Circa Lunar: A conversation with Ted Hunt and Gemma Jones

School of Critical Design Co-founder and cultural semiotician Gemma Jones sat down for a long-distance chat with Fellow Ted Hunt to talk about his latest project, Circa Lunar

Gemma Jones

Interdisciplinary cultural researcher and strategist specialising in semiotics and futures thinking

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Ted Hunt

Ted Hunt is an independent speculative/discursive/critical designer living and working in London and currently a resident of Somerset House Studios.

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December 17, 2020

School of Critical Design Co-founder and cultural semiotician Gemma Jones sat down for a long-distance chat with Fellow Ted Hunt to talk about his latest project, Circa Lunar

G: Hi Ted, congratulations on funding Circa Lunar!  This project is a continuation of your work with redesigning time, or rather redesigning our relationship with time.  How has researching Circa Lunar deepened your understanding of this relationship?

T: Thanks Gemma, and thanks to the School of Critical Design for generously supporting the crowdfunding campaigns as a patron to both Circa Solar and Circa Lunar.

One of the first learnings from Circa Lunar came from moving up a temporal order-of-magnitude from Circa Solar - that is from daily variations in day/night cycles to monthly variations in lunar phases. Where Circa Solar sought to redesign the clock as a tool for the daily measurement of time, Circa Lunar looks to redesign the calendar as a tool for the monthly and yearly measure of time. In this research I reflected on the same cyclical and rhythmic patterns in day/night cycles of Circa Solar, but I also took notice of more interpretative narratives of time that tend to manifest over longer durations. Humans have always found mystery and myth within the moon as our nearest celestial neighbour, and we have always projected various meanings onto its consistent, but ever varyinging presence in our lives.

In the Kickstarter video for Circa Solar I stated that "it is no surprise that we refer to 'telling the time', as time is a story that we each tell and we each are told". When I created that video it was just a pithy way of critiquing the 'social construct' of modern mechanical time, but through Circa Lunar I began to appreciate that the stories we use to understand and relate to time are often as important as time itself, if not more important.  

Finally, during the research process I read that Homo Sapiens’ earliest relationships to mapping our exterior reality was in mapping the stars and celestial cycles, rather than mapping land and geography (above). I found this profoundly significant in a much broader human context, the fact that our imaginations stretched far into the cosmos long before we'd begun to assume we can take ownership of land and form national identities to fight over. So I now like to think that 'we were celestial before we were terrestrial'.

G: That’s beautiful! The moon has been our far-near forever.  The mythology around the moon goes way back in every culture and is still present in language from ‘lunatic’ to ‘menstruation’ to ‘Monday’.   So we live with the remnants of these lunar ideas of mystery, cyclical change and orbit yet our dominant ideas of change and time mapping is quite detached from these foundational mythologies.  Do you have examples of cultures or subcultures where lunar thinking still shapes life?  And what could reintroducing lunar symbolism into how we live our lives do for us now?

T: The Islamic Calendar, also known as Hijri, is a 'lunar visibility calendar'. A month is measured from apparent New Moon to New Moon, with the first visible observation of a New Crescent Moon (the very first appearance of the Sun's light upon the Moon's surface after a New Moon) marking the commencement of key religious events such as Ramadan. Today Ramadan is practiced by many of the 1.8 billion Muslims living worldwide, so here alone we can see lunar thinking still significantly shaping human life and lives. In non-human domains it is known that oysters, like many marine animals, spawn in almost exact synchronicity with lunar cycles - and will even do so when put into sealed environments preventing exposure to the light cycles of lunar phases, suggesting that the phenomenon is entirely intrinsic.

In answer to the question of what reintroducing lunar symbolism into our lives might do for us, our current scientific understanding of the Moon's influence upon our psychology and physiology is still significantly limited in comparison to our understanding of daily and seasonal circadian rhythms related to the Sun. But initial research has shown a correlation between lunar cycles and stress (particularly for females), so this could be one pragmatic application for individuals and organisations.

However, I'm hesitant to be too didactic about the potential 'impacts' and 'applications'.  In designing and developing Circa Solar I began from a very theoretical position on its impacts, but once the app was made into a reality and I began to use it in my everyday life a whole new series of emergent properties began to transpire (as I documented for my talk on the project for the School of Critical Design last year as pictured below). These impacts ranged from varying seasonal levels of productivity and bias towards certain types of work, to my ability to navigate a day far more intuitively when viewing it as a single rotation rather than two rotations of 12 hours, to appreciating a decelerated lifestyle especially regarding travel, to vividly experiencing the velocity of going around the corner of the solar system at solstices, and increasingly adopting a view of shared solidarity with the 99.99% of non-human life who are mostly also governed by circadian cycles. I started to go to sleep A LOT earlier in winter also.

