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.
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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.
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On Night in the Daytime

Night breathes us inWriter Mark Goldthorpe joined the gathering for The Night Breathes Us In, part of Reading’s year-long Festival of the Dark, and found three simple, unexpected ways that the ‘outside’ – human, more-than-human, solar – came inside the tent.


1,600 words: estimated reading time 6.5 minutes


Saturday 25th March – almost on the Spring Equinox – was the perfect day to be in Reading for the latest instalment of its year-long Festival of the Dark. Blossoms and blue skies and a temperature to match, with a good crowd making use of Forbury Gardens just off the town centre. I’ve never discovered this Reading park before. I’m glad I’ve done so.

It was also my first Dark Mountain experience, although I’ve often explored the digital foothills at their site. Their approach to the complexities of climate change and our uncontrolled planetary experiment has intrigued me, and continues to as I feel myself circling closer into its nuances. The name of the event, The Night Breathes Us in, captures this beautifully, expanding our focus to the more-than-human and its agency over us (even while we disrupt it) but acknowledging the unavoidable centrality of our selves within our own experience.

Sadly, in my case, the night only partially inhaled; I was able to stay for the afternoon but missed out on the evening. So, this is an invitation to someone else to post a blog on the second half!

The black marquee in the middle of the gardens was an intimate space to share stories and experiences under the guidance of Dark Mountain explorers, and the three sessions I took part in there brought quiet reflections and gentle conversations.

 

The night breathes us in - Hands and Boots, Photograph by Mark Goldthorpe
Hands and Boots
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Uncivilised Poetics – against demented questions

We began with the launch of Dark Mountain’s new book, with readings from the poems and essays in Uncivilised Poetics, and music and natural sounds from the book’s companion CD. Writer and editor Nick Hunt suggested poetics as a needed counterweight to the dominant language and statistics of technical and policy narratives. Poetics – not just poems, but art as exploration and an open-ended questioning – helps engage us in a world that cannot be captured in the beguiling, make-safe terminologies of ‘management’. Nick quoted from William Stafford’s poem, A Ritual to Read Each Other: “For it is important for awake people to be awake … the darkness around us is deep.” 

Everyday language can trick us into unseeing important truths, and even our attempts to see a bit wider can still fence us inside our illusions. One of the passages shared in our dark tent in the middle of a city park was from Robert Bringhurst’s essay The Persistence of Poetry and the Destruction of the World:

“When I was a youngster in school, someone asked me, ‘If a tree falls in the forest with no one there to hear it, does it make a sound or not? The question is demented. If a tree falls in the forest, all the other trees are there to hear it. But if a man cuts down the forest and he cries that he has no food, no firewood, no shade, and that his mind can get no traction, who is going to hear him?” – Robert Bringhurst

This demented quality to a lot of what we tell ourselves about ‘the world’ and ‘ourselves’ is what Dark Mountain, the Festival of the Dark and others are countering. Poetics is part of what can help us overcome this strange collective lack of traction on the depths and connectedness of the world. Bringhurst also quotes Skaay, a Haida poet from America’s north west indigenous cultures, who refers to humans as xhaaydla xitiit ghidaay: “plain, ordinary surface birds.”

“Creatures with more power – killer whales, loons, grebes, sea lions, seals – know how to dive. They pierce the surface, the xhaaydla it is called in Haida.” – Robert Bringhurst

Poetics is one way for us plain, ordinary surface birds to pierce the flatness of our worldviews.

Crossing the Bridge

Art editor and writer Charlotte du Cann guided us in Crossing the Bridge, an exploration of the traditional solar and growing cycles of the year: the solstices and equinoxes, and the seasons of fertility, growth, fruitfulness and latency that they help to parcel out. These are transitions from which we are easily distanced but never truly separated. We need to know how we are creatures in and of time: a deeper one than is surfaced in our phones or clocks. Deep time is not just in the rocks and soils. It’s built into our substance: bones, tissues and cells, and in the bacterial cohabitants inside us. Everything that makes us ‘us’. It’s inside the shallow time of our daily preoccupations, even as these try to hide it from us.

