Imagining future scenarios — participatory arts at Meaning 2017

Theatre-maker, academic and collaborator Zoë Svendsen brings her work-in-progress to Meaning for a participatory arts program set to frame the entire day.

Zoë Svendsen is due to take business conference Meaning to unprecedented places this year; framing the event with an experimental public dialogue and day-long ‘durational artwork’ that will invite the entire community to engage. As an artist who is also so fundamentally a collaborator; it’s clear that Zoë’s contribution to Meaning means more than a day of facilitation to her — it also forms the core part of her artistic practice.

The highlight of Zoë’s contribution will be a research-in-public conversation with the dissident economist and bestselling author of Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth. Together they will explore the question:

‘What is the best possible economic structure for responding to climate change?’

The work is part of an ongoing project on the “rehearsal of future scenarios”, one that Zoë has been practising in the form of ‘cafe conversations’ with economists Ha-Joon Chang, Paul Mason and Frances Coppola (among others) in the run up to an immersive piece due to premiere at the Barbican in September 2018. She is due to spend valuable time in Brighton next month to develop the concept, at a week long residency at the Attenborough Centre of Creative Arts.

With her public conversation with Kate Raworth serving as a catalyst, Zoë’s collaborative artwork will expand into a Meaning-wide dialogue; where the entire community is invited to engage throughout the day with the discoveries they are making. After appearing on the main stage in the morning, she will host an ongoing conversation through postcard ‘provocations’ in the Brighton Dome cafe-bar; before inviting conference participants to an open workshop on “imagining future scenarios”.

“The ‘provocations’ are invitations to people to think deeply about something. I’m really fascinated by slogans and the way they say everything and nothing at the same time. Over the past year they’ve become increasingly ubiquitous, and some are definitely much more effective than others: “Take back control” is a very effective slogan, whereas “strong and stable leadership” is a totally inoperative one! It backfired spectacularly.

If this is the world as it is and it’s unsatisfying, what do we do instead? We generate a series of provocations to invite thinking on that, which is actually — brilliantly — exactly what Meaning as a conference is doing. This is why my project is called I KNOW NOT WHAT WE MAY BE — it’s a quote from Ophelia in Hamlet who says “we know what we are, but know not what we may be”. It seems to me to speak to that problem: how we change.”

Zoë is now coming to the end of a networked residency on future scenarios — a year spent exploring economic alternatives in the context of climate change. She is quick to note that climate change is the context and not the explicit topic of her work, it’s “the occasion in which we are all operating”. Zoë is attempting something much bigger than a discussion of climate change: the presentation, “rehearsal” and imaginative leap into alternative systems, while asking how we can apply the experience to our own life and work.

The practice she has developed to achieve this sees her employing disruptive theatrical techniques to “jolt” participants out of their habitual ways of thinking. Like many of us at Meaning, Zoë believes that the rapidly shifting state of global politics, and fragmentation of the ‘old guard’ of economics has only increased our imaginative possibilities:

“There have been shifts since Trump and Brexit, and now, already, we are shifting in a different direction with Corbyn. It’s really interesting and provocative for thinking about what the future is. You tend to presume a stable first presence from which to imagine different possible futures, but suddenly the future becomes very short term in the sense that the unknown is next week rather than in an unspecified ‘future.’

There’s a great line in the Labour manifesto: “it doesn’t have to be like this”. It’s a reaction against that attitude of realism that says “be realistic, there isn’t any alternative”. Well, that’s just a myth — that’s just not true. One of my postcards says “get real” and I really love it because that is the thing that people tell you — that you’re being unrealistic or utopian or whatever. But if you look at the words “get real” in the context of climate change it means something completely different — so get off your arse and do something about it! I like re-configuring capitalist slogans in the context of climate change — they come to mean very different things!”

Zoë is best known for her 2016 participatory theatre piece World Factory, an elaborate ‘world’ of conditions that aimed to replicate the mindset of a Chinese factory manager. The project was an enormous task involving the replication of an entire system of limitations; built up through binary choices involving a colossal 15,000 pieces of information. What can be learnt from the piece is not only dramatic; but actually approaches a social experiment — one that Paul Mason (now one of Zoë’s collaborators) describes as “how to turn a liberal hipster into a capitalist tyrant in one evening”. The experiment was in fact somewhat less than an evening — each participatory performance took place over the course of an hour — and even then, not a single person played the ‘ethical’ routes embedded in the game; always choosing their factory’s survival over the risk of bankruptcy.

World Factory, 2016

“I wanted to look at the system rather than any individual — and try to invite people to understand the conditions under which these decisions are made rather than judge necessarily those individual decisions as though they were made in complete freedom. It’s easy to judge other people as evil; it’s much harder to make those decisions for yourself.

One of the things I’ve done in my academic life as well as my theatrical life, is to think about the conditions of making work — the pragmatic, social, economic and philosophical conditions. They determine how the aesthetic emerges. Because they are never distinct. They are always treated as distinct but that’s not really the case.”

During a wide-ranging discussion of Zoë’s ongoing projects, I came to feel that her most potent tool for systems change is actually to be found in her skill at ‘system replication’. Whether creating a 15,000 piece theatrical game or a workshop space of ‘provocations’, her practice is to bring the participant into a different world — an act that is as creative and empathic as it is complex and logical. Zoë’s projects are much more than ‘systems change’ research — like any good disruptor, she is turning these techniques back towards the world of theatre itself:

“We’ve been investigating a provocation that theatre needs to change its structures as well! How do we represent ourselves — our changing selves? Especially in light of new communication technologies and so on; it’s unusual to be in the same place at the same time, concentrating on the same thing. So, the theatre takes on a different character. Some people take that to mean that theatre is dead, over, or it’s going to die out; but I think the opposite, which is that it becomes a more and more special experience. And you can see that in the rise in popularity of live music performances — the more digitally available music becomes, the more popular live performances. The same is the case with theatre — we hanker after being focused on the same thing at the same time in the same place — it’s a profound need. But instead of theatre replicating a public space or replicating other ways of doing things in life, it becomes something very different to everyday life.”

Bringing a performance artist into the business world is often seen as an attempt to bring two disparate worlds together — itself a sign, perhaps, of the perceived divisions that inform what we know as ‘business’. It is a task for expert curation to find a way to make it effortless — especially in terms of emboldening those guests who might not be as at ease in a ‘performance’ space. With Zoë’s program— and especially in the context of guest director Mark Stevenson’s ease in transitioning between arts and business — I am convinced that Meaning is on the verge of realising its best formula yet.


You can meet Zoë Svendsen at Meaning conference in Brighton, UK on 16 November 2017 — where she will join a line-up of diverse speakers exploring the role of business in creating a more sustainable, equitable and humane world. Find out more via the event website.