I woke up this morning from a dream about seeing Fleetwood Mac play a tiny gig for twelve people in a quiet courtyard in Canberra, and I was utterly stumped for a long time about where I was. London? Sydney? I was under a comfortable doona and it was 6.30am and that was all I could figure out.
Came to me slowly, I’m in China. Shanghai, specifically. And so right now I’m writing a quick update in a little cafe near Changshu Station, and there’s a wintry sun and motorbikes weaving past the pedestrians on the pavement outside.
For the last two weeks I’ve been in Castlemaine, rural Victoria, for the Castlemaine State Festival. Gobyerno was programmed, and so myself and the Sipat crew (in this instance: Jk, Ness, Brandon, Ralph, Clyde, Alon, Ienne and me) were in residence for a fortnight.
We were paired with eight students from Castlemaine Secondary College (word to Heidi, Xavier, Michael, Murray, Hannah, Nick, Gabe and Dash) who were on board as co-facilitators to deliver seven shows in five days. The first three to Year 9 and 10 students from the secondary school, and then four public shows on the weekend.
If you’ve not read about this before, Gobyerno is a large-scale participatory work originally devised by Ness, Jk, Brandon and I back in 2015, in which the audience create their own ideal government. They manifest that government first through a process of conversations and discussions, and then by devising and filming a documentary about their ideas. The documentary is filmed as a high-energy long-take, with the participants responsible for every aspect – the camera, art, performance, music, script, set, the whole thing – to a formula we provide them. It’s a 2.5 hour show, and a marathon, every time.
It was a pleasure working with our student collaborators – having never met them prior, we were thrown into an intense fortnight-long full-time project, and they totally rose to it, and by the end were doing more than their fair share of the presenting. And the festival was great, but oh, it’s hard work facilitating.
I’d never intended to be a facilitator / performer in the show – I always pictured myself as a writer / devisor instead. But in the Australian context, it made sense to have an Australian facilitator as part of the mix, so. My first time actually performing in the show since Manila, 2015, and I’d forgotten how tiring it is to perform, to manage conversations, to make it all run.
But it was great. We had good chats, interesting audience contributions, and in the final show, a really fascinating conversation with several Duterte supporters from Davao, which is a pretty good perspective to include in a conversation with mostly middle-class Australian arts audiences.
And then I went straight from Castlemaine to Sydney, and on a plane to Shanghai with the rest of the Best Festival Ever crew. We’re here performing as part of CAMP – the China Australian Millenials Project – a conference / laboratory for 80 young Chinese and Australian entrepeneurs, who are developing new projects over the next three months.
I stole pics from Nathan’s FB feed – we’re not in any of them, you will have to take my word for it that we were there
From a community arts project in rural Victoria with secondary school students talking about political activism and protest, to sitting in the headquarters of Intel in an industrial park in Shanghai learning about Chinese business investment policy. This life is baffling sometimes. Varied, on the verge of being schizophrenic.
The context in Britain is just so different. From the test shows I did there, climate change is not the same kind of issue as it is in the US and Australia. They don’t have the same kind of culture wars that we’ve had, talkback radio is not as incessant as it is in my home country, and of course, destroying Australia’s Parliament House is way less resonant to British audiences than it is to Australians. Which has meant leaning in to other aspects of the story – drilling down into the late-80s flashpoint when climate science began to be politicised (thanks to Hana Martin for teasing this out with me).
So now I’m excited about getting to try to land this in April:
9.00pm Thursday 13 – Saturday 15 April Camden Peoples Theatre, London
Also last weekend, South Australian writer/director Ben Brooker put on a digital theatre performance of the comments on Kate Hennessy’s Guardian article about Kill Climate Deniers. It’s called DON’T READ THE COMMENTS, and basically it was a livestreamed adaptation of the discussion thread from the Guardian article, which is a 191-deep discussion between concerned Guardian readers, and then an en masse invasion of commenters from a climate deniers blog, bless their hearts.
