Becoming Realists of a Larger Reality
In one of her last public speeches Ursula Le Guin called for "realists of a larger reality". She underlined that we need people "who can see alternatives to how we live now. Who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope."
In 2021, those real grounds for hope might seem even more fragile or unsteady. The tentative new ways, or rediscovered old ways of living can easily become overwhelmed with increasingly shrill demands to 'return to normal’. Yet how ’realistic’ are these demands? What can be considered ’normal’ today, next week, next year or the next decades? Instead of returning to ways that have led to our current problems, what other ways of living, being and working could be more realistic?
Let's shift what can be considered realistic. Enlarging it to include more of the reality that we can see around us, and more of those realities that remain invisible. A radio tuning to another station, a microscope, an artwork. Imagine a realism large enough to encompass what is, and what might be. As realists of a larger reality, it becomes our task not just to demand the impossible but to bring it into being.
Larger realities are prone to contradictions, uncertainties and complexity. Causality can act strangely, compassion can be found in unlikely places… A larger reality is not static, but a moving, changing field of relationships. In it, our current circumstances exist in an amorphous space of possibilities.
Becoming a realist of a larger reality requires perspective, practice, a good dose of perseverance and a sprinkling of irreverence. Can one take a realistic perspective, while also being idealistic and pragmatic? Something that might look impossible from one perspective, can seem obvious from another.
The paths we follow, by choice or circumstance, depend on many things — where we are, where we've come from or where we might be going. Is the path well worn, or something we’ve created for ourselves? Is it difficult to follow, or clearly marked? Solitary? Crowded? Hidden? Celebrated? Each of our paths through a larger reality will be distinct. Some might be parallel, some might intersect, or merge for a while, then separate again as the paths connect an reconnect with each other.
No one can prescribe what paths to take, or what realities to embrace, because realistically, none of us can know. What follows is a brief guided tour along five interconnected paths we've been creating at FoAM over two decades, as we make our way through the larger reality.
Mixing Realities of art and technology
This text is a transcript of a talk given through Zoom. A proprietary, closed source platform inspired by board-rooms and business meetings. And yet, even this conservative piece of software can be used to bring us together over great distance, to share our ideas and experiences, to have a small window into each other’s lives, travelling without moving. What else can we experience with so many distributed cameras, microphones, eyes, ears and fingertips? How can we remake this world together? Question the tools. Play with the medium.
Some of us at FoAM have been around long enough to have taken part in with what was called “new media arts” during the 1990s. Back when the possibility of talking, meeting, or performing together over the internet was still a novelty. The technologies were far from seamless, so we worked with the seams, celebrated glitches and embraced latency. We pushed the limits of what could be done with digital technology and, maybe naively, pushed against its homogenisation.
There is a dominant technocratic myth which portrays digital technology as frictionless, invisible, and seamlessly, safely integrated into the everyday. This was, and still is, a mirage. The myth might feel real in it’s own narrow domain, but if we 'Zoom out' into a larger reality, we see that all of our digital technology remains messily entangled with social, economic, material and cultural substrates. The Congolese miners that live in our electronics, the Arctic monitoring stations watching temperatures rise, the invisible flows of capital, the entities who we choose to commune with.
How you engage with technologies can take many forms. Think of AI, blockchains, autonomous drones, or any of the myriad appearing in endless feeds. You might consciously accept or reject them, or work to demystify them. You might become involved in rethinking or creating these systems. As a realist of a larger reality, it’s not enough to just think outside of the box. You have to think about the box as well. You may need to reshape the box, or just forget the box and go outside.
And yet, most of our digital interactions are still in a box. While we're still looking at each other through tiny (or not so tiny) two-dimensional windows, what could we be missing? Despite the increasing bandwidth of data, screen based interaction still reduces our experiential bandwidth. While it’s fantastic that we can gather “remotely” or speak with people on the other side of the planet, our bodily experience of each other still remains limited.
For those of us who find social situations or physical proximity difficult to navigate, this disembodied form of communication can be liberating. For others, having to rely on verbal or visual communication alone can also feel limiting and awkward. Enlarging the reality of our online communication to include a wider spectrum of multi-sensory stimuli, or a more consciously narrowed bandwidth could provide an interesting technological and creative challenge.
Some of our first projects as FoAM, in the early 2000s, were similarly concerned with the range of physical, social and augmented interaction made possible (or impossible) with digital technologies. Fully immersive VR was only accessible through academia or industry at the time. No Oculus or cardboard VR. Mixed reality, on the other hand, could be created using more flexible and affordable systems.
We still needed to patch together makeshift hardware and software configurations, but we could tour with them. Most importantly, we could bring site-specific, immersive installations closer to audiences who wouldn't otherwise come into contact with this kind of technology. We worked in art spaces and public spaces. Through physical portals, in entwined digital and physical spaces, we explored the mythic space of a small Croatian village. We found sonic shelters in the desert. A responsive environment, growing like a luminous forest in a circus building.
