FoAM - Laboratory for Speculative Culture
The Future is Already Here - It's Just Unevenly Ridiculous
Often when we begin working on something 'futures' related at FoAM, doubt is the order of the day. We doubt the methods and their origins - and the moral issues around borrowing from corporate, bureaucratic or military structures - whose predictions, in our eyes, have brought us to a present that is unsustainable from a social, economic and environmental point of view. We doubt the analytical and predominantly verbal and rational approaches to talking about the future. We doubt we understand the field at all, as it seem so scattered and shrouded in mist from the outside. Some of us even doubt that working with anything beyond astrology could be a legitimate method to explore the future. But the most recurring doubt is whether spending too much time worrying or dreaming about futures takes us away from fully experiencing and appreciating the present moment - the only time we truly have to live in.
But then, following the lead of doubting Thomas when it came to testing his faith, we take our doubts with us, preferring experience over the doctrine and digging deeper into the subject at hand.
If you require labels, I guess you could call us doubting, oscillating or edge futurists - we know that it is important to be aware of the 'long now' that spans past, present and future, but we are not ready to submit to flat pack doctrines just yet.
It is spoken… of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.
- Aleister Crowley
Our path towards futures has been quite convoluted.
Working with change and foresight has been there since the pre-history of FoAM and as an undercurrent interest that informed our work implicitly for a while. It re-emerged as an explicit focus in our work around 2008. Around this time we began realising that there was a dire need for a widespread 'futures literacy', when dealing with many of the complex challenges of today, such as human-scale approaches to technology and climate chaos.
As it is a curious past that might help make sense of what we’re currently doing, we’ll spend a bit of time telling you about our history first. It might also be interesting as a parallel history to the one Time’s Up presented yesterday, as we have worked together for more than a decade - with similar conceptual and ethical starting points, but very different aesthetics.
I first came in contact with forecasting through design, specifically fashion and textile design in the early 90s. I was fascinated to discover a field that studies change. I graduated with a project called "Creation of change" in the mid nineties. I created a storyworld with several interleaved trend-chunks and story-lines, inspired by the dungeons and dragons and the early online communities such as the LambdaMOO. It was a dynamic and visual world, with dead-ends and open-ended stories, spread across a cd-rom, a website and a tangible media installation - transmedia story with very rudimentary tangible interfaces… What I was looking for was a more democratic way of exploring emerging changes than a trend report produced by invisible experts. This search lead me to study interactive storytelling and learn about media and technology that could make it happen, so I left the forecasting behind for a while. Eventually I also abandoned storytelling to create environments in which stories emerge from people exploring them. (no images, as we weren’t planning to talk about our history until we heard TU talk yesterday)
This was around the time that we founded FoAM in 2000. We worked on creating large scale mixed reality environments that we called responsive playspaces. They were less about creating stories ourselves and more about providing tools and frameworks in which people can create their own stories. Similarly to TU - the visitors would be invited to a very social, immersive experience, where the effect of humans on their surroundings happens on the human scale.
We won’t go into detail about these various 'early works’ - they’re best summarised in our motto Grow Your Own Worlds (GYOW). We work with things that grow and evolve, we’re interested in creating worlds rather than single products/artworks and finally we come from a tradition bottom-up maker culture of DIY, DIT & grow your own'
Our longest running initiative, groWorld embodies our motto most clearly. The project started at the Burning Man festival in 2000, as a response to patenting living organisms and other forms of instrumentalisation of the non-human. groWorld emerged from our early discussions about the entanglement between culture, technology and the plant world, to focus on different human-plant interactions in their many guises - from cooking, and gardening, to plant neurobiology and a cultural movement of patabotany.
When we began working with living, growing systems that are much more complex & messy than built environments, our wish to make things on a human scale became a little more complicated. We began dealing with the multiplicity of plant-time and the need for time unbinding - for getting in touch with the vegetal mind that all of us neglected for the benefit of our bestial side focused on speed and growth.
From there, both storytelling & foresight started seeping back into our work…
First storytelling began returning in games and speculative installations, to eventually fully materialise in Borrowed Scenery, a story about an alternate reality - vision of a time (past, future or parallel) where plants are central aspects of human society. physical narrative, mixing fictional and real events, physical and online settings… Its backstory was a speculative scenario of a future in which FoAM people would like to live. TU removes actors, FoAM makes everyone into characters in the story - with workshops, walks, inventing new plant-inspired markets & holidays, choir concerts in botanic gardens, listening to mycelial networks and connecting our brains to ferns.