I like this because it’s another weird way in which this strange work keeps rippling out, which is exactly what it should be.
And on that note: this is the moment when I say, I’m inviting anyone who’s interested, to go ahead and produce this play. Unlike most of my work, I’ve had a reason to keep this one close to home for its first 12 months, but now that the album, walking tour, ebook and solo show exist, it is time for an actual THEATRE PRODUCTION.
I don’t know what a production of Kill Climate Deniers should look like – could look like – when I close my eyes to picture it I always picture the lights turned out and Get Ready for This blasting at full volume and a drone wheeling through the air and everyone glammed up in great lipstick and who even knows what else – but I like being surprised and I’d like to see it happen.
little bit of this, word ienne vergara for the pic
Sitting in the departure lounge, about to depart Melbourne after a week here. It’s been beautiful, one of those bursts of glorious chaos in in the life of all the ups and downs.
The two weeks prior I spent in Canberra, working on some new material, doing some edits and fixes on projects, and generally having time by myself to work on some long-range stuff. That’s a pleasure and a privilege, but as always, when you’re doing that early stage work, it feels a bit aimless and directionless. A couple of false starts, and of course there’s no home for this new work, so I finished up feeling a little lost.
One week later, and I look back and think: Good, I did some early draft work, I tried out some formats, I collated some research and started turning it into scraps of new material. That’s good. I don’t know what it equates to yet but it’s good, and I’m grateful I took the time. It will end up somewhere, somehow.
But this week was the opposite, this was one of those weeks where it all rushes at you, where there’s heaps going on and you feel like the walls come down, for a second, you feel like if you just keep pressing something will give way and you can break through, to wherever, however.
I arrived in Melbourne and went straight to the Lonely Company’s Beta Festival, which was a bundle of kickass scripts-in-development by a bunch of my favourite Melbourne writers (Jess Bellamy! Mark Wilson! Rachel Perks! Emma Hall! Eric Gardiner! Fleur Kilpatrick! & more, & more), which was lovely to see coming out of a two week period of trying to write new work, because it reminded me of what’s possible in script writing. There are so many ways that performance writing can animate ideas, manifest thoughts and worlds and feelings. And as much as Kill Climate Deniers took me out of the immediate realm of script-writing, that’s still my natural home. It was beautiful, and I’m grateful to Lonely Company for making it happen.
beautiful sarah walker pic, as ever
A conversation with Sarah Walker about 44 Sex Acts In One Week, where she sparked all kinds of good possibilities, and left me with a whole bundle of new threads to follow and untangle. (Collaborate with good people, Finig, always, always.)
And then the second half of the week was the Water Futures conference, TippingPoint Australia and Arts House’s gathering of artists, scientists, politicians and activists, to explore and develop ideas around the issue of water sustainability. There were so many pieces and parts to this, so many brilliant speakers and sharp voices and perspectives, particularly the Indigenous and First Nations participants. Tony Birch was as incredible as everyone says he is. And: on average, humanity has built one large dam every day for the last 130 years.
I gave a short presentation about Kill Climate Deniers on the first day – talking about the difference between the work itself and the discourse around the work, how creating and managing the project can sometimes be completely distinct from constructing the public conversation that occurs around it.
That was beautifully illustrated yesterday, when a group of artists in South Australia presented a performance entitled Don’t Read The Comments. Ben Brooker conceived and directed a show which used as its script the comments thread from Kate Hennessy’s Guardian article about KCD. A little trip into the healthy, constructive and intelligent world of internet political debate. The show was livestreamed as part of Michael Allen Productions’ You Wanna Bita This Now, which is a monthly digital theatre series happening online. And it was rad, and fascinating, and a total trip into the intersection between live performance and internet culture. Glad, grateful, proud, yes, yes.
