Zoe Svendsen Biography

Zoë Svendsen is a theatre director, dramaturg and researcher. Artistic director of performing arts company, METIS, Zoë creates research-driven interdisciplinary performance projects exploring contemporary political subjects, including World Factory (UK tour, produced by Artsadmin; shortlisted for the Berlin Theatertreffen Stückemarkt 2016); 3rd Ring Out (TippingPoint Commission Award; UK tour), an emergency-planning-style ‘rehearsal’ for a climate crisis set in 2033; and an adaptation of Brecht’s parable on the moralities of capitalism, Four Men and a Poker Game (Northern Stage; The Tron)As dramaturg Zoë collaborates creatively on innovative productions of classic texts, including: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Measure for Measure and The Changeling (Young Vic); Miss Julie (Aarhus Theatre, Denmark); Arden of Faversham (Royal Shakespeare Company); Edward II (National Theatre). Zoë lectures on dramaturgy at the University of Cambridge; is artistic associate at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich; an honorary (artistic) research fellow at Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Theatre; and in 2014-15 was artist-in-residence at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. Zoë is currently one of the artists participating in the Future Scenarios ‘networked residency’ programme of the Culture and Climate Change project, supported by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, the Open University, and Sheffield University. The performance work developed from this project, WE KNOW NOT WHAT WE MAY BE, will be performed at the Barbican in 2018 as part of their Art of Change season, commissioned and produced by Artsadmin.

Future Scenarios Blogpost April 2017

Blog Post 25 April 2017



Ophelia: We know what we are, but know not what we may be.


Hamlet, Act IV, scene v.


We have, according to the Mercator Institute, Berlin, 4 years and 21 days until we have released the amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that will induce 1.5 degrees of global warming. This estimate is based on their most ‘optimistic’ estimate of the effects of greenhouse gases on warming, coupled with a rate of carbon use taken from 2014 figures (whilst in fact the annual rate of greenhouse gas emissions continues to grow). The carbon counter also allows us to look at a more ‘pessimistic’ but still highly plausible estimate, alarmingly giving us 1 year and 3 months until we have burnt sufficient carbon to take us to 1.5 degrees of global warming.


The Paris Agreement surprised the global community, not only by achieving a global consensus that keeping ‘a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels’ is necessary, but by including the aim ‘to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius’.


But is the Paris Agreement all a fantasy? Does the inclusion of the aim to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees in fact expose the whole agreement as a kind of collective fiction? There is a distressingly significant gap between the aims discussed and the reality of the effects of the current rates of carbon use. If these politicians and policy makers worked in the theatre, there would be serious concerns about the (im)plausibility of their narrative when compared with the facts. In the theatre, absorption in a fictional scenario is dependent on that scenario feeling credible to an audience. By buying into the fiction that limiting emissions to 1.5 degrees is plausible in the current policy context, there is a collective denial of the urgent need to make radical, extreme change to our socio-economic conditions.


According to the ADVANCE project, set up in response to the Paris Agreement, specifically to examine 1.5 degree scenarios: ‘to meet the long term goal of the Paris Agreement, net emissions would need to reach zero by 2050, and then go below zero in the second half of the century.’ For more information please click here.


However, Current policies presently in place around the world are projected to reduce baseline emissions and result in about 3.6°C warming above pre-industrial levels. The unconditional pledges or promises that governments have made […] as of 1 November 2016, would limit warming to about 2.8°C [3] above pre-industrial levels’. For more information please click here.



The naturalisation of current levels of fossil-fuel dependency offers a comforting myth of powerlessness – ‘this is just how things are’. Yet not only do we, with Ophelia, not know what we may be – we also do not know what we were. For to imagine a future of reduced carbon emissions is also to invoke a past of less carbon. Since 1970, the still-operational US Environmental Protection Agency tells us, there has been a 90% increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Knowing that the intensity of fossil fuel combustion has increased so radically does not however enable us simply to turn the clock back.


If we do not collude in the fiction of the compatibility of keeping temperatures to 1.5 degrees and the sustaining of current socio-economic structures, then the question must be asked: does the lifestyle of the so-called developed world mean more to its inhabitants than the future of humanity? Fear of encountering the unknown of ‘what we may be’ somehow seems to imprison us in the comfortable space of knowing ‘what we are’ – a fear of change that somehow seems to outweigh the ever more apparent threat of planetary destruction.