Borrowed Scenery was a story about a parallel reality, but what we really wanted was for - at least some aspects of the story - to become real. In an elaborate programme of activities and stories, we encouraged our visitors to incorporate human-plant interactions and their effects as parts of daily life. Glad to report that some of it still lingers in the town of Ghent, in the form of seasonal plant festivals and walks, in the process of mapping plant-centred initiatives became a basis for a city-funded project connecting the people and projects together.
Around the same time as storytelling began returning, we began thinking about how to prototype "what if" questions as immersive experiences, to make the urgency of dealing with environmental and social challenges more tangible and discussable.
Our first speculative experiment was asking "what if the Netherlands were under water, how would the Dutch go camping?"
The sheer mundane frivolity of this question made us all laugh a lot, but the process of designing the floating camping uncovered a whole lot of cultural and technological issues. It was easy to imagine, easy to talk about, but you could see alarm-bells going off in people’s heads - more so than reading the IPCC report - as Peter mentioned yesterday.
We ended up designing the "Resilients" project, where we wanted to investigate what aspects of contemporary culture are resilient enough to survive and even thrive through current and upcoming turbulences - in human systems and in our relationships with "the planetary other". We proposed that the arts could be a crucible, or a lab to test out what different futures might be like before they actually occur. Most of our partners, including Time’s up decided to prototype a specific aspect of a possible future - travelling using boats made from reused materials, creating edible batteries and furniture, or re-invigorating venerative practices.
At FoAM we looked for ways to prepare for ANY possible future, while not losing sight of what preferable futures might be like and how we might be able to get there. The questions we asked ourselves were - How
do we find ways between the inevitable and the unthinkable? How do we attempt to open up conceptual spaces between the "is" and the "otherwise"?
So with Resilients/Future Preparedness we wanted to find ways to adapt to whatever comes, with PARN/Borrowed Scenery we want to be able to explore alternatives. As the old serenity prayer goes:
"may I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The
courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference."
That this mantra is used by Alcoholics Anonymous is an interesting sideline - when used in relation to futures, I think it applies to both recovering activists - people who keep fighting against unsurmountable windmills - as well as to sedated consumerists - the ones without the courage to change what is unsustainable in our contemporary lifestyle.
So with Borrowed Scenery and Resilients, we explored different ways to accept and adapt to what is (and what is to come), and figure out what we want to change and how to go about it.
And that brings us to the present: Future Fabulators and FoAM’s involvement in it.
Our primary focus in FFab: moving from stories about the future to experiencing what possible futures might be like, in the present - not in movies or artefacts, but environments in which the visitors are invited to imagine what would it be like to be themselves in a range of possible futures. We begin with creating scenarios and fleshing out the narratives in words and images. We then translate stories into embodied experiences we call prehearsals or future pre-enactments. We won’t go into the details the whole process of how we do this - it is more or less documented in the Prehearsal Pocket Guide on the Libarynth.
What is important to mention, and includes the key difference to most of the talks we heard so far is that we include the participants in the whole process. So there are no stories premade by 'foresight experts' or designers, but they are created by our 'experts of everyday life' - the people whose futures we’re exploring. We ask the participants to imagine themselves in the scenarios, to imagine what could have happened from now until then, in order to find themselves in that situation. We ask them to imagine what they might be doing, how they might feel, which aspects of their personalities would come to the fore and also what resources they would need to live in that possible future. It isn’t an easy exercise and to begin with many people want to turn themselves into superheroes and play a role of a character. But participants who get most out of the experience are the ones who stay close to themselves and instead of trying out different roles, they try out different attitudes and actions.
You can imagine that foresight on its own does not have the methods to allow us to design these experiences. Instead, we borrow from improv, meditation, disaster drills and action research and experience design.
But even foresight isn’t foreign to such improvised experiences. Miguel Cunha from the Lisbon university is a proponent of improvisation as 'real time foresight' he said that "Traditional foresight consists of the planning/acting sequence, while improvisation conjoins planning and action."
