Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Future-jamming 101

Poster design by Media/Continuation group
Students from Introduction to Political Science 110 and Beginning Digital Imaging 400
University of Hawai'i at Manoa, Spring 02008

Design and installation: Media/Continuation | Photo: Claire Schulmeister

A text-heavy entry, this one, but the need to document my recent experience teaching futures and design has been hounding me of late, so I wanted to get something out there before the dissertation commitments nipping at my heels sink their teeth in.

In the leadup to last semester (Spring 02008) I was invited to teach an introductory political science course at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, where I’m doing my PhD in the same department.

I inquired about whether there was anything in particular I needed to include, or avoid, and the answer was no: I would have free rein to shape the syllabus my own way.

Irresistible.

So I set myself the goal of constructing the most interesting course possible. I wanted to engage students in the exploration and expression of ideas, in a politically relevant way (broadly construed), and to do it through an alternative futures lens.

After personal introductions done via freestyle rap (which I can commend to teachers as embarrassing but effective), the first substantive task we undertook was to survey everyone’s understanding of "politics". The parade of notions about traditional institutions and processes engaged in the conventional exercise of power was not at all unexpected. But the agenda was to bust open the notion that politics happens only, or even primarily, on the campaign trail and the voting booth.

The way we set about doing that was by considering the whole of our discursive lives -- the "mental commons", to use the phrase of an Adbusters article I set early on (reproduced here); or "mental real estate", in the words of a Hollywood screenwriter -- as politically charged: the stories told or not told, the ideas promoted or occluded, the interests privileged or marginalised. (For those with a theoretical bent, I was drawing on the politics of aesthetics of Jacques Rancière: thinking of the "political" as redistribution of the sensible, i.e. of the perceptual order.)

Together with art instructor Scott Groeniger, who miraculously was scheduled to teach an introductory class in digital imaging in the same timeslot (Tuesday and Thursday mornings), a couple of buildings over, I put together a plan for "Future Jamming 101" which would enable his art students and my politics students to put their heads together and actually intervene in their mental environment, in their own way. (Scott and I had been talking for a few months about a potential collaboration, ever since we’d met when some of his artwork was featured in the same 02007 exhibition as FoundFutures: Chinatown, at Honolulu gallery The Arts at Marks Garage.)

A few aspects of the class were deliberately experimental and may be worth recording for others to build upon. And, since I had asked my students to conclude their semester with a brief "Reflections" paper looking at the approach they had taken in their culminating group projects, and evaluating what they had learned from that process, I figured I ought to do likewise. So here, slightly belated -- the whole summer has passed by now -- are my Reflections on the exercise we undertook together. I've tried to include details here which may assist other instructors to formulate a comparable exercise, so my apologies are due to the general readership, to the extent that such details are less than exhilarating.

The purpose of our "future jamming" project was to teach students futures thinking, in an active, hands-on manner, such that they would have an opportunity not only to master the basics of alternative futures, but also to apply them in a satisfying, and hopefully impactful, way.

It seemed sensible to do this by having them do something like what Jake Dunagan and I had done quite a few times – bring futures thinking and designers together to manifest possible scenarios.

We borrowed the term "future jamming" from Australia-based futurist Jose Ramos (a coinage parallel to "culture jamming"), whose energetic advocacy of the radicalisation of foresight communication -- in conversations a few years ago, as well as in print meanwhile -- has stayed with me. The trick here was, it seemed to me, to scale up the approach Jake and I had developed in collaborating with designers on our series of "FoundFutures" experiential scenario projects (e.g., postcards, Chinatown, South by Southwest, and most recently the Wattis Gallery).

The steps for the project panned out as follows. (These seem slightly more distinct in retrospect than they were at the time.)
> forming groups and selecting topics
> generating scenarios
> devising and producing artifacts expressing those scenarios
> installing materials and recording responses
> evaluating the projects

With about 20 students in each class, the joint sessions would be jam-packed, as neither of our assigned classrooms was big enough to accommodate everyone comfortably, and so we didn't want to risk having an untried format eat up too many weeks. We settled on a schedule which had our two groups meeting for the two sessions in the week before spring break, developing their ideas over that break, and then meeting and working together for the three weeks (six sessions) to follow. Each politics class was 75 minutes long. Scott’s classes ended at the same time as ours, but started more than an hour earlier, which was extremely helpful in production week -- students needed all the time they could get.

Session 1: Briefing. The purpose, aspirations, and timeline of our future-jamming project were set out. This included an introduction to the four generic images of the future [Dator], culture jamming and future jamming, and showcasing similar projects to kickstart thinking around possible approaches.

Session 2: Forming teams. Facilitated by the instructors, students brainstormed a long list domains of interest (futures of "X"), and we used a voting process to whittle it down to two: Energy and Media. The joint group was then split in two, and individuals were assigned more or less at random (with sensitivity to arts/politics representation in each) to one of four sub-groups within their domain; eight groups altogether. So, everyone ended up in a small team of four or five, assigned to a domain (energy or media), and a generic future for that domain (continuation, collapse, discipline or transformation: the "four generic images of the future"). The time horizon for scenarios was put at approximately 30 years.

