Anticipatory History

Writer Mark Goldthorpe reviews Anticipatory history, a book that explores the possibilities for ‘looking back’ at histories of environmental change in places to help us ‘look forward’ to what futures might be in store, and we might shape.


2,220 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes 


A copy of Anticipatory history goes to Jennifer Leach for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. 

***

This 2011 book grew from the experiences of the Anticipatory History Research Network, a one year project within AHRC’s Landscape and Environment Programme. Led by Caitlin DeSilvey and Simon Naylor at Exeter University, the network brought together fellow scholars in humanities, social, natural and physical sciences, writers and artists, and environmental practitioners in wildlife, coastal, landscape and heritage management. I had the good fortune to be doing my MA Climate Change at Exeter at the time. So, although my involvement was at the latter stages of their research, I was able to contribute some work locally with the National Trust — on ‘Storying adaptation’ — to the network’s final symposium. 

Here, I want to introduce Anticipatory history the book — as a process, a product and a provocation. It’s a slim volume but written in many voices, offering rewarding encounters on different levels.

Process

Publication often seems the natural endpoint of research activity, but the group assembled around this network’s central question — what roles do “history and story-telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes, and to changes to the wildlife and plant populations they support?” — found themselves creating this book almost as a byproduct of their discussions. Something that I’ve encountered when researching how large, multi-partner climate change projects successfully incorporate very different academic fields and societal stakeholders is that the new interdisciplinary teams very often spend 18 months — typically up to half the project lifetime — coming to terms with each other’s vocabulary and ways of seeing the world. They have to find ways to achieve that in parallel with ‘doing the job’. Often an ad hoc and iterative process, this frequently catalyses creative approaches to ‘getting to know each other’. One large network developed their own glossary for terms that engineers, sociologists, modellers and planners might have ‘in common’ but which had different meanings and usages for each ‘tribe’. 

It seems that Anticipatory history developed in a similar way:  

“Over the course of four meetings a number of people participated in an extended discussion about the meaning and efficacy of anticipatory history as a concept and a mode of engagement with the past. As we followed debates we noted down key terms on index cards – words or phrases that have a bearing on aspects of environmental change over time and in place, and our responses to these changes. We then went through a process of culling entries and drafting collective definitions. Lastly, participants were asked to adopt particular key terms and to produce entries. This book is then a work of many hands and can in no way claim to be the product of a single vision. It was never our intention to provide a definitive statement on the means and ends of anticipatory history, even if that was possible to do.”

At what point that exercise crystallised into a book for a wider readership, I don’t know, but it has been offered as a glossary or work of reference for those wanting to know more about … Well, what is ‘anticipatory history’?

"Looking to pasts and futures" - redundant lighthouse lenses at Orford Ness, Suffolk coast. Photograph by Mark Goldthorpe
“Looking to pasts and futures” – redundant lighthouse lenses at Orford Ness, Suffolk coast
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2012

The introductory essay that includes the passage above starts by noting that while reports of climate and environmental change are “the daily fare of a twenty-first century media diet” our ability to take in and respond personally to the implications or lived experiences of change’s impacts often disconnects from scientific data.

“Many of these changes … will register as subtle (or not so subtle) alterations in familiar landscapes: a lost section of coastal path, a favourite flower vanished, dwindling populations of waterbirds in a local saltmarsh, the removal of a customary fishing quay. But the range of available responses to these changes is limited – usually cast in terms of loss and guilt – and we often do not have the cultural resources to respond thoughtfully, to imagine our own futures in a tangibly altered world.”

As a clutch of the book’s entries explain, our personal sense of time and the ‘natural’ state of things is shaped by our generational timeframes: what one entry (Shifting baseline syndrome) calls “’generational amnesia’, due to relatively short life spans and memories” and another (Tempocentrism) describes as “the tendency to take for granted the premises, expectations and values of one’s own timeframe.” We struggle to acknowledge unwelcome changes in our environment (either locally or in places with treasured memories) — or, if acknowledged, to accept what is often the naturalness of processes we cannot halt. A third entry (Presentism) raises the risks of extending these mental frames into how we imagine the past, where we inevitably filter, select and assemble our own data on what that famously ‘foreign country’ was really like; “We make our stories about the past; we don’t find them fully formed … Do we have any chance of transcending our present point of view when we approach the making of history, and should we be pretending to?”

