Blog post June 2017

Blog post June 2017



Over the past six months I’ve held ‘research-in-public’ events every few weeks – and the final one will be on 5th July (details below), when I’ll be launching my ‘manifesto for research in public’. These conversation have provided extraordinary pulses of energy through the residency – with every event I’ve asked the same initial question, and then my interviewee has taken me and those who have gathered to listen and question – I hesitate to say audience, because the people who have gathered at these events have been a group gathered to a short spurt of collective co-thinking. I have been enlightened and excited by questions emerging that I wouldn’t have thought to ask, and that through the process of these events being small-scale public (ranging in size from around 6 people to around 50), each has built a mini-network of its own.


Each discussion produced a rich network of thoughts that influences my response to the next set of questions, and in the past months have more directly fed into the development of a performance work that will be produced by Artsadmin at the Barbican in September 2018. Entitled WE KNOW NOT WHAT WE MAY BE, it will gather the expertise encountered in these conversations to coproduce a vision of what it might feel like to live in an alternative economic structure – in response to, and under conditions of, climate change.

The feeling that time is running out has only intensified over the course of the residency – a rollercoaster of hope and despair, as the present vied with the future for the prize for utter uncertainty. How to make a project exploring future scenarios when the present is so full of variability? The rollercoaster of entwined strands of political events shifting the social, economic and climate territories kept changing the lens. There was the backbeat of the ratification of the Paris Agreement by almost every signatory, only for Trump to renege, only for corporations and whole US states to declare their aim to comply regardless – implying there might be a route to carbon reduction that is beyond the national. Nevertheless the English/Welsh vote to leave the European Union has put in jeopardy social and environmental rights, whilst Trump’s ascendancy to the White House has brought a number of significant climate deniers to the forefront of power. Throughout 2016 global climate temperature records were broken, again, whilst the Arctic melt accelerated beyond all expectation – in November, perhaps weeping at Trump, the ice actually started to remelt – whilst the Global Seed Vault, designed to preserve seeds of every kind forever in completely secure surroundings, in deep rock in the Arctic, was flooded thanks to never-envisaged permafrost melt. You couldn’t make it up. It is a condition of being an artist in a time of seismic change – nothing we can imagine is as bizarre, telling or frightening as what is actually happening.


Perhaps this is what it really means to make art now: we need it as a source of connection, to make us feel as though we are doing something (when witnessing might be all that is possible). In despair at the incapacity of the political mainstream to act in accordance with human reason, the artists have to come out and make what should be the concern of policy makers and politicians apparent on the cultural map. But then another change took place – just a few weeks ago, a surge in support for Labour in the UK, thanks to an extraordinary manifesto that recognised that social justice and responses to climate change go hand in hand. The conditions are changed again. If this support for social justice, a rebalancing of values away from the accumulation of capital and towards the fostering of care – between people, communities and the environment – actually produces a government that enacts these values in the social and economic structure, then the challenge of WE KNOW NOT WHAT WE MAY BE will also alter… It may become less a cry in the dark and more an effort towards an actually possible future. But what conditions will the work actually take place under, by September 2018? Who knows?


What I do know is that it has been a complete pleasure to work with everyone involved in the residency – at once enabling the artists to be collaborative and autonomous, the ‘networked’ nature of the residency has been a spirited source of unconditional support and intellectual refreshment. Thus in the spirit of this project of picking up and entwining multiple strands of thought towards a rehearsal of the future, I will finish with a by quoting a fragment of a quotation (from my most recent interviewee Andrew Simms quoting Rebecca Solnit in Cancel the Apocalypse):


To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.

Rebecca Solnit.



On the 5th July, at Hot Numbers Café on Gwydir Street, Cambridge, I will be in conversation with Stephen Peake, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Technologies at the Open University. I will be presenting a sketch of a future scenario derived from all the previous café conversations and asking Stephen Peake to act as ‘respondent’ to the scenario – together we will imagine what it might be to live in that world with both intended and unintended consequences.


I hope to continue holding such conversations in public in throughout the future creation of this work – please follow @metisprojects or sign up to METIS here to follow – and perhaps even share in – the journey from here.