Sessions 3 & 4: Building scenarios, devising artifacts. The students had two sessions to work with their groups to develop the content of their assigned scenario, with instructors’ troubleshooting as necessary. The main criteria for building these scenarios were that groups should find a story to tell that they themselves found interesting, and that might be ridiculous at first sight, but which would seem quite plausible on closer inspection (following Dator's second law [pdf]). Happily, we were able to access a large art production room with enough space and chairs for all eight groups to convene. By the end of the week they turned in a half-page narrative of their scenario, together with a shortlist of intended artifacts or experiential interventions which could express it. So, for example, the Media/Transformation group submitted the following:

Scenario

It is the year 2038. Multiple devices are no longer necessary for communication. Mobile communication and internet access is consolidated into a chip half the size of a dime that is implanted into the brain. This tiny chip is connected to the neural passages that allow all the senses to be fully integrated into the user’s communication experience. Our newest product has proven physically and mentally safe for several hundred users, and several new features have been added.

The chip was made in 2018 by Hans Fineman of Fineman Universal Corporation initially made as a prototype for the United States Armed Services to be used to communicate during warfare. By 2035 a consumer form of the chip is distributed in select countries and several companies by that time made compatible content available to subscribers.

Materials

A printed business card flyer with a url
A website with information


That's exactly what the group went on to do (whereas the plans of most others, especially the more ambitious ones, changed as time marched by).

Website promo card design: Media/Transformation | Photo: Stuart Candy

Sessions 5 & 6: Production. We moved our operation to a computer room in the art school, since the equipment was necessary for the graphic design of almost every artifact produced. Space was tight but energy high. During this phase, Scott in particular dealt with an astonishing variety of challenges as people sought to translate their ideas into tangible pieces.

Media/Collapse group's posters in production | Photo: Stuart Candy

Poster design: Media/Collapse

Session 7: Installation and recording. Students had resolved to do their installations largely on campus at UH-Manoa. Output ranged from a website selling brain-implanted communication devices (and promotional materials distributed to drive traffic there); to magnets affixed to cars’ gas-cap covers, reminders drivers about the phasing out of gasoline in 02038; to a candle-lit surfboard memorial for a dissident Hawaiian felled by Chinese occupiers. And so on. They were asked to document intensively so their efforts might be preserved for posterity.

Session 8: Conclude installation, group presentations and debriefing. Each group did a powerpoint presentation on their scenario and its manifestation. Everyone who had been steadily immersed in their own project finally had an opportunity to see what their counterparts, assigned to the other domain, or to the other three futures within their own domain, had been doing.

Installation of designs by Energy/Transformation group | Photo: Stuart Candy

Design: Energy/Transformation | Photo: Stuart Candy

Some lessons (not exhaustive):

1. Clear constraints enable creativity. The 22 undergraduates who wound up in my class were on the whole extremely gracious about not getting the standard introduction to politics that many of them had, reasonably enough, anticipated (especially in the midst of an upcoming U.S. presidential election). I wouldn’t change anything there, but I certainly would recommend making clear to students how an unorthodox task like this fits into whatever else they might be expecting. There were occasional complaints about insufficient instruction in the assignment, but I tried to be forthcoming about the reason for leaving so much to the groups’ discretion. It seems to me that for an exercise such as this, the guidelines for scenario-building and deadlines for each phase are best treated as clear and strict, to enable maximum innovation (and concomitant assuming of responsibility) within the degrees of freedom thereby laid down.

2. Randomly assigned groups are a crapshoot. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Some teams needed closer attention than others where, for instance, production skills were less well developed. So it goes.

3. Every installation strategy has its tradeoffs. I would love to see more output ranging beyond print artifacts. Since this was a digital imaging collaboration (rather than, say, a theatre class), output understandably leaned towards print and web. Even so, in previous FoundFutures outings we have found print posters and brochures to be (along with websites) the cheapest, easiest, media to use for future artifacts -- or at least the ones lying squarely on the path of least resistance. More varied and imaginative approaches are possible, but they may require more opportunity for planning than print and web production, which lend themselves to last-minute execution. Tradeoffs emerge. Easy installations are also easily undone (most posters in non-designated areas were immediately torn down; while some of those placed on bulletin boards remained for weeks). Highly visible and impactful setups may also be highly vulnerable (the Media/Collapse group's guerrilla "memorial" installed in the campus centre was short-lived; they were moved along unsympathetically by nearby staff). Permission can clear the way to more striking interventions, but it takes time, and risks a negative answer. Examples: Media/Discipline wanted to display an "official" instructional presentation about “redeeming media rations” in Hawaii, 02030) on flatscreen TVs in the campus centre; meanwhile, Media/Continuation had the marvellous idea of taking over a campus vending machine, or at least one or two of its slots, with their 02038 product, iDream pills (in rebranded tic-tac packets). These were both great concepts that didn’t eventuate: official clearance impossible in the short time available.