But then also, Asia Topa. So this is the grand Asian arts festival kicking off over Melbourne for the next couple months, overall guided (if I’m not mistaken) by Stephen Armstrong, with a thousand tendrils – one of which was XO State, a late night variety show style event at the Melbourne Arts Centre, curated by Gideon Obarzanek and Eisa Jocson (who also busted out her Macho Dancer show, which I’d been excited about seeing since she took us took a macho club in Manila last year, nothing but the finest bros grinding to the Mission Impossible theme).
As part of XO State, Sipat Lawin were invited across to present a series of small works across the evenings, under the heading Serbisiyo (Service). The broad theme of the Serbisiyo works was a reflection on labour, as in JK’s massage show Touch of Asia and Sarah and Detsy’s Warning: Adult Content. Less obviously in Natsuki’s Give Me Chocolate and Kei’s Cuddle Cafe, but then again really present in Ienne’s Yen Yen De Sarapan mascot performance. And holy shit they were great, and it’s a massive boost to my soul to have them around, in Australia, making things happen.
Given that there was a critical mass of Sipat in Melbourne, Gideon and Eisa invited us to present the Foreignoy piece, my song and dance number auditioning for the now-defunct Filipino gameshow. So on two nights I got to render my terrible versions of classic Pinoy anthems by Asin, Salbakuta, Donnalyn Bartolome, Ryzza Mae (classic is a loose word) and Sarah Geronimo. And this was so much fun, and the crowds were lovely, and holy shit, getting to perform at the Melbourne Arts Centre is a treat. Incredible tech, production staff, producers, and they made the bar staff wear t-shirts with my face on them. (The bar staff did not give a damn about me or the fact that my face was on their t-shirts, which was also great.)
This poor dude is just trying to do his job. (thx Jess Bellamy for the pic.)
Also this giant fucking banner which I am going to give to my mother because if a large arts venue prints a house-sized picture of your face as a joke, surely that’s some kind of achievement?
pic by petra elliott, thank you thank you.
And in the midst of all this I caught up with Tom Henning, who told me about the work he’s been doing in Dili the last couple of years, and that was the perfect reframing of my focus, a reminder of what the real fight is and where it’s happening.
So now I need to hold on to this feeling – or rather, I’ve got to let it run through me like sand through yr fingers, but trust that it’ll come back, the holy arc of life etc. On another plane, listening to the Bird, daijobu dayo.
Today’s the last day of my little two-week self-imagined Canberra residency, a little window in between jobs / gigs, in which I deliberately avoided looking for work in order to gain some ground on a new project.
I’ve spent the fortnight scribbling little fragments, doing bigger bursts of writing, planning and collating ideas, and being constantly surprised at how much work I feel like I’m doing and yet how little progress I seem to be making.
Working like this is weird – undirected, solo, without anyone to bounce off or answer to. There’s the constant fear that I haven’t got anything worth sharing, worth pursuing. Normally my method is to just commit to something – book a theatre, lock in to performing at some festival or other, apply for a grant, and so force myself to produce something, on demand. But for this project I don’t have anything nearly coherent enough to want to put on stage – but simultaneously, I want to give this project the chance to be something meaningful by not rushing into a format or a performance date.
the International Biosphere-Geosphere Project (IGBP) formed in 1986 divided the earth into sectors for analysis
So what is the show? The concept, roughly, is to dig into the field of Earth System Science, which is the massive effort, by tens of thousands of scientists worldwide, to come up with a useful understanding of how the planet works. Oceans, atmospheres, forests, ecosystems, cities; the geosphere and biosphere, how it all fits together.
(Increasingly as part of that, there’s a need to understand how humans work – since people started taking fossilised sunlight from hundreds of millions of years ago and returning it to the atmosphere, if you want to understand how the whole earth works, you need some grasp on how people work. Which is tricky; people are tricky.)
Jackal in Food for the Great Hungers, 2009. Pic by ‘pling.
