workshop participants sitting around tables at Nottingham Contemporary

When the future comes…

On Saturday 30th June we hosted When the Future Comes at Nottingham Contemporary. It was another hot day in this much higher than average English summer. Despite this we still had a reasonable audience and a great day of talks, discussions, presenting artworks and ideas about how we might envision positive futures.

The event was planned to do two things, introduce the themes and ideas around envisioning positive futures, in order to open up discussion and thinking around environmental change, the future and how we might approach these themes through positive dialogues and actions, and secondly to bring together all the activities that have taken place this year as part of Performing the Future, and to consider parallels between this work and the work of all the collaborators on the project, including the Fate, Luck and Fortune network that co-hosted the event.

The space at Nottingham Contemporary was set out with two monitors showing images from all the activities that have taken place this year, a video loop of some of the artists labs, the promises machine where the audience could add their promises to the machine and some of the physical objects, ‘future machines’ and ‘lost and gained’ cards that had come out of the workshops with scientists, researchers and the public. Caroline Locke also brought some of her work and a Hazel tree that she offered to the audience to take home with them and look after, a couple took the tree and promised to update Caroline and take care of it.

two monitors and the display of artworks and the promises machine

What struck me most was the diversity of the people involved in the project and as a result the work we have achieved.

I introduced the project, the background of how I came to think about how we might envision positive futures in response to environmental change and how the different threads of the project evolved.

Rachel presenting at a table with mricrophones and a laptop with a projection on a large screen behind her of the video haiku from the blossoms project

Esther Eidinow from the University of Bristol then presented her Fate, Luck and Fortune project that has happened in parallel and co-hosted the event. Talking about her research into narratives around environmental risk in Ancient Greece, presenting the Tyche of Antioch (a personification of fortune – Lady Luck) and discussing how we understand the acts of nature and the unknown in our modern world and equally rely on myths, stories and icons to make sense of fate, luck and fortune. She presented her work bringing together these old myths and new myths with students from Bristol Grammar School, presenting a fascinating audio work by the students considering how myths have taught them to consider the environment and the landscape around them in new ways, building a narrative around their own relationship to the urban and natural environments they encounter.

Esther presenting at a table with a laptop and microphone

John King from the British Antarctic Survey did a presentation on communicating complexity and uncertainty in climate sience in relation to his work in the Antarctica, how scientists understand and communicate the ways that complex systems (the Earth) can work counter intuitively and how this can cause people to question the validity of the science as a result. Reflecting on how President Trump has publicly questioned the uncertainty and complexity of climate science in the Antarctica, explaining how this has been misunderstood and explaining the data and levels of uncertainty in the data. He concluded that scientists have a role in communicating the role of uncertainty in science but that all of us have a role in this uncertainty, depending on how we respond to the challenge of climate change – that ‘the future is shaped by choices we make now, both as individuals and society’.

a graph of sea ice levels and John presenting at a row of tables with mircrophones

Dominic Price from Horizon Digital Economy Research, University of Nottingham talked about his work with me and my arts collective Active Ingredient over the last 10 years developing sensor technologies and systems as part of our artworks and work with schools and the public in both the UK and Brazil. This collaboration has helped us to capture, mediate and interprete weather and climate data on local and global scales. He raised the issue of needing to develop new technologies as our work evolves, what happens to the old technologies once we stop using them, how we iterate these activities and how we might make sure that nothing is lost and this work is more sustainable in the future so that instead of needing to keep up with technology by reinventing and collecting more electronic stuff (and waste) we might hack and build on what we started with. He brought with him the first mobile sensor device he built with us in 2009 as part of the Dark Forest project that had been sitting in his draw since then.

Dominic holding up an electronic sensing device in a plastic box

After a short break we returned with a second panel presenting the artistic outcomes of the Performing the Future project.

The first presentation in this panel was a film of Frank Abbott as he was away for the event, he presented the Blossoms work we did together and discussed some of the themes that arose from this project around interactions in virtual digital space and in the real physical world of the park in Nottingham where the cherry trees grow. He talked about the difficulties of strangers meeting in this space with no agenda other than celebrating the blossoms and talking about the future.

frank's face projected on a large screen

Wallace Heim described our discussions and journey in Cumbria to Tilberthwaite Quarry and Walney Island. Describing how we followed a thread that began with dicussing what solastalgia might mean to seeking out places where energy and extraction industry had intervened with the environment, thinking about deep time, abundance and loss and where these discussions might take us next.

Caroline Locke and Matt Watkins then presented the themes and ideas that arose from the artist lab we did together in Nottingham, considering home and the impact of mining on their homes and Caroline’s work with water and interest in how water might solve some of the problems of energy and extraction. Matt then presented the filming we did the day before in the Woods (Nottinghamshire), setting off smoke bombs in the trees. He discussed the problems with doing this in a forest (particularly when there are wildfires on the moors in the North of England due to the heatwave – and potentially other reasons to do with the way the moors have been impacted by grouse hunting) but also discussed how this experiment emerged from thinking about how we create warning signals about our impact on the environment, how do we represent the drama and threat – as he discussed in this blog here.

Caroline and Matt presenting at a table with laptops and a screeen behind them

Finally Juliet Robson presented our work exploring time at her studio in Oxfordshire, describing the process we undertook burying watches in the garden, going for walks in the forest, talking to people as we walked, drawing around shadows to make a garden scale sun dial, making a water clock and thinking about how nature is it’s own time capsule and how we might mark time through these slow natural processess, intervening and creating these marks with what is around us.

A final panel discussion with questions from the audience took place, with Frank appearing on live video involved discussions on how artists are creating ways for people to collectively respond to environmental change, talking about risk and process.

Finally a workshop session took place with 12 participants split into two groups to consider how we might build a ritual or future machine based on the themes that had arisen from these artworks and discussions. These groups involved a combination of all the speakers and the audience.

The first table built a clock powered by a banana (using a kit Juliet had brought with her and a banana brought by John King). The group then discussed how if this was Mark I of a future machine device then how could it evolve, develop and help us create a more positive future if the group met regularly to build on this technology and concept. The group discussed how it could be used in schools and how the technology could be like an onion, with each new development as a new layer to the machine.

The second table created a complex system for managing the needs of a community based on a fantastical concept of boxes of seeds being placed in the atmosphere that could be reached by a ladder. The seeds and other things the community needed could be accessed as part of a ritual whereby the community make requests for what it needs that are then debated in a forum and then once it is decided what is needed the earth is prepared for the seeds, their is a living maze that people need to explore before they are able to send someone up the ladder to retrieve the seeds. In this community bees have become a type of god. The person who goes up the ladder must dress as a bee as part of the ritual. This was mocked up as a model using wood, clay and felt.

The groups came together to present their concepts to each other and discuss how they could come back together in a years time to look at evolving and building these concepts.