In the development of my postcards, I’ve been thinking this month about opposites; this is in the context of imagining a move beyond the economic structures that limit effective action to mitigate climate change. In this context, I wonder, what is the opposite of ‘to grow’? It isn’t, exactly, ‘to shrink’. What is the opposite of ‘more’? ‘less’ is often figured as ‘sacrifice’ – which binds us to the same value structure that makes virtues of ‘more’, ‘growth’, and ‘accumulation’. What does achievement look like in an alternative economy? Collective success would be the saving of the planet – but what how would personal value be recognised? Could the values of ‘ingenuity’ be valued over ‘accumulation’? Could (non-material) ‘experience’ be the aim, rather than (material) ‘goods’? Can ‘lightness’ be sought after, rather than the heaviness of the cost of our carbon use (imperceptible to many of us, being beyond our immediate horizons)? Could ‘stewardship’ replace ‘ownership’? And then the question: what kinds of lives would we be living if this were the case? Could we know what we may be?

Future Scenarios Blogpost March 2017

Blogpost 9

27 March


This month I’ve started making postcards. These are a distillation of the ideas – single words, phrases, arguments – from the reading and the meetings that I’ve had in the past months. Eventually the postcards will be – I think – for sale. I’m hoping people will pick them up and post the ideas on to others who might be interested. A kind of analogue meme. The postcards were unconsciously inspired by Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin (it was only when Judith Knight of Artsadmin pointed this out, I realised). That is express both hope, and despair in response to the contemporary moment. I know at some level that sending out postcards that scream in large lettering won’t make anyone hear. Whilst Fallada’s working class couple who write and distribute critical postcards in Hitler’s Berlin, are in very real danger, we simply face indifference – a complete disinterest in the possibility of future annihilation. It makes me think of Joan of Arc’s comment in Henry VI (i)


Glory is like a circle in the water,

Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself

Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.


But at another level it is cathartic to write these postcards, and distribute them, and hope that they spark a conversation, somehow, somewhere. So far I’ve only shown a few people the first few, but the word OIKOS writ large always sparks a conversation, in its unfamiliarity.


The last couple of future scenario research-in-public events, in Manchester and Cambridge, have yielded a wealth of thoughts that I am still processing. But the discussions also brought me close to what I think the central conundrum of thinking about responses to climate change in terms of economics. On the one hand, as David Alderson pointed out, the systematic logic of capitalism at some level won’t let us contemplate what the alternatives might be. Indeed, ‘GET REAL’, or ‘it’s not realistic’ is an overfamiliar and deadening response to any articulation of how things might be different. Each of the events I hold, audiences wrestle with the problem of how to imagine alternatives, because imagining how the alternative might arrived at from here feels so daunting. On the other hand, climate change won’t wait for us to find a future beyond capitalism… Time is running out, and perhaps we need capitalism right here, right now, to harness the considerable innovative energy of the system to creating the goods, services and cultures that will enable us to enjoy a low-carbon, longterm future. What that needs, of course, is a reformed capitalism – a capitalism structured by the recognition that every ‘good’ needs to be realistically costs for what it costs in human labour and the planet – and as Chris Hope so cogently articulated, this is entirely within the realms of possibility.


I also discovered something wonderful – thanks again to Renata Tsyczuk, who is a font of wisdom on etymology – that the word ‘manifesto’ means to make clear or conspicuous, obvious, public. Although manifestos are created as political prescriptions these days, something to test a political party’s actions against, in their futurist heyday they were salvos into the fight for a different future. I like the idea, given that there are so many excellently thought-through models of workable future structures currently available, that a manifesto that shoots a light into the dark of the future might also be a case of ‘making obvious’ or ‘making clear’.


I’m reading For Humanism, a collection of essays exploring what it might mean to be a humanist in the 21st century, and have no less than three books on the go that explore Utopia: Utopia as Method, Envisioning Real Utopias, and Utopia for Realists. They are all rich provocations, and I’m enjoying the titles as much as anything – the claim that they all tacitly or explicitly make, that imagining the future is part of making the future.




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