Splintered Realities at RIXC

We have had the pleasure of working with and presenting work at RIXC, the Riga based Latvian media arts organisation that has been doing its thing for over two decades, a number of times. This year their festival, Splintered Realities, was held for three days in October. We had the pleasure of presenting our work there, amidst an invigorating and thoughtful series of talks.

We would like to share the presentation that we made, at least in approximation. The video recording of the remote talk will be made available soon.

Fen Fang Lin is a marine biologist. She was. Now she runs a restaurant and a bar in the coastal city Turnton. The city is somewhere on the European coastline in the year 2047. The bar is called “Medusa” after the French word for jellyfish. Jellyfish are the largest creatures in the sea, as as far as we know. Ecosystem collapse means that anoxia has killed anything that cannot leave an algal bloom. The Baltic is a mucky pool of rotting slime. Algae falls from the ocean surface to decompose in the anaerobic depths, turning back into the fossil fuel that helped create the heat and hyper-nutrition that created the scenario that fed the seas to grow the algae that fell into the depths.

And on it goes.

It is 2047, Fen Fang has long given up on being a marine biologist. The bar used to sell fish and seafood from the local fisheries, but as stocks dwindled, fish were served for the last time. “Last Served” and a date graces the walls with portraits of the fish. Now the seafood offers are reduced to jellyfish. Jellyfish grow so well they are part of all sorts of foods, starting with a bowl of Special-J for a kids breakfast.

Her partner, Hamish Dornbirn, runs the neighbouring Ocean Recovery Farm. The farm operates in the entrances and in front of the harbours of Turnton. The fronds of seaweed filter the water around the harbour and lower the effects of storm surges, growing ever stronger as the ocean level rises. Absorbing nutrients, releasing oxygen, creating habitat, the seaweed farms, designed along regenerative and permaculture principles, protect the harbour, regenerate the water and provide ecologically sound fertiliser and other resources. The Ocean Recovery Farm re-creates versions of healthy, productive ecosystems as merging of human intervention and natural systems, an aquatic version of a Small Farm Future.

The city of Turnton is filled with such characters. People living their everyday lives in a world that is so close but ever so far from the world of 2022. Scientists are finding more and more signs of collapse, not only of climate systems but also ecosystems, from the Baltic through the chemical analyses of Howard Dryden and the effects on plankton. Turnton, as a scenario, does not imagine that we, as a global culture, respond in time to escape the inevitable collapses of ecosystems. Turnton does not dwell on the ensuing pains and losses. Turnton proposes that we are not completely ignorant and, given that the apocalyptic has occurred, we could perhaps respond with some utopian action. Imagining the dance of utopian and dystopian visions, held tight in an intertwined embrace. In this dance, how do we, as society, as communities, as groups of friends, live? What is the mundane in Turnton, 2047?

Colin is a former maritime robot, made redundant through age and exposure to the aggressive elements at sea. Colin is the bartender at the Medusa Bar. Not always recognised as a robot, his stuttering voice module sometimes betrays him. In the situation we experience, patrons are celebrating his birthday. What does it mean to work with non-human systems? When do they become colleagues, partners, allies? How do we enjoy and celebrate the fact that we are sharing time and space across cultural difference but across species, phyla and kingdoms? Turnton has become a more than human community.

Turnton is built as a Physical Narrative, a walk through world fragment that invites exploration. In the same way that, left alone in someone’s office and browsing the book titles and the pictures on the wall, we obtain a fragment of their story, the objects, media and atmospheres of Turnton invite the visitors to the exhibition to experience a fragment of a possible future at 1-1 scale. A newspaper, a ferry timetable, a peephole into a factory, brochures, posters and overheard conversations; all combine to offer fragments of a city in a possible future.

Turnton was initially imagined as part of a long futuring process in 2016. The first fragment was shown at RIXC in the autumn of that year. The core storyworld of Turnton has been elaborated by well over 100 co-creators, writing stories for the newspaper, diaries and dialogues, creating posters for performances, festivals and conferences, music and instructions for systems that do not exist yet but must take into account the dangers of life in a climate and system changed world.

„We are all living in a science fiction novel
we are co-authoring together”

Kim Stanley Robinson (2021)

We contend, like the science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, that the future is a SF story that we are all co-writing together. This process of co-authoring is complex and problematic, filled with people who are unwilling to write their own part of the story, looking for the Great Man to write it for them, unable to take their own interests and desires seriously.

Welcome to a Futuring Exercise.

Our work in Futuring Exercises aims to overcome this by demonstrating to people that they can create, along with a group of other people, usually strangers, a coherent, surprising and worthwhile vision of a possible future in quite some detail. Being guided through a process that enables combinatorial thinking and co-creative development, participants are playfully exploring in a structured context. From our own experience we know that this can be a game-changer. Thinking out loud about possible futures is enabling. Expressing what one finds interesting, saying “Yes, and..” to someone else’s ideas, following ideas to their possibly ridiculous end points: futuring is a powerful way to develop and enjoy new modes of thought.

Any useful idea about the futures should appear to be ridiculous.

Jim Dator (1995/2019)

The process of imagining can be thought of as a social dreaming.

Together merging the collected images and impressions, interpreting them and creating a semi-coherent scenario that includes all those details, something not yet existing, but maybe able to become real.

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, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften

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 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.

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias.

Oscar Wilde

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 build the social dreaming process 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 foreseen, but must be unexpected.

The physical space of Turnton, as exhibited in a number of fragments in Romania, Malta, Austria and Latvia, is not a coherent complete representation of a perfect world. While certain elements are finely developed and detailed, and need to be in order to support the exploration of the visitors to the space, other aspects of the storyworld are left completely undecided. This Mut zur Lücke, the courage of the gap, is undertaken in order to allow the visitor to imagine their own details into this world. We do not rely upon the existence or non existence of the European Union in the Turnton storyworld, either is compatible with the staged space. Thus we cannot say whether the Euro still exits or not. And thus any mention of currencies in Turnton would be problematic. Thus we “un-ask” the question of currency. We do not mention it, leaving that aspect to de decided by each visitor for themselves, should they feel the need.

Our basic premise is that we can encourage futures thinking by helping people into the mindset through direct experience. We repeat that “I hear futures and I forget. I see futures and I remember. I do futures and I understand.”

This understanding helps us think about, and think out loud about, what kind of futures we want to live in, together. To move beyond the simplistic desires for more, to avoid the confusion of quantity with quality.

So looking forward to carrying on this conversation over a Black Balsams in Riga, but the online conference thing makes that a bit harder…

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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