Our relationship with past and future, caught as we always are in the interval of uncertainty between the two, can be emotionally and culturally complex and unsettling. Anticipatory history offers ways to interrogate our uncertainties; the example of Orford Ness lighthouse suggests how impermanent features in our landscape can become stabilised in our imagination, and natural processes then threaten both the physical and cultural permanence which seems so natural to our tempocentric selves. The lighthouse, already at risk of erosion of the Orford Ness shingle bank, was also deemed redundant as coastal wayfinder: a combination which undermines the future of this 220-year-old Suffolk landmark. Indeed, the lighthouse has now been decommissioned and the sea continues its advance on the brick building. What was once an aid to navigation in space might slip into a new, symbolic role as navigational aid between past and future; there was a time with no lighthouse on the shingle, and this seems likely again. ‘Anticipatory history’, as conceptual framework, explores how looking back in a place might help us look ahead to its plausible futures. Highlighting the potential for Palliative curation as one approach to this predicament, Anticipatory history suggests an end-of-life ethic of care and attention, taking our leave of loved but transient features. 

With these subjective, limited perceptions and judgements in mind, it can be tempting to see scientific and technical expertise as the prized location for all useable knowledge about historical and future change, the only reliable base for our policies. That, time and again, it still surprises us when this fails to deliver everything we expected is not an argument against expertise or evidence, but for a broadening of what we mean by these, and what counts. Picking up the book’s introduction again,

“History and storytelling … might seem a surprising place to begin an investigation into the potential consequences of environmental change … However, our argument is that the humanities have much to contribute to these debates. [Some forms of history,] guided by a concern for the future, [look] to the past to find intellectual, emotional, and spiritual resources to help us direct this concern towards sustaining specific communities – both human and ecological.”

‘Anticipatory history’ borrows that future orientation from the notion of ‘anticipatory adaptation’ to prospective changes rather than ‘reactive adaptation’ after the fact. Looking back can inform a more experimental gaze forward, exploring our imaginations and stories of environmental change, our different versions of ‘here and ‘now’ as well as ‘there and then’. The authors quote two historians:

“Our ability to project ourselves into the future, imagining alternative lives that lead us to set new goals and work toward new ends, is merely the forward expression of the experience of change we have learned from reflecting on the past.” – William Cronon

“We study the past not in order to find out what really happened there or to provide a genealogy of and thereby a legitimacy for the present, but to find out what it takes to face a future we should like to inherit rather than one that we have been forced to endure.” – Hayden White

Product

Anticipatory history book cover. Photograph by Shaun Pimlott / Colin Sackett / Uniform Books
Book cover
Photograph: Shaun Pimlott / Colin Sackett / Uniform Books © 2011
http://www.colinsackett.co.uk/anticipatoryhistory.php

The book’s different authors were therefore engaging with the past(s) not out of nostalgia but out of a desire to see how “the stories we tell about ecological and landscape histories shape our perception of what we might call future ‘plausabilities’”, complementing the scientific study of climate change probabilities. As such, anticipatory approaches to history might “intersect with other areas of concern – including the communication of science, the pragmatics of land management and the practice of art.” Relying solely on any one of these approaches — or even a naïve combination of all three — in situations of contention, controversy and conflict over threats to valued wildlife, landscapes, heritage or livelihoods can be a damaging experience. When a partnership of agencies culled the ‘invasive’ rats on Lundy island in order to restore breeding populations of birds, they acted solely on scientific grounds and without public consultation. Recounting the outcry from animal welfare protestors wanting to “save the Lundy rats” , the book exposes the moral judgements that scientific justifications rested upon: “that introduced species should be removed to support indigenous species; that less charismatic animals should make way for more popular ones; and that people’s emotional responses to the killing of the rats were not relevant to the decision-making process.”