I’ve been fascinated by the science and scientists working in this field for years. Boho has continually brushed up against this work, from Food for the Great Hungers onwards – and in fact Doug Cocks, who was a mentor and consultant on Hungers, has been a big inspiration for this project. But this is the first time I’m really leaning into the idea as the core of a new work, because it’s such a big, broad topic.
Talking about the whole earth system – the planet, the climate, the biosphere, the oceans, global change, population growth, demographic transitions, all of if – is so big it quickly becomes meaningless and numbing. It’s all too abstract. 7 billion is a meaningless number, and so on.
In fact, this is part of my whole fascination with the concept. We’re fundamentally incapable of actually thinking about the whole earth – the scale and complexity is way beyond what our minds are designed for – and yet, actions being taken at the human level are having a measurable effect on all this complexity. We can’t understand it / we have to understand it.
I know I’ll fail at communicating it / I have to try to communicate it.
I did a lot of reading over December – January, catching up on some texts and papers about complexity, the Anthropocene, systems models and so on. And a series of interviews – including a few conversations with my dad, digging into his history as an atmospheric scientist. Now this last two weeks was a chance to collate all this material, bring it together in one place and experiment with it – trying to find a format that can usefully frame it.
the A.V. Roe wind tunnel, 1950s
I did two scratch performances, to test two totally different sets of material. For the first, I tried out using my dad’s career as a spine for the story, tracking the evolution of systems models through his experiences with them. Beginning with the model aeroplanes he built as a boy, moving through the wind tunnels at the A.V. Roe Aircraft Factory where he worked as a young man, on to the CSIRO Environmental Mechanics Laboratory, digital climate models, Integrated Assessment Modelling and so on.
The second performance, I took a swing at writing a genre piece in the vein of Kill Climate Deniers and 44 Sex Acts In One Week – a globetrotting spy thriller entitled End Science Now, in which a young military cadet goes under cover to bring down science. This is a pretty chill framework from which to hang some content about the history of the IGBP, the IPCC and science’s changing role in society since the 1970s.
Results: the first performance, I think the biographical angle needs some work. Not quite a false start, but the two stories, the story of my dad’s career and the story of how modelling has changed over the last 50 years, did not speak to each other strongly.
dad on some sea cliffs in 1966
Actually, fuck it, call it a false start. I’m not throwing that performance out (nothing is wasted) but I took all the notes and feedback I got from the attendees and I’m starting from scratch with the writing of that one.
The second performance, it’s a simpler, more playful form, and I’m intuitively more comfortable with it, so it was probs always gonna go over easier. And it felt like a solid beginning, like I can follow that thread more easily. (But who wants a spy thriller about bringing down science? What audience could there possibly be for a work like that? But don’t think like that, don’t think like that.)
Anyway, the other key goal for this fortnight was to produce a project pitch, to put together a document that illustrates – well, everything I’ve just said here, but in a compelling language and in a way that invites funders and project partners to come on board to support this work. And that, that crashed and burned. I thought I was on track for it, up until last night, when at 9pm I was sitting there with a 12 page word document moving text boxes around realising I’m just beginning to be able to articulate what this is.
I don’t even have a confirmed title. I want to call it UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING, I think that’s a good phrase. But Muttley, reasonably enough, pointed out that it’s super broad and kinda meaningless. So then I went through some of Doug Cocks’ work, his writing that has really inspired me to pursue this line of inquiry, and found a quote I liked from him about humanity and the bottleneck we’re facing: SCRAPE THROUGH THIS CENTURY.
the IMAGE breakdown of how they construct their Integrated Assessment Models
I know you shouldn’t rush titles, but I live in fear of waiting too long and getting to that point where every title seems bad because you’ve lived with the project too long.
So that whole aspect of the residency, that… hasn’t happened. Shall we call that a failure? I failed to make that happen.