So now I'm hoping that Circa Lunar might manifest its own entirely unexpected emergent properties, and that these might be unique to whoever is looking to 'attune to the moon' and find meanings within its phases. I guess as always with semiotics, meaning changes with time, so for me it's fascinating to imagine what new meanings might be (re)interpreted from the moon's symbolism in the near or far future.

G: I love this aspect of your work, and other applied critical designs; that it triggers an encounter with phenomena or systems that helps us really question or tune into our reality.  In terms of our relationship with nature and natural systems, it seems part of how we have come to abuse nature is through its abstraction, our separation from its cycles and patterns.  With Circa Lunar and Circa Solar we’re given a new way to re-signify ourselves as natural beings.  And the mystery and aesthetic language around the moon I think is a powerful hook for people.  You reference the moon’s hypothesised effects on the female body, and this is part of the emergent language of menstruation products and even some skincare brands.  The moon bridges rooted spiritual or cosmic ideas and the scientific.  I think segments of culture are really seeking to explore the space between the so-called ‘rational’ and the ‘spiritual’.  How do you see that relationship evolving?

One of the things I found most interesting about Circa Solar as an applied critical design and speculative design project was that it was using natural reality as its stimulus rather than the fictions or leaps of imagination usually associated with these fields of design. And in this regard 'truth was stranger than fiction' as they say. So these Circa projects are, in a very similar way to Thomas Thwaites renowned Goat Man project, trying to open a space for us to ask what we have in common with non-human organisms, and what we might have lost in decoupling ourselves from those fundamental commonalities and replacing them with artificial alternatives.

I totally agree about the moon acting as a conduit between 'rational' and 'spiritual' dimensions, it is both objectively apparent and subjectively experienced by all of us. Yet there is seemingly a complete absence of research into its effects upon us, which I can only hypothesise is down to a patriarchal and scientific fear of 'weirdness' and anything perceived as being 'irrational'' (arguably as a means of 'othering' feminine and indigenous dimensions of knowledge #IMO). The Moon's huge gravitational force upon the Earth governs the tides and the oceans, that's a hell of a lot of water to move about twice a day! The human body is made up of 60% water while both the human brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and yet most suggestions that the moon might have causality or correlation upon our psychology is quite literally still treated as complete 'lunacy' in the eyes of science.

My own hope in how this relationship between rational and spiritual, between objective and subjective, might evolve is currently tending towards the implicit rather than explicit. So rather than solar and lunar time seeking to replace the mechanical clock and Gregorian calendar (although this is technically possible), the enduring patterns found within solar and lunar time are reconsidered and readopted. This might materialise as an appreciation of time which is cyclical rather than linear, rhythmic rather than rigid, exists on a spectrum rather than in units, and is considered over the long-term rather than short-term. All of these attributes can be found in using the Sun as a clock and the Moon as a calendar, and whose pragmatic adoption might also have seismic implications upon some of our most urgent issues and challenges. As we've discussed before it's probably no coincidence that what was known as sustainability is increasingly evolving into 'regenerative' and 'circular economy' mindsets and models. The future's cyclical.

** Interestingly as I write this a scientific study finding rhythmic daily and seasonal fluctuations in white blood cells suggests stronger or weaker immune function, and accordingly might be having a distinct impact upon Covid19 infection rates. This arguably both confirms and validates the importance of critically evolving our understanding and appreciation of time as rhythmic rather than linear.

G: Circa Solar provoked us to reconsider how we structure our day, how we think about notions like productivity and wellbeing or rather the limitations of these notions as they’re structured in our society…  Do you have any particular hypotheses or framing thoughts about how this cyclical, rhythmic idea of lunar time might influence how we approach planning or productivity or wellbeing?  

In many ways simply asking the question of what influence the moon could or should have in our lives is more important than the actual answers. As the Italian philosopher and poet Leopardi beautifully articulates;

What are you doing, moon, in the sky, tell me, what are you doing? Silent Moon.

