Thoughts on social cities of tomorrow conference

This post also appears on the blog of my theatre company, Proto-type Theater. You can view it there by clicking here.

Last Thursday I flew to Amsterdam for a quick trip to the Social Cities of Tomorrow conference which was being held at the MC Theatre. The last time I was in Amsterdam was in 2004 when I was (briefly) a student at Das Arts, a postgraduate programme for theatre artists. My time at Das Arts wasn’t fabulous…the programme was going through a massive shift and it wasn’t at all the advanced laboratory I had expected. I was trying to push my practice into more conceptual territory at the time, and the head of the school wanted me to keep doing the same work I had been doing for years. So, my time living in Amsterdam was a brief encounter that was very much clouded by negative feelings. It was really nice, then, to come return to rediscover Amsterdam out of that context.

The crowd at lunch, MC Theatre

The conference was incredibly inspiring, despite the fact that I was getting a progressively worse cold/flu thing over the time I was there. The structure of the programme was arranged around three keynotes from remarkable presenters: Usman Haque (founder of, Natalie Jeremijenko (founder of the xDesign Environmental Health Clinic [TED TALK HERE]) and Dan Hill (from Sitra). Between each of the keynotes, there were showcase presentations of work spanning a range of projects that were in some way addressing the notion of a social city. Our friends at Uninvited Guests were there presenting their R&D project from the Theatre Sandbox scheme called Give Me Back My Broken Night. Most of the conference talks were not about art or theatre (with the exception of the Uninvited Guests showcase), but I found my head buzzing like crazy throughout the intensive day. It was a truly inspiring set of speakers that is making me really wonder about what I’m doing with my life. I don’t know exactly what impact it will have on my long term, but it has certainly unsettled me (in a good way).

To give you a sense of why I found it so inspiring, here are a few snaps of thought from the day, in a random list that mimics the firing of synapsis that was happening in my brain:

  • Ownership can be the right to ‘exclude’ but it can also be the right to ‘act’. How do we inspire cities to encourage people to feel ownership so that they are able to ‘act’? What role does art/theatre have to play in this (see Fortnight).
  • “The city is a way of encountering things you don’t know anything about; for meeting people whose background you don’t share” (Usman Haque said this). This very much links with the thinking/writing I’ve been doing since 2006 about the idea that future cities will not be driven by commerce in the same way they are now, but instead by event culture. We no longer have any need to go into a city to buy things, really. When we do, its usually either because we want something ‘right away’ or because we want an experience in the ‘real’ world. Internet shopping is much more efficient and easy, so why shop in city centres anymore? Instead, cities of the future could/should be about providing space for people to have experiences, interactions. Hopefully these events will be driven by communities and not by corporations (but I’m not that hopeful).
  • We tend to think that if we have more knowledge/data/information, we’ll be better equipped to act. Usman was making the point that it isn’t so much about having more data (what people do, when, and how) but about making things tangible and immediate. In other words, you give all kinds of accurate statistics about how bad it is that people pollute/drive cars/etc but until those actions have a tangible result that we experience first hand, it is unlikely that a person will act to create change.
  • An example of the above bullet point, of making your impact on the world tangible, is Usman’s project ‘Natural Fuse‘. Check it out. Amazing.
  • Embrace the complexity, reject simplicity, but make it tangible. I was glad to hear this message throughout the day as its been a founding part of Proto-type’s aesthetic over the years that we don’t simplify…we create complex work that is made tangible. Usman said the role of designers was to represent complexity accurately, not to simplify. I think the role of a theatre director is to do a similar thing – to represent complexity accurately in a theatrical form.
  • Many small actions can add up to significant impacts. This theme ran throughout the presentation by the utterly brilliant Natalie Jeremijenko. Many of her projects are playful mini explorations of the impact of humans on the planet – always done in a way that reveals the complexity of a problem. If anyone can get me a date for a meal with her I’d be super grateful. I’m pretty sure she is the most interesting/smartest person I’ve been near before. Just check out some of her projects and you’ll know what I mean. Genius.
  • Check out this brilliant project in London for homeless people. Someone give them a lot of money to expand this.
  • And look at this game with a fantastic name that was run in the Netherlands. It is like a mini version of some of what happens in Fortnight but on a lower-tech scale.
  • “Technology is the answer. But what was the question.” – Cedric Price. Amen brother.
  • From Dan Hill –>We are living in a time where the complexity of problems are out of scale with the decision making structures of our institutions (universities, governments, planning agencies, etc). The problems we are facing today aren’t clear or clearly delineated; they are interdependent (aka terrorism, environmental collapse, etc). We have 18th century institutions facing 21st century problems. We need to change the systems. <– this makes me think about how small organisations like Proto-type or independent artists like me can challenge the systems we are part of/dependent on. A lot has been said about artists working outside of the systems of funding, distribution etc. I’ve always found the talk from those who advocate for breaking away to be overly naive. So, if exiting the systems isn’t the solution, than how do we change the systems we have? One of the things that came up again and again in relation to this question was that we need concrete projects/problems which make the problems with the system apparent. Rather than trying to change systems abstractly, its best to have a project that forces the change because the project is so good/important/necessary that the system is forced to adapt. In a weird way, this is one of the strategies I’ve been using at MMU where I teach and where the systems are atrocious. I’ve been trying to make the work I do outside of what they want me to do so valuable that they allow me to do it. We’ll see if this strategy works. If not, who wants to hire me?

The notes above might seem to have nothing to do with art making and theatre, but I think they do. How can we make art, specifically art in cities as Proto-type has tended to do, without dealing with the consequences of our collective actions as humans? We need to find ways to live our values through the kind of work we do, how we do it and who we do it for.

And, most of all, playfulness is a brilliant strategy for insuring that our voices are heard.

On that note, I thought I’d share a somewhat crappy video of what was happening in the adjoining cafe to the theatre during the lunch break (check out their outfits and the song they are playing relative to their age). Only in Amsterdam:


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