“Terms like ‘slaughter’ were used to describe the cull. The risk to other animals from possible ingestion of the poisons was highlighted. Protesters also noted that the rats had been on the island for over 400 years, and in doing so questioned the implication that the rats were recent interlopers – unwanted immigrants that disrupted a settled indigenous nature on the island.”

How different interests, communities and individuals “know the past in place” is as crucial and meaningful as the professional expertise informing our decisions on how we respond to change.

“Anticipatory history may be capable of tapping into these meanings, in that it does not attempt to construct a singular, authoritative historical narrative. As an approach, it leaves room for expressing the ‘small stories’ and ‘lay knowledges’ that are layered in place, and then linking these to a hoped-for future.”

Provocation

So, back to the glossary. The 50 terms explored in this book range from the technical-sounding (Acclimatisation, Coastal squeeze, Entropy, Equilibrium, Managed realignment, Monitoring) to the deceptively simple (Birds, Ebb and flood, Living landscapes, Memory, Museum, Place, Rhododendron, Tides, Woods) via the playful or provocative (Besanded, Dream-map, Liminal zone, Palliative curation, Rewilding, Story-radar, Unfarming, Zone of exclusion).

When to let go? Coastguard cottages at Birling Gap, Seven Sisters, East Sussex. Photograph by National Trust Images / John Miller
When to let go? Coastguard cottages at Birling Gap, Seven Sisters, East Sussex
Photograph: © National Trust Images / John Miller
https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/birling-gap-and-the-seven-sisters/

You can move between these personal explorations guided simply by your curiosity, the convenience of the alphabetical ordering, the threads of different authors’ reappearances, an index map that ties each entry to a place in the British Isles — or by the handy signposting under each entry, pointing you to: (Erosion) “See: Art, Coastal squeeze, Cycle of erosion”, or (Equilibrium) “Do not see: Entropy. See: Shifting baseline syndrome”; (Entropy) “Do not see: Equilibrium. See: Aspic, Discontinuity”, and so on. It’s a book that calls you to explore, revisit and share.

The variety of voices, styles, genres, directions and intents found even within the confines of an academic and professional network makes for a very partial glossary, whose cumulative effect is to hint at alternative ‘meanings’ that could have found their way into these entries via different authors, and at the ghosts of other terminologies and common words which might just as easily have featured in the discussions sparking this work. Being partial but being open about partiality and to inviting in more seems to me to be one value of an anticipatory learning from our subjective histories and imagined futures.

In a later post, I will look at some of the entries in the book and the themes these explore.


Find out more

You can read a response to this review from environmental artist Linda Gordon, illustrated with a recent example of her ephemeral art.

Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett, is published by Uniform Books. All the indented passages and unattributed quotations are taken from the book’s Introduction, which you can download as a sample. There is more information on the research network activities that produced the book at the Arts and Humanities Research Network programme pages.

The quotation from William Cronon is taken from his 2000 article Why history matters, (Wisconsin Magazine of History, 84, 2-13) available at his website.

The quotation from Hayden White is taken from E Domanska (2008) A conversation with Hayden White, (Rethinking History, 12, 3-21) and might be found through a web search…

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.

Questioning a word? Space for creative thinking... 

"One of the entries in Anticipatory history is Enclosure. What does this word mean to you, in the conext of environmental change and how we imagine and discuss pasts, places and futures?" 

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form. 

The Art of Noise

Writer Mark Goldthorpe reviews Climate Symphony Lab. This lively and loud gathering of scientists, musicians, journalists, sound artists and social scientists was both fun and thought-provoking, and provided an overwhelm of data as raw material for creative thinking.


2,310 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes 


Climate Symphony Lab, Arts Admin 2017. Photograph by Mark Goldthorpe
Climate Symphony Lab, Arts Admin 2017
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

In her BBC Reith Lectures for Radio 4, Hilary Mantel said “my concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims.” As a historical novelist, Mantel’s dead are from the past, but always present: “St Augustine says ‘the dead are invisible, they are not absent’. I don’t claim we can hear the past or see it. But I say we can listen and look.” 

But the dead can be other things too. Things we’ve made invisible by not looking can become dead to our thoughts, our concerns and actions.

