Thriving in Uncertainty

by Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney

Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency… To hope is to give yourself to the future — and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable. — Rebecca Solnit

As the growth economy feeds on relentless expansion and promises the continuous availability of everything from strawberries to digital servants, the unremitting pace of contemporary lifestyles at the messy tail-end of global capitalism seems inevitable. It infects the way we deal with time; it affects our sense of values, ethics and purpose. The implacable pressure to produce, consume and communicate has lead to a work ethic where everything that is “not work” is viewed as an inactive, indulgent luxury. The urgency of our current economic, environmental and cultural predicaments prioritises action. Who can afford to idle away their time while it has been widely acknowledged that we are on the brink of crisis, conflict and collapse? Whether or not we have been brought up variously under socialist, capitalist or religious ideals, the idea that work can be a solution to almost any problem — from poverty to emotional breakdown — is widespread. Such worldviews prioritise doing and stigmatise idleness, confining it to sanctioned, scheduled, hard-won breaks such as weekends or summer holidays. Nowadays even those moments are easily subsumed into unpaid labour by pervasive communication technologies and compulsive consumption.

Today’s capitalism (…) is craving for the artist work ethics. For the artist, work is not a means to an end; to make art is to be an artist, or to work is to be. This work ethics is a very profitable strategy: if you can make people believe in this mantra, they will beg for work, compete for work, and fight for work. (…) To work is to be. To be lazy is not to be. And we keep on believing it. — Petra Van Brabandt

None of this is new, yet substantial alternatives seem few and far between. We hear about post-growth economics, new labour movements, work-life balance gurus and techno-optimists forecasting an automated future with more time for leisure. Whether through a 38, 21 or 4 hour working week, unconditional basic income or ubiquitous automation, we should in theory be moving towards an era where stress and overwork are things of the past. However, studies from such organisations as the European Observatory of Working Life or the American Institute of Stress (AIS) have shown that work-related stress is increasing. For the majority of the world population, social and economic trends in working life are pulling in opposite directions. For some, long working hours and (self-)exploitation are the order of the day; others are left with nothing but persistent unemployment and stagnant economies.

Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever. — Bertrand Russell

The cultural sector is by no means immune to this malaise. In contrast to the popular belief that artists enjoy fame, luxury and bohemian lifestyles (or are otherwise lazing around in obscurity at taxpayers’ expense), the cultural sector is also riddled with stress-related illnesses such as burn-out, depression, chronic pain (physical or mental), and other disorders. Yet the field of the arts — inasmuch as it is defined by the creative process at its core— could be the most natural starting point for finding alternatives to an unsustainable status quo. This field has the potential to serve as a neutral zone where ideas can be prototyped, first as artistic or speculative designs, then as real-life labs implemented and evaluated in the wild, where the ultimate creative act becomes the radical redesign of everyday life. Aimless wandering, meandering, pondering, meditating and other contemplative practices are conducive to mental states in which the creative and unexpected tend to emerge. In a world riven with paradoxical tensions and crises, the need for such creative detours is not a luxury but a necessity.

Changing societal worldviews cannot be achieved by treating them as themes in artistic works alone. They must become a part of our practice. How can artists and arts organisations develop alternative models and worldviews, not just by what we do, but how we do it?

The uses of idleness

Lying fallow (…) consists of a peculiar mixture of passivity and activity, directed towards the outside world, while at the same time being directionless, aimless, and embraced with abandon; it is characterised by openness, availability, alertness and attention which renounces the impulse to control or change things (…) It is an active/passive attitude that concentrates on emptiness and decomposition, enabling it to be open to the fullness of the moment, the here and now (…) Lying fallow is a fertile ground for inspiration and creativity. Just when you are no longer fixed on the result, when your will is temporarily switched off and your consciousness left free to roam, then inspiration can arise from deep within, as a gift and an aptitude, and the ideas can begin to stream. — Ton Lemaire

Fallow land plays an important role in agriculture. Land that is farmed intensively requires regular crop rotation and periods without cultivation to maintain or replenish its fertility. Natural farmers and permaculture gardeners create interdependent plant guilds which self-regulate following seasonal rhythms of growth and stagnation. What if we, as individuals and organisations, designed our working routines to include such fallow periods? If we followed cycles of fertility, growth and renewal? Imagine explicitly creating space for open exploration without having a specific goal. How would it feel to spend time observing and responding to our environment, being able to follow unexpected inspiration and gather insights from any direction?