Using stones that the group had brought in pockets or memories – stones from beaches, flint soils and rivers, from ancient glacier beds or the mysterious recesses of ebay – we toured the eight solar and soilar doors of the yearly cycle. We explored the associations, memories and feelings through whatever door we found ourselves placed at on our stone clock. What do the light of summer or the dark of winter do with us, within our minds and bodies?

Making the stone clock, photograph by Mark Goldthorpe
Making the stone clock
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

And we talked about the stones we’d brought to share. I found memories of the shingle of Orford Ness in Suffolk, and how on one scale – the beach itself – it reveals the seeming fragility of places and lives on the edge, constantly subject to the waves and currents eroding matter here, depositing it there. On another scale – the individual pebble – shingle reveals the persistence of matter as it’s shaped and smoothed and swept onwards. Beach and pebble contain deep time in cycles that “it is important for awake people to be awake” to. Sharing a pocketful of stones brought a beach of stories into the tent.

Holding the Fire

My afternoon inside the black tent closed with theatre maker and author Lucy Neal guiding us through Holding the Fire. She shared inspiration from three key character for her: women from history, personal experience and mythology.

Lucia of Syracuse, a Sicilian Christian of the Third Century, used a wooden headtorch to show her a path through the darkness as she took food and comfort to the poor. And Lucy demonstrated her own candle headdress to great effect. 

Lucia of Syracuse, photographer by Mark Goldthorpe
Lucia of Syracuse
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Lucy met Hildegard Kurt at a workshop in Slovenia. Hildegard used moments of quiet reflection and exchange to reveal: how we hold knowledge and creativity inside ourselves; that this can help us recognise our active part and potential within the flux of environmental crises; a shared space can enable us to explore a different possibility.

Hestia, daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, was the ancient Greek Goddess of the Hearth. Her role emphasises the importance of the fire in domestic and public life; Homer’s hymn to her acknowledges that “Without you, mortals hold no banquet.”

With these examples in mind – of the hearth, shared space and light in the dark – we spoke in pairs, sharing stories of times and experiences of seeing and being seen differently and of awakeness.

Taken together, it was a lot of time to spend in the half-dark tent, but refreshing. And the ‘outside world’ was never absent. Early on, for about 30 minutes, a ladybird crawled over my left hand. It paused occasionally as it struggled to stretch the wings from under its red enamelled carapace, testing if they were ready. Eventually, it managed to unstick itself and take off. Later, speeding police sirens tore across our quiet voices inside, momentarily taking our minds back outside. Everyday life was proceeding all around us. Later, when I looked at the photos I’d taken inside the twilight, I saw how the automatic exposure had kept the camera’s aperture open long enough to paint the black fabric walls almost transparent, the unseen sun revealing a shadowy world beyond the veil. Three simple ways that the ‘outside’ – human, more-than-human, solar – had pierced the surface for the xhaaydla xitiit ghidaay.


Find out more

The Night Breathes Us In is part of the Festival of the Dark, a year-long festival in Reading, produced by Outrider Anthems. You can read Jennifer Leach’s blog leading up to The Night Breathes Us In here.

Dark Mountain Project – published Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto (“Think of it as a flag raised so that we can find one another. A point of departure, rather than a party line. An invitation to a larger conversation that continues to take us down unexpected paths”) in 2009, and has produced many events and 10 volumes of fiction, poetry, non-fiction and images since then.

Nick Hunt – part of Dark Mountain’s editorial team, Nick is a writer of non-fiction and fiction (including the short story Green Bang, which was one of the commissions from TippingPoint’s Weatherfronts programme). His second book, Where the Wild Winds Are is his account of walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds – the Helm, the Bora, the Foehn and the Mistral – to discover how they affect landscapes, peoples and cultures. You can read a series of exclusive excerpts for ClimateCultures, starting here.

Charlotte du Cann – also part of Dark Mountain’s editorial team, Charlotte writes about mythology, metaphysics and cultural change and teaches collaborative writing. She is the author of 52 Flowers That Shook My World: A Radical Return to Earth. T

Theatre maker, writer and community activist, Lucy Neal is interested in the role the arts play to nurture and provoke the changes needed to transition our society to a more ecological age. She is the author of Playing for Time: Making Art as if the World Mattered.

