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Dr Justin Westgate – Field notes

My research interests encompass creative practice, experimental methodologies, and innovation, and are driven by critical social and cultural concerns. Below is an archive of various research activities and notes.

Fieldnotes: FuturePerfect Festival, Sweden

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My secondary reason for visiting Grinda island in Sweden was to attend Futureperfect Festival, an event comprised of conversations, experiences, and explorations around themes of cities, technology, food, culture and sustainability.

The festival was not large – at its peak there may have been a couple of hundred people taking part. It was split between ‘pro’ sessions – targeted at professionals working in particular areas such as government, development, business, etc – and ‘open’ sessions available to the general public. Xskool overran the start of the festival, which was when the pro sessions took place, so I missed out on listening to those conversations, but had the opportunity to attend pubic sessions.

I was surprised by the range of people who participated in the open sessions. There were a spread of creatives – artists, designers, musicians, performers – but as well entrepreneurial types and people from business, also people from local government and NGOs. More of a mix than I would have expected – although slightly weighted in the creative camp, with a good number having UK connections.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from discussions so, as is often my approach, I began by just listening to the conversations being had. The main theme running through the festival was ‘redefinition’ – who and what is leading change today. This was interesting as it aligned to my own research focus on we might broadly rethink cultural-ecological human activity – that is, how we understand and negotiate our relationship with the environment. If we are concerned with enacting real change then this calls for a fundamental shift in our perception and engagement with the world – a redefinition if you will. And, I’m also interested in the places and modes by which redefining vectors become enacted.

The conversations I attended I chose because, in one way or other, they discussed either creative practice, sustainability, or futures thinking. Each session was scheduled to fit within a time slot of an hour which, in all honestly, is a limited amount of time in which to have a meaningful and engaged conversation – certainly amongst a group of 10, 20 or 30 people who don’t know each other. ‘Brief’ introductions can easily eat up a quarter of that time – which they often did. However, such discussions were intended more as thematic sparks which participants could take up with each other later in more detail. And, the facilities were set up with a separate open interaction space to allow further development of conversations and ideas.

On the Saturday, one talk I attended discussed the lost opportunities of design in responding to ‘sustainability’, and another which pondered ways ‘beyond words’ that ‘sustainability’ could be communicated. Yet another considered the future of cities – would we still need them, and what might they look like? These were all interesting conceptual starting points but, for me, didn’t really go deep enough. The time factor is one issue I've already mentioned, but another was possibly the different outlooks people had – coming from different disciplinary backgrounds, with different knowledge sets, values, and different working frameworks. The problem is, if you don’t have enough time to talk through these and come to some understanding it’s difficult to come to a shared understanding. For instance, we can talk about ‘the future’, but this can mean many different things. Our own discussion of the future focused on a timeframe of 30-50 years, which is one easily imagined and accessible to most humans as it lies within grasp of out own human lifespans. But such a time range is highly limiting, and we should be willing to step out of such human-limited conceptual frames into others than span 1000, 10,000, 100,000 years. I let my concern over this issue slide in the group discussion but picked up on another one.

During discussion on design and sustainability someone from a large European company that prides itself on its creative capital finished his input with the argument along the lines that creativity is important when we're trying to be sustainable to help ‘save the planet’. This is a commonly used phrase but in the discussion context it was one I felt needed to be used with more critical sensibility. Bundled up with the phrase are ideas of human hubris, and also conceptual ideologies of what makes up a planet. To start with, it’s not the planet that needs ‘saving’ – the planet is pretty resilient. If we’re talking about planetary life – in the bigger sense – then that is also extremely resilient. Really, if we talk about saving the planet, we’re referring to conserving planetary conditions conducive to human existence – which is a far more narrow focus. And, at the same time, if we’re trying to ‘sustain’ anything then it’s a mode of living that’s turned out to be pretty unsustainable.

Secondly, is another slightly more subtle assumption, that the ‘saving’ will be undertaken by humans being clever planetary agents. This criticism gets a little complicated (and I chose at the time not to insert it into the discussion because of this), and acts as an argument for doing less rather than more; and avoiding overriding creative ideologies. Such thinking is somewhat heretical coming from someone who works as a ‘creative professional’, but at complex planetary scales we need to consider the possibility that solutions may not come from applying more (human) creativity, but that we need less – or perhaps approach such ‘problems’ in quite different ways. Indeed, I’m very taken by Bruno Latour’s argument for us to ‘slow down’. Admittedly, these are bigger meta-issues, and are discussions that take time to understand, consider and work through – certainly more than just an hour. My “perhaps it’s not the planet that needs ‘saving’” comment was enough at the time. Even that threw a small spanner into the group process. But I made mental notes of the other connected issues because, for me, these become the really interesting questions.

