Yet to Be

We were invited to give a talk in Pardubice at GAMPA, the city gallery that is housing the current exhibition.

The invitation stated that “Time’s Up will reveal a glimpse behind the scenes of their projects, introducing fragments of their histories as well as futures, interests and approaches. Continued with an outline of futuring techniques for experiential futures, exploring experiences in developing immersive, physical environments and inviting an audience to explore and interpret these staged spaces.”

Over the 40 minute talk we covered these and many other areas. The following essay has been re-worked from some of the talk notes.

Here we are in 2047, in some place with dripping water and the ocean held back by concrete blocks. The place is uncertain, but clear, there are newspapers and other references, it feels like we have stumbled into someone’s workshop, changing room, medical center and bathroom.

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We ask you to investigate, to take on the role of a pseudo detective, to look around, to read and listen and look and to feel with your senses the wholeness of this room, this space, this environment. As with all spaces, it is made not only of an arrangement of things in space that you experience in time as you move around, but it is also reflections and sounds, it is the edge of an ecosystem, there are things happening, it seems, just outside where this exhibition space stops. Behind that arch, the moon and perhaps the endless sea, through that doorway the entrance to this working space, behind that door a high tech showering and cleansing system that someone is using, slowly and deliberately.

Because we know this is an exhibition, we know we are invited to look. To listen. To sit and watch. Perhaps to smell. We might take a newspaper and read it on the seawall, we might watch the reflections of the waves on the curve of the ceiling. The echoing sound of soft water drops make us think of caves and flooded caverns. The bubbling breathing machine makes us feel meditative, yet the bed is medicinal and the General Infection Negation might make us worry. Infection from what? Negation rather than Antibiotics?

The environment offers many clues, and at least as many questions, as to what is going on here. If we were, in fact, detectives and had come in here because of some case, we would need to know what is going on. While we are not detectives, as an exhibition space we have been given, as the audience, permission to snoop around and look at what is here. Such a construction can be called a Physical Narrative. The room is physically, embeddedly, telling a story, narrating it to the audience. A physical narrative is a format that has a number of attributes and is, like other formats, closely related to many others. As you spend time here you might feel like you are on a theatre stage, where the actors seem to be just offstage. You might feel like you are in a computer game, or an interactive story space, or any of a number of other formats for mediated experience. Over our years of developing and exhibiting such spaces we have found many connections with but also many distinctions to related formats, for this is not theatre, but is like theatre, and games, and installation art, and yet distinct from them all.

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Curiosity is vital, yet often misguided, pleasant but often disturbing. Many claim that the education system is built to destroy children’s curiosity, others claim that Facebook and their ilk misuse our curiosity to keep us engaged and clicking. The great benefit, but perhaps the greatest burden of physical narrative, as a form , is that is requires curiosity. As such, incurious visitors will find little other than a few aesthetic surfaces to attract their attention. However, even they, if they let themselves in, can be drawn into the vortex of the narrative. From one interesting point, some time spent distracted, we offer other opportunities for involvement, connecting from one element to another, in a network, a system of systems. To this we shall return, but first, let’s talk about what we might find.

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The main things we find in the space here are perhaps the water with its waves and its boat, the medical breathing system and the changing room. In each of these we find a dire warning. The water is polluted, toxic, dangerous. On the wall a rusted sign warning of contact with the water, another wall with an algal danger sign like the Australian fire warning signs, the medical assembly for purification and healing with a focus on breathing, with Ocean Contaminated Clothing in a bag. In short, signs of dystopia, as soon as we look beyond the pleasant surface of water reflections and the sounds of measured breathing. Things have changed, and we can look in many places to find we are in the year 2047, not even 30 years into the future, and the world seems to have fallen apart.

As we began to create the world of Turnton in 2015, it was clear that we could not avoid the possibilities of dystopic futures. Trump had not yet been elected, nor was Brexit more than a fringe idea, but ocean scientists were tracking the expansion of eutropic dead zones as fish populations plummeted, plastic pollution was reaching into our awareness and it was clear that the planet’s civilisations were not really working to change these directions. With these large scale, slowly adapting and changing systems, it was clear that we were not changing, as society, in order to stop collapse. So we included these collapsed systems into our scenario.

