As this atypical summer in the Northern hemisphere draws to a close, we thought it timely to share what's been on our minds and in the works. To let you know how we've been, what we're up to and discuss some of our attempts at sensemaking while navigating uncertainty and these "turbulent times".
We've been writing this slowly, intermittently, over several months, in the shadow of flickering newsfeeds, in the moments when we've found the opportunity to pause and reflect. There were times when we were left speechless by events unfolding around us, and finding words inadequate, relied on other forms of sensory communication. So we'd like to suggest a soundtrack while reading (available on bandcamp, spotify, itunes, etc).
Echoes from isolation, from a place reminiscent of The City and The City where "from that historically brief quite opaque moment, came the chaos of our material history, an anarchy of chronology, of mismatched remnants…"
Riding the wave
We began writing this digest as the pandemic took hold, amid the worldwide patchwork of lockdowns. We shared tips on DIY viral biosecurity and reminders to "care first". When it became apparent that top-down responses were lagging or outright failing across the European peninsula, the sewing machines emerged and some of us joined alternative networks for manufacture and distribution of PPE. The homemade masks went to our friends and neighbours with some eventually supplying the NHS (unofficially). When not sewing masks, the same machine (a 1911 Singer, currently going through its second pandemic) has been used to stitch electronic circuits using conductive thread.
While most of us remained (physically) isolated in our homes, others found ourselves stranded between closed borders, or with dear friends stateless at sea. A situation that triggered flashbacks of war and emigration, challenging us to think about what or where we considered "home" and what, more broadly, homes could become.
In the growing precarity we took time to re-assess not just our homes but our tools, processes and travel. The Viruscraft project, unsurprisingly, has become extremely relevant. With an ironic twist, the tangible interfaces that had previously improved accessibility now needed to become completely touch-free. New components were designed, constructed and tested in a tiny domestic space, which led not only to a redesigned interface, but to the creation of an off-grid factory for micro-scale manufacturing (aka "shed").
As time began unravelling during the "great pause" we felt compelled to anchor ourselves in the here-and-now. Watching, listening and engaging with fellow earthlings (human and otherwise) provided welcome shelter from the ongoing statistical storms. Curves. Graphs. Infection rates. Deaths were abstracted and economic indicators took on sinister forms. Plagues emerged from the past. The Future intruded. For many people, in the struggle to make sense and plot viable paths through changing realities of the everyday, there was a rush to explain the "new normal" or get "back to normal"; but "what precisely is the new normal?" (via Tobias Revell).
As spring became summer, and the first wave gave way to a second wave, we began to wonder how to make sense of the world and our place in it when current affairs and dystopian fiction are so easily confused. When feeds are flooded with contradictory information. When grand narratives are exchanged like window dressing from day to day. "Listening for signals when the news is dark" (via Changeist), can take many shapes, from analysing how we collect and process diverse sources of information to poetic reflection on what is considered "current".
Finding scientific information and judging its reliability is a particularly relevant skill, and is the main motivation for our AccessLab workshops. We’ve redesigned AccessLab for pandemic conditions and now have a working setup to run workshops remotely. The essential physical components of our most recent Accesslab, including writing tools and healthy food, were packaged into small boxes (able to survive shipping and quarantine) and delivered by ebike. The next AccessLab, with a focus on climate, environment and health is currently planned for November.
Adapting to new conditions can have an unexpected learning curve. "Learning how to learn" is another skill that's particularly useful as situations shape-shift. Ingénieur.es engagé.es (engaged engineers) for example, have been compiling online resources for self-training in sustainable engineering, particularly during volatile transitions. While engaged engineers question the role of technology in society, radical administrators turn their critical gaze on administration. They open up ways to think about admin as more than something to which we are endlessly subjected and instead treat it as a site for action and intervention, radical histories, dark arts, wild experiments, new collectivities and meaningful work.
Navigating (economic) uncertainty
The pandemic has made apparent the fault lines of our societies, infrastructures and ideologies. The problems can no longer be swept under a rug that has been pulled out from beneath us. Cracks appear under stress. Charged undercurrents are combined with the relentless erosion of livehoods. The spectres of inequality and injustice haunt the streets, salons, supermarkets and soup kitchens. Guillotine earrings are available on Etsy.
Something we know for sure is that many of the things we may once have thought of as stable are melting alongside icebergs, making a long period of transition almost inevitable. So, what skills do we need to navigate through the liminality of this transition? How can we use the kaleidoscopic views of hindsight, insight and foresight when certainty is limited and the future appears to be in short supply?
The tools of futurecrafting should be packed in everyone's bug-out bag. We're consolidating our eclectic futures-oriented endeavours into Certainty Ltd. A consultancy, clinic or civic outpost for individuals and collectives dealing with problems caused by excess certainty. We provide essential services including critical uncertainty diagnostics, personal scenario development, ambient foresight, strategic unplanning, future prehearsals, VUCA therapy and bespoke situational awareness. We are also expanding FoAM's futurecrafting crew by mentoring new apprentices who are keen to dive into the liminality of futures with youth and the cultural proletariat.
