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.
Read More

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.

 

A Razor-Sharp Fragility

Composer and pianist Lola Perrin discusses isolation: to create, we need to be alone (physically or mentally) and this can be an unpleasant process. And yet, we carry on creating because suppressing that creativity is even more unpleasant.


1,150 words: estimated reading time 4.5 minutes


Last September I started touring my latest piano suite; ‘Significantus’, a keyboard conversation about climate change. The idea was that I would perform specially composed solo piano music, a guest speaker would talk and then facilitate a conversation with the audience about positive response to climate change. My aim was to stimulate audience members to carry the conversation into their communities after the concert.

It was during a post-performance debrief, at the request of post-graduate composer Kate Honey who had invited me to perform the ninth date on this tour at Conservatorium van Amsterdam, that I admitted to a lack of satisfaction from performing this work. I wished none of it was necessary, that I wouldn’t have to look into the eyes of twenty-something year old research students studying Significantus and think how they, along with my sons of similar ages, would be facing unimaginable challenges in their later lives. During our debrief I realised how much I craved a return to my old simple ways where ambition lay in the same space as the notes, where satisfaction naturally followed from simply completing the work and the act of sharing my music was the point of my concerts.

For many of us, to create we need to be alone, if not physically, then at least mentally. We have to cut ourselves off and live in our heads. It’s generally an unpleasant process for me and may well be for you too; insecurity, doubt, lack of self-understanding, worry that it’s a repeat of your previous work or a copy of someone else’s, or just that it’s not very good …. the list goes on. Yet we carry on creating because we don’t know any other way of being, and suppressing that creativity is even more unpleasant; without our work processes we’ve lost so much of our identity and meaning.

Whiteread in the Arctic 

I found my real identity with my first piano suite. I’d been up all night at the window, watching a south London road gradually transform and as the dawn arrived, it began to morph into a favourite Hopper painting of an empty street at dawn. I decided to compose a set of pieces about the people behind the windows in that painting; people we can sense but not see. I made up their lives and dreams and found a compositional sound I hadn’t heard before. Inspired, I was soon onto my second suite, this time working from memories of how Ansel Adams photographs had made me feel. Later, after witnessing children set free at the piano, I copied their abandonment to write my third suite.

Then came an idea to follow Rachel Whiteread’s casting of physical spaces (such as in  Untitled (Black Bed) 1991 where she captured the shape of the space beneath a bed). I wanted to see if I could do something similar in music. Whiteread was in the Arctic at the time on a trip with Cape Farewell, so I decided to imagine the changing shapes within icebergs and allow the peaks and troughs of those imagined shapes to dictate the musical lines.

Untitled (Black Bed), 1991
Urethane, 30 x 213 x 137 cm
Artist: Rachel Whiteread © 1991 Image credit: Rachel Whiteread & Luhring Augustine
http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/rachel-whiteread/artworks/series#34

Writing this fourth piano suite was difficult. The three beforehand weren’t easy but I hadn’t become stuck the way I was stuck writing this one. It was 2005 and I was not yet clued up on climate change. That I was composing directly from Whiteread while she was in the Arctic cast a shadow over me. I was uncomfortable and resistant to learning much about the terrible reason for her journey. The feelings of Whiteread visiting ice because the ice was melting had the effect of blocking me. I tried hard, but for six months I couldn’t make the music work and felt disturbed. Finally, I turned to photographic sources also preoccupied with the depiction of spaces; six light drawings by Nazarin Montag revealing a hidden world, and cloud stories travelling the world by Roberto Battista. During a few short days the ideas finally joined up and ‘Music from Fragile Light Spaces’ was rapidly completed.

A different challenge, a razor-sharp fragility

That first experience of engaging in climate change, albeit inadvertently, was like a warning for my subsequent climate-engaged compositions. There’s a different challenge, a razor-sharp fragility when you’re creating work in response to the climate emergency. Each time I’ve become greatly blocked during, and often after, the externalising process of giving artistic expression to the inner world of dealing with climate change.

Inside of an iceberg: image from Brown Bluff, Antarctica
Photographer Boris Kester © 2011 www.traveladventures.org

While touring Significantus, I’m learning about the extent to which we are living the climate change story in our heads. During one performance, a close relative contributed to the audience conversation and this moved me in a way I didn’t recognise. How could it be that we had not ever spoken together about anything to do with climate change? Yet there he was, in the public space of a performance venue, sharing with the strangers around him his carefully thought-through ideas for how to how to make things better. But in our walks around Dovestone Reservoir and on trips to the Moors we had never thought to delve into the climate change story permeating our internal lives, no matter how much each of us might be swallowed up by it.