Future Scenarios blog post May 2017

Blogpost Mon 29 May 2017


A week in a life of thinking about future scenarios…


MONDAY 8th May

Café conversation with Ha-Joon Chang in Hot Numbers – Chang’s perspective is refreshing: optimistic, but there’s something of JG Ballard in his suggestion that political apathy is more damaging to democracy than the rants of a UKIP-er type who is still engaging with political process.

He invites the recognition that the imbalance in global equity must inform views on growth – ‘degrowth’ is necessary, but it isn’t one-size-fits all – you can’t insist someone who doesn’t have enough to eat should eat less. ‘Growth’ is only a problem when ‘needs’ have become social rather than existential. Redistribution might be a better term – enabled through three elements Chang identifies: an economy that is more high tech, more collectivist and more egalitarian – that is, one in which technology transfer from those that have the means to do research and those who have the need to apply the technologies. When Chang talks about it, it sounds self-evident, this politics of generosity, of meeting need where it needs to be met – and on the way changing the whole value structure of ‘development’ away from the materialist, individualist model promulgated by recent Western societies.


Chang’s discussion of alternative forms of finance is a reminder that climate change is not only about time running out, but that the difficulties of doing something about it are also related to time: we are now a world of finance so fast no human can keep up with the algorithms running the stock exchange; in which the average length of a share-holder staying with a company has gone down to just 6 months. This destroys the notion of the ‘enlightened individual’ – we cannot think for our children and grandchildren when the value of ‘return’ is measured in split-seconds, when no one who finances a company stays with that company long enough to engage with what it is actually producing and how it might affect the world. Here I have the start of a response to one of the questions I posed at the start of the residency: ‘Why are there so many Cassandras truth-telling, and why are those in power unable or unwilling to listen? And why don’t they care about the future of their children like I care about the future of mine?’



I go to a meeting at the University to discuss the government’s green paper on future Industrial Strategy. On first reading this document I was astonished by the lack of reference to climate change, when everything about a future industrial strategy must surely be considered in the context of the (legally, morally and scientifically) required transition to a low carbon economy. The green paper was published by BEIS which is the new government department that didn’t so much merge with the former Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) as swallow it whole. Originally there was a plan for the artists on the residency to visit DECC. How times have changed – that proposed encounter now feels like another scenario in an alternative life. Again the ‘Cassandra’ feeling resurfaces. How can it be that artists, with access to scientific, industrial, environmental, architectural, and economic expertise, can be clear that climate change is now the context for all future scenarios, industrial or otherwise, whilst those whose disciplinary backgrounds would appear more appropriate to understanding what is at stake, and further who are tasked with the actual future of the country, do not appear interested in taking it into account?



The Labour Manifesto is leaked. It is tantalising. It occurs to me that it is itself a future scenario for an alternative economic structure – one which would have a far greater possibility of addressing the technological and social changes than the current state of affairs – not least because the mantra of ‘for the many, not the few’ invites a collectivist coproduction of society, which Ha-Joon suggested on Monday was necessary for garnering an adequate response to climate change. I’ve been experimenting with the postcard format that I’m developing for summarising possible scenarios, and I decide create some around Labour’s manifesto (see @metisprojects) – I’m posting one or two a day up until election day; summarising the alternative economic structure the manifesto articulates.


In the small window between the manifesto’s publication (officially 11th May) and election day (8th June) is when this document can be seen as a future scenario. On first reading, it seems a beautiful fiction for another future – not because the recalibration of the socio-economic structure is not plausible but it seems so unlikely that Labour will win the election. But things move fast: at the time of writing, the polls are narrowing and this future scenario is (perhaps only for a brief hopeful moment), gaining traction as an actual possible future. At the moment it seems to depend significantly on the turnout of under-twenty-fives. For once the future lies in the hands of those it will affect most. I hope you recognise your power and use it.