By creating spaces where participants could interact with media through touch, movement and voice, they could experience a larger reality that was an augmentation of how they would engage with the world everyday. Generative audio, visuals or tactile interfaces responded to their actions on a human scale. When you do something, and the world responds, you can come to understand how your actions matter. You notice how you change the world and how the world changes you.
Multispecies encounters and experimental ecologies
The capacity for digital technologies to bring different spatio-temporal scales closer to the human sensorium, is a both a gift and a curse for those of us who dwell in a larger reality. It can flatten experience into something tedious just as easily as it can help expand our experience or enhance our sense of wonder. We can focus on parallel presents or possible futures. We can filter shades of the visible and invisible spectrum and encounter the world through eyes and ears shaped differently from ours.
At FoAM this developed as a growing interest in speculative and experimental ecologies. We began from human-computer-interaction (HCI) and expanding into HPI, human-plant-interaction, and interactions with fungi, bees, swamps, rocks and dust. Our responsive environments gradually mutated into physical and alternate reality narratives. We uncovered aspects of reality where plants provide the life force for the development of humans. A machine wilderness where environmental robots train to become part of a landscape, rather than exploiting it for human use. We found seed crystals for a desert city, that began to align the urban with geological time.
These can be seen as “mere images” yet they reveal something more. They show the outlines of realities that are already part of the world we inhabit. They exist as potentials and propositions. Inflatable realities, lures for being otherwise. They are seeds of the possible lurking at the peripheries of consensus reality. In order to experience them, we may need to attune to their latent frequencies. Perhaps by extending our senses through technological, physical or chemical means. Perhaps by practising the craft of noticing, or maybe something else all together.
Over the years, FoAM's work moved from black boxes to the outdoors. We are constantly fine-tuning our capacities for fieldwork, citizen science and deep listening. We attune. We guide individual and collective experiences with beyond-human worlds. Walking, biking, kayaking. In rooted hauntology, environmental sensing, or performances conducted by birds.
With multispecies encounters, we can bring manifestations of the living world closer to our (mostly) human senses. Immersing ourselves in experiences such as gardening or sound walks encourage an intimate engagement with beings and landscapes we might otherwise consider alien. By cultivating such intimacies, we can begin to appreciate their agency. The agency of a bee, lichen or a block of concrete might seem incomprehensible to us, yet they too experience, change and adapt in response to their environment, to each other. Is it more difficult to clearcut the forest that witnessed your first kiss, or drain a swamp whose sounds lull you to sleep?
For all of FoAM's existence, we - as most other humans - have been grappling with our shift into the anthropocene and our relationships with very different agencies, human and non-human, corvid and non-corvid, at macro and micro scales. As a transdisciplinary network, we work with people who often have contradictory environmental visions and cultural politics. Tech-bros and eco-feminists. Speculative designers, hairshirt ecologists and hardline scientists. Arts administrators, business leaders, queer activists, and normcore realists…
One of our roles has been to make space for people to co-exist. We can probe underneath the differences to find places that really hurt or provide shared joy. Most people believe that they are good, or capable of good, as much as they can be. Maybe Good but wronged. Good but discriminated against. Good but misunderstood. Good, if it wasn’t for the Bad situation. No matter how good we try to be, if we feel that our needs aren't met, if we aren't seen and heard, we can lash out, or retreat, or do something bad, hurt ourselves or others. But underneath all that, there is often just a longing to live well, to have a good life, and to belong to something larger.
In a larger reality, we can expand the stage of interactions, we can create unholy alliances beyond dogmatic boundaries. To reduce fragmentation and violence, we can clamber across the barricades of identity, politics, race, gender, diet (or whatever else we decide distinguishes us from others). We don’t necessarily have to share beliefs. We don't have to condone or respect each other's behaviour. We don't have to like each other. But we do have to find ways to live and die next to each other, on this one damaged planet we share. The larger reality demands we keep the planet hospitable, for ourselves and each other, at least long enough to figure out interstellar travel.
Hosting culture and hospitality
Hospitality became one of FoAM's critical survival skills. Our studios are hybrids between laboratories, kitchens and living rooms. Our public experiments include social spaces to compress, decompress, reflect or relax together. Our meals, no matter how frugal, can always extend to accommodate unexpected guests.
Hospitality isn't just something that supports our artistic work. It is an art and it is the work. This might sound counterintuitive in cultures glorifying individualism and personal gain. Yet, it's common sense for those who acknowledge the interdependence underlying our relationships.
A crisis is difficult to face alone. Whether an economic downturn, violent conflict, or a lockdown. No matter how much you stockpile or how much you isolate, reality has a way of seeping through even the most non-permeable of walls. And when it does, you'll probably have to depend on the kindness and solidarity of others. So, it's important to create convivial conditions, rituals and practices way before finding yourself in a crisis.
In a time of hardened borders and interrupted supply chains, our translocal and outernational kinship networks are becoming ever more precious. They're our allies in the resistance against isolationist nationalism, hyper-locality or xenophobia. When several of us were stranded abroad in the spring of 2020, we could rely on people whom FoAM had previously hosted as collaborators, residents or workshop participants. They reciprocated in the spirit of our shared hosting culture.
