Art Meets Radical Openness 2022

There is an undercurrent in the open source community that is probably not widely felt. But it exists. Because the source code is there, because you can look at it, then the expectation arises that, if you find a problem, you should try to find out why the problem exists. And then perhaps fix it. And then share that fix. Whereas with commercial software you can register a bug with the company who made it and expect them to fix it. Open Source implies more work, more power, more responsibility for you as an individual.

This is the feeling of radical openness. Extreme transparency. As the Art Meets Radical Openness (AMRO) festival emerged from the LiWoLi = Linux Wochen Linz (The Linux Weeks in Linz) with its crossover of open source software and cultural perspectives, the AMRO festival took on this strange blending of the artistic, the cultural, the technical, the social and other worlds. This year it took this more explicitly with the festival theme being Debug.

Our future studies work revolves around questions of active and valid hope and the tools of curiosity as a motivating force to overcome the despair of apparently broken futures. Curiouser and Curiouser cried Alice aims to merge the rabbit holes of Alice’s explorations with the capacity to imagine and then think out loud about possible futures. Asked to speak about our work at AMRO, we wondered whether we could think of futuring as a process of debugging. On one hand futuring is about investigating the ways that possible futuring developments could play out. Taking the source code of a collection of social, technological and other trajectories and “computing” the ways in which they could play out, observing the results and if the resulting scenario is problematic, then discounting the collection of trajectories as somehow “buggy.”

This would be pushing the metaphor of computation a bit too far; there is by no means a computable link from chosen trajectories to scenarios, even if there is a strong feeling of coherency for relevant scenarios. We decided to let this stay a bit loose, and put together a presentation of what we thought might work in this context. We adapted the talk we had given at Futures Brought to Life, which can be seen here as a video as it was presented, adding a few things and taking away more than a few other things. We would like to share the result with you.

The following is a rough transcript of the talk, what we intended to say or thought we could say, with some of the slides that we used.

Hi, thank you for the invitation. So who are we? Time’s Up is a group of artists, designers, builder and makers; people with a wide range of interests – everywhere between science and technology, environmental and social issues. As a laboratory for the construction of experimental & experiential situations we have always had an undeniable preference for materiality, for physicality in staged spaces. We invite an audience to explore these specifically designed spaces to find ludic ways through them, and first and foremost, to interpret, refine and enhance the narratives we have built in. We create environments allowing immersion, stimulation, surprises, wonder and awe to arouse curiosity; exploration by engagement and engagement through exploration. The ingredients we use to support this level of engagement in real 1:1 scale & staged spaces largely focus on play, narratives & futures.

There is a word in German, Verzimmern, which may or may not really exist. The base of the word, Zimmer, is a room, zimmern is a verb to create rooms and houses, a Zimmerer a house carpenter; verzimmern indicates the process of creating an ambience and space portraying and embodying a certain idea, narrative, world. Let’s imagine that this word exists in English as well, as “roomify” is a pretty average attempt at a direct translation.

A large part of our body of work and research revolves around the proposition, that possible futures embodied, enacted, prefigured, prehearsed or verzimmered as physical narratives, support a high degree of immersion. This immersion enriches the experiences for visitors allowing them to fall into a more playful, exploratory and imaginative state of mind.

The strength of this approach or technique allows, in our opinion, a deeper understanding by “doing” compared to a level of understanding arising from seeing or hearing about something

I hear futures and I forget.

I see futures and I remember.

I do futures and I understand.

Immersive spaces, as we build them, with their explorative and playful shared space, support Social Immersion. This is something many of us have been missing for far too long because: Pandemic. It’s the “being with people” – sharing a space with others. Real space. Public space. Allowing – or at least offering to be with others and to take part in what is present.

Even if we do not interact, being among people does us good. Arriving in a new town, there is a certain effort to find a place to be. Whether sitting at a table at a cafe, or in a bar, using public transport or strolling through the streets; merely being surrounded by the hubbub of social interaction, with all the nonverbal communication, proprioception and overheard conversation snippets, perhaps in languages or dialects that we do not understand: we are embedded. Dabei sein. We are part of society. We are immersed.

There is a difference between watching a movie on a laptop or my home theatre alone, or in the cinema. Public space and sharing it does something with us. This shared social focus has proven long-term benefits on our overall brain function, memory, and focus. This social immersion in the lives of other people, real and present, with all the warts and scars of everyday life, establishes quotidian connection with the social space around us. Most of the immersive worlds we have built have used this as a vital factor.

Turnton is no exception. It is an experiential future displaying everyday life fragments of a climate & system changed city close to the sea, somewhere in Europe in the year 2047.

A visitor to Turnton arrives, like we all do in a new town, with little idea of what awaits them. All the space that the visitor experiences is public, with private elements echoing out or being visible through cracks and peepholes. The visitor then explores the space as we explore any new town, trying to make sense of the parts that they find. A ferry stop and timetable, a small factory, a newspaper, a parked balloon basket.