4. Under-documentation is a pitfall. Lots of photos don’t turn out, so when you're working in digital, there's no such thing as taking too many. If I did it all again, I’d want to devote more attention to helping students install and record their interventions. (That phase spilled over from the original intended single date, session seven, into the following class -- a time issue, on which see more below.) Not every group will be blessed with an experienced photographer, so it may even be worthwhile bringing in others to follow and document the groups’ work during installation (and, particularly, the encounters of unsuspecting members of the public with the artifacts). Not filming, photographing, interviewing, or actively promoting as much as we might have is a familiar problem from several FoundFutures projects, and in truth even with experience it hasn't become any easier to remedy by our own efforts, because the logistical pressure of performance always seems to push these to the background. Help would be great to have for this phase.

5. Time is always short. This isn’t all we did during the semester: there were 16 weeks, and the project I’ve outlined here took up just four of them. (The spring break didn’t in fact result in any progress. It’s not clear that anything much gets done outside of class time; certainly I would not want to count on it.) Overall, I think it could certainly have been spread out over a longer period, and the quality of the work would benefit from a slightly more leisurely pace. At a minumum, if I were to do it again I’d try for two weeks of production time rather than one. A lot begins to shift, and thus requires room to adapt, as you concretise a scenario’s abstractions.

6. It worked. The interaction of art/design-trained people and newbie futurists (who, despite their newness to the field, brought diverse experience in other areas to the table) generated the kind of energy that I'd hoped for, and that typically characterises creative interdisciplinary work. The end-semester feedback from students was extremely positive, and happily, suggested that our plans (of engaging them via hands-on expression of their ideas) had borne some fruit.

To anyone interested in knowing more, educators in particular, may I suggest taking a look at our class blog "alternativity" (which has been a public document from day one), and I'd be delighted to pass on the syllabus. Let's bring other voices to this ongoing conversation about making futures tangible via design.

Designs, installation and photo: Energy/Collapse

Website: Energy/Discipline

Gas cover magnet design: Energy/Discipline
See also Ka Leo [campus newspaper] report

Poster designs and installation: Media/Discipline | Photo: Stuart Candy

Poster design: Energy/Continuation

Production week in full swing | Photo: Stuart Candy

Thanks to all the students in my Intro to Political Science section; you were a pleasure to teach. A hearty cheers to Scott Groeniger, a willing and highly skilled collaborator, and his intrepid troupe of digital imagers; and also to Jim Dator for setting a fine example which informed so much of what I tried to do in the classroom.

Related posts:
> Design fiction is a fact
> Behold: a disturbing hole!
> Why the language of design must enter law and politics

4 comments:

Jake Dunagan said...

THANK YOU for that terrific summary. It was great to see so many new artifacts I hadn't seen before. The students did a wonderful job. This class was ground-breaking and will be prove to be a seminal model for innovative futures/politics education. Good-f*ing-onya.

stuart candy said...

Köszönöm szépen, amigo. The fact that it all went so smoothly has everything to do with the countless hours that we've spent working together on similar projects. A goodness upon you, sir.

By the way, more critical feedback and questions are welcome. Please let me know if there are any specific aspects of the process that ought to be addressed in more detail.

Gabriel Shalom said...

This reminds me strongly of a workshop we did with Fiona Raby in Karlsruhe several years ago. The output was a children's coloring book and a short video, based on a scenario in the future in which BP focuses its economic activity around biogas generated by giant mutant pigeons (so-called "bigeons"). Hilarious and fun project.

See also a class I taught in Berlin in which my students analyzed current trends which reflect predictions made in scifi films.

stuart candy said...

Gabriel, I appreciate your comment. The approach of Fiona Raby (and Tony Dunne, et al) in the Design Interactions department at Royal College of Art (RCA) does indeed bear a certain resemblance to what's described above. I was a visiting lecturer at RCA in March '09, at Fiona and Tony's invitation, so we had some opportunity to explore it then (more on that). However, there are key differences too. One is that their students usually produce work for gallery-type settings, rather than for installation "in the wild", which means different audiences, types of output, and circumstances of encounter. Another is that the scenarios behind their objects, videos etc are (as I recall) generally based on one or several "emerging issues", a.k.a. "weak signals". (Both these terms are ones futurists use; I think the catchall term at RCA may be "statistics".) In other words, their "scenarios" are developed from one or a few inspirational, whimsical starting points (e.g., "what if the excrement of giant birds were to become a viable energy source?"). We could say they're produced with an "inductive" logic, that extrapolates from those initial ingredients, whereas the characteristic Dator/Manoa process, using "generic futures", is to flesh out four (usually, though the number can vary) systematically differing alternative futures, working backwards from their narrative arcs (continue, collapse, discipline, or transform) and filling in their features using a process that Dator has called "deductive forecasting". Both ways require a mix of logic and imagination, but they yield stories with different emphases, and the latter approach, being developed as a futures studies method, understandably lends itself to the more systematic exploration of possibility space. The former tends to yield more playful, "arty", literally fabulous outcomes.

Anyway it would be great to hear more about the "we" that did the workshop with Fiona Raby, and what you make of the differences, as well as the similarities, that you notice. The video linked is amusing, but to me a little confusing without context -- is the children's book online anywhere? And it would also be very interesting to know what you all learned from the comparison of current trends with images of the future in sci-fi movies...

Thanks again for stopping by.