Two extremes in a story of extremes

For my forthcoming initiative, ClimateKeys, due to take place around COP23 (more about that in the next blog), I’m reaching out to people all over the world and encountering a myriad of responses; from a call centre worker in the Philippines who speaks of how the crops have recently and unseasonably frozen, to a Chinese geologist who speaks of his jaw-dropping invention to clean up toxic water by utilising carbon dioxide. Two extremes in a story of extremes which we cannot afford to see in any other way but as the Number One Global Emergency if we are to rescue our civilisation from the consequences of our dwindling carbon budget. That’s what needs much more talking about and of course, much more acting upon. And soon, I will be returning for another walk around Dovestone Reservoir with my relative and will try to remember to break my own silence and really talk with him about what matters.


Find out more

Listen to Lola Perrin’s Music for Fragile Light Spaces on SoundCloud.

Read more about Significantus and ClimateKeys at Lola’s websites.

Read a Guardian profile of Rachel Whiteread: A Life in Art

Explore Nazarin Montag’s six light drawings at her website.

Explore Roberto Battista’s cloud photography on Flickr.

Lola Perrin 
Lola Perrin 
A composer, pianist and collaborator on keyboard conversations about climate change with economists, lawyers, scientists, artists and other thinkers across the world.
Read More

 

Culturing Climate Change

Ouroboros - wicked problemsClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe explores climate change through the lens of ‘Wicked Problems’ and what ‘culture’ — a web of identities and practices that rub up against each other — means for how we might think about it.


1,570 words: estimated reading time 6.5 minutes


Climate change could almost define ‘Wicked Problems’. Unlike ordinary, ‘tame’ problems, these have multiple causes, produce a web of effects, entangle themselves in interdependencies, are riddled with complexities, uncertainties and contradictory interpretations and induce a sense of both confusion and urgency. In Dialogue Mapping, organisational collaborator Jeff Conklin talks about the “pain of fragmentation” caused by working on Wicked Problems “with thinking, tools, and methods that are useful only for simpler (‘tame’) problems … a sense of futility of expecting things to be one way and repeatedly banging into a different reality”.

More often than not, ‘tame solutions’ for Wicked Problems reveal or create more problems; their frustration then compounds our urgency, inciting either a stronger desire to act ‘at any cost’ or a lifeless apathy. A self-perpetuating anxiety, climate change’s wickedness is both a call to in/action and the cascade of in/action’s unintended consequences.

Age of anxiety

Ouroboros
Ouroboros
Artist: AnonMoos 2009
Public Domain: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ouroboros-simple.svg

Rereading Alan Watts’ 1951 The Wisdom of Insecurity, writer Megan Mayhew Bergman describes how Watts “believed that hyper-rationalising our desires creates a vicious and taxing cycle, a habitual state of tension and abstraction that is actually a mental disorder.” He saw a modern split between mind and body (“a war between … the desire for permanence and the fact of flux”). This produces a cycle of insecurity, which he likened to Ouroboros, the mythical serpent endlessly biting its own tail in a cycle of self-consumption. While it’s human nature to seek an “escape from the reality of the anxiety-producing present,” Bergman suggests that with climate change it’s the future that now seems fearful: “That sheer inevitability bewilders me … We can no longer afford the luxury of looking away.” 

Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe has written about climate change anxiety inhabiting both the ‘reality-based’ and ‘narcissistic’ parts of our self. On one hand (or in one mind?) we face the loss of a reliable future, “our hope that we are generative … and rooted within long time” when “our sense of regularity and continuity as a species [is] threatened at such a basic level”. This depressive anxiety is compounded by our sense of dependence on global leaders and corporations to somehow overcome the short-termism threatening the planetary system. And on the other hand, the actions that we know are needed to reduce these risks threaten the part of our identity that’s tied into lifestyles that are implicated in the problems. Weintrobe suggests that “what we dread giving up is not so much particular material possessions or particular ways of life, but our way of seeing ourselves as special and as entitled, not only to our possessions but to our ‘quick fixes’ to the problems of reality.” The wickedness fills the gap between these minds.

But maybe, in an anxious, subjectivity-riddled world, the idea of wickedness at least offers a way to acknowledge this messiness, open a creative space to view it in and grapple with the extreme risk and uncertain force of the climate change we cannot look away from.

Culture – permission to disagree

In Keywords, cultural academic Raymond Williams introduces ‘Culture’ as “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (and ‘Nature’ as perhaps the most complex word in the language: great news for anyone working on un/common grounds of NatureCulture). A word that’s rooted in colere (Latin: inhabit, cultivate, protect, honour with worship), fractured and evolved into cults, colony and couture, became a synonym for civilised in its antagonism with natural, and offers its own dividing line between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures, was destined to do lots of different kinds of work for different people. Culture has its own wickedness, perhaps. Can this help us with wicked climate change?