I do a research-in-public conversation with Paul Mason at the National. A slightly different constituency of people, this audience consists of staff and artists linked to the NT. The National are developing a new environmental policy, being of a scale of institution that CAN model how to make things work differently. As with Monday’s event – and indeed all the ‘future scenario’ conversations – the questions from those who attend hugely strengthen and broaden the conversation; it is exciting to be researching with others in this kind of co-thinking space – a network of colleagues, friends and strangers.


Paul reminds us that in relation to the time of the planet’s existence – c. 4 billion years – or even the time of overall human existence (c. 250,000 years) – or even the time of industrial capitalism (250 years) – that the 25+ years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the advent of neoliberal market system across the globe, is a mere temporal flicker. That this form of capitalism should have such an exponentially detrimental effect on the environment (through the exponential increase in fossil fuel burning) is a stark image of humanity out of kilter with both itself and its surroundings. Again, the conversation turns to the unsuitability of the structures of contemporary capitalism for the future technologies required. What is intriguing is that Mason’s response also offers a kind of answer to the political and social resistance to the technological change required to drive climate mitigation. He points out that the structures of financing required and the types of energy provision that result from a serious transition to renewable energy will of themselves start to change the economic system: ‘once you do this it doesn’t feel like capitalism any more’. His examples are of the predominant use of wind power (intermittent, unpredictable), and an enormous tidal barrier that would cost billions to put in place, but then would provide energy at almost no cost (other than maintenance) for 60% of UK households for generations. This is a kind of investment in the long-term future no current private company is likely to consider: and therefore ‘the solution is not the market’. Again, this comes back to a relationship to time – part of the resistance to significant long-term change is the charge that we cannot know what will happen. This is where future scenarios come in: if we don’t know, we can model it by rehearsing it. Mason is a strong advocate for agent-based modelling, pointing out that one of the significant problems of the current US administration is that they are no longer interested in constructing and testing scenarios, relying on emotional immediacy to drive policy.



FRIDAY 12th May

My son Max likes the CBBC downloadable animation series, Go-Jetters. Each episode, the Go-jetters head to a different famous place in the world, which they then find is being ‘glitched’ by Grandmaster Glitch, who is ruining it for his own selfish purposes. After hearing some ‘funky facts’ about the place, Go-Jetters then have to work out how to save it from him. Sometimes this involves stopping him vandalising a landmark, or stealing something precious, or damaging an animal habitat (echoes of colonialism here…). But tonight we watch one about ecological damage: of the Amazon rainforest. Glitch wants to picnic, but by drying out a bit of the forest to make himself more comfortable, he upsets the ecology; ‘a delicate balance with nature where small changes can make a big difference’. I tell Max I’m going to write about it for this blog post – and he recommends we watch another one, in which Glitch dumps masses of custard in the dead sea, because having already eaten vast quantities of it he’s decided he doesn’t fancy any more so wants it out of his sight. The bottom of the sea seems the ideal space of invisibility to him. Out of sight, out of mind. ‘Dumping things is no way to treat the sea’ and ‘take your litter home with you’ the Go-Jetters tell Glitch as they gleefully extract Glitch and the massive pool of solidified custard and plunk them back on Grim HQ… Max gets the moral structure; he is five years old. Fairness appeals to kids, and it really is as simple as an 11-minute children’s animation.



I wonder how we would feel if the Go-Jetters got real and like Glitch’s custard, dumped all our plastic that is clogging the oceans back on us. I did only last just over a month collecting all the plastic we used that wasn’t recyclable (see December’s blogpost), having it all in the house, piling up, started to choke the family (so like Glitch I dumped it). I still have the plastic I did save, but just couldn’t keep adding to it. It has definitely had a lasting effect on my purchasing behaviour however. It is not only that less plastic now comes into the house, even if non-recyclable plastic does still end up coming in and out (food packaging is the worst). It is also that I have an increasingly distributed sense of ownership. I don’t have the comfortable sense that Glitch does, that when I throw the plastic away that I will no longer have to think about it. This queasiness does translate into action, eventually, and in a way that sustains more than any moral injunction. It was similar with clothing when I was making World Factory. I couldn’t keep up the moral fortitude it took to stop myself ever buying new clothes, despite the ethics. But knowing the methods of production, sooner or later it just made me feel a bit sick when I saw those clothes – I no longer had to feel particularly moral, I just didn’t want them any more. I’ve not bought any such clothes now in a long time, and I don’t think I ever really will again. The same is slowly happening with plastic. It is difficult when the culture doesn’t support such transitions – I’m not someone who defines myself through specialist purchases, so it isn’t of interest to me as a ‘lifestyle’ choice. It takes this queasiness, a personal ‘just can’t do it’ to make me change… What would the equivalent be for using fossil fuels? The fact my slightly asthmatic younger son, who is now just over one-year-old, can’t breathe properly on high pollution days? But unlike plastic or clothing, my consumer ‘power’ feels very limited when it comes to the actual air we inhale…