Of historical fiction, Mantel claims: “Done properly, it doesn’t say ‘Believe this’ but ‘Consider this.’” We need history and science to reveal the facts that are out there in the world – and art to explore the truths within it.

On a hot June Saturday, I joined the Climate Symphony Lab hosted by Arts Admin’s 2 Degrees Festival of art and climate change. It was one of a series of workshops organised by Disobedient, Forma and composer Jamie Perera to explore how turning data into sound can bring fresh engagement with climate change. Soundscapes can spark understanding in ways that tables, graphs and spreadsheets rarely can; sonification is a lively counterpart to the more familiar visualisation through pie charts, Venn diagrams, timelines and other infographics.

Why use sound? We’re so used to privileging our visual skills and understanding (‘seeing is believing’) that switching to other modes can reset and enhance our perception. Sound has a deep, ‘felt’ presence in our bodies. As a way of detecting and working with patterns, it can be both effective and affective.

But, like any representation, sonification presents dilemmas, risks misrepresentation. The workshop was centred on just such questions: Where does the desire to engage people end? Do we sacrifice accuracy for ‘accessibility’? What stories are we telling – and not telling? What makes a good story and who decides? How does this inform the type of data we use? Is this art, or journalism?

With these thorny issues in mind, Climate Symphony Lab offered an additional twist to the sonification process: participation. What happens when you bring scientists, journalists, composers, musicians, sound technologists and others into the same space, not just to discuss but to do?

To frame the possibilities and ground our experiment, we heard from a climate scientist, a design researcher, a political geographer and sound artist, and a researcher working at the intersection of music, computing and biology. From the mundane realities of collecting climate data (sometimes literally dragging it up from the sea in buckets), through ‘dark data’, ‘data wash’ and problems of scale, to the soundscape as diagnostic tool, the talks presented rich stories. But it was sound itself – specifically, noise – that made the event disturbingly meaningful for me.

The echo chamber

A strong memory from my TippingPoint experiences was early on day one of the first Weatherfronts event in 2014 – also a hot June day. 90 writers and researchers were standing quietly in two large concentric circles. Inner and outer rings of strangers faced each other close up, waiting for the instruction to stop listening to the facilitator and start talking to each other, one to one. The hall was full, right up to the limit. With its hard floor, high ceiling and walls of glass and stone, at the word ‘Go!’, the noise levels instantly rocketed from ground zero, echoing somewhere up beyond maximum. The sort of sonic environment I usually hate, but the shock of it had undeniable energy, a bodily force. The decibels just rolled on as one circle shifted inside the other, bringing new pairings into conversation. The image that came immediately to me was as if I’d opened a heavy door into a packed turkey shed and it had closed again with me inside. A surreal, animalian moment. I wish I had a recording of it.

60 people in a studio can also stage a pretty good turkey shed sound effect. When we split into two large teams and started grappling with what we’d been asked to accomplish, our conversations couldn’t help fragmenting into groups of twos and threes, each struggling to make headway under the cacophony of the whole. That, I imagine, was not part of the design here any more than at Weatherfronts, but it reminded me to look at spaces with cautious respect for what they can achieve through the obstacles they throw up as much as what we hope our plans for them will deliver.

So, what was being asked of us? For each team to take a selection of data on offer – mostly already visualised for us as graphs – and select the four datasets we thought might have a shared story to tell. Play with a simple visual musical scale, overlaying transparencies of a mini piano keyboard along the vertical axis of each graph, to decide how we wanted the changing data to ‘sound’. And have the workshop gurus do the technical bit of making that happen, using either our choice of ‘instruments’, other digital effects, or sounds we’d recorded ourselves.

Simple. Even someone unmusical like me could grasp the principles with no knowledge of what making music actually involves or how to go from paper (lots of paper) to performance in two hours. No problem.

Taking instructions. Photograph by Mark Goldthorpe
Taking instructions
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

The animal in the room

No, other than the sheer noise, I was worried about something else entirely. We were all up for being creative in the face of the climate problem, but seemed unintentionally to be reproducing a big part of the problem. As one of the speakers had said, “To frame is to exclude,” and it turned out that the living non-human world had been framed out of our climate concerns.