A Scenario is an idea from the field of futuring. A scenario, briefly explained, is a collection of the features in a possible world, that define may of the fundamental features of that world. If I say universal free health care, parks and street musicians, you might get an idea of a possible world where these factors play an important role. If I say expensive and exclusive health care, car travel and ever present police, you can imagine a very different world.

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So we included the collapse of oceanic ecosystems into our scenario. But our research was showing that while a large part of our economic and industrial systems, from fishing to agriculture, were exasperating the problem, there were many individuals, groups and movements developing alternatives that would lower impact or even repair these problems. Other systems existed, they were simply not large enough. Yet. So we took heart and seeing as we were not going to change society until it was almost too late, the phrase “change was our only chance” came to mind. While we cannot change the level of CO2 in the atmosphere significantly within one period of government, we can and do change legislation, tax regimes, employment and mobility possibilities. So we wrapped our dystopia with the arms of utopia, with possibilities that are easily poo-pooed as unrealistic and unwieldy, until it becomes clear that business as usual is unrealistic and unwieldy, as well as killing us, so we really do need to change.

Every idea you find in the world of Turnton exists already. We did not invent anything other than some names. So perhaps it is time to give you some ideas about what we did to create the world and let you have a look at the futuring process that we undertook. One of the processes was the creation of institutions and organisations. Whereas now we have the WTO and international banks driving finance and economics in order to maximise individual profit, we had to imagine other institutions that would implement other practices. On the higher level we created the ominous sounding Global Authority for Sustainability and other large scale structures to provide good governance, we also created local organisations and institutions. You find some of them indicated on the board where the schedule of ship usage is displayed.

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On one level we see the research work being carried out, something that we are aware of already, as oceanic research is perhaps the most effective way we have to know and understand what is happening beneath the waves.

Another organisation that we see is the ORF, the Ocean Recovery Farm, which is involved in kelp agriculture and algae farming. Here we have specifically taken the idea of regenerative agriculture, an idea that is taking hold globally, that farming need not be extractive and destructive to natural systems, but can work in harmony with them and even help to restore the natural systems within which it is embedded, whether soil ecosystems, roadside hedges or forest. Natural systems exist in complex webs of interrelation and an animal or groups of animals or plants, that become overly dominant are usually eradicated by the ecosystem as it finds a way to turn the overload of poison into food. Sometimes this takes a bad turn, like when the fertiliser washed off farmers’ lands comes into the ocean or a lake and becomes food for algae that multiply out of control, the ecosystem using the massive overload of nutrients to bloom. The unfortunate side effect is that the algae does not become food for fish or other parts of the ecosystem, as it is so abundant, but rather dies and settles to the river bed or ocean floor, decomposing and robbing the waters of oxygen in the process. Arguably this is a man-made problem, much as Timothy Morton likes to problematicise the distinction between humankind and nature, as we are, in many useful senses, part of nature too. The Ocean Recovery Farm takes inspiration from a North American community of ocean farmers who use kelp and other seaweeds in order to help absorb the run off fertilisers from upriver and turn them into edible kelp. By absorbing nutrient run off, growing weed, they are also creating an ecosystem that provides shelter for juvenile fish, lowering the impact of storm surges and generally helping to build the resilience of the the coastal ecosystems.

The third organisation that is found in this area is the Fishing For Litter group. As the name indicates, this is a group of (former) fishers who use their tools and techniques not to harvest fish, but to remove litter. Litter in the ocean, principally plastics, is a huge issue. There are large clumps of abandoned fishing nets circling the oceans, caught in planetary currents, still catching fish that just die in the strands. More problematically there are clouds of plastics particles in the water, from scraps of deteriorating plastic bottles to microscopic flakes that are at the same scale as plankton. The plastics that enter the river or stream here in Pardubice end up in fishes’ guts in far off oceans. A number of existing groups are developing ways to collect the microplastic fragments in the oceans, but we are particularly enthusiastic about two groups. Amorgorama in Greece is literally the local fishers who have started to collect waste spastics from the ocean, the plastics that are destroying the ecosystems that feed the fish they catch as well as destroying the tourists who come and help them survive. Another effort that we have found particularly relevant in the actions of the vessel Kwai, (img nets) which went out and collected over 40 tons of ghost nets that were floating in the Pacific, lost by fishers from Asia and the Americas.