Future events: 


10th June: ‘research-in-public’ conversation with Frances Coppola, exploring universal basic income (2 Degrees Festival, 10th June)


5th July: final ‘research-in-public’ conversation of this residency (although they will carry on in various forms) with Stephen Peake (Open University). This will take a slightly different form in which Stephen responds to a rough sketch of a future scenario, developed from the conversations undertaken over the residency. Hot Numbers, Gwydir Street, Cambridge, 7pm. For more information please click here.





Gender analysis questionnaire – advance guidance

The questionnaire below is also available as a downloadable pdf by clicking here.


This questionnaire explores the underlying structure of the play you are directing / producing / marketing / reading, from the perspective of how it presents male and female roles. The questions focus directly on binary gender categories of ‘male’ and female’ as the questions are specifically attempting to understand something about the way these traditional categories are represented in plays and on stage. If the play (also) represents non-binary gender, please use the text boxes under the questions to give details.

The questions on the form are largely multiple choice. The questions often come in pairs, with the second part offering an option to add a description. If you are uncertain which category your play falls into it can help to add a note here. You can also use the text boxes to make notes on the question as you are trying to decide your answer.

The questions are designed such that the questionnaire shouldn’t take very long – unless you find it helpful to fill out the optional sections in greater depth, for example if the questionnaire were being used by a director to help them understand the dramaturgical structure of the play in terms of gender. There is no judgement implied by the answers – the process of gathering these thoughts is to gain a sense of patterns across many plays, rather than to judge an individual play. The questions simply aim to uncover a nuanced picture of the representation of female characters, rather than imply that there could be a ‘right’ way of representing women. There are so many considerations at work in the process of programming that gender is never going to be the sole factor. Rather this is an attempt to understand better how plays represent women in general.

Numbers of male and female characters in the opening and closing scenes?

Usually answering this question will be straightforward, but occasionally the category your play fits into may not quite fit with your overall impression of the play. For example, you might notice that technically the numbers of male and female characters on stage are the same, but that the female – or male – character(s) have/has very much the last word, or are the main focus of the scene, etc. If so, you can indicate this in the text box provided.

These notes might include observations like:

  • ‘there are more women but they say very little compared to the men’
  • ‘there are more women but a male character is at the centre of the very ending’
  • ‘the play ends with the male character having learnt something, but not the female character’ (or vice versa)
  • ‘the last scene is fairly evenly split between male and female characters, but the female character has the last word’

Which characters drive the action of the play?

Usually the characters who drive the action of the play also are its main focus. What is meant by ‘driving the action’ is when a character says or does something that changes the plot of the play, affecting other characters. More than one character might drive the action, or who the main driver is might shift – for example Lady Macbeth drives the action in the early part of Macbeth, but once the king has been murdered, it is Macbeth who drives the action.

It might be useful to add further details for this question if there is a more complicated relationship between the action of the play and the themes/ideas it wants to emphasize. For example if characters of one gender largely drive the action – but the play centres on, for example, the reflections of the characters of the other gender.

Who has more to say?

If it is possible to actually the contrasting numbers of lines spoken by the male and female characters, that can be very useful (as it may differ from our perception). If it is Shakespeare for example, the number of lines a character has can be found online by clicking here.

Otherwise a quick skim of the play, concentrating not on what characters are saying but the ratio of male to female speakers, can be useful in comparing the proportion of lines spoken by male and female characters.