It might just have been the noise levels jarring my sensibilities, but I was feeling uneasy that our data had nothing to say about more-than-human experience. It was all either physical (carbon, ice, sea levels …) or human (waste, migration, air quality …). And there was a lot of it — a stack of printouts showing this growing or that shrinking, and sometimes going all over the place in the process. Why had so much story already been cut out: species extinctions and marginalisations, habitat erasures and domestications? Where was the wild? This wasn’t a criticism of the process we were trying out, but a live critique of how we habitually see and shape only what we choose. The world is always bigger than that, messier, hopelessly entangled. Understandably, we exclude so much, needing to simplify what remains in our field of vision so we have something we can think with. But this demands self-awareness and questioning: that we lift ourselves out of our echo chambers.

I wasn’t the only one trying to make sense of the creative challenge and its limitations. Everyone brought their own interests, their own take on the ground rules, and a different plea for another view on what was meaningful. And the noise continued, seeming to swamp any signals….

Trawling data. Photograph by Mark Goldthorpe
Trawling data
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

And yet. Somewhere in all that, I gradually found that the noise became my signal. Something meaningful emerged, slow and uncertain. The process: messy, seemingly chaotic, definitely confusing. The data, even our small sample: overwhelming. The choices: full of conflict. The time constraints: ridiculous. It was all pushing us to compromise so as not to fail. We’d fail anyway, but you have to act. Sound familiar? We had become our own representation of the global ‘problem’.

Yes, all data attempts to ‘represent’ messy and complex realities that can’t be fully captured: constructing usable human-shaped containers for a world that’s always overflowing our efforts to order it; hiding our choices even as we make them, rendering some things invisible to highlight others. In our attempts to isolate a signal and reveal meaningful patterns of change, the excluded seeps back in as noise, distorting the filters. This east London studio, this mass of graphs and files, this intention to make music, were our own container, choice and filter. And for one afternoon at least, the world was going to work through these artefacts and be creatively distorted into something playful, representing and misrepresenting it all at once. Fun!

Dissonance and disciplines 

In one group, we tore up sheets of paper at the studio mic — the shreds snowing to the floor– to call up the spirit of London’s waste accumulating at our feet. Later, another group’s feet came marching towards the mic, bodies shuffling and gasping to channel the migrant Others from ‘there’ seeking refuge ‘here’. Whispered breaths became a questionable air quality. ‘Proper’ instruments became rising carbon dioxide levels or ocean acidity, or the projected scenarios of warming futures.

The shred. Photograph by Mark Goldthorpe
The shred
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Then, sitting quietly again, listening to the final pieces our teams had thrown together, we heard for the first – and only – time what ‘our’ data had become, what we’d made of the world outside the studio.

I’d wondered whether to push for one of our team’s tracks to be silence: a missing voice for all the species we’d locked out of the room, the habitats slipping away under a wake of data-churning human activity. Or maybe we could have their silences cut across the other soundstreams, polluting and disrupting our human-centredness… In the end, listening to our dissonant but surprisingly beautiful collage, I found my worries allayed. Maybe it was only my imagination – anxiety made artistic – but somehow the wild had its voice in the growling, creaking sounds I couldn’t identify. Was that the asthmatic air quality of civilised London somehow calling back others that had been here before and might be again, after? And the final, faint whisper from the last ripped corner of paper being torn down to its end, was that an insectoid rustling from the corners of the room? In my hearing at least, the excluded were back in: over the fence, regardless of us. Their refusal to be ruled out maybe points to a space for undisciplinary, not just multidisciplinary, working.

Early on, one of the workshop leaders had asked us to wonder if “we can or should make something beautiful out of tragedy?” And the answer is “Yes, somehow.” The tragedy remains, but picked out in a sharp relief that maybe helps us see how we should attend to it, care for it. I think everyone shared a sense that we’d organised enough of the chaos to make something ephemeral but with impact, for us at least. Whether that is art-representing-data-representing-reality or, more simply, science-informing-artists-making-art is a perennial question. And, somehow, misses the point.

