Experiential Fictions & Futures

Taking back the future through collaborative fictions, performance and play

This post is a continuation of my ‘Woffian’ exploration in performative and experiential futuring, off the back of recent conversations, experiences and practice-experiments, conducted with the University of Ibague, School of Visual Arts, New York and Becoming Collective and Holon Cooperative in Barcelona. By taking direct inspiration from women, in particular, Donna Haraway, Rebecca Solnit, Judith Butler, Virginia Woolf, and Octavia E. Butler — I aim to present a feminism towards the authoring and enacting of futures, urging designers and our kin to ‘stay with the trouble,’ question dominant paradigms, resist the ‘tyranny of the quantifiable’ and embrace complexity and ‘hope in the darkness’, in shaping and liberating future imaginaries.

It’s time to embrace new imaginaries

2018 (for me at least) was marked by the unknowable potentialities found in dark post-normal times. In the opening scene of HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis states “no one has any vision for a different or better future”, a dark statement mirrored in the title of artist and writer James Bridle’s recently published book, New Dark Age. Bridle recalls Virginia Woolf’s diaries: “the future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be”, a position that inspired the writings of Rebecca Solnit and her 2009 book Hope in the Dark, which in turn inspired the development of a performative and playful practice I am experimenting with today, Experiential Fictions and Futures (XFs). According to Yuval Noah Harari, the most important things in the world exist only in our imagination, but right now, we are facing a crisis of the imagination, a symptom of today’s complex world.

Today, our realities can sometimes feel like science-fiction, take for example, an excerpt from Isaac Asimov’s 1988 ‘Prelude to Foundation.’

“We have your history, your record. When you arrived you were scanned. Your expression and voiceprints were analysed. We knew your emotional state in detail; we practically knew your thoughts. Had there been the slightest doubt of your harmlessness, you would not have been allowed near me. In fact, you would not now be alive.”

We need to question these dark futures creeping on our present and embrace new imaginaries in tackling the cosmic challenges of our new dark age. Today, to be realistic is to transpire the possible in authoring and enacting futures, be they near or distant.

XFs might show us how

XFs is a hybridised design practice in development, that includes ‘Theatre of Time’ — grappling with adversarial and discursive design, fiction, strategic foresight, philosophy, fantasy, worlding and ethnography. Founded on the premise that if we are to design for a world ‘becoming’ we first need to design new acts of worlding. The primary aim for XFs is to stimulate discussion, guide deliberation and ground learnings in the crafting of situated futures and speculative scenarios.

Typically, the XFs methodology will involve different types of play and various theatre techniques, including improvisation games, action role play, image and forum theatre. Key to the method of XFs is mediating discussion and deliberation around situated and contextualised future scenarios. This is done by way of co-designed artefacts, immersive and interactive experiences, utilising VR, AR, video or images that engage with actors or audiences. The experience creates momentum, while increasing the capacity for collective becomings, and shifts in our future narratives towards preferred visions for transition.

What does this look like in practice?

Considering how one might deliver XFs within a strategic, spatial, service or interaction design practice, I’ve created a generative framework to experiment with how XFs might play out in practice.

Essentially, it is a blended approach, consistent with Design Thinking processes, aligned with Bruce and Stephanie M. Tharp’s ‘Aims’ in Discursive Design and borrows from ‘A Field Guide to Ethnographic Experiential Futures’ by Stuart Candy and Kelly Kornet, ultimately to surface a vision for transition and fictions of worlds made otherwise.

A generative framework for doing XFs
XFs considers diverse history(s), becoming(s) and futures(s) in the design process
“It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” Donna Haraway, ‘Staying With The Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene

XFs recognises that to navigate the “dead zone of the imagination”, we first need to radicalise the imagination and embrace collective and embodied intelligence (mind-body-spaces) to transition our governing systems and re-make worlds. The XFs methodology, as it stands, aims to draw from the embodied intelligence of a given community, consisting of the empowered and the powerless, the infrastructures of governments, organisations and civil society, to generate and explore plural ideals and imaginaries. Moreover, in alliance with Xenofeminism, the ambition for XFs is to give the power of stories and the imagination back to the other, the alien, the marginalised, the feminists and the queers — to decolonise futures, our mind, material, cultural and technological realities. XFs creates the conditions for designers and kin to co-create, enact and simulate speculative scenarios from the lived experiences or future imaginaries — enabling different insights and ideas to surface in the process.

A recent and practical experiment that plays with some of these themes is, Automated Control Wars (ACW), a collaborative-fiction pop-up research space designed to explore the weird, eerie and hopeful potentialities of our convulsive post-normal times. ACW is a continuing research project designed by Becoming, an emerging scenario action-research collective composed of Andreu Belsunces, myself, and Raul Nieves. ACW has been previously carried out in festivals of research, art, technology and politics such as The Influencers (Barcelona) and Tentacular (Madrid).

ACW uses low-frequency conflict to expose often contradictory emerging scenarios pulsating on our present, where different ideological agendas and understandings of what technology could and should be, are confronted.

We will be publishing more on ACW soon.

Automated Control Wars, Becoming Collective. The Influencers Festival 2018
Automated Control Wars, Becoming Collective. The Influencers Festival 2018
Automated Control Wars, Becoming Collective. The Influencers Festival 2018

In summary, XFs presents us with an opportunity to embrace the unknown while offering a critical posture to the design thinking process to help designers and kin envision, enact, and experience alternative realities and possible futures before they arrive. Moreover, by grappling with the arts, sciences and forms of discursive designing, XFs aims to provide the means to embrace a collectivization of critical imaginaries when confronting situated, societal, technological, organisational, cultural, and political becomings, and facilitating transitions towards ‘otherness.’

One last contemplation on ‘Angelus Novus’ by Walter Benjamin

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”