By the next day – Sunday – I was tired. I’d been on Grinda for a week, camping, meeting new people, having conversations, and fighting a chest infection to boot. Sessions were scheduled to start a bit later at 11.00am due to a late eventing of music and performance. Everyone else seemed pretty tired as well, and facilitators were very slowly organising spaces for the festival’s final conversations. I contemplated opting out and having a morning just to gather my thoughts. I didn’t manage to, though, as I was invited into a group by the ‘Festival Professor’ Dougald Hine. I’d met Dougald briefly the day before. He saw me sitting in my daze and enthusiastically ushered me to join a group that had formed, and which he was facilitating. It was a really nice gesture, and enough to pull me out of my inner contemplation. Discussion focused on ‘music and green revolution’ and, I have to say, initially I wasn’t sure that I’d get much out of the conversation. However, I’m glad I did join as it turned out to be one of the more interesting discussions of the festival.

The conversation started somewhat predictably considering music and its application to revolutionary themes, notably the environmental movement. However, this led to a broader and, for me, more interesting discussion on the value of aesthetics. Discussion turned to ‘shifts’ and the kinds that are needed to change the way we do things. A thread from a session the previous day resurfaced about the over-reliance we have on words to direct activity, and the limitations of this. Dougald suggested that we’ve lost our ability to think in more poetic ways; that the ways in which we use language now is driven by a mindset that needs to define and be definitive – something that’s counter to how the world actually operates.

Such ideas mirror something I had been only recently been contemplating, which was the phrase ‘laws of nature’. The phrase crystalises the way in which Western thinking has sought to describe and define ways in which the natural world operates, led by mechanistic thinking. And while we may have come some ways in moving beyond this kind of model, language and words can still lock us into bound modes of understanding. How do we find ways then to move beyond arms-length language? It is through aesthetics we can express, experience, or indeed perform ourselves in the world differently.

Dougald went on to share his experience with organising and running the Dark Mountain Festivals over the last few years. People, he said, had expressed an experience similar to that of the sacred. Sharing and confronting emotions which delved into darkness, hopelessness, and despair – normally taboo – had allowed people to access – quite profoundly – other ways of experiencing themselves in the the world. This, he suggested, had allowed ‘ideas to pass through facts into knowing’.

The discussion made me contemplate what a ‘movement’ actually was. When we talk about a movement we often mean a group of people working together to advance and bring agency to shared ideas – political, social, artistic, or whatever. But being ‘moved’ affectively must surely also be an important part of this – moved emotionally and humanly? Certainly it is, but from my experience within a number of social and environmental action groups it seems that such human-affective components can get lost in the logics of a campaigning: desired outcomes, targets, signups or votes. Doing can override the importance of feeling.

In the world of academia this is even more problematic with the need for a somewhat detached interest in large-scale and, frankly, quite troubling, issues. I recall a presentation by an academic at the NCCARF (National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility) conference in Sydney I attended in 2013. He was a wizened, grey-haired fellow, obviously with many years being an environmental researcher, but also an activist. He presented a paper – from what I remember more research supporting the need for action on climate change – and ended it with a strong emotive call to “keep the rage” – those were his exact words. What struck me in the moment was that the conference event, even though focused on the climate change issue – oddly enough – was perhaps the least emotionally expressive gathering of people I had been amongst in relation to this pressing issue. There was a distinct lack of visible rage. Of course that’s not to say that people weren’t passionate about the issue or work they were doing, but it was well masked in that environment.

So, if the aesthetic has the capacity to help us experience differently, I’m interested in instances where it’s pulled in and employed. Having conversations with like-minded people is one thing, but where are interesting cross-over points where where different kinds of work is being done? Being in a group of diverse people with interests in social issues, politics and arts, I thought I was in a good position to find out. So I asked the group this question directly. There was some silence before people admitted to not really being able to name anywhere where they thought ideas were being pulled in to practical use – outside of art galleries that is. I was a little surprised. I thought at least some suggestions would surface – and, of course, I was looking for some research leads to pursue. Still, it was a useful conversation for me. It certainly gave me some new ideas to consider and to follow up on. And, I guess that really is the point of having conversations: they don’t always work out as expected, or wrap up tidily, or necessarily answer questions one might have. But they will – especially when you’re talking with interesting people – provide food for thought.

I’d recommend checking out Dougald Hine’s website: www.dougald.nu for interesting thoughts, writing and other projects.

Justin Westgate