The Bechdel test 

One thing that this research has made clear, is that this test is highly relevant for theatre as well as film, but that it is also interesting to consider what topics female characters are represented as talking about, and how far these reflect historic perceptions of female spheres (socially as well as theatrically).

Asking this question at all might appear to apply a value-judgement about domains/topics traditionally thought of as ‘girls jobs’ (!) (for example domestic tasks; appearance/clothes; children; organising social events), but this is not the purpose. The question rather seeks to identify how far female characters are being written as engaging with the wider world, beyond their functional roles as mothers/wives/family-supporters), when not directly engaging with men.

For more details of the Bechdel test, please click here.

Of the female roles, what proportion are roles that largely support the representation of other characters (whether male or female)?

The question is interested in what extent the female characters are defined by their functional role in relation to someone else (whether male or female). To what extent are the female characters represented primarily as servants, mothers, secretaries, wives or other roles fulfilling a support function in relation to others? Is the play largely interested in one or two characters, with female characters being brought in to express something about those central characters?

This would also include situations in which the female character exists primarily as an object of desire for a male character (eg where a female character appears to happily acquiesce to the male characters’ perception of her, and his desire for her, without having any agency of her own).

Which characters do we understand best in terms of intention, motivation and/or back-story?

This question explores the way in which the individuality of the character is represented. It is useful to look out for how much the character talks about themselves and/or the past, or shares details about their lives that are not strictly relevant to the plot. If you feel the play is fairly evenly split, please answer the multiple choice according to what gender the characters are who you feel are most clearly and detailedly depicted as individuals, and then provide details for your decision in the second part of the question.

Are any of the female characters mocked, bullied or denigrated for comic purpose, or for the purpose of illustration something about the male characters?

Please include any instances of female characters being mocked, bullied or denigrated, regardless of whether they are in order to demonstrate an attitude or the play is ‘about’ those problems. Please include in your answer any such descriptions of women who don’t actually appear as characters the play. However, if in the play the female character(s) responds to/comments on taunts or denigration (about herself or about others), or even retaliates, please make a note in the ‘further details’ below this question.

Which characters are represented as most creative and/or adventurous and/or inept? / Which characters are represented as sensible/good at organising/accepting?

These are probably the most unusual questions of this analysis. They emerged from research done on a wide variety of plays in which certain qualities were naturalized according to gender. This is certainly a reflection of the different kinds of social roles that actually exist, and therefore, again, articulating these representations should not be taken as a value judgement. However, it is interesting to examine how many plays reflect these largely unconscious social norms.

The terms ‘accepting’ and ‘inept’ might need some clarification. Being inept might be represented in a wide variety of ways – at root is perhaps the representation of an inability to self-organise. By ‘accepting’ is meant the quality that allows conformity to a situation, a state of affairs, even where it isn’t in the individual’s own interest (they might do it for the sake of others, for example).

No words to describe any of the qualities mentioned in these questions come without some degree of value-judgement – but the attempt is to make them as neutral as possible. Both have postives and negatives. The first set of qualities arguably are more likely to be represented in drama, as they are more likely to produce conflict and change.

It is outside the scope of this analysis, but it might also be interesting to reflect how the play itself judges the qualities mentioned in these two questions, and how that might relate to gender:

Is being ‘inept’ a sign of failure or genius?

Is someone who does not conform, praised as adventurous and/or intelligent, or condemned as rebellious and/or foolish?

Does anything happen to a female character that she might reasonably be expected to have a reaction to (EG anger/sense of betrayal/annoyance/excitement) but which she accepts without question?

Examples might include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Titania does not protest against Oberon having taken her Changeling boy whilst she was under the spell of the love potion, or the musical Sweet Charity, where the main character accepts without question the sexual double-standards (even as the musical makes plain its unfairness), and resigns herself to being let down by successive boyfriends.

The final questions of this questionnaire currently relate to the process of answering it! Please do give any response you think important/relevant, regardless of whether I’ve actually asked that question.

Copyright © Metis Arts 2013