Liberated from the Space-Ships: Change Strikes Back
by Anna Czapski & Diederik Peeters.
This text is one of the many reflection bursts that sprouts from The Futurology of Cooperation, a research trajectory carried by Anna Czapski & Diederik Peeters. They wrote this text last June, coming out of the lockdown. Today, we think it’s worth revisiting.
Several years ago, reading some novels by Ursula Le Guinn, we discovered a version of science-fiction that was liberated from the space-ships, aliens and laser-guns that we thought were intrinsic to it. The genre revealed itself as a place where alternatives were developed, other ways of being together could be examined, and different societies imagined.
Le Guinn once said: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. But so did the Divine Right of Kings.” That simple thought felt so much more empowering than the killer argument that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”
In his book ‘Capitalist Realism’ Mark Fisher points out a crisis of imagination. He explains how since the eighties, with their strong liberal offensive, our imagination has been compressed and limited by the way capitalism operates on our psyche. The sixties and seventies created a social and cultural mindset which attributed a certain level of plasticity to reality, and fuelled the active search for new ways of life and new rules for society. But this plasticity was frozen by austerity policies, and our minds and hopes locked-in by the eternal mantra that “there is no alternative”. The space for imagination deflated, and reality went from something adaptable, to something we have to adapt to.
And so we decided to organise a training camp for our imagination.
Born from a desire to sharpen our appetite for alternate possibilities and our competence to imagine them, we wanted this training camp to equip our imagination with concrete and existing tools, to invent new ones, and to share them with others. We wanted to learn how to train the muscle of speculative imagination, and to rediscover the plasticity of reality. Unburdened by too much modesty, we simply wanted to learn how to imagine new societies.
We put together a team* and the research trajectory ‘The Futurology of Cooperation’ was born. Early last year, we invited Maja Kuzmanovic and Rasa Alksnyte from FoAM to kick off the trajectory. They introduced us to the Art of Futuring and to some of the basic tools and techniques of ‘future-crafting’.
One of the methods that immediately tickled our imagination was that of the ‘pre-enactment’. In short, a pre-enactment is an experimental situation set up in real life, where certain aspects of an imagined future are simulated and tested by a group of participants. A specific context and new rules of behaviour are agreed upon, and then played out by the participants, to see what it provokes in them. Participants don’t take on the role of a (fictional) character, but simply place themselves in this unfamiliar (and sometimes uncomfortable) scenario and observe what happens. A pre-enactment is an up-close-and-personal, embodied form of futuring. It reveals behaviours, intuitions, emotions and collective patterns, that are likely to be overlooked in purely cerebral or theoretical methods. These pre-enactments interest us as they blur the line between performance and real life, and between dream and reality. They interest us as prototyping experiences, and as preparatory acts for transformation.
When lockdown was announced, we just came out of a dense series of workshops in several art schools in Brussels and Gent. With students and collaborators, we had invented several possible futures and tried to test them in as many pre-enactments. Unsurprisingly the first few days of lockdown were rather disorienting, because it felt as if we had ended up in yet another pre-enactment, this time on a much larger (global) scale. All the ingredients of the pre-enactment as we got to know it were present: different but very clear rules of behaviour, incorporated into reality, and none of the participants pretending to be in character but faithfully remaining themselves in a new context...
But if this lockdown was indeed a massive pre-enactment, then what exactly was it a pre-enactment of? What aspects of what imagined future precisely were we simulating and trying to test?
The simulation of a world where we’re not allowed to leave our homes but have to keep on working and do home-schooling for our kids on top?
The simulation of structural inequalities in society blown up to the extreme?
The simulation of stopping or slowing down consumption? Of having less traffic in our streets and in the sky?
The simulation of burying our dead without ritual and without farewell?
The simulation of nature and animals regaining some territory?
The simulation of the urgent collective need for one very specific object that is impossible to produce anywhere in Europe?
The simulation of not being able to see friends and family? Of deprivation of bodies, relationships and space?
The simulation of confronting the harsh consequences of austerity policies in care and hospitals?
The simulation of trying not to get sick?
The simulation of being collectively obsessed by a single graph?
The simulation of having our states ran by virologists instead of politicians?
The simulation of total obedience?