Within such fallow periods we might replenish our energy, broaden our awareness, learn new skills and cultivate more fertile ground for further meaningful experiences. But lying fallow is not an end in itself; it is an essential phase in a longer creative cycle. Over the course of this cycle, the fallow ground provides a valuable source of ideas and energy when it comes to the active periods of experimentation and production. How long such a cycle lasts depends on the people involved and their circumstances. It can span days, months or years. It might include a combination of shorter cycles of expansion and contraction, of inwardly or outwardly focused activities. The cycles might be internally driven by available resources, or directly linked to seasonal changes, the rotation of the Earth, hours of daylight and darkness. The important difference to established ways of working is that the fallow periods are included as part of the work: and respected and compensated as such. They are acknowledged and embraced rather than shunned as a weakness or waste. A prominent example is the design studio Sagmeister and Walsh, well known for closing their studio for a year every seven years to go on sabbatical. “Everything that we designed in the seven years following the first sabbatical had its roots in thinking done during that sabbatical.”

In futures studies, the practice of horizon scanning is commonly used for observing emerging trends and contextualising weak signals. Many futurists make broad, open-minded observation a part of their daily work, which ideally develops an aptitude for insight and foresight. This provides a rich source of information to draw upon in their projects. In the world of gastronomy, such renowned chefs as René Redzepi and Ferran Adria consider periods of research, fieldwork and documentation essential. El Bulli for example was open for guests six months a year, with the other six months dedicated to exploration of ingredients, new ideas and methods.

Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all these things that make life worth living. — Nassim Nicholas Taleb

From another perspective, lying fallow is an essential component of energy use and conservation. According to the principles of permaculture, a resilient system divides its energy into three: one third for itself, one third for the smaller elements that depend on it, and one third for the larger context in which it exists. Translating this energy model to the creative cycle, a fallow period replenishes energy, inspiration and motivation for an artist, studio or organisation; the experimental or production phase provides resources for all those involved in the work; while the presentation and exchange of works, skills and knowledge feeds the creative sector and a wider public.

Imagine an arts centre where everyone divides their work energy into three. One part of their energy they allocate to working with the artists, designing artistic programmes and ensuring the organisation runs smoothly. The second third is devoted to connecting with other organisations and audiences, policy makers, philanthropists or wider social movements. The third part is dedicated to following individual pursuits, such as writing, learning new software, cultivating the centre’s rooftop garden, or anything else that stimulates personal development. A dynamic balance needs to be maintained in this energy distribution, with the system moving from one state to another depending on both internal and external demands.

At FoAM in Brussels, we have been experimenting with different working rhythms at individual and organisational scales. As a transdisciplinary lab for speculative culture, we focus on prototyping possible futures as artistic experiments. We translate theoretical reflections into practice, usually as immersive experiences, participatory workshops or interactive environments. Since 2013 we have formalised some of these experiments in “Doing Nothing”, a practice-based research programme that explores how to create spaces and moments of stillness and contemplation — from short rituals (e.g. tending to plants before checking email) to silent walks or lucid dreaming workshops. What all these experiments have in common is a certain simplicity, apparently straightforward on the face of it, but often requiring steady attention, dedication and commitment.

I have often wondered whether especially those days when we are forced to remain idle are not precisely the days spent in the most profound activity. Whether our actions themselves, even if they do not take place until later, are nothing more than the last reverberations of a vast movement that occurs within us during idle days. In any case, it is very important to be idle with confidence, with devotion, possibly even with joy. The days when even our hands do not stir are so exceptionally quiet that it is hardly possible to raise them without hearing a whole lot. — Rainer Maria Rilke

Transitions and transiencies

We live in a time of transition from a flawed (yet known) state into the unknown, with no proven models to ensure thriveability in the near future. The only thing we know for sure is that many things we may once have thought of as stable are melting like icebergs, making a long period of transition almost inevitable. Preparing for this uncertain transition may sound paradoxical, yet we might need exactly this mindset to face contemporary global turbulences such as climate change, global weirding, and the economic and social crises that promise to further destabilise our best-laid plans. In a transition certainties disappear; thus preparing for uncertainty is the one certain action we can take…