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.
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Festival of the Dark – Dark February

Festival of the darkArtist Jennifer Leach introduces Reading’s year-long Festival of the Dark, whose purpose is to gently lead people into the darkness — a place of stillness, mystery and contemplation, and a locus of the unknowing and the unknown.

790 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes 


Some months ago, I had a very graphic dream involving barbed wire, entanglement and injury. In my dream, as I was trying to ameliorate the situation and minimise pain, the message came through loud and clear, ‘Cut the wire!’. What exactly this wire is, I have since been seeking to understand. It kept presenting itself to me as a subversive notion, an act of daring sabotage.

The question has proved seminal to the progress of Reading’s Festival of the Dark. The seed for the festival was sown at the TippingPoint Doing Nothing is Not an Option conference, and the endeavour initially moved with great flow. Its purpose is to gently lead people into the darkness — a place of stillness, mystery, contemplation, locus of the unknowing and the unknown. To face and embrace the ultimate fear that is fuelling our electrically-lit lemming stampede over the cliffs of ecological destruction. Since the launch, and once the Arts Council funding came through, there has been, at best, a general indifference towards the festival; at worst, there has been a clear closing of the official ranks towards it – business, church and media. Surely not because they sense something of a challenge in its message? Grin! A message that was possibly not so apparent when they first pledged their support. The churches – with their great venue potential in a town with few suitable spaces – have been particularly disappointing (see the notable exception below). The response from one church in Reading, whose hall we wished to use for a general meeting of arts organisations: ‘As an evangelical Christian church we believe passionately that Jesus came into this world to bring light into the darkness.  As this belief is the foundation on which the Church is built it would be inappropriate for us to be involved in such an event [Festival of the Dark].’ Badgers, night-scented stocks, stars and moonlight? – that naughty co-creating Devil!

Monkey
Photographer: Jennifer Leach © 2017

Vision

It has been a painful journey for myself and the small band seeking to realise the Festival’s vision. I have been bemused, wounded, short-tempered with my family, deep-soul exhausted. And yet…

From the moment of the Festival’s inception, there has been a supportive network holding the vision and the importance of the work. I marvel at it – quite literally spread across the whole of the UK. Actively rooting for us. Travelling down to create thoughtful, thrilling events for us. Bringing their fire, love and magic. To Reading! There are visionary businesses in Reading who are supporting us, Reading Buses being the most extraordinary. There are beautiful individuals making madcap ideas reality. With humour. There is one church so far – the Catholic church of St James, with Father John – who is open to working with us, most particularly in the light of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, ‘Laudato Si’.

So much to sing about; what we need to do is change tack. A friend I have worked with and whom I greatly admire shared with me yesterday what she asks for with her work: Take me to the hungry. For me it was a conversation that has unlocked the mystery. I realized that the metaphysical cutting of the wire was not a subversive act of sabotage, but an empowering act of liberation. There is no point in trying to convert patriarchy to a more meaningful system, or to try and engender a new spirit in people who are sated, if not content. Working with those who, with us, are spiritually hungry, eager for new ways – this is the way forward. The wire that needed cutting belonged to the imprisoning fence holding us all within ‘the system’, the critical and the non-critical alike. And so I ‘cut’ the wire, crawled through the fence, and lay face down on the earth, studiously avoiding the cowpats, breathing in the fresh rich energy of the Earth and the Universe.

Festival of the Dark
Photographer: Jennifer Leach © 2017

The Night Breathes Us In

The personal feeling of liberation is calmly satisfying, and the way forward for the Festival – although as unknown as ever – feels right. I suspect the Festival events will be small, and different to our initial conception. Yet embracing this is now effortless. Exciting. And who knows, hundreds of Reading-ites may yet surprise us and turn out in force for our next event, The Night Breathes Us In with the wonderful Dark Mountain Project, on 25th March. It would be lovely if you joined us.


Find out more

Festival of the Dark at Outrider Anthems.

Jennifer Leach
Jennifer Leach
A poet, writer, performer and storyteller whose wild work, forged in the fantastical reaches of deep imagination, brings to life new stories for our strange times.
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