And the last two days have been that weird feeling of being lost, at sea, a little isolated and confused, unsure if I’m doing the right thing or moving in the right direction. And now it’s 11pm and I’m sitting outside Dickson McDonalds typing a word document and I feel pretty unmoored, like I’m drifting and not really in control of where I’m going or what happens next.
Micro-residency! Confused as ever!
Plus when I ordered a small fries the guy at the counter was like, ‘Do you want some cointreau with that?’ and I knew I’d misheard him but I couldn’t at all figure out what he’d meant to say and I just stood there, brows furrowed, looking at him, for a long time, until he awkwardly turned away and went to the drive-through window.
A brief post to wrap my head around where I’ve come to at the end of the year. Particularly, what was I doing in Singapore?
Right. So. Boho’s Best Festival Ever is an explanation of some core principles from systems thinking, but it really emerged out of the practice of ‘participatory co-modelling‘, which is a kind of practice in which scientists construct systems models of social-ecological systems (typically ones that are under some stress or threat) and use those models as a platform to bring together a group of people from that system for conversations and hard discussions.
How that looks, in practice, is often the scientist as a facilitator with a whole bunch of maps, graphs, tables, and a computer model running in the background, and the participants making decisions, choosing how to assign resources, and debating different aspects of the system. Typically, it’s a group of people with very different opinions about how the system works, and what needs to happen, and the discussion that’s being facilitated is about reaching some kind of compromise.
A Stockholm Resilience workshop in Malinga, South Africa.
There’s an art to it, because often you’re dealing with people who don’t even agree on how the system works, let alone the right way to go about managing it. So the scientists sit between being game-masters in a roleplaying game, experts with regard to data and maps, and facilitators for difficult and sometimes heated conversations.
Part of that involves running scenarios – speculative narratives about events that could impact the system, in which the participants have to decide how they’ll respond to it.
When we built Best Festival Ever, we deliberately made the scenario in question – a flood impacting a music festival – as gentle and forgiving as possible. It’s a nice way to keep it light, and to avoid having to blame the participants for causing death and mayhem through their choices. That said, we always knew that we were developing this tool – a mix of interactive theatre, boardgame and systems model – to apply to more high-stakes situations.
A map of typhoon paths hitting south-east Asia, 1950-1985, thx Wikipedia
Maybe the most high-stakes setting possible is the one we’re looking at for a collaboration with the Earth Observatory Singapore, a research institution based at Nanyang Technological University. EOS looks at natural disasters in the south-east Asian region: earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, volcanoes, floods, and various consequences of climate change. EOS has invited us to collaborate with them to build a new game, looking at the situation of responding to a natural disaster crisis – volcanic unrest or an approaching typhoon.
So the new game, whatever it looks like, will simulate the period from the first warnings of the disaster, to the event itself (or the non-event – sometimes these things don’t unfold in the way you expect, or at all) and put participants in the role of responding to the crisis – as local government, the media, emergency services, or members of the community itself.
The game will be presented first for the general public, but there is the possibility to bring it to high schools, or even the Singapore military. (The Singapore army does a lot of responding to disasters around the ASEAN region, but because they’re typically brought in after a crisis has occurred, they have less literacy in the lead-up situation.)
Our EOS partner Jamie McCaughey has zeroed in on volcanoes and typhoons as the natural disasters we’ll focus on, because they’re the disasters that have a meaningful lead time that allow you to make decisions about evacuations and so on. With earthquakes and tsunamis, the time from warning to the event is typically measured in seconds to minutes – with typhoons it’s usually 2-4 days, and with volcanoes it’s anywhere from 60 minutes to six months.
The key trade-off in this system is that as time goes on, uncertainty reduces, but so do your options. By the time you’re absolutely certain of the situation, you no longer have any ability to act on that knowledge. So there’s a choice to be made about when to act on varying levels of confidence.