Many of us are used to forms of co-presence that do not rely on physical proximity alone. Think of distributed communities of practice, apprenticeships, residencies, workshops. Hospitality here extends to techniques of hosting and process facilitation, to the formal and informal rituals of conviviality. Some, but not all are bound to a particular space.
So when the pandemic prevented us from being in the same space, we experimented with creating hospitable, shared places online. We prepared and delivered quarantine care packages for shared meals during online workshops. We listened to each other's spaces in silence and constructed cubist rituals. Most importantly, we acknowledged that we were all struggling, in one way or another, and gave ourselves permission to try things out.
Some hosting techniques don't translate well to online spaces, yet the spirit of hospitality and reciprocity seems continuous. It doesn’t have to be bound to a place. It can foster belonging which is trans-local, rooted in mutual recognition rather than physical proximity. It makes a hospitable place, a home, with all the awkward interruptions, tensions and inconsistencies and of the in-between.
During the current pandemic many more homes became hybrid spaces for life and work. For some of us, who could not “return home” due to travel restrictions, our spare rooms, caravans and apartments became shared resources. Home became a string of nodes. Some were inhabited, some left empty. Those that were empty became shelters for displaced friends. Hospitality during a pandemic extends to infrastructure. If we can create hospitable conditions, we can act as disembodied yet no less welcoming hosts, providing hospitality without being physically present.
Think about what you consider as “home” and what your home can become. Extend your shelter with an expansive potential for use as a shared resource. Like in age-old monastic traditions your home could become a refuge to live and work collectively, yet apart. Shelter doesn't have to be a physical space either. There is and will continue to be a need for emotional, economic and spiritual sheltering from hostile cultural elements.
Vulnerability is one of the endemic aspects of the times we’re living in. Vulnerability of our cultures, our species, our habitats and our fellow Earthlings. The scale and scope of vulnerability can be humbling and depressing.
Yet sometimes it's worth standing under the weight of this reality rather than rushing to understand or trying to fix problems. It's worth learning to dwell in the dark as well as striving for light. Darkness and grief and despair can teach us to care. To be with beings and circumstances beyond our control.
No one can provide a simple, general solution to the convoluted conundrums we're faced with. There might be simple, grandiose promises, but be sceptical of solutionism. Question everything, (even your teaspoons). Create spaces to sit with each other's darkness and difference. Just sit. Sometimes doing nothing is the most radical thing you can do. Learn to stay with whatever happens. The good, the bad, the ugly. Become comfortable with not knowing and notice what happens. Remain open and alert, watchful for weak signals, pink elephants and black swans.
As we transition from one phase of the Covid-19 pandemic to another, from one uncertain time to another, try to consciously inhabit this liminal phase. It is both a critical and fertile time. There is a strong pull to return to a pre-pandemic normal. A normal which in many ways was never sustainable. If we return to that normal, we'll face the same problems, we’ll end up having to go through another, perhaps even more painful transition, until the things than need to change have changed.
If we dare to dwell in this uncomfortable liminality for a little longer, experiment with how things could be otherwise, we could emerge from this transition with some valuable sketches for times to come. Look for things that might be overlooked, things that seem impermanent and incomplete.
Rather than holding onto familiar ways of doing things, this is a time for devising different ways to be and act in the world. With the present and future adrift, the contours of a larger reality become more readily apparent. Things as they could be and might yet be. If we expand our navigational skills. If we situate ourselves in a wider possibility space. Maybe even find ourselves moving between reality tunnels.
Now is a time to seed as many alternatives as possible; knowing what you're pushing against, but not knowing what might take hold. Once the transition is complete, it will be too late. Behaviours solidify into habits, actions into conventions.
Sharpen your speculative tools and tune your experiential lenses for a larger reality. Configure, prefigure, re-configure. Rehearse, prehearse. Re-enact, enact. Do it yourself and do it with others.
Change manifests differently when seen from multiple angles. Try using divergent or even conflicting techniques. Engage with magical, scientific, and poetic perspectives. Seek out the fundamentals, but avoid Fundamentalism. As enchanting as it might sound, “The One True Path” does not exist. The Way Out is through. The way out is The Way In. Don’t be afraid to meander. To stumble, leap, or retrace your steps. To start again. Reach for a telescope as you reach for the stars. Pay attention to what glistens in the puddles under your feet. Verify your experiences, challenge your insights. Trust in your abilities, your agency, common and uncommon sense.
Train yourself (and with those around you) not to panic when things go really wrong. Be ready to mourn and ready to rejoice. Notice when things are going well and enjoy them while they last. Be prepared for the downside as much as the upside. Experiment. Bridge. Entangle. Relate. When systems crumble, grow new worlds in the cracks.
This is a transcript of my talk for Zhdk Phd Summer Course on the 2nd of June 2021. I'd like to acknowledge that this text has had many human and non-human contributors. In particular, I'd like to thank Nik Gaffney, Justin Pickard, Theun Karelse and all FoAM members whose work this article is based on.
Created: 15 Jul 2021 / Updated: 23 Oct 2021