Maja Kuzmanovic, Tina Auer, Nik Gaffney and Tim Boykett
FoAM and Time's Up
Physical narrative (PN) can be described as a theatre without actors, where spectators become engaged visitors, playfully discovering futures by experiencing physical spaces, objects and media. A PN is an explorable world, rather than a singular story. PNs take the form of immersive installations where entangled fragments of scenarios can be experienced through all the senses as a self-contained, aesthetically coherent reality. Direct experience of scenarios presented as physical prototypes can engage visitors with alternatives to the status quo, and suggests that futures can be proactively influenced by all.
As there are no human guides in a PN, visitors gather meaning and interpret situations in the same way they would in unfamiliar environments. They are invited to observe, investigate and discuss what it might be like to be a part of a possible future, in physical situations that can be freely explored. Reading a scientific foresight report or watching a design fiction video assumes a distance between the scenario and the reader or viewer. In physical narratives, the visitors are surrounded by the scenario, as if they landed in a parallel universe. The important difference being the level of immersion, which allows the visitors to investigate the scenarios using all their faculties, including somatic, intuitive and cerebral. Such immersive experiences can be intense and disorienting, especially with near future scenarios1. The future can feel quite up-close-and-personal, eliciting a strong emotional response, or a desire to reflect on the repercussions of the experience for the visitors' own lives. Incorporating social spaces with PNs to decompress and share experiences is crucial for their critical assimilation. The visitors can exchange insights and extrapolate to their own aspirations and projections, thereby developing their capacity for (ambient) foresight and contributing to the spread of futures literacy.
With physical narratives we design speculative situations and scenarios (future, present or parallel) as tangible environments. PNs generally incorporate three key aspects in their design: playful exploration, multisensory experience and social interaction. The following paragraphs provide a brief overview of our rationale and several examples from our practice.
In a PN, scenarios become ambient narratives, with no predefined beginnings or endings, and no linear progression from one story element to another. As the scenarios are scattered across the space in hints and fragments, it is impossible to experience a PN as a clearcut, singular future: there are many possible stories hidden within. Characters and storylines are implicitly discovered, rather than explicitly described. Like a good horror film, PNs affect the viewer just as much by what is left unseen as by what is presented. They invite the visitors to actively uncover, interpret and co-create a range of possible scenarios; to weave the story-fragments together from physical artefacts, media snippets and dispersed segments of the characters' stories. They create meaning on-the-fly, akin to free play, where the making and breaking of rules and hypotheses about the world simultaneously creates the world itself.
In Borrowed Scenery visitors can unearth and play a role in scenarios where plant cultures and human societies have become indistinguishable. The installation is built as a Patabotanical lab inhabited by elusive characters, known only by their physical traces: experiments-in-progress, field-notes and prototypes, a collection of books, plants, disembodied scents and mysterious artefacts. Everything in the atemporal ambience of this verdant, biomorphic, technologically advanced world is an element of one or more scenarios. Traces of a plausible near future co-exist with evocative speculative fiction. A map of the city as edible landscape circa 2016. Instructions for a green psychogeographic drift. A device for human-plant communication. Translation of a vegetal communiqué to avert human extinction. From physical juxtapositions and connections between such artefacts, visitors extrapolate their own versions of the scenarios. While some speculations can be directly related to existing plant initiatives in the city, others delve further into the realm of science fiction, yet they all engage with the visitors' personal experiences of relationships with plants and living in the Anthropocene.
In Stored in a Bank Vault, visitors take on the role of a detective, stumbling into the underground lair of a group about to rob a nearby bank vault. As they inspect the basement, they uncover various aspects of the story - in hacked computers, tapped surveillance cameras, architectural plans, sedatives, by overhearing a character's phone conversation behind a locked door, or chancing on a plan of attack. Dedicated investigators discover that the heist may not be just about cash, but some enigmatic seeds. They may find a trail of the group's previous exploits that reveal deeper layers of motivation. Like in a good thriller, this leads to surprises and unexpected plot-twists, seducing the visitors to delve deeper into the story.
PNs are interactive environments in which fragments of scenarios are transformed into physical spaces, objects and tangible media. When people explore possible futures by touching, standing on, handling or smelling speculative artefacts, they rely on their mental, emotional, as well as somatic faculties. Engaging all senses allows for multimodal learning and stimulates imagination. The immersive, interactive nature of PNs invites visitors to “fill in the blanks” between scenario fragments. As in the adage “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”, in PNs the visitors can relate to abstract concepts as experiential phenomena, which makes them more approachable and easier to understand. Rather than read and analyse, or watch and absorb, they inhabit the scenario and learn by doing.