So I spent three weeks doing the first stage of R&D for the project, working on behalf of Boho, learning about volcanoes and constructing a rough model of the natural disaster system. This systems model will get thoroughly revisited, chewed up and rebuilt from scratch when we get back to Singapore, but it’s a start, and a way to talk a little bit about the framework where the game will sit.
This is my rough illustration of that system. I’m not going to unpack it in detail here – it’s way too speculative and early draft-esque for that – but in my early consideration, the game lives somewhere in those spots marked in red.
It’s a pretty exciting collaboration to be embarking on – it’s one of those situations where we can see the tool we’ve developed with Best Festival Ever – and Boho’s practice more generally – being applied in a really granular, concrete setting, with a clear and important social value.
It’s also just been fascinating, spending three weeks sitting in the EOS office on NTU campus, spending all day reading about volcanoes. My main takeaway is: I don’t know how any of us are alive, at all.
While I’ve been in Singapore this last three weeks I’ve been mostly doing work with the Earth Observatory, getting my head around the wonderful world of volcanoes and typhoons. (The planet is a monster and it wants us all dead, all the time.) But also, I’ve been keeping pretty quiet, staying on campus, not venturing out too much, and that’s been sorta necessary, post-Sweden, post-England.
One thing I wanted to do with this time was to spend a bit of time reflecting on recent projects, and a little more doing some planning and scheming on stuff for 2017. This year’s been a huge burst of output – things like Kill Climate Deniers, which was brewing for a while, started landing in the world. And Best Festival Ever has continued to roll out, with corporate seasons, theatrical seasons, and of course, building Democratic Nature in Sweden.
2017 I think will be a year of some new developments, of putting things together, of shaping some new ideas into project format. I don’t know quite yet what that means, but I want to do something with 44 Sex Acts In One Week, and I’m keen to make something around the idea of the Human-Earth System, maybe using my dad’s work as a lens in.
Apart from sketching those ideas into some kind of rough shape, I’ve been working on a couple of tiny creative things to keep me alive. Firstly and most exciting, the Finnigan and Brother 2016 Christmas single, Christmeth.
Christmas is the time to really put something out into the world, creatively, who cares if it’s not perfect or if it doesn’t have the sharpest production values? Chris’ music here is great, and my lyrics are the usual mess of ideas stolen from one song, pacing stolen from another, specific lines and phrases from 3-4 different ones, and the end result, god only knows what that sounds like. But, more like this!
Also, I managed to mentally / emotionally wipe myself out the first weekend I arrived. Maybe just the hangover from two hectic months in the UK and Sweden, going from that to being completely alone and isolated. I hit a bit of a wall. And so, best/only thing I know how to do, I tried to write about it and record that, down by Saiboo Bridge on the Singapore River.
Lastly! A piece I recorded a while ago, only now putting it up online – my fan-made video for Ira Gamerman’s iconic tune Am I Gonna Be A Filipino Soapstar, footage recorded by Alon Segarra of me, auditioning for a Filipino soap opera at the ABS-CBN Studios in Quezen City.
I didn’t get the part. I didn’t look enough like a ’40 year old man of power’. Next time, ABS, next time.
Alright, so, right now I’m in Sweden, in residence at the Earth Observatory Singapore at Nanyang Technological University. Learning about volcanoes and typhoons, R&D for a possible future Boho project here. But more about that soon.
I was there to drill down into work with Coney and Forum for the Future, with a view to what projects / collaborations might be possible in 2017. I wrote a little bit for Coney about it – but basically, I’m looking at what kinds of work I might be able to do for and with those organisations, alongside Boho and as a solo artist.