The city is recognisable. In line with the work of the physicist Richard Gott, who looked at the likelihood of things still being around in the future, the things that have been here for longer will stay here for longer. Most of Turnton is timeless, in that it could have been built in 1960, 2000 or 2040.

When we talk about a physical narrative, the merging of physical intuition, playful exploration and human interpretation occurs. Exploring a space filled with acoustic and olfactory sensations, atmospheric lighting and the collection of artefacts, the visitor builds a story that explains them. By guiding the discovery of story elements, we act as authors to encourage one interpretation, but as with all narratives, more than a single story is possible. As Sam Gosling explains in his book Snoop, by looking at someone’s office or front room, we know so much about them, whether it is their projected self, their self referential self or their accidental self.

Turnton encourages a playful exploration by offering a colourful range of artefacts, media, objects; such as fragments of urban infrastructures, house facades, a seemingly working elevator, ship-belly. These are perforated and complemented with peepholes, explicit displays, informative leaflets and brochures, posters and postcards.

Turnton appears to be a small European coastal city, but is otherwise not more exactly located. As Europeans, we know a lot about how to interpret and read these objects and their orientations to one another. From this familiarity we invite the visitor to explore deeper and begin to find the aspects that do not reflect today: Cargo drones, toxic ocean water, the industrial facade of the Ocean Recovery Farm, offices of Travel & Thrive Without Borders or the Radical Recycling plant.

Visitors move from space to space in Turnton. After the initial introduction of many elements in the first space, a public square, the Cargo Terminal or the forecourt of a Pod Hotel, the visitor enters the Medusa Bar. The Medusa Bar offers another layer of complexity and detail, but also ties the elements discovered before together with characters and narratives.

The bar has copies of the Turnton Gazette to read, paintings of fish with “last served” dates on them hanging on the wall and a collection of short audio plays to listen to, as if one is listening in on a conversation at the neighbouring table. People love to snoop.

Turnton assumes that much of the ecosystem collapse we anticipate today has already happened, and that human society has responded, late but strongly.

All the ideas that appear in Turnton already existed in 2016 as the research started. We have merely extrapolated and combined, to create a scenario that makes sense. Turnton is a collection of propositions, not a blue print.

Neither optimistic nor pessimistic, Turnton as a scenario is an example of what could happen when Dystopia and Utopia embrace. One or the other would be too little. An intertwining of utopic and dystopic strands is a scenario that has character and makes sense. As Donella Meadows says it:

“There is too much bad news to justify complacency. There is too much good news to justify despair”

Donella Meadows

Turnton is an example of what Stuart Candy calls an Experiential Future (XF). These are attempts at: “Bridging the gap between the ground of present sensation and islands of abstract possibilities”

The setting and then the scenario of Turnton is a vast and ever growing network of ideas and elements, developments and decisions. As we began to create the installation of Turnton, we had to go from the abstractions of a scenario to something more comprehensible and coherent, something better understood by people visiting the exhibition. We thus developed a storyworld, a fictionalised elaboration of the scenario with imagined new organisations and the people who work for them, the things they need in that world and the things they do, their motivations, their fears and their other interests. As the characters and their relationships developed, we began to imagine how they could come together and be present, in what sort of situations. And finally, we implement that situation with the creation of stuff, the things that make up this world.

This process can be represented by an adaptation of Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan’s XF Ladder. The setting is an overarching position from where we start, a scenario then emerges through some speculative process. The fictionalisation in order to create a Storyworld brings characters, components and challenges to the fore, where Situations arise and the Stuff that fills these concrete situations is designed in order to bring this future to life.

This is of course never so linear.

The process of creating the Stuff for the Situation makes the Situation more explicit and detailed, which in turn makes the Storyworld and often the Scenario more full, refined and coherent. The process of creating the Storyworld is not merely to communicate the Scenario, but to understand it better, to enrich and deepen it. The development of Situations and Stuff extends, densifies and consolidates the Scenario in a virtuous cycle or perhaps better, a virtuous mesh.

The Stuff is the place visitors start at, with a poster, a door being specifically labeled, an object. These are the multiple entry points to the world. The Stuff needs to tell the story. The visitor assembles a Storyworld as they explore the Stuff. We invite people to visit one of these installations, to experience a fragment of a possible future. From the elements they encounter; the objects, labels, sounds, smells, lighting, texts; all the “Stuff”, they put together a scenario as it would be experienced.

This is not a process aimed at just creating interesting experiences. It is designed to stimulate and encourage futures thinking, by making a possible future present. And thus creating experiences that lead to the construction of better (for those involved) futures.

