Speculating over our Horizons

Horizon Scanning, at least to the extent that we understand it and practice it, is the practice (whether it is an art, a science, a method or anything else will be left up to the individual practitioner) of paying attention to things that are developing a long way off. When driving, it might be awareness that the autobahn ahead is very packed, so there is probably a traffic jam coming up. On a boat, it is keeping an eye out for weather, other boats or other behaviour, literally on the horizon, that might affect our vessel, whether positively (swarming birds indicating fish feeding) or negatively (potential collision). For our work with groups, the emergence of new techniques for discussing possible and preferable futures in activist, self help or community organising might play a similar role.

One of our ongoing interests is the imagination of infrastructure as the world responds to the necessities of climate change, de-growth, pollution and energy. In particular with our interest in the seas and oceans, we have come to pay attention to the effect of fossil fuel scarcity in transport, fisheries and travel. Whether it is the prefigurative and pioneering ocean going work of Fair Transport, Timbercoast, or Grain de Sail, the logistical developments of TOWT or New Dawn Traders, the policy work of IWSA and Christiaan de Beukelaar, research by Jonathan Köhler, WISP or WASP or the ambitions of SailCargo and Brigantes; we keep paying attention to what they do, how they do it, what their frames of reference are and ways of thinking entail and what happens.

A few weeks ago a group based around the Hudson River Maritime Museum convened a small conference on Small Scale Inland and Coastal Sail Freight. They very consciously looked at the situation in the US and moreso, in the northeast inland and coastal waters. Steve Woods has investigated the logistics of sail freight, based upon transport quantities and personnel, a remarkably insightful analysis basis for working out what sail freight could and would possibly mean. Sam Merrett, the skipper of the Apollonia, a sail freight schooner operating on the Hudson River, and Andrew Wilner of the Center for Post-Carbon Logistics were the other two conveners of the event.

Unable to be present for the conference and not being involved in that region, we were nevertheless asked to contribute two papers to the proceedings. The first was a longer insight into the processes and understandings that developed around our Clean Cargo on the Danube project from 2020. The second was an invitation to collaborate with Steve Woods on exploring various short to medium term disruptions that could occur, framed as small scenarios, with collections of emerging questions to help people active in the sail freight community think about the way that they might be able to act and react in these various scenarios. Some of them were consciously rather extreme, and we understand this to be of value. Not because these scenarios are likely, but because the ensuing conversations around what these extreme (but still plausible) developments would entail, encourage participants to begin to imagine what could emerge, to have thought outside their boxes, to be perhaps less surprised when something else occurs.

The first paper is a glimpse into our work and the speculations that arise from investigating how something might work, not done as a pilot project with formal and economic development plans, but as a speculative, prefigurative event, a prehearsal, a form of experiential imagining. Moving from a very exhibition based process of physical narrative experiential futures into a more performative experiential futures practice has been insightful. The slide from the arts-based research perspective into the “real world” questions of how this might scale, akin to the anticipatory experimentation stages of José Ramos’ Mutant Futures Program, has also been an eye opener.

The second paper slid further towards the work of strategic thought that accompanies the results of real futuring work. Not that we are particularly comfortable in this area, so far outside our area of subjective experiences of possible futures and discussions of preferable futures. However the role of imagining disruptions and guiding the emergent thought processes as these disruptions could affect people’s anticipated and emerging endeavours; this feels close enough to our social dreaming futuring exercises events that it did not jar perhaps as much as we anticipated. Collaborating with people who come from a very distinct perspective and slowly discovering the deep-seated similarities is a very satisfying way to realise that there are more commonalities in the world that differences. The horizons within which we act and think are good to break through as often as possible, to realise that, as we know, most boundaries and borders are not particularly meaningful. And that is always worthwhile.

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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