“History,” Hilary Mantel continued in her lectures, “is not the past. It is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record.” We can and should have better debates about what we can ensure is left on the record of changing climates, so that this can inform our understanding of the different culpabilities, vulnerabilities, responsibilities. But however much we measure and analyse, we’re always bound into our own ignorance and will continually recreate it; so the urge and the need to organise ignorance through our art as much as our science and our history are urgent and hopeful.

Unexpectedly, Hilary Mantel has helped me think through my own impressions of an intriguing experience that required a bit of distance to make better sense of. So I leave the final thought to her, knowing her concern for the past also speaks of the future:

“When we imagine a lost world, we must first re-arrange our senses – listen and look, before judging. But we do rush to judgement, and our judgement swings about – at one moment we find the past frightening and alien, and the next moment we are giving way to nostalgia.”


Find out more

You can read about Climate Symphony in this recent article by Alexandra Simon-Lewis in Wired. She talks to Disobedient’s Leah Borromeo, who highlights the importance of both peer-reviewed science and first person perspective, and transparency of process: “Opening things from the start so all the bones and blood of the thing are on display is important.” From the Wired article, you can also listen to Soundcloud tracks from Climate Symphony and from a previous Lab workshop at ONCA in Brighton.

Hilary Mantel’s 2017 Reith Lectures are available at the BBC website.

Disobedient Films – “established by artist-filmmakers Katharine Round and Leah Borromeo to disrupt traditional documentary form and extract new angles and emotions around factual narratives” – has much more work for you to discover. Artists of Our Natural World includes a section on artists, Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd, who create a photographic photosynthesis work in response to the planned exploratory oil drilling on Leith Hill, Surrey. “By manipulating the natural processes that fuel life itself, these British artists blur the line between science, nature and art, all while drawing attention to climate change.”

This short clip from BBC World Service’s programme Click features Clare Malrieux talking about her climate sound artwork, Climat Général.

And there is also plenty to explore on up-to-date visualisation of climate change data, including animations by climate scientist Ed Hawkins on global temperatures, sea ice and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at Climate Lab Book. Ed was one of the speakers at the Climate Change Lab.

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.

Questioning Representation? Space for creative thinking...  

"What is the soundtrack you'd like make to 'capture' something about climate change, and what technologies and sounds would you use? How would you acknowledge the 'missing voices' you'd have to omit?" Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form." 

Óshlið: River Mouth \\ Slope

Filmmakers Sarah Thomas and Jon Randall share a conversation about the ideas, stories and creative processes behind their film exploring Óshlið, an abandoned road in Iceland — accompanied by a slideshow of their images from this changing place.


270 words: estimated reading time 1 minute + 26 minutes audio + 3 minutes gallery + 2 minutes video


Our film represents a journey along Óshlið, an abandoned coastal road which is considered to be one of the most dangerous, and beautiful, in Iceland. Following the construction of a mountain tunnel in 2010, the road was closed and is now in the process of being rapidly reclaimed by both the mountain and the sea. The film delves into the stories of this road and its relationships with the people who maintained, travelled and died upon Óshlið. Through these voices, it reflects upon a post-human landscape and the nature of mortality.

The title embodies the topographical and compound nature of this film. Óshlið is an Icelandic word comprised of ós (river mouth) and hlið (slope). Óshlið is both the name of the road, and the place – from which it came and to which it will return.

To listen to our conversation, choose the ‘Listen in browser’ option rather than SoundCloud, so you can view the accompanying slideshow below.

 

Photographs: All colour photos © 2017 Sarah Thomas & Jon Randall; all b&w photos © Vegagerðin (The Icelandic Road Administration)

Find out more

For more information on the project, news and updates, please visit www.rivermouthslope.net and follow @OshlidFilm on Twitter.
Jon Randall
Jon Randall
A freelance film and performance maker using documentary to bear witness to the unique stories of people and places, identity and landscape
Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas
A writer, documentary film-maker and traveller fascinated by our entanglements with the living world, and the nature of place.
Questioning Loss? Space for creative thinking...