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The Kwai is also part of a third major issue that we encounter here in the exhibition. One of the significant causes for CO2 emissions are the ships that ply the ocean waves, bring containers of cheap Chinese plastic to the happy consumers of Europe, us. Not only do the ships have a combined CO2 contribution equivalent to Germany, but the poisonous fuels they use emit Sulphur Oxide clouds that acidify the air and water, Nitrous Oxides that are differently dangerous as well as huge amounts of particulates that even include significant quantities of heavy metals that rain down upon the oceans and coastlines. A significant part of the scenario we designed was based upon questions of clean transport. The Kwai, operating out of Hawaii, has been re-rigged as a sailing vessel in order to effectively transport cargoes and passengers between the island nations of the Pacific. Not only is this possible, but it is expanding, with groups such as Timbercoast in Elsfleth in Germany, Fair Transport in Den Helder in the Netherlands or TOWT in Douarnenez in France. There are people creating imaginations of new ways of living within the current flows of commerce and industry. We have included these not only within the pages of the Turnton Gazette, but also with such simple aspects such as the use of oars for the tender to the research vessel rather than an outboard motor.

The parts of the world are intertwined in a way that they feed into and supply one another. The changes from the now situation of 2020 to the maybe scenario of 2047 are extensive, but they are informed by many contemporary ideas around how a better world can be designed, built and carried on. In the same way that we attract attention within the exhibition in many ways, offering things of interest to a wide range of visitors and then offering them connection to other elements within the exhibition, the worlds we imagine are built as networks, as systems of relations and intertwinedness. In many ways, the worlds we build are images or recollections of natural ecosystems, networks of biology and transfer. The area of biomimetic design is often found to be filled with images of penguins inspiring the hulls of ships or the wind tips of eagles inspiring the winglets on aeroplanes. However we find biomimetics to be far more interesting on the level of patterns and networks.

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A functioning world scenario that has the capacity to continue into the future indefinitely cannot be one where it harvests materials from one hole to discard them onto another pile, for at some point the hole or the pile will be too large and perhaps the stuff that has been dug out will all be gone. Whether we carry on with an economics of solar input or entropy, it is clear that any business that consumes its capital in order to survive cannot carry on, as it is eating its own basis for survival. A business must run on its income, not spending more money, in the medium term, that it receives from its customers, in the same way that an ecosystem cannot absorb more energy than comes to it from the sun, at least not beyond the medium term.

When the European settlers arrived to stay in the colony of New South Wales in 1788, they were confronted with a landscape that, according to some, was like a giant park in the old country, Great Britain. When Australia was federated and stopped being a colony, the idea was created that when the Europeans arrived, the land was Terra Nullius, which approximately means that it was unused land, with the Aboriginal inhabitants living in it as hunters and gatherers. As the pastures and fields have collapsed over the decades, the story has been of the harsh climate and difficulties of surviving. However recent research has gone back to the diaries and observations of the early colonial settlers and has found ample evidence that the aboriginal inhabitants were not hunter gatherers, but we looking after what some have called the biggest estate on earth. This is not surprising, in retrospect. With a civilisation that is anywhere from 10 thousand to 60 thousand years old, the Aboriginals could not survive with an extractive economic system. They had to develop techniques to maintain the soils and the animals, the plants and the whole ecosystems that made their life possible. Similar properties of long lived civilisations have been observed in the Americas. Whereas Arthur C. Clarke has been known to say that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, we could adapt this to say that any sufficiently developed civilisation is indistinguishable from nature.

 

“Yet To Be” is part of Curiouser and Curiouser, cried Alice: Rebuilding Janus from Cassandra and Pollyanna (CCA) – an artbased research project from the Institute for Industrial Design 2 at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and Time’s Up. It is supported by the Programme for Arts-based Research (PEEK) from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF): AR561

Supported by: BKA-Kunst, Linz Kultur, Kulturland OÖ, LinzAG, emporia.

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