Four months later, as we’re strolling in a park in Brussels amidst the over-excited buzz of people being allowed out again, we’re still wondering what that pre-enactment called lockdown was about exactly. Looking around at everyone chatting and laughing away, as agitated as we are, one thing seems clear. This time we’re part of a massive re-enactment, rather than a pre-enactment. It’s the re-enactment of life as it used to be.
Maybe, as some have argued, lock-down didn’t last long enough. To us it seems like we missed out on a crucial element of the pre-enactment methodology. In our training-camp, we learned that after every pre-enactment, a moment of decompression is needed, and a debrief – both individually and collectively. With the other participants of the exercise, we share the new knowledge that was produced in this place, the knowledge that went through our bodies, emotions and reasoning. And we let that knowledge nourish and transform our acts and our behaviour in the present. Informed by our experiences we can continue imagining, and design a new pre-enactment.
If these simulations have sometimes damaged or disturbed our bodies and affects, they have also given us back what capitalism tried in vain to erase: the consciousness that we can do things differently, and change our behaviour radically. Individually and collectively. From one day to the next.
The crazy machines of consumption and traffic were stopped in their devastating pace. Pollution dropped overnight and with it, respiratory diseases and allergies (if we would practice the related daily death counts, even Land-Rover's most fervent fetishists would denounce their car-driving neighbours calling them murderers). The animals moved closer to the trails and the sharing of territories rebalanced in their favour, for the happiness (and health) of all. We shared the practical experience and the benefits of suspending the motors of extraction and extermination.
Everyday life was plagued by the deprivation of space and other bodies. Structural exploitation and inequality became so visible and tangible that it was on almost everyone's lips. We bumped into our mirror screens while sedating ourselves with electronic simulacrum. And the hope for a radical, brutal and definitive change of rules and of behaviour, was swelling like a third lung.
Because everything was different: worse and sometimes a bit better, but different.
1. Imagine a world based on 2 drivers of change (apparent in the previous pre-enactment)
«You open the door to your bedroom. Your partner is nervously preparing the oversized bed for an important video-conference and throws a tense look at you. You open the wardrobe, stuffed with bathrobes instead of pants, shirts and dresses, and you quickly pick the bathrobe that you will wear today. But you’re too slow, because your partner really gets annoyed now and snaps at you. That meeting is about to start! You are chased out of the bedroom. Only now you see that the bathrobe you picked is full of coffee-stains from an accident yesterday. Impossible to disturb your partner’s video-meeting, so you will have to do groceries like that. And as you move through your apartment, you try to remember what it was like in the old days, when bathrobes weren’t obligatory outside the house yet. You walk into the living room. Today it’s your turn to do home-schooling, but you also promised the Yucca-plant in the living room to spend some quality-time together, and in two hours time, you have a deadline for work. You turn on the radio, because on the Federal Children’s Channel, the daily obligatory Forgiveness-Meditation has already started. The voice of the Federal Schoolteacher guides the kids to meditate on Unconditional Love and Forgiveness, but it’s clear that your kids can’t concentrate today. Instead, they insist on fiddling with the plants in the kitchen. You have already explained a million times, as empathically as possible, that it’s not allowed to tear out leafs, because it kills the plants. You try to make them concentrate on the meditation. Because if they miss another one of these daily meditations, they will get reprimanded, and their empathy-score will go down. Care! In the corner of your eye you notice your Yucca-plant sulking because you’re not giving it attention. You will have to take some time to make up for your neglect sometime later today...»
2. Prepare a life-size experience simulating one or several aspects of this world
3. Evaluate the experience and change behaviour in everyday life, alone or collectively
4. Repeat steps 1 to 3
Anna Czapski & Diederik Peeters are affiliated as artistic researchers to KASK & Conservatorium, the School of Arts of HOGENT and howest. The research project The Futurology of Cooperation is financed by the HOGENT Arts Research Fund.
*The team : Anna Czapski & Diederik Peeters with Hans Bryssinck, Adva Zakai, Heike Langsdorf, OSP (Sarah Magnan, Pierre Huyghebaert), Mathilde Maillard – with the precious help and motivation of Maja Kuzmanovic, Rasa Alksnyte, Emmanuelle Wattier, Martin Boutry, Anna Rispoli, Marine Thévenet, Vincent Lebour – and special thanks to all the students at KASK, P.A.R.T.S. and ESA Saint-Luc Bruxelles – and also thanks to SPIN & L’Amicale - with the support of Région Hauts de France & Vlaamse Gemeenschap