Inhabiting uncertainty can be seen as a counterpoint to strategy, which tends to focus on risk assessment and careful adherence to a plan. However, inhabiting uncertainty does not imply indecision, nor does it eliminate the need for planning and analysis. Instead, it offers different types of adaptive, real-time and experiential decision making processes. Knowing what to change and what to keep hold of is key. What is the essence of our work, what are the minimum resources required? What are we doing that could we done with less? How can we manage more? What produces the most joy, the clearest results, the most desirable outcomes? What unsustainable or counter-productive ideas are we clinging to? How do we redesign our practices to make them stronger through adversity? Where else can we look for inspiration?

Sustainable progress, material success and outstanding accomplishments, like deep insights, often come unexpectedly and “on the rebound” so to speak; apparently aimless and “purposeless” exploration or action can be surprisingly productive in terms of tangible outcomes. Like the unexpected and unplanned emergence of the phenomena of language, money, medieval cities and modern civil societies, many major social and commercial accomplishments have been realised not because of any direct, planned activity but because of the cumulative sustained efforts of a multitude of people going about their work diligently without any awareness of their possible contribution to the greater scheme of things. — Robert Chia

We don’t have to look far to find ways of dealing with uncertainty; the creative process itself thrives in the unknown. If we see our practice, collaborations and ways of working as creative experiments themselves, we can inhabit uncertainty and live through challenging times with curiosity and imagination.

At FoAM we provide space to explore transitions in our long-form residency programme, macrotransiencies. “Transients” (as opposed to residents) are people undergoing a major transition in their lives, such as an illness, emigration, or change of career. We support them to consciously engage with their transition for anywhere between six months to a year. Similar to a rite of passage, a transiency includes periods of separation, liminality, and incorporation. It begins with acknowledging what conditions have led to the present and creating necessary distance from the past. The most challenging and confusing part is often the liminal period, when transients exist between two states: transition and transformation. This is where spending time in an arts laboratory reaps its benefits. Our experience with experimentation and emergence, which characterises both transitions and creative processes, enables us to offer methods and situations to explore the unknown. Finally, during the stage of incorporation, we help transients to re-enter the world, renewed and more confident with their new abilities and identities.

Barbara Raes began her transiency at FoAM in 2014 during a period that she described as “the time when the abyss between your own deep beliefs and the survival strategies in your daily practice became too deep”. She conceived her transiency as “a quest for a possible future for myself, for a changing world and for myself in the changing world”. She began by shedding her skin as an artistic director (“Barbara comma title”) to getting to know herself without a job title (“Barbara comma nothing”), then gradually taking on a new identity as she immersed herself in researching parting rituals for unrecognised loss — from rituals for miscarried children to observances for mastectomy patients. We supported Barbara using a range of techniques including transdisciplinary coaching and experiential futures, as well as providing a space to inquire and prototype what her life might be like after the transiency.

We are currently designing a transiency for FoAM itself. We began by looking back with the thought of celebrating, harvesting and reflecting on our work over the last 15 years. By deciding what is worth pursuing further, we can also respectfully lay to rest — or gleefully abandon — old material. In 2016 we will move into our liminal phase, characterised by openness and emergence. Our predefined commitments have been reduced to a minimum, providing sufficient stability, but also enough space to pursue things that “there isn’t time for”, to explore the unknown and embrace the unexpected.

One of the key explorations during this period will be alternative economic and operational models for FoAM. While FoAM has been structurally funded as an artistic laboratory since 2006, we recently took a decision not to apply for further structural subsidies. Since the application would need to be submitted before our fallow period, we could not in good conscience design a five-year strategy following a funding model and organisational structure that we currently find unsustainable. Instead, we intend to take time to research and experiment with different directions and possibilities. With appropriate resources, experience with the cycle of feast and famine, creative improvisation and the distributed social capital we have accrued over the years, we are confident that we will continue to endure into the future, albeit in a rather different form.

Dispelling the myths

Transitions and lying fallow require shifts of speed and perspective, consciously exploring an extended sense of the here and now. This directly challenges the perception of urgency that many of us face on a daily basis, and is therefore often met with skepticism.

