Interview with Irini Papadimitriou, Creative Director, FutureEverything by Majken Overgaard & Nicklas Larsen
‘I see art-led futures thinking as a form for gentle activism’
Irini Papadimitriou has made a career as a leading curator and cultural creator with vast expertise across museums, art juries, and festivals like Ars Electronica. She draws on interdisciplinary and critical discourse to explore the impact of technology in society and culture, as well as the role of art in helping us engage with contemporary and future issues. We met with her to learn about her curatorial practice, from the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London to Future-Everything, an innovation lab that uses art and participatory experiences as a lens to explore new ideas for the future.
Looking back at your decade at the V&A, what has been the most memorable?
It has to be the initiation of the Digital Design Weekend, which started as an experiment in 2010 and is still going strong today. It started out by bringing different artists who use digital technologies together for an interdisciplinary weekend to address contemporary human challenges. Fast forward to pre-pandemic times, it had more than 25,000 visitors during the weekend taking over the V&A with interactive installations, robotics, performances, workshops, talks, labs, and family-friendly events that provide an accessible platform for new conversations.
How has it been to shift from the more classic art institution to FutureEverything, an agency that operates without walls across many domains?
You don’t have to be in a building to run into the obstacle of walls. Operating without a box, so to speak, doesn’t mean that it’s easier. A box tells you what realm you’re in, but it also often confines you to continue to do what has always been done. Today, I am lucky to work with a team in a very collaborative and open R&D approach, where we continuously learn and build connections with communities. Recent projects include You and AI in Athens, or Future Libraries in Manchester.
How do you see the combination of art and technology as a lens to possible futures?
Both technology and art can be quite alienating and intimidating for many people, so for me it’s about turning it around, demystifying these worlds, to enable people to critically explore and ask questions about what is happening around them. I find that it can be less daunting through art if it is presented in an accessible way for people to take part. In that sense, I believe that art and design can open doors to places that might otherwise be difficult for people to enter, such as what the future might look like. There’s a quote by Olivia Laing who wrote the book Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency that I like: ‘We’re so often told that art can’t really change anything. But I think it can. It shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility. It makes plain inequalities, and it offers other ways of living.’
How can we leverage the transformative role of art in non-art domains?
By introducing art to spaces where you people don’t expect to find it. And I don’t mean taking an installation to introduce it in a foreign place like an alien. It’s about the conversations that art can initiate in atypical places. When we work with local authorities or the tech industry to explore how AI and algorithms are making decisions about us, who has the power to drive these technologies, who is excluded and whose lives are impacted, then we use art to deconstruct these ideas to help people think differently.
Can you give a few examples?
This place [of mine] is a recent project we developed at FutureEverything with young adults in Greater Manchester. The project gave them space to reimagine their surroundings through art and amplified their voices, so that urban planners could get a better understanding of what is important across the urban fabric. And as mentioned, in Greece I recently curated an exhibition called You and AI, which pretty much took over a public garden with 25 AI artworks to facilitate conversations about the impact of algorithms in the public space and how AI shapes society.
How was that a way to imagine more inclusive and ethical futures through art?
Let’s be honest, many find that art can be quite elitist, and technology too. So, for the domains to become more inclusive, we need to encourage participation and give people space to use their voice and creativity to imagine and articulate different futures. By taking a step back to look at the bigger picture rather than just being in our own bubble, we often see that there are many realities, just as there are many futures.
How can futures thinking play an active part in everyone’s lives?
People need to be better at asking questions. We often don’t interrogate what’s happening around us because things happened in a certain way in the past. This includes realising that the future we might want is not necessarily what we are being fed by a very small group of powerful people. Futures thinking holds the power to foster greater agency as soon as we realise that it is possible to play a role in shaping the future and getting one step closer to where one wants to be. I see art as a way to craft ideas of the future with the public, and in that sense, I see art-led futures thinking as a form for gentle activism.
How do you see futures shaping art, and art shaping futures?
Artists have always either depicted futures or presented us with different worlds, narratives, and perspectives in their work. From Thomas More’s Utopia to the apocalyptic worlds in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, or William Heath’s satirical illustrations of technological progress in the early 19th century in March of Intellect, artists have long been interrogating ideas about potential futures. Art questions our obsessions with futurism, while also predicting and inventing new future ideas. Artists, through their work, remind us how our actions in the present affect future generations in a similar way that current issues or injustices continue from past events. I guess thinking about futures, one would assume positive change, but in challenging times like this it’s hard to imagine futures that are better from where we are, so I feel we need art and artists to help us see ways to envision and re-imagine positive futures again. I always think of Agnes Denes’ Tree Mountain as a beautiful example of work created to benefit future generations rather than the people who actually put the care and labour into it.