2023 has been a quiet, inspiring, yet difficult year as the companion to Future Machine. An uphill climb with Future Machine in tow.
First, the climate modelling that is at the heart of the project and my arts practice, since 2011, has been proven right, if not a little understated. The impacts, tipping points and uncertainties are happening earlier than expected. In reality that means the sea ice in the polar regions is melting faster than projected and the Arctic and Antarctic are warming up at times by 35 degrees – this is more than the rise in temperature from a wintry to a hot summers day in England! The UN have stated the world is now boiling! The global temperature and many local temperatures are higher than they have been for over 100,000 years, deaths from over heating are greater than they have ever been. There are more wild fires than ever. There has been weekly news of a new out of control wildfire killing people and burning down their homes, towns and the forests that surround them, in places that rarely get wild fires – such as this week in Hawaii. In other places the storms and floods are fiercer than ever seen in these recent 100,000 years of life.
Meanwhile, in England 2023, we had a heatwave and drought in June and then we were on the cooler side of the increasingly confused gulf stream. In fact we’ve had a typically mixed, wet British Summer since June. Returning this week (whilst Hawaii is on fire) to sun and warmth again. When I lived on a boat I learnt that you have to be outdoors to know what the weather is like, to catch the sunny hot, warm days and moments and see the rainbows. In a room with a small window, looking at the screen, you are endlessly stuck with a vague feeling of rain and cloud and neverending British gloom. Yet, the numerous tomatoes finally reddening in my front yard say different.
Future Machine in 2023 is having a quiet year. Funding and partnerships are increasingly hard to secure with this year’s cuts, and major changes have happened to the way that art and research is supported and valued (of course it’s the same and worse across the rest of the public sector – and yes socially engaged arts is part of the public sector in the UK). Increasingly asking for statistics, demographics, targets, monitoring and outcomes, funders expect artists to be teachers, social workers, park rangers, box tickers and any other profession than working with the imagination. All for the priviledge of earning below the minimum wage, sometimes paying to work – which it seems is not illegal in the UK if you are a self employed artist.
So with all this sometimes in the foreground, often in the background, Future Machine continues the journey across England slowly and quietly. In February, unable at the last minute to meet in Oxfordshire, a small cardboard Future Machine maquette went for a walk with my collaborators Juliet Robson and Glenn Bryant along the lanes of Rotherfield Peppard as winter turned to Spring. In April, after a ground zero clearance of the shrubs and flowers that were our friends, that we had mapped with the local primary school ‘something amazing happened’ in Nottingham’s Christ Church Gardens. We met under the blossom trees, with a visit from Mr X from London and his amazing artwork on wheels, Frank lit up the year 2023 under the blossoms, we ate samosas, drank tea and coffee, people spoke to the future and all together we made a procession back to Primary. During the afternoon local families met Future Machine in the gardens, speaking to the future as they played in the rain.
In July, when the leaves were fully green on the trees, on a mid-summer day of changeable weather, Future Machine appeared in Somerset. We walked from the brook to Cannington Primary School and spent the day with staff and pupils, next to the newly planted trees, that my collaborator Caroline Locke had planted with the children in March. Every class came to meet us and spoke to the future, sometimes dancing to the weather music playing out the breezy, warm day, at times a little rain. We ended the day back at Caroline’s mum’s house with her two friends. They met Future Machine and offered to become Guardians when Future Machine returns to Cannington, when again the leaves go green on the newly planted trees.
As summer rolls on we discover we weren’t succesful in our funding application to the Arts Council due to lack of monitoring and demographic information. We are told there is not enough evidence that our audiences create and decide what the art is and how it happens. It seems someone in government is a follower of Plato, rewriting the rules for socially engaged art, to banish the artists. I suppose if you just have arts organisations and a stereotypical vision of public engagement you don’t need to pay artists or think about the imagination, and if you can ask AI so much the better.
So we continue quietly and slowly. Next to Cumbria, as summer ends, we will have a small gathering by the River Leven, talk about the changing climate and the waters, and speak to the future.
2023 will come to an end with Future Machine returning to Finsbury Park, as the autumn leaves fall. We hope the tree we planted in the Spring will survive the summer, after it was nearly killed by the early drought. We hope to celebrate the Autumn with music, food and dancing. Future Machine will lead a small procession around the park, Esi Eshun will lead a tree forum of seven trees linked to the seven sisters, Alex and Dave will lead the music and dancing.
As I walked back from a long afternoon meeting at the Commons in Finsbury Park where the London team is in residence, I looked around this place, our park. It is impossible not to see this place as it physically is, full of people, some trees, grass, a few flowers in the landscaped MacKenzie Gardens and in and around the community gardens that top and tail the park in very different ways – Edible Landscapes and Weeds & Seeds – some wild flowers along the edges. The park is mainly full of people. From everywhere, from all over the world, speaking all languages, from all over London, all over this part of North London where all the boroughs meet. The rough, the sporty, the dealers, the homeless, the gangs, the active, the music makers, the passersby, the passers through, the picnickers, the curious, the brave, the woman shitting behind the tree.
Future Machine began here. It began to take its form close, in fact, to where I was born and grew up, close too to where my family lived, the first two generations of us in this country, in this part of London, where the immigrants arrive on the Hackney side. The other side is where they go if they get rich and settled. Although increasingly you need to be rich to live anywhere around here. I have the great priviledge now to be living here, no longer on a narrow boat, when I’m in London, divided as much now as it was when my great-grandmother arrived here on her own aged 11 years old, in the early 1900s. After nearly 30 years away from London, and 100-ish years of my family being British citizens, this city still feels alien to me.
Here, in Finsbury Park, although I should now call it home, I feel like a visitor, a re-visitor. Maybe everyone feels that way which it is why it is so transitory. Yet I have been given the keys to this historic and important park and have been offered, along with my collaborators Alex Dayo, Dave Kemp and Esi Eshun a place to manage, to steward. In the darkest, most derelict corner we have tried to bring imagination into this place where racial and class segregation, desperation and aggression seeps through the park like the mud after a rainy weekend. We try to enliven this place through music, Future Machine, food and planting. It’s a dance of one step forward and two steps backward.
We will continue to come together to celebrate, make music, tell stories and dance. To speak to the future. To dampen the disappointment, anger, frustration and fears of this year of 2023. To return to the flow of this strange 30 year artwork we have created and the hope it brings each time it returns.
Amazing things will happen. We will go quiet, we will gather, we will build up again.