The most common objections relate to financial viability, lack of quantifiable outcomes, and incompatibility with existing plans or schedules. The concern that is easiest to address (yet may still take time) is the difficulty of planning for sabbaticals or periods of nothing since there is too much going on, or there are opportunities that might be missed.

Scheduling down-time and monotasking can help help with both long and short term idleness. Neuroscientists and psychologists suggest that monotasking (or sustained focus on a single activity) is not only beneficial for an individual’s wellbeing, but can also increase focus, effectiveness and creativity. Monotasking can enable shorter, more concentrated periods of work, and opens up space for lying fallow. When planning a day, week, month or year, add slack or idle time in the agenda as you would an activity and ensure it’s sufficient. Longer periods (e.g. a one-year sabbatical) may require more planning. Plan roughly the same duration in advance (i.e. one year ahead for a one-year sabbatical) and let any of your clients, venues, collaborators or staff know how the plan affects them. Don’t take on new work that encroaches into the period; don’t commit to work during the period.

The suggestion that lying fallow amounts to woolly research with no real results emerges from the short-termism plaguing not just the creative sector but society as a whole. Lying fallow can only be realistically assessed as part of a longer process, where its effects become evident through an improved quality of work, better decision-making, or heightened energy levels. The process of exploration can (and should) be recorded and shared: this documentation can be considered a tangible result, as would the seeds of any ideas that emerge during such periods. For example, one of FoAM’s transients, the biotechnologist Michka Mélo, meticulously documented the process of his transiency online, publishing how-to articles, references, personal reflections, future scenarios and anecdotes. While he did not begin with a clear goal or list of outcomes in mind, his open exploration created a valuable resource for others exploring similar questions, and clarified his own thinking about his transition.

The concern that downtime is a costly extravagance that can’t pay for itself has also been shown to be incorrect when studied over the long term. Research from business, academia, design and other fields has shown that periods of idleness and open exploration improves the quality of work, increases productivity and thus also financial gain. Sagmeister noted in an interview that their studio can charge higher prices because the quality of their work improved after a sabbatical. During the 1970s, scientists Art Fry and Spencer Silver developed the widely-used Post-it notes during their 15 percent time at 3M, where employees are paid to “chase rainbows and hatch their own ideas”. More recently, companies such as Pixar, Google, Twitter and Facebook claim to have incorporated time for tinkering and contemplative practices as an essential part of their way of working. If such financially driven entities can appreciate the economic benefits of these practices, we can put to rest monetary objections to such activities in the cultural sector.

Why culture?

While Google declared that almost half of their products originated in the 20% time employees have for self-guided exploration, this doesn’t change some of the underlying problems of the growth economy. It treats the symptoms rather than causes of an unsustainable status quo. In the cultural sector we have the opportunity to dig deeper than that, yet too often we only address these issues as themes while conducting our own “business as usual”. In our downtime, rather than inventing new products, we could be exploring alternative worldviews and translating them into practice. We could use periods of lying fallow to experiment with working in different ways. We should embody our cultural visions in everything we do, from the artworks we make to the food we eat and the relationships we develop. To bring about meaningful change we must acknowledge that it will take time, effort and reflection, that we do not have all the answers, that there are no simple solutions to lead us out of the current mess. But that doesn’t mean we can give up either.

We can lead by example, one person or organisation at a time. We can establish wider support networks from the bottom-up, through informal exchanges and bundling of initiatives. We can create policies to enable time and space for fully embracing personal, organisational and social transitions. We must cultivate the mindsets and behaviours needed to live in postnormal times by tending to our field from the grassroots, and preparing for adversity without surrendering hope.


Photos: Nik Gaffney. Illustration: Theun Karelse

A Dutch version of this article, translated by Lies Declerck, was published in the December 2015 issue of Rekto:Verso

Thanks to Alkan Chipperfield for proofreading and Barbara Raes for supporting the process.

References & Reading

Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability. Hepburn Springs: Holmgren Design Services

Lemaire, T. (2013). Verre Velden: Essays en excursies 1995–2012. Amsterdam: Ambo.

Mason, P. (2015). PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. London: Allen Lane.

Morton, T (2009). Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Russell, B. (2004). In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays. London and New York: Routledge Classics.

Taleb, N. N. (2012). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House.

The Dark Mountain Manifesto.

The Idler Quarterly.