"What do our experiences of loss - of place, objects, relationships - mean for our understanding of environmental or climate change? Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form." 

Generating Counter-Factual Worlds

Multi-disciplinary artist Deborah Mason outlines her collaboration with researchers, engaging people in counter-factual imagination. What if one historic event had been otherwise, giving us an alternative present to ours? What would be the possibilities in our altered ‘Now’?


1,140 words: estimated reading time 5 minutes


When Ann Light, professor of design at the University of Sussex, asked me to make her a Counter-Factual World Generator – an analogue Counter-Factual World Generator – I was immediately enthused and excited. I’d been watching The Man in the High Castle on TV and was also aware of other fictional counter-factual works (such as The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon) and my head immediately started buzzing with ideas. The generator would be used in a workshop that formed part of the University of Sussex and Wired Sussex ‘Philip K Dick season’. Ann had a clear idea of what she wanted to achieve from the workshop. It was intended to address the theme of Ways of Being in a Digital Age, taking as inspiration a quote from Dick’s novel, The Man in the High Castle:

“On some other world, possibly it is different. Better. There are clear good and evil alternatives.”  – Philip K Dick

How might innovation work differently if we thought about narratives of development that were made unfamiliar through counter-factuality? Ann’s introduction ran like this:

“Philip K Dick once said that, in good science fiction, the idea depicted sets ‘off a chain-reaction of ramification-ideas in the mind’ unlocking the reader to create worlds alongside the author. Dick’s work (which includes the stories behind the Bladerunner and Total Recall films) often portrayed fantastical technologies, setting them in a 20th century future or counterfactual present, but the reason his ideas still haunt us is that he dwelt on the societal consequences of the technical developments he envisaged … We will use the Counter-Factual Worlds Generator to provide the stimulus for new perspectives and avenues of enquiry, asking what publics are, were and could be through a series of exercises that take us back to old worlds and forward to ones that we hope for or dread.” – Professor Ann Light

A fairground sideshow

Counter-Factual World Generator
Photograph: Deborah Mason © 2017
https://debdavemason.com

During our initial conversations, I sketched out some ideas – inspired by the character of Childan, who sells Americana artefacts to the Japanese. I created the Counter-Factual World Generator to look like a fairground sideshow (with slight Americana styling). At the turn of a bird-shaped lever, it would roll out papier mache ‘worlds’. Inside each world were art-silk squares, each with a different counter-factual world represented. They also contained a scroll of paper with a little more detail on the counter-factual context and some ‘speculations’ to help discussions along.

The counter-factual contexts we chose were:

  • Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII’s children all survive to adulthood – no need for a divorce, no break from Rome;
  • the Brazillian rubber monopoly holds – rubber is a luxury;
  • the Russian Revolution fails — no communist bloc in Eastern Europe;
  • the San Andreas fault causes an earthquake that wipes out silicon valley (and Hollywood) at a critical moment;
  • and finally the classic – the Nazis win World War II.
CFWG Katherine of Aragon Silk
Photograph: Deborah Mason © 2017
https://debdavemason.com

Only the ‘rubber world’ was designed specifically to trigger thoughts about the environment and how we might think differently about resources. But everyone was given a little set of knobs labelled ‘Cultural’, ‘Economic’, ‘Social’ and ‘Environmental’ as ways of thinking about the impact of any innovations.

As I worked on each context, creating the silk squares and the scrolls, I had my own ideas how these might affect the world we live in now, and what we might or might not design for it. The results from the workshop were far more interesting!

Where possibilities become more possible

Through a process of Worlding, Chronicling, Creating and Analyzing, participants used the idea of a world different to our own in one major historical detail to explore values and choices. When each group presented their worlds and their ideas at the end of the workshop, it was interesting to see that the idea of being present in that world – rather than speculating on a future one — created first-person narratives or presentations that were in the ‘now’ rather than in imagined futures. The idea of embedding oneself in a speculative present made ideas more real, more visceral, both less dystopian and less utopian. The possibilities became more possible. It also freed the proposed innovations from the constraints of current innovations and current trends, so it was not just a rehash or iteration of existing design ideas, trends or apps. This freedom also allowed for exploration of inventions, trends, and ideas that we might want to guard ourselves against rather than exploit, but in a way that still gave space for future exploration of possible positive applications (for example DNA modification; or the use of digital to create ‘wonder’).

