September blog post – Future Scenarios

Modes of imagining in language often reference sight – most obviously ‘vision’ or ‘to envisage’. When I think of a climate-changed future, I tend to envisage images of what it might look like. Whether I’m drawing on the general cultural appetite for the disaster spectacular, or translating green field sites in my imagination into vistas of solar or wind farms, my mental store of images of the future is already populated by how it might look. I don’t think I am alone in this: our first seminar, ‘Risk’, exploring scenarios particularly in relation to the polar regions, brought home the way that a cultural tendency to focus on the spectacular reaches an apex with the polar regions. Given that climate change is happening fastest, most acutely, and particularly visibly there, the representation of these places as remote, spectacular and other, is, as the polar oceanographer Mark Brandon pointed out, not entirely helpful. To demonstrate the reality of our interconnectedness he showed a map of where chemicals, used in our consumer plastics, turn up in the flesh of polar bears and seals in the Arctic region. I was struck by this: melting ice, that particularly potent image of climate change, is highly visible. Yet the complex and interlocking relationships relations between my local landscape of industrialised farming, busy polluted cityscapes and changeable weather and that landscape of snow, silence and apparent stasis – between climate change there and a changed environment here at home – are not visible. In theatre, the Stanislavskian system of acting enables a clear set of relations to be drawn between intentions, actions, and their effects. In a sense it is a mode of rendering visible (and therefore giving meaning to) why things happen. It is not an accident that such a theatrical system for structuring representation emerged alongside nineteenth-century science and Freudian theories –  making even the unconscious narratable. But the demand for visible, knowable relations of cause-and-effect are not serving to help us accept the unquantifiable interconnectedness of our small everyday life gestures and the macro-scale of climate-changed-influenced shifts in weather patterns.


Much of my artistic life is bound up with thinking about dramaturgy: the underlying structure that holds together – and produces the meaning – of what we see on stage. Rendering the systems of relation visible – the impetus behind the creation of World Factory, which explores our embeddedness in global consumer capitalism – is part of the project. But sight/visibility isn’t enough: the process made us realise that we do not only need to see, but to feel. In that show we invite the UK audience to imagine themselves as a participant in the system from a position that few will have direct personal experience of: running a small Chinese clothing factory. The conditions of doing so are felt because they become the means by which audiences work out what decisions to make. They are also felt in another way – through the haptic qualities of the show, through the handling of money, garments and worker ID cards, and through the proximity of others around small tables.


I was struck again by the power of the haptic again when to complement our first Future Scenarios seminar, we were invited to the British Antarctic Survey headquarters in Cambridge. Holding a slice of melting ice core (280 years old and drilled up from 110 metres underground in the Antarctic) to my ear, I could hear the crackle as bubbles of air trapped before the industrial revolution popped to mingle with our doubly carbon dioxide-laden contemporary air.


This then is where the power of the scenario comes in. It starts with envisaging, and draws on our powers of sight, showing how that sense is culturally and linguistically entwined with cognition and our beliefs about knowledge. But its fundamental power lies with the way in which it allows us to put ourselves in the place of others – to FEEL, not only to SEE – and therefore to DO. I have been hugely inspired by Future Scenarios project leader Renata Tyszczuk’s clever provocation, in the ‘Risk’ seminar, where she challenged us to reimagine the original Italian ‘scenario’ in the light of climate change. Taking us back to the origins of the word ‘scenario’, Renata introduced us to these commedia-dell-arte blueprints for improvised performances posted up at the back of the stage, indicating characters, props, entrances and exits – and only an approximate outline of what might happen. In the context of climate change, imagining future scenarios within this framework allows a concretisation of ideas that brings us much closer to how it might feel to act. As rehearsal (rather than performance), scenario-building allows us to work out how changed conditions might affect us, and who we might be under those conditions. It also opens a space for imagining the effects not only of climate change but also the proposed mitigation or adaptation strategies. As climate modeller Chris Hope pointed out, there is more work done on envisaging the climate-changed future than there is on imagining what it would be like to live in a world where successful climate action had been undertaken. Yet turning the tide on the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air requires radical changes to our social, legal, political, technological infrastructure. This is where scenarios matter. Returning to terms that are often taken as metaphorical or transposed out of theatre contexts, such as ‘plot’ / ‘actor’ / ‘script’ / ‘scenario’, is to invigorate future projections not only with envisioning, but with enacting and enabling – embodying the future to make it one that we would want to live in.


World Factory will be performed at Cambridge Junction 18th-21st October 2016, with performance dates in Brighton and Manchester later in the Autumn.


Economist Ha-Joon Chang will respond to the show after the performance on 20th October, and there will be a public discussion of the interdisciplinary themes of the show at the Cambridge University Centre on 21st October at 4pm.

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