain kinds of audiences. And I think for me, this goes hand in hand with the other concept of gamification. I think these concepts are indications, they are kind of something that an ad agency might use, make something or put something in the world where they do some new work. I think we are talking about something else when we are talking about Worldmaking as coming from Nelson Goodman. Also,I think the idea is really that worlds are not made, they’re remade. And I think he’s talking about that literally, first and foremost. I’m interested in practices like that, because they were able to actually produce the world that has an effect.
DB: Let’s also talk about Planet Garden, which you’ve been working on, as far as I understand for several years, and, as you describe it’s a game where players can organise resources to create a self-sustaining robotic garden. It utilises as you characterise it, this multi-scalar interactive playable model for self-sustaining a wind and solar powered robotic garden that’s set in a desert landscape. Can you reflect on the development of the game, the influences the interaction model you’ve generated and the assets? And particularly the question how do you critically test and attempt to simulate certain aspects of climate change?
DJ: Sure, I think Planet Garden is one of the projects that has opened up this problem. Because it’s really, as you said, it’s kind of focusing on this stuff, but this idea of producing a city, which is a genre that in video games, that is starting to exist now, I think I’ve seen a few games that were actually trying to understand how to form environments. So I think the interaction model has to do with this kind of taking a system dynamics approach, but trying to also produce a contemporary version of that, where we are still working within the extractivist economy paradigm, which all of these games really operate in. The players goal here is to maintain the balance, keep the game play rolling. The goal is not to win, you cannot win any of these games. Nonetheless, you can keep them going and you can take that balance. While doing so you can learn what it takes to actually understand that world, which I think that’s where the Worldmaking comes back. It’s also about the unravelling of effects to see your actions.
Therefore, being able to understand that every action, every act of agency has a ripple effect, and it kind of has it has a feedback affects the system. And if you want to maintain the system operating, I think you actually have to change the limits and your normal behaviours for when you play your game, because most of our game behaviour is always skewed towards winning. And I think it is these types of games, they kind of present a different opportunity for engagement, which I find extremely interesting. And that’s why maybe I mean, it’s a multi-scalar issue, I think, this question of climate change, obviously, has to do with my interpretation of modelling and representation. By now, it’s very well established that climate change has a representation problem. Much like many other things, it’s basically one of the reasons why it’s so difficult, because it’s tremendously hard to really automate the representative. I think that’s where our time for Planet Garden was to kind of start this conversation of like, what if we use a simulation for representing an environmental system, making it legible so that you can see the effects? And you can understand the conditions with which you’re dealing? There will be everything where you have to keep track of playing. I think many of these templates are still operational, especially to the game. I think it’s an incredible insight by James Coarse because of the nature of many health educators with many things that we are now thinking are unrepresentable, that we are thinking what cannot be tackled, because they’re too complex. I think if perhaps they’re reframed through the use of nonlinear media to produce systems, to use games that can be reframed as this open ended, infinite problem, that gets still be balanced, and it can still be closed. I think we have a much greater chance to actually understand I think the other question to this, the question of representing the data that you get from from from that kind of problem. I think that’s where we can also learn from games. If you look at any contemporary game they are dealing with incredibly long time spans. That evolution, they’re dealing with civilizations that rise and fall, and they’re able to actually pretty convincingly represent all of that. It is not through only the gameplay loop, but also through the user interface, through different strategies of kind of data visualisation. I think this is another point that I was so interested in here, this complexity requires complex representation. I think that’s partially an answer to some of these questions. The goal is to make things legible or actually first make things playable and to establish this design process as a method of tackling the scale and hyperdimensional issues.