Climate change constantly draws people into different camps, each arguing passionately for one version and vehemently against the others. Can culture help us, if not to tame the untameable, then at least seize its contrariness, try out its meanings, and rehearse what cohabitation might offer us? We’re more used to diversity in culture and (in more tolerant moments) give ourselves permission to disagree; to incorporate this disagreement into culture itself. Maybe this offers a way to open discussions and imaginations to diversity in ‘climate change’.

In his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, and in an article of the same name, geographer Mike Hulme examines it as a cultural entity, a kaleidoscopic “idea circulating anxiously in the worlds of domestic politics and international diplomacy… circulating with mobilising force in the worlds of business, of law and of international trade … circulating with potency in the worlds of knowledge and invention, of development and welfare, of religion and ethics and of public celebrity … circulating creatively in the worlds of art, of cinema, of literature, of music and of sport.” The scientific consensus on climate change is powerful and real, but we lack any comparable consensus on its meanings; it has so many that the hope for strong agreement on them is probably illusory. Hulme says:

“We need to understand the creative psychological, spiritual and ethical work that climate change can do and is doing for us. By understanding the ways climate change connects with foundational human instincts of nostalgia, fear, pride and justice we open up a way of resituating culture and the human spirit at the centre of our understanding of climate.”

On a parallel thought, literary scholar Benjamin Morgan investigates the origin and uses of the concept of extinction. Like climate change, “extinction has never been a purely scientific concept … [it] first came into being as a problem of human meaning” long before we came to identify our own species as a new driver of extinctions; the discovery of spectacular fossils in the 18th century revealed nature “possessed of the same self-destructive energy as human society.”

Science of all kinds is crucial for better understanding of environmental and climate change and the Anthropocene, but can only offer one kind of necessary enquiry: one of many routes to meaningful action. As part of the living matrix we’re eroding around us, we must also call on other aspects of our identity, other practices as well as science.

Multispecies scholar Deborah Bird Rose speaks of ‘ecological humanities’ as an interdiscipline, attempting to “build dialogical bridges between knowledge systems: between ecological sciences and the humanities, between Western and other knowledge systems.” But what is not needed, she says, is boundary crossings that aim to homogenise knowledge or “suggest that everyone has to do or think everything … Quite the opposite, we acknowledge that there are many abrasive edges between knowledge systems. We believe that rubbing those abrasive edges together enables something new to happen.” 

Identity and practice

And this is what ‘culture’ means for me when I think about climate change: a web of identities and practices that rub up against each other. It’s a rough sketch, but I start with:

  • Culture as identity: the different contexts that we inhabit and shape, and which inhabit and shape us; the forces that create, reinforce or challenge our personal and social values; an expression of and comforter for our particular world view.
  • Culture as practice: the making, sharing and responding to particular creative works and directions; visual, musical, dramatic, poetic, fictional, film and all the other artistic practices — and also research and educational practices, and the practices of collecting, editing and presenting.

Both these aspects of culture suggest that nuance and diversity are key, helping us navigate the complexities, uncertainties and interdependencies of climate change without immediately resorting to ‘tame’ solutions within hard-and-fast borders. As Morgan points out: “Drawing battle-lines is never an exercise in nuance … The avenue into these ethical and political dilemmas [of extinction] is culture, broadly conceived.”

Bergman retells Watts’ account of the response of a Chinese sage to the inevitability of human suffering: “’How shall we escape the heat?’ the sage is asked. His answer is unsettling: ‘Go right into the middle of the fire.’”

‘Wicked Cultures’ as a means at least of seeing and coming to terms with the dynamics of ‘Wicked Problems’, maybe acknowledging what might be untameable but worth living through and with?


Find out more

See the Wikipedia entries on Ouroboros and on Wicked Problems

Meeting Ones’ Madness by Meghan Mayhew Bergman’s appeared in Paris Review (15th November 2016).

Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems by Jeff Conklin was published by Wiley (2006).

Mike Hulme’s article Why We Disagree About Climate Change originally appeared in The Carbon Yearbook (2009), and his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity was published by Cambridge University Press (2009).

On the Origin of Extinction by Benjamin Morgan appeared in Public Books (9th March 2017).

The Ecological Humanities by Deborah Rose Bird appeared in Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene, (edited by Katherine Gibson, Deborah Rose Bird and Ruth Fincher:  Punctum Books, 2015).

The Wisdom of Insecurity: A message for an Age of Anxiety by Alan Watts was republished by Penguin Random House in 2011 (originally 1951).

The Difficult Problem of Anxiety in Thinking About Climate Change by Sally Weintrobe appeared in Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives (edited by Sally Weintrobe: Routledge, 2013).

Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams’s was published by Fontana Press (revised edition, 1983).

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.
Read More