Giacomo Leopard, Canti, 1835;

As I mentioned the present influence of lunar rhythms on our lives is far less studied than circadian rhythms, so the specific influences of Circa Lunar on productivity and wellbeing are currently far harder to authenticate than those of Circa Solar. The most immediate implications are the moon's influence upon sleep patterns during full moons, and the previously referenced research into stress and anxiety during new moons. Both of these phenomena have obvious implications upon both productivity and wellbeing (we're far happier and more productive when we're well rested and less anxious). Beyond this we might start to unpack second order implications that border upon the esoteric. Existing interpretations (below left) of a lunar month upon human mindsets and actions advocate full moon's as a time for appraisal, the waxing moon as a period of acquiring and creating, the waning phase between first quarter moon and new moon as an opportunity to purge, a new moon as an invitation to set new intentions, and the waxing between new moon and full moon as an additional period of acquisition. Additional and alternative patterns might be noticed and formulated by individual users of Circa Lunar in the emergent way I alluded to earlier. Compare this with the Western-normative structure of a calendar month (below right) where productivity is interpreted as giving 110% eight hours a day, five days a week, in exchange for two days of rest. With this process repeated across the 52 weeks of an entire year, minus around four weeks vacation.

If we overlay the cyclical lunar framing over everyday contexts of productivity and wellbeing we can see specific opportunities to regularly set and question intentions, to discard what isn't working, and to reconcile what is working in both our work lives and personal lives. The challenge is that there are currently no scientific grounds for this alternative framework - but the same is also true of the 5 day working week, 2 days rest formula.

I attempted to articulate this way of cyclical thinking in more detail in our recent talk for London Design Festival - Design with Time: An Argument for Fourth-Dimensional Thinking. Where my concluding hypothesis on this question of the relationship between cyclical time and productivity was; "Is it so unrealistic to imagine a healthy, well-rested, less-stressed, more motivated workforce might actually be more productive than an unhealthy, tired, stressed, and demotivated one?"

G: And this approach to time must have ripple effects for communities and the planet.  By stimulating productivity in rhythms that have nothing to do with nature we tend to over-produce (and over consume).  Do you see ways for organisations or ‘systems’ beyond the individual to use lunar time to address this imbalance?

T: A great question, and one we'll have to consider through another unorthodox means I'm afraid! I've just been reading a fascinating interview with Pope Francis in the journal Real Review. When questioned on whether the economic devastation of Coivd19 might bring about a broader ecological conversion through readdressing our priorities and lifestyles, he replies;

"Today, I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world. We need to reconnect with our real surroundings. This is the opportunity for conversion... This is the time to take decisive steps, to move from using and misusing nature to contemplating it. We have lost the contemplative dimension; we have to get it back at this time."

- Pope Francis, Real Review 10

When any text refers to 'we' the reader should always question who the author means by we, but in this instance the 'we' is appropriate to individuals, organisations and systems alike - maybe even more so organisations and systems. The loss of an inclination to contemplate the world is arguably central to the issue of overproduction and overconsumption. We now consume things rather than contemplate things.

How lunar time might change this is not entirely obvious, but it is possible. Let's take agriculture alone as an example (the first instance of organised overproduction in human history) and apply lunar time to it. We know that the moon's gravity moves the Earth's water to create tides, but a 'known unknown' is the effect it has on other elements of the natural world. Continuing this hypothesis it might be logical to contemplate that if the moon moves ocean waters, then it might also move ground water in land and even the water contained within plants. Many farmers and gardeners have embraced this thought and plant and harvest by lunar phases - sowing root crops during a new moon due to the increase in soil moisture drawn to the surface by the moon's gravity at the period improving the chances for seeds that are slow to germinate. Lunar farmers will also sow above ground crops during full moons, when the moon's pull is the strongest and hence the ground water at its highest. Full moons are also believed to be the best time to harvest crops for immediate consumption as they are at their most succulent, with the period after full moons best for pruning and harvesting for storage as the waning influence of the moon leaves skins drier and tougher. With the agriculture industry making up between 3%-25% of most countries' entire GDP a shift to lunar timing, driven by tangible results in increased efficiency and quality, might have a seismic impact on both our consumptive and contemplative relationship to the world.

It is a rebalancing of our entirely imbalanced consumptive, and mostly ignored contemplative, relationships to the natural world through changes like this that could go far beyond individual implications and potentially manifest societal and planetary transitions.

Ted Hunt is an independent speculative/ discursive/ critical designer living and working in London. He is a founding fellow of School of Critical Design and a resident of Somerset House studios.  You can find out more about Ted’s work here

Further Reading
Visions from Latin America: Critically navigating uncertain futures (Part one)
Evening lecture/ 26 November 2020
December 8, 2020
Futures, Power & Privilege
Evening lecture/ 6 August 2020
December 17, 2020