While preparing for extended periods of uncertainty is certainly necessary, it's just as important to find concrete workarounds in daily life, right now. How do we recode the neoliberal language of "biznis" (бизнис) into something we can eat? Can we move away from surveillance capitalism and startup culture towards fairly priced, accessible and fair practices? How can business become "any productive activity that could bring us sustenance" ? (via Janelle Orsi)
We can create spaces that reflect our ideals. We can deliberate with business as a space of agency, encounter others, make deals and alliances and cultivate the art of doing business in and for uncertainty. One such space is The feral MBA programme, an outsider and off-grid masters programme. In the Feral MBA and through the Feral Livelihood Coaching Collective we break down the idea that securing one’s sustenance is everyone’s private business. We can work together to open up more diverse and wilder possibilities. For those in Cornwall and Devon, applications for the fMBA: succession programme are welcome until the 25th of September.
During FoAM's 20 years of existence, we have weathered uncertainty by adapting the network to changing conditions and available resources. A form of growth that isn't concerned with size or sheer increase but rather about transformation, creating edge habitats, spawning and reticulating nodes. FoAM Brussels, for example, has grown over the years, from a research department into an independent association and kunstenwerkplaats (Flemish Arts Lab). In its most recent manifestation as FoAM Zenne, it becomes a fluid entity named after the partially submerged river flowing through the Brussels region. On a more solid substrate (specifically a concrete tower in the Swiss mountains) we're partnering with the BlueFactory to co-design a new node for people experimenting with “savoir-vivre le futur qui est déjà rêvé.”
The proliferation of adjectives used to qualify the "the times we live in" underlines a disturbing and relentless nature – "unprecedented", "uncertain", "life changing", "frightening", "awakening", "apocalyptic" even "normal"... Multiple timelines colliding and overlapping. Day X of self-isolation. Fourteen days of quarantine. Eight minutes 46 seconds. Injustices persisting over centuries. Time to revitalize the space race alongside a race to find a vaccine. And in between, there are moments of grace. Breathing fresh air. Seeing wild animals reclaim cities. Admiring the deep blue sky devoid of aircraft. Fieldwork and working in fields, with humans and others. Perceiving, being and working in full exposure to the complexities and subtleties of an area. Finding time to watch the spring and summer unfold, to seed and harvest. Belonging to the times requires more than just abiding by clocks and calendars, or aligning with the Zeitgeist.
"It is about listening to the murmurings of place, sitting with the unnamed, following shadows towards unsayable adventures, and coming alive to a sensuousness that often resists articulation or conceptualization." (via Bayo Akomolafe)
Sometimes, listening to the murmurings of the swamp uncovers slippery nuances of its language. Other times, while sensing the air pollution above water, we hear sound, turbidity and temperature below. In the shadows of Dutch dykes and Deltaworks we find ourselves amid geological time where rising seas reclaim the reclaimed land. On a city street nearby, we walk into mythical time while attempting to reverse engineer preliterate memory machines. We come alive to the sensuousness of birdsong, entwining music with broader environmental concerns. Elsewhere, we sit in the grasslands, helping grasses, legumes and herbs grow into diverse forages (aka multispecies swards). We sit with the unnamed, the vegetal and spectral to remind us of the many guises generosity takes, and that too often go unnoticed.
"Until our individual identities are shattered and smeared and re-congealed innumerable times. Until we understand that we exist because of and despite relating to everything else. That we are teeming civilisational hosts. Hydrogen ripped from its context, mixed with the dust of dead stars."
We like to end these seasonal digests by letting you know where our paths might cross. This time, even though we may not get a chance to be in physical proximity for a while, we still hope to keep you close. Call on Certainty Ltd if you need advice or support through new waves of unpredictability. If you are interested in the Feral MBA or the Feral Livelihood Coaching Collective (as a coach, coachee, student, patron, host, peer or interrogator) you can contact the Institute for Experiments in Business. If you'd like to get better at judging reliability of scientific information, consider joining the upcoming AccessLab workshops online. Otherwise? We can rely chance and circumstance.
It's likely that many of our public activities will continue to be subject to change. Those that are happening have either been newly designed (like the Fieldwork pilot sessions), or have been postponed until further notice (eg the Machine Wilderness residencies at the Artis Zoo in Amsterdam, Spectres in Change on Seili and the CGF's Civic Arts Lab in the UK). Current cancellations include 'Between Art, Bed and Breakfast: Imagining an Artist-led Economy' event in Blackpool and "How to practice sustainable engineering" in Compiègne. We'll keep our website up to date as much as possible, so keep checking in as required. For any questions, comments or suggestions, you can reach us here, here, or here.
We'd like to leave you with a few other voices that we've found particularly relevant and resonant recently. Voices singing the complicated realities unfolding underneath, through and around us, beyond the shimmering surface of our screens.
The Tiger Lillies perform their new album Covid-19 vol. II. The Second Wave", some Recordings for quarantined people and those flying to Mars", "Colony Collapse" (Filastine & Nova), "Bella Ciao" (Dubioza Kolektiv), "We live here" (Bob Vylan), Lowdjo's lockdown mix, and Touch Isolation.
Wherever you are and whenever you read this, may you be well.