This invitation to explore the world is made not only to visitors. In the process of creating Turnton, we extended this invitation to colleagues, to be curious and co-create the world. By creating the Stuff of Turnton, the Storyworld and the Scenario are further developed, co-created by all who contribute. Every contribution creates more detail, adds elements that complement the world, takes things onwards with more subtleties of point of view.

We have had the pleasure to work with over 150 collaborators. Together with these people, Turnton is massively co-authored. We would like to claim that this is necessary for a well-rounded imagination of a possible world. Many points of view, many voices, even contradictions and differences in opinions. After all, this is the way that the real world is being created. The science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson talks about this when he says: “We are all living in a science fiction novel we are coauthoring together.”

There is an apparent danger that “too many cooks spoil the broth” or that the narrative or aesthetic integrity of the work will be diluted by some kind of “design by committee” issues. As Turnton is no utopia, it also does not have to be consistent: worlds have multiplicities. 2022 has multiple ways of living. Utopia is too homogenous. A blueprint is authoritarian. We aim for an invitation to keep thinking, extending the storyworld or deepening into the gaps.

Not only have we asked people to join us in the co-creation of Turnton, but have worked together with institutions from middle schools to universities, employment organisations to city councils, to facilitate groups to think about the way that they can extend the world of Turnton.

The hypothesis that we make today is that this experience of creating an experience of a possible future is like coding and running an algorithm. Does the scenario do what we expect? With very exact algorithms that calculate something, we can prove correctness; hard, but possible. This is the job of a certain type of computer scientist, or a mathematician who uses software to calculate things: the computations must be completely correct. However most algorithms that we encounter are not measured by correctness, but by the “way” they work, how they interact, how they “feel” in the sense that they work in society in a certain way.

A scenario is not correct or incorrect, unless it clearly violates the laws of physics. It is only more possible or preposterous, preferred or pernicious. The society that exists in that scenario is represented in the physical narrative that we build. But does it make sense? Is this how we might live? We hope that the many eyeballs law (“given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”) means that we find out whether this world makes sense as an experience. And by feeling their way into the world, visitors can take away their improved idea of what the world might be like.

Through these discussions and the process of group based co-creation, collective imaginations of socially desired and consciously changed futures emerge. We facilitate these discussions in workshops, where we guide groups to explore their ideas and the interweaving of these ideas to form visions of the future, dreams of what could be. By supporting dreams, we begin to remove fears, dreams and wishes are easier than utopias or visions. And thus we begin to see a Lust auf Zukunft, Passion for Futures.

These dreams are not just reflections of what is and how it might develop, but also of the what could be, and explicitly dreams of what is not.

Robert Musil and Isaiah Berlin have talked about the existence of a “Sense of Reality”, Wirklichkeitssinn, that helps us determine whether a given thing is actually real, to be able to know what is real. In addition Musil talks about a Möglichkeitssinn, a sense of what is possible.

He who possesses it does not say, for example: Here this or that has happened, will happen, must happen; but he invents: Here could happen, should happen, must happen; and if one explains to him about something that it is the way it is, then he thinks: Well, it could probably be otherwise. Thus the Möglichkeitssinn could be defined as the ability to think everything that could be just as well and not to take what is as more important than what is not.”

Robert Musil, Man without Qualities, Book 1, Part 1, Ch 4

Many people have a Möglichkeitssinn that has been hampered by too much practicality, or it has been squeezed out by social pressures to be agreeable.

When socially dreaming, leaving practicalities behind is as important, at some stages, as leaving desires behind. We should not just spend our time imagining utopia. Because not only utopias, but also dystopias, eutopias and all topias in between are worthy of reflection. We are reminded that utopia can only offer a reference direction but not a place to be.

Dreams are, by their nature, somewhat incoherent; they are rather the mind’s attempt to create a kind of order from the melange of imagery in the brain. Similarly we imagine the social dreaming process as a way to bring a group of people together around making sense of their shared, inconsistent and incoherent collection of hopes and aspirations, their images of desirable futures and states of being.

More diverse ideas and images of possible futures emerge through a social dreaming process. The creation of a vision through open and enthusiastic sharing of images, of complementary extrapolation and the improvisor’s approach of “yes, and” expanding and detailing, leads to something that is richly textured, vibrant and alive. When social dreaming works, the results surprise all the participants; like any form of research, the process of discovering must not merely be in the exposure of what was expected, but must surprise.

Thinking out loud about possible futures actively creates new visions. New stories, preferred futures, not just more of the same, not just one dystopia or another.

Sharing our insights and learning from that exchange is part of our research within Curiouser and Curiouser, cried Alice: Rebuilding Janus from Cassandra and Pollyanna (CCA), an art-based research project of Design Investigations (ID2) at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and Time’s Up, supported by the Programme for Arts-based Research (PEEK) on the part of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF): AR561.

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