Some of the ideas coming out of the exercise might have environmental or climate change implications and it occurred to me that this exercise of imagining a different present (and how we might operate in that different present) was as valid as, and possibly more powerful than, asking people to imagine alternative futures. The future is a place we never reach and cannot inhabit. The present is where we always are. A different future is optimistic and helps to promote long-term planning, but a different present highlights the actions we can take now, ourselves, to make the changes we imagine and the world we would like to be.

CFWG Dials
Photograph: Deborah Mason © 2017
https://debdavemason.com

The Counter-Factual World Generator now lives at the University of Sussex, but other similar machines could be made, or other versions of this exercise trialled as a way of thinking about climate change and different presents leading to different futures. Ann and I are always interested in exploring the possible.


Find out more

The University of Sussex Creative Technology Research Group is concerned with the interfaces between humans and digital technology and how these are changing, and investigates interaction in the broadest sense, in relation to digital technologies, connected physical artefacts, and people’s experience and practices with mobile, immersive, ubiquitous and pervasive computing. You can see a selection of Professor Ann Light’s publications at her University of Sussex page.

There is an interesting New Statesman review by John Gray of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (although if you are reading the novel or watching the TV series, needless to say: ‘Spoiler alerts”).

Deborah Mason
Deborah Mason
A multi-disciplinary artist and cultural activist interested in equality, diversity, inclusion, environment, climate-change and society.

Counter-factual questions: Space for creative thinking?

"What historical event would you change, and what specific ways do you imagine this altering the present world that we know? Would the alternative 'Now' be unambiguously better, or might it bring new complications?" Share your thoughts and speculations in the Comments below or use the Contact Form.

 

You, Familiar

Artist Scarlet Hall debuts her poem You, familiar — narrated over photos of clay sculptures used in a Coal Action Network action outside a government department in London, and accompanied by text from fellow CAN activist Isobel Tarr.


380 words: estimated reading time 2 minutes + 7 minutes video


A video presentation by Scarlet Hall, Isobel Tarr, Natasha Quarmby & Ron F.

Artists: Isobel Tarr & Scarlet Hall / Photographers: Natasha Quarmby & Ron F / Words: Scarlet Hall / Production © 2017

We’ll never know who they are

We’ll never know who they are.

Neither will the politicians and energy company executives whose actions cut their lives short.

We only know that there are approximately 2,900 of them. Those who lose their lives every year that we keep burning coal in the UK. And many, many more who live with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as a result of coal.

We felt that perhaps the faceless figure, ‘2,900’, had helped render them invisible.

No stories to tell about them, no way to directly attribute the particles in their lungs to a power station.

They are imaginary. But they are also real.

Also imaginary is the end to coal. At this time, it is an idea: an ambition, a promise, a dream. And as it continues to not happen, the impact on people’s lives continues to be real – the people hosted within that number, 2,900, and many more.

Our impulse was to hold a space for their real-ness; the solidity, the personhood of those 2,900. To hold that against a political and bureaucratic structure which relies on that human consequence to be kept at a distance.

This piece was also a challenge to ourselves. How to honour each life? How to let each person speak?

How to be led by those who are on the front lines of this destruction.

How to not turn them into our instruments.

When to stop speaking; and hear them.

Text by Isobel Tarr


Find out more

Coal Action Network has information on campaigns around the UK, as well as Ditch Coal reports and other resources. Scarlet’s video features images by Natasha Quarmby and Ron F, whose Flickr page includes images from this performance (see his Ditch Coal Now! album).
 
The WeMove.EU  movement has a European wide petition ahead of a vote on 28th April on whether to implement legislation to stop toxic air pollution for coal power stations across Europe.

Scarlet Hall
Scarlet Hall
An artist who co-creates spaces of naming, questioning, healing and desiring in dedication to humans and non-humans who experience intimately the violent consequences of our disconnect.