What embodied improvisation does is take people outside of the comfort zone of words and projections and into the uncertain realm of practicing what you preach - and then seeing how others react to it and how you react to them. Stories that are too idealistic both in terms of technological and social developments to crumble when faced with reality of having to enact them. We can experience first hand what a scientist like Oppenheimer might have experienced - there is my beautiful invention and look what people did with it!
Even though people might think they agree on a story when presented as words and images, when they try out a prototype experience, the contradictions and misunderstandings can become apparent. We found out how difficult it is to imagine yourself in a future - not as a character or a superhero, but as your plain, intimately familiar self, just in a different situation. It can be unexpected or uncomfortable, but it is usually quite revealing - both about the situations and about the participants habitual behaviours.
For us the most rewarding moment during scenario building and pre-enactments is when participants begin to recognise different scenarios as caricatures of their present. It is as if they have acquired a mysterious search-light, that can be used to illuminate different parts of an otherwise murky, entangled situation. Arne Hendriks compared exploring this conceptual 'what if' space to opening a door to the present and letting a draft through a stuffy room… It gets things moving… What we’d like to do is encourage these moments of clarity that can spark imagination and a more pro-active engagement with our lives.
To do that, in our view there are intellectual, creative, conversational, somatic and interpersonal aspects that we have to bring into something that Stuart Candy calls 'experiential futures'.
- We can begin with the data, information & knowledge out there, but this is only to be seen as raw material;
- there is the creative (or co-creative aspect) that we can glean from arts and design, that encourages us to imagine how things could be otherwise,
- but there are also conversational skills and techniques that can guide the participants to move beyond critique and endless complaining about how bad things are and whose fault it might be
- there are the somatic, physical aspects of learning and expressing things through our bodies moving through space and time, that are way too under-utilised in the foresight practice.
- finally when we talk about the 'interpersonal', we talk about something that’s difficult to put your finger on… We have been wondering how transferrable our methods are, as we’re in the process of putting together a book called 'the futurists' fieldguide', a compilation of methods and practices aimed at the non-expert readers, who might be interested in increasing their futures literacy. In our foray through the foresight methods we found an interesting field called integral futures, borrowing from the philosopher Ken Wilber. Integral futures talk about the place of the practitioner/facilitator and the participants in a foresight exercise. How much do our own histories and personalities influence what futures we might envision?
In the words of Floyd, Burns and Ramos:
"Methodology, though, is about more than the tools used: it involves careful attention to the stance taken by the practitioner in the use of tools to enact knowledge and understanding.”
So from this perspective, all of FoAM’s meanderings through responsive environments, alternate reality narratives and human-plant interactions must make our approach to foresight quite distinct - even though we use some of the same techniques as many others. Our starting points are different, but also our processes and outcomes might be somewhat unorthodox.
To illustrate what we mean, we wanted to talk about a set of principles that have been our guiding lights in most if not all FoAM’s works for almost 15 years. I’m talking about Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the next Millennium, where he describes what he thinks literature should be like in the 21st century. The memos are so general though that we we could apply them to any creative works we’ve done so far. Today we’ll focus on how they apply to our experiential futures experiments.
“…my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.” Calvino
- studying formal methods and making them lighter by reduction to essentials - working with assumptions when possible and detailed analysis when needed, keeping data influx to a minimum, removing overstructured aspects that are difficult to comprehend by the participants who have to think on their feet
- lightening up the atmosphere - people can often get quite serious when they begin discussing The Future - there is a lot at stake; but seeing scenarios as a kind of hall of mirrors of past & present where normality gets distorted, funny - peculiarities get blown up and reflected back at the viewers…
- just this week one of the participants in PULSE said that they participated in many scenario workshops, but that they never laughed so much. he said that the laughter made him see through to the core of the problem and laugh at himself that he didn’t see it earlier…
- there is something about sharing an experience of creating an image of the future that removes the ties to the consensus of the present. it can seem sometimes like experiencing an alternate state of consciousness - a sort of a shared temporary, magical world. the weight of worrying about The Future is temporarily lifted, so the light breeze of possibility can waft through the present moment and create new dynamics…
- MIT-I workshop as scenarios were created, the subdued laughter became more apparent as more and more people shared a realisation that they were already living in aspects of all scenarios simultaneously and that the stories cut through to the known but not talked about issues without making them heavy - instead just providing them a platform to exist and be seen as they are
- Most recently we began offering a 'personal scenarios’ service, to help individuals come to terms with where their lives might take them. In order to do that, we want to make the process so light it can be done on a napkin in a bar, but without losing any of the rigour… A lot of the work is done by the participant who knows their life very well. We are only present as gentle guides to help them come up with the question that is at the core of their dilemma. We try to pry open the present by asking them what they know, what they assume and what they don’t know yet. We broaden the discussion to the wider context of the forces that can influence the environment in which they live. We help them find out what is most uncertain in their lives and assist in creating possible scenarios. They flesh the scenarios out themselves, after which we work on 'retrocasting' figuring out how to get back to the present from a preferred future. At the moment we’re in the middle of this process with Michka & the search for a lifestyle for a recovering biotechnologist.
