From the antipodean research retreat

Posted March 17, 2014 by Maja Kuzmanović

How to imagine, discuss and rehearse a multiplicity of possible, probable and preferred futures? What do futures studies, improvisation, play and games, integral theory, disaster drills and meditation have in common? How can these divergent fields help us reach embodied experiences of how things might be otherwise? Such questions guided our investigations during a Future Fabulators research retreat in Adelaide, Australia. Nik Gaffney and I were the 'principal investigators' on site, inspired and challenged by people like Sarah Neville, Karen Verschoren, Stuart Candy, Alkan Chipperfield, Justin Pickard, Tina Auer, Valentina Nisi and other collaborators in Future Fabulators. We documented our work in progress on the Libarynth, where you will find many pages of fascinating works, theories and techniques from a range of futurists, designers, writers and enthusiasts, as well as a growing collection of our own possible futures scenarios:

A few years ago we started designing 'seasonal programming’ for FoAM in Brussels. We would focus on research during winter, design and productions in the spring, dedicate summer to outward-oriented activities (e.g. workshops and public events) and save autumn for retreating to document and reflect. In following these seasonal rhythms, the recent winter in the northern hemisphere would suggest a period of research. This year we focused on mapping out the territory of 'futures': people, theories, places and techniques that can help us work towards creating a widespread culture of foresight. From FoAM's earliest days we've been frustrated with short-termism and the 'thinking in silos' that has contributed to various contemporary crises. We agree with many those who see that the crisis-beneath-the-crisis is a cultural one. We believe that one way to deal with this cultural desertification is to embrace FoAM's motto 'grow your own worlds' on a broader scale. In other words, to see futures as malleable entities shaped by a range of forces on micro and macro scales, where our actions – no matter how small or seemingly insignificant – do matter in the wider context.

In this post, I'd like to reflect on the pre-history of FoAM's futures work.

Our decision to work with futures has been (so far) heavily based on practice and intuition. It evolved from a range of parallel and disparate threads in our work at FoAM, some dealing with (direct) experience, others with creating our preferred futures as artistic experiments, and yet others with preparing for and living in conditions of environmental, social and economic turbulence. In retrospect, we were always circling around the edges of the 'futures field', but had never explicitly researched it at FoAM.  We have for instance been creating immersive, responsive environments where people could experience the effects of their actions 'on a human scale' (t* series) from our very beginning. At the same time, in groWorld we worked on speculative human-plant-interactions as an alternative to industrial monocultures and the patenting of life – an example of 'how things could be otherwise'. Over time this work grew into Borrowed Scenery, an alternate reality narrative in which we immersed our guests in a parallel reality where plants became central aspects of human society while asking the question: what would our world look like if we saw plants as sentient co-inhabitants of Earth, rather than merely a resource to exploit? In another thread, we designed and hosted the transdisciplinary Luminous Green workshops to address systemic environmental and cultural challenges through participation and co-creation. We saw firsthand how significantly transdisciplinary co-creation help open up new possibilities.

The closest we came to futures studies was during the Resilients project, where we looked at cultural resilience in the face of turbulent unknowns. This included experiments in future preparedness, where we hypothesised that personal and collective resilience could be enhanced by rehearsing a range of possible futures. We investigated how we could prepare for whatever the future might throw our way, while not having to rely on predictions about what that may be. To cut the long story short, FoAM's many paths – mixed reality, experience design, ecological and technological arts, process facilitation and cultural resilience – all seemed to converge on 'speculative culture' or a 'culture of foresight': creating a context in which we could collaborate on diverse images of the future as embodied experiences today.

Our romance with the future(s) has always been entangled with storytelling, but also more eclectic practices including meditation, divination and invocation (which most futurists are careful to stay very clear of nowadays). Not being professional futurists, we haven't shied away from these fields. We see them as different aspects of knowing, relating to and having agency in the world: for example in our work on Alternate Reality Tutorials, including ARGs but also Tarot and communication with non-human sentiences.

With this weird collection of conceptual and practical baggage, in the beginning of February 2014 we embarked on a journey through the unwieldy terrain of the field which calls itself 'futures studies'. We had only a few weeks to grasp a subject that could easily have taken several PhDs. Luckily, we had two very useful filters: a set of practice-based questions that we collected from various workshop debriefs, and a more-or-less defined direction in the Future Fabulators pre-enactments we’re planning to design in the coming months. Whatever we researched had to be furthering our practice, in one way or another. We looked at the past, present and future of the 'futures' field, studied a range of methods and techniques including scenario thinking, and most importantly found several allies and pointers in the field of experiential futures. You can find a summary of our research, with a sizeable collection of backrgound information and references, on this page:

As the spring is only a few days away and the research season is coming to its end, we're keen to return to Brussels and translate our findings into practical experiments and theoretical discussions, shaped as futures workshops, dinners, preharsals, salons and other known and unknown formats.  Keep your eyes on FoAM's events page in the coming months. We're designing a series of scenarios about the futures of food for the LateLab in Edinburgh. We're looking forward to sharing our findings at the Data Ecologies: Experience 2014 symposium in Austria and xCoAx in Portugal. Last but not least, we're putting together a list of potential contributors and guidelines for the Futurist Fieldguide, FoAM's FFab publication slated for distribution in early 2015. If you're interested in getting involved in any of the above, feel free to contact us @_foam.