In Lucid Peninsula, visitors find themselves in a hotel room, in a future where pollution and environmental degradation have lead to peculiar developments in medical and consciousness technologies. An airtight window is fitted with the OrganoClean air purification system, the room breathing mechanically, as the air bubbles past plants growing in oversized test tubes. The buzzing of a detox shower can be heard through the locked bathroom door. Clothing items are tagged as having been decontaminated. The bed is flanked with a General Infection Negation blood cleansing device and a DreamNet system for “sharing dreams with friends and colleagues.” Upon entering the room, visitors are absorbed in the hypnotic breathing rhythms; many lay on the bed with their eyes closed, while others pensively investigate the copper-tubed breathing apparatus and brass window viewer, showing an overlay rendering of the outside world.
Similarly meditative, Stillness was an exhibition and immersive experience designed to slow down the pace of visitors' hectic lives. A parallel present (or near future) where slowness, contemplation and idling are not seen as luxuries but rather necessities to survive in a goal-driven world of continuous availability, plagued by burnouts, ADHD and other forms of contemporary malaise. Filmic sequences of photographs are laid out as parcours through the space, occasionally overlaid with sound and scent. Fragments of the ambient narrative could be uncovered in objects, images, food, drinks and texts found in improbable places, hiding under vegetation or scattered across the ceiling. The layout of the space and furnishings suggested a particular flow of experience, gradually decelerating and enveloping the visitors in stillness of sound, scent and light.
Physical narratives provide a shared experience of speculative scenarios. Before and after experiencing a PN, the visitors cross a “threshold” between their present and a possible future. A period of “compression and decompression” can help relate these experiences more closely to people's lives. Like those who have shared an intense situation or peak experience (e.g. a natural disaster, mountain climbing or psychedelics) visitors often feel a need to spend time together sharing, comparing and making sense of their PN exploits. They may re-enter the PN after discussing it, looking for details which others alerted them to, things they missed the first time around. Social interaction can enrich the story and the experience for all involved. This can be facilitated by surrounding the PN with familiar social situations, such as a lounge, a bar, or a waiting room. It can be as simple as including a pair of period chairs on a carpet in Unattended Luggage, where the visitors would sit and closely examine elements of the story together. A more extensive approach was the bar of the Sensory Circus or the SubCity environment for BodySPIN, where visitors reclined and quietly conversed over drinks. They were surrounded by small screens and other “windows” into the PN, keeping them connected to the actions taking place in the installation, only a few meters away.
While these spaces are thematically linked to the PN scenarios, they are obviously in the here-and-now. By “holding space” and informally engaging with the visitors, we do not leave people “hanging” after experiencing (sometimes disturbing) futures. If we are interested in experiential futures affecting thoughts and behaviours in the present, hosting the visitors' conversations and reflection is as important as creating a compelling futures narrative. This allows the experiential insights to echo in the visitor's work and life, raising ambient awareness of possible future repercussions. Moving away from consuming futures as entertaining speculative fiction and towards a more widespread futures literacy.
In Godsheide Futures, fragments of scenarios concerning the future of a residential neighbourhood could be experienced as a reception. While visitors engaged in the usual mingling and networking, the scenarios began to enter their conversations via finger-foods and aperitifs. Translating scenarios into “edible futures” created an informal atmosphere that encouraged conversation between the policy makers, urban planners and the inhabitants. One of the key points raised both in the scenarios and while socialising was the need to create more communal and shared public spaces in Godsheide. Over food and drinks, almost imperceptibly, the first commitments were made to bring some of the scenarios into reality. A year after the reception, the inhabitants have successfully repurposed a local church into a community-supported school and plans are underway to form a co-operative for more ambitious projects.
Working with physical narratives as a means to experience future scenarios has led us to understand the importance of working with futures at a human scale, connecting them to mundane, personal, social aspects of everyday life. By diffusing fragments of futures in physical spaces, rather than spoon-feeding visitors with a singular future vision, we hope to stimulate a sense of agency – while experiencing the PN, as well as long after the experience has ended. Freedom to play with and interpret scenarios in PNs invites visitors to uncover the multiplicity of possible futures, and their capacity to co-create them. Incorporating social interaction within PNs helps focus on the capacity to change things in the present, thereby cultivating futures that people prefer. Futures that encourage wonder, hope and engagement. Leading away from monolithic dystopian visions and towards something more malleable and elastic.
… the future shouldn’t be an overly abstract concept lacking relevance, but rather an inspirational call to action with traction.” -Jose Ramos
Physical Narratives help us create futures with all the rich detail of corporeal reality, futures that are tangible and approachable. Where visitors are encouraged to think about future possibilities and invited to deepen their involvement. The exploration of futures through physical experience could be seen as an entry point into an expanding futures literacy. Where experiencing futures creates space to reflect and act today.