- Finally to conclude our discussion about lightness in foresight quote James Dator who said - “Any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous”
- “Quickness of style and thought means above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jump from one subject to another, to lose the thread a hundred times and find it again after a hundred more twists and turns.” – Calvino
- facilitation of futures sessions has a lot to do with requires Calvino’s quickness. Not only are we content-wise jumping back and forward in time, but the pace and the flow of the sessions must be directed to assist, confuse, challenge or encourage the participants to experience the 'stretchyness of the now'
- a comment from a participant in one of our workshops: he couldn’t believe we could come up with 8 fully fledged scenarios and answers to the core question in a single day - he felt that everything he learned about careful horizon scanning and months long analysis couldn’t have produced any more rich and stimulating scenarios
- in co-creating images of the future, we have to be able to capture moments of inspiration of any person in the room and fold that into the narrative in a matter of minutes - so we create quick mental images, that have just sufficient detail to be evocative of a whole world
- in a foresight process, we must be aware and able to manipulate time, to wrangle and wrestle it, delay it, cycle it or render it motionless - we make it malleable, so we can shake out whatever needs to come out before it congeals into linearity again…
- quickness is also about finding just the right words to describe the phenomena we’re discussing. juggling phrases to see what works until everyone’s happy…
- calvino quotes the latin saying "festina lente" - hurry slowly - in futures exercises we know that even if the pace of the creative process is high, we must take as much time as needed to make sure that what we say is the only thing that needs to be said…
“To my mind exactitude means three things above all:
(1) a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question;
(2) an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images
(3) a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination” - Calvino
- facilitating a futures session might seem effortless at the time it happens, but a very careful planning and testing process must come before. When we have the time, we can spend hours or days fine-tuning the flow and each component of a workshop - making sure to include all the phases of the process - intellectual, creative, conversational, somatic and interpersonal.
- Calvino alludes to an old Chinese parable whereby a king asks an artist to draw a crab. The artist replies that he needs five years, a country house and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing has not began. “I need another five years,” says the artist, and the king grants them. At the end of these ten years, the artist picks up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he draws a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.
- this reminds me of the craft of harvesting and summarising conversations: finding patterns in the chaos of words and concepts that float around in a co-creative experiment. Every word that is written down during a scenario building process should be carefully crafted, understood by everyone to mean the same thing, or it can topple the process… The language in scenario building shouldn’t be careless - it’s a craft in its own.
- As in a physical narrative TU described yesterday - everything should be edited for clarity - the elements of the process, the instructions, the setting, the atmosphere… We work on gradually eliminating tangential elements and endless discussions. We don’t do this only to avoid confusion, but to increase intensity of experience. There has to be just enough context and just enough shared experience to bring out the most memorable stories.
“If I have included visibility in my list of values to be saved, it is to give warning of the danger we run in losing a basic human faculty: the power of bringing visions into focus with our eyes shut, of bringing forth forms and colours from the lines of black letters on a white page, and in fact of thinking in terms of images.” - Calvino
- first - making the process visible -> libarynth, pocket guide, futurist field guide - sometimes the story makes more sense when we know where it comes from - especially if we want to build on it.
- to continue stressing the importance of language we use in stories about the future, visibility is another dimension to keep in mind: the words should be so well-crafted that when read or spoken, the participants can easily visualise every future, every setting, every chosen detail as if they were looking at it directly - like peeking through the window of the Tardis - as if a possible future were unfolding in front of them now.
- What we like to do in our scenario workshops is to find a single image for a scenario, then gradually associate it with other images and words. This can create a field of analogies, synchronicities and confrontations, that over time allows us to organise the material into a coherent story.
