banner tied to metal fence saying You need to stay 2 metres apart to save lives now

Spring without the Future Machine

Due to Covid-19 and the lockdown the Future Machine is also in lockdown in my studio in Nottingham. I am in London living on our narrow boat on the River Lea. I have some parts of the machine here, it’s brain, the trumpets, the new steel and brass dials half made. I am working with my creative tech team Robin Shackford and Dominic Price to build a mobile version of the Future Machine but it is taking time to reflect upon what this might be, how it might work and why it should be. Here are some of my reflections, I will keep blogging as we build the app and think about, with my collaborators how the Future Machine can withstand this current crisis as the planet mutates, as Bruno Latour suggests it is…

The marshes and tow path on the river are much busier than normal, despite the lockdown. The CRT (Canals and Rivers Trust)) have said people shouldn’t use the tow paths or walk where boaters are living. Everyone seems to be doing the opposite, despite the difficulty of keeping 2 metres apart as you pass, joggers, dog walkers, cyclists, families, passing by our drafty windows.

Last weekend my partner and I had to make a very difficult decision and move onto my partners narrow boat on the River Lea. Of course everyone’s lives has been halted, upturned, rethought. I have no idea when I will be able to return to the making and refining of the Future Machine. I am concerned about the wood which I was just about to revarnish and the copper that I was midway through cleaning. The battery needs a regular recharge. The blossom tree that we were meant to meet under and celebrate when it reaches full bloom. Most of this can be rethought, open up new perspectives, lessons to learn, but the yearning for the physical creation of the artwork, the Future Machine, and the sight and feel of those particular blossom trees in Christ Church Gardens is acute, a grief, a commitment and promise missed.

But here I have the river. Moorhens, ducks, friendly swans, geese, coots and cormorants, hawthorn blossom and alive Ash Trees as companions (as opposed to the ash wood formed into an octagonal Future Machine). One of the boats by the lock has a sign saying,

‘Sorry! The lifestyle you ordered is currently out of stock’

Do we ‘return to nature’ now? Does our responsibility reach down to a certain level of poverty, depravation or limitation? Sustainability, local living, limited heat and electricity, local growing and moving, is it a constraint or a simplicity – the Monk’s way? Or do we continue to reach up, is the answer in our reach for equality of wealth, ‘the tower of babel’, human endeavour and progress enabling complex, expensively sustainable technological lives, mobility and choice, fuelling our increasingly efficient heating, netflix habits, interconnected worlds and cravings for papayas and mangos.

Today I walked along a stretch of the River Lea. I ended up in a rather run down common land,that reminded me a bit of our Christ Church Gardens in Nottingham. A stretch of reclaimed land that once was a common to grow grain for the local mill, now again a common space. I wandered amongst the wild over grown paths taking photos and searching for signs, literal and conceptual.

I found a man living next to the picnic table amongst the trees, I didn’t photograph him of course and walked on.

I wondered back along the tow path to our boat, people here are out and about, it’s not a place of many houses with big gardens and particularly for the local Hasidic Jews families are large. People are everywhere along the tow path, in the parks, sitting along the river, with only half a nod to the 2 metre rule.

The graffiti is apocalyptic.

I have been reading a book about Fate, Luck and Fortune by my colleague and collaborator Esther Eidinow, a Professor of Ancient History. Because of my work about climate change I come into contact with thinking about uncertainty often. Living uncertainty, well that is harder to think about.

Esther writes about Sophocles’ story of Oedipus, not from the Freudian perspective but from the perspective of Moira, Tuche and Daimones (Fate, Luck and Fortune). How it is an exploration of our mortal confusion, arrogance and ignorance of the divine. How we misunderstand the rules, are arrogant enough to believe we can twist the world to our will and mortal desires. We do not understand how ignorant we often are of the facts of life. Oedipus did not know the man he met and murdered on his journey was his father. He did not know the woman he married was his mother. Should his instincts have told him? He did not inhabit the world in this way.

This maybe can tell us something of these times. Rereading this I imagine a meme that places Trump or Johnson as Oedipus, shooting themselves in the foot, but we are all protaginists in this story. Memes are purely cultural distractions. They cannot tell us what to do today. What we decide to do next based on what we know, or don’t know?

This makes sense of Hulme’s myths about climate futures. Depending on our experiences of fate, luck and fortune, our existing belief systems and socio-economic, spiritual/religious and political values we tend towards different narratives as we consider, and live, through times of great uncertainty.

Some seek to celebrate the jubilee – the Sabbath of Sabbath, time going fallow to reflect and see the error of our ways. This will reveal to us all our wrong doings and we will be rewarded, a new dawn, the age of Aquarius, the children of the revolution, we will finally emerge into a utopian world of mutual aid. Dolphins, whales, hippos and birds will live amongst us peacefully again and we’ll all have enough fresh organic food to eat and good books to read, and great music to dance and sing along with.

Of course this is not everyone’s reading of the Covid-19 virus, or climate change for that matter. As Theognis saw the world, this may be an opportunity to rebalance the good and the bad, to come out winning. Status, merit, punishment and retribution will be delivered by the gods (or by availability of health services, stable savings accounts and investments).

This may be a time of grief, where us mortals stumble in the dark, are lost again in the desert and have to learn simply to walk and breathe again. The virus takes away all that was good (holidays, easy access to supermarket produce, pubs) and leaves us alone and scared watching Netflix (pixelated due to lower bandwidth) 24/seven.

I’m thinking about responsibility. How this is different from action, charity, help, even possibly care. If we don’t know what we don’t know, if we live in an uncertain world where us mortals only know half the rules, then how do we ‘act’ with ‘responsibility’, given that our narratives of what is responsible is different, based on our belief systems.

What seems specific about the crisis is that all levels of human society are being forced to consider relationships and responsibilities to bodies as well as beings. It is our physical presence and health that is under threat. Suddenly the physically healthy need to remember our bodies and our relations to each other and the physical world, that we are more than feelings, desires and needs. Two bodies on a narrow bridge over a river, negotiating a space between us of less than 2 metrres without coughing or sneezing.

Even our rather overweight and physically bumbling prime minister must negotiate his body, wash his hands on TV and put his body behind the doors of No.11 Downing St without contaminating his ministers, pregnant girfriend and publics. *I wrote this before we heard how that worked out!

Obviously many of us are already aware in this way, those of us with disabilities and health issues navigate the world in this way everyday. Sometimes to the point that our bodies become our being, sometimes others see only our bodies and not our whole beings. A pandemic reveals this navigation of the world to others as well as revealing whole new layers of vulnerability for those who navigate this as their everyday.

Climate change follows similar rules, but is less seen of course still in many places in the world. It has a more complicated narrative of cause and effect (although maybe the virus narrative is still being written) but the navigation of responsibilities, of bodies, of choices, of what do I do today, what do I do next is surely the same.

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