- the recipe to create stories and images from words helps bring our ideas into focus, making things visible apparent and obvious. so the obvious method when looking at the future of food is how to proceed from a recipe to fully prepared meal.
- let’s take an image of the nexus of food, health and the environment; split the image into three dominant cultural myths add dozens of change drivers, stir in gently then create 4 archetypal futures, translate them into archetypal tastes, smells and textures - use this as a basis for a menu. next, prepare toasts that would describe a characrters’ world view, someone who might present such a dish at a gala dinner. finally, serve the dinner, along with each course serve a set of questions about the particular futures the food might have come from and how we could find ourselves in various futures. one could be from a future of collapsed food systems and consensual canibalism, or another future in which discipline and tradition help us live within planetary limits, through common sense or organised bureaucracy, or a future in which the hyper-capitalist eco-efficiency machine prevails, or a future transformed, where we live in vast city-sized food forests where freeganism goes hand in hand with drone-delivered lab-grown GMyoghurt.
“Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement…the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various “codes” into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.” - Calvino
- in order to do include sufficient multiplicity when designing futures stories, we have to use multiple methods from available spectrum of disciplines that we discussed earlier
- Working with multiplicity can be confusing, which is why calvino suggests to use rather rather strict rules in the process of writing. Similar to systems in poetry - that can be perceived as artificial or mechanical, rules give us boundaries to work in, a set space to explore. The rules are there to provide freedom to play, to move through the process with ongoing spurs. They also help us to ensure we never fall into the trap of assuming anything is singular.
- in futures exercises worldbuilding (or at least world sketching) is at the core of the process - finding connections between everything at stake - it has to be overambitious to try to represent all areas of knowledge & intertwine them into a narrative & a setting - if not, the scenario might not be believable. it might be too 'flat' (Scott) or insufficiently ridiculous (Dator), or simply a world full of holes
- similar to good stories, in futures experiments the multiplicity also means keeping several possible futures open for as long as possible and navigating between them, before collapsing the possible and probable into the preferrable.
Finally - consistency… never finished
- many of Calvino's tales seem to leave something for the reader to finish - maybe the fact that it was never written proces Calvino’s consistency in process - an unwritten but hinted at sixth memo for the new millennium for us as his readers to flesh out for ourselves after reading the first five memos.
- similarly with our work with pre-enactments - we provide a framework, but the work itself is created by the participants themselves and ideally it continues for some time after the prehearsal is finished - in their everyday life, subtly transforming their present.
- Finally, our hope is to free foresight from the bounds of the utilitarian, functional, goal oriented futures, to take it in more speculative and whimsical directions, and even to allow not just other humans to speak, but other entities with whom we share our futures - giving voice to the voiceless:
- “a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic…”
How did you come to provide the personal futures service?
- responded to request that this is always about big futures. I have a future of my own and I'm a bit lost. Can you help?
- Could start a personal scenario consulting service as primary business.
- How many of the participants are preconditioned to think about the future? - a required course at Peter von Stackelberg's college. Provides a different outcome to those who already think about futures. Can be a revelation that people are allowed and capable of thinking of their own futures. But others refuse to even consider it.
- Very few people have a formal understanding of future studies - some are sceptical that they can take responsibility.
- Foam takes a focus on looking at particular issues.
- Important to frame agency within the language of scenarios. In cultural field the concept of agency feels very limited - the next project as opposed to a yearlong outcome.
Futures are very different for each person Important to give agency
- Important to ground the future within the present. In order for futures to work - needs to become a practice - ambient foresight (Stuart candy). Have to keep on doing it. Needs to become part of your life. Futures Literacy.
Researcher in Lisbon? Miguel Cunah
What would a semester long course in Futures Literacy look like?
- coming from the futures establishment -20 year history- Summer School course - to high school students. People have different learning modalities and different futures modalities.
What is the on ramp?
- Mixed methodologies provide different ways for people to work out what the future represents to them. Need doorways, on ramps and door handles - need to find the system that suits them. Each person / group needs to find the way of thinking about the futures that suits their needs - interest.
- PvS moved away from futures because the methodologies were restricted. Maybe some of these tools would be suitable for a formal classroom. Students may have no idea that the future will impact them.
- What does this course look like? Can it work in a formal situation at all?