To make that happen, I spent a lot of November manically bouncing from Old Street to Aldgate, doing meetings, making pitches, writing funding proposals, fleshing out timelines and budgets, and generally trying to capture the vague possibilities for next year into a clearer shape.
pic c/o Theatre Deli, who hosted one of the scratches – super lovely cats
Alongside that, I also presented several scratch showings of the solo version of Kill Climate Deniers (alongside Nathan’s new solo work How I Saved The Western Black Rhino), as a kind of test for the work in front of a UK audience. Super interesting stuff – what worked, what didn’t work, what made intellectual sense but didn’t emotionally resonate…
But. What I wanted to write about was actually an event that we (Nathan and Rachel and I) presented alongside Forum for the Future. Forum have a series of ‘Living Change’ events for their network, and they asked us to showcase a series of systems games for their November iteration, entitled ‘Gaming The System’.
We broke out a few pieces, including the Umbrella Game from Best Festival Ever, and trialled a version of Volleyball Farm, our common-pool resource game from way back in 2012. (It didn’t quite work, but it nearly did, and Nathan did a pretty great job of rescuing it after it became clear that more than seven players fundamentally broke the game structure.) And lastly, we tested out a new activity featuring jigsaw puzzles that we borrowed from Anne-Marie Grisogono.
Anne-Marie is one of Boho’s scientist crushes (yes, we have scientist crushes – if we had one, Boho HQ would be plastered with posters of our favourite complexity scientists, we’re that kind of company). Anne-Marie is a physicist and complexity scientist – she worked for many years for the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), and she’s now a Visiting Fellow at the National Security College at the ANU. She’s one of the most extraordinary thinkers we’ve had the opportunity to work with, and her background in translating the insights of complexity science to real-world high-stakes contexts is pretty incredible.
The exercise, which Anne-Marie uses as an introduction to Wicked Problem theory, is simple: we invited our participants to complete a simple jigsaw puzzle. That’s all. The puzzle we had was of a tiger in a jungle. When they finished, we then invited them to reflect on the strategies they used – how did they solve the puzzle? What techniques, what approaches did they apply? Some of the answers were:
Started by looking for the edge pieces
Grouped pieces by colour
Worked from the outside in
Found the distinct ‘tiger-y’ pieces that definitely belonged to the tiger on the box
Then we discussed why it was that those strategies worked. What was it is about the jigsaw puzzle that made it tractable, made it amenable to those approaches? Some of the answers here included:
We knew what the final goal looked like – we had the picture on the box
Every piece is part of the solution
You know when you’ve got something right (the pieces fit together)
The pieces don’t change
The puzzle exists in only two dimensions
We all know the rules of the game
Every step contributes to the solution – there are essentially no backwards steps
There’s only one way for it all to fit together
And so on. Finally, we compared this to real-world problems. Anne-Marie’s point here is that when we’re talking about the complex problems we face in the world (wealth inequality, climate change, epidemics, you name it) none of these conditions hold true.
1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).
The key point here is that we frequently go about trying to solve these complex, fiendishly difficult real-world problems as if they were jigsaw puzzles.
It’s an interesting demo, and as Anna Birney from Forum put it, one of those cases where the best way to make a point is to use an analogy that is actually the exact opposite.
But in the event of actually rolling it out, we had an unexpected result. Mel Trievnor, hunting us down puzzles from op shops, wasn’t able to lay her hands on a 50 piece puzzle – instead, she dug us up a 500 piece puzzle. The result was that instead of a deliberately easy task (complete this puzzle in five minutes), the participants were given an impossible task.
I got each of the three groups to tackle it in phases – do as much as you can, leave the remainder for the next group. And in three rounds, they actually got a surprising amount of the picture completed.
The rest of the activity worked more or less as planned – but there was an interesting frisson in giving people a basically impossible task, and then seeing how far they managed to get. Participants are at first dismayed, and then kinda shrug, roll up their sleeves, and go for it. It’s an interesting vibe, and there may be something more to it.
The interesting learning moment for me came in the debrief. Anna got the participants to reflect on what they’d taken from the event. One woman commented, ‘The jigsaw activity gave me hope, working in shifts as we were, because it reminded me that when we’re faced with massive problems like climate change, we don’t need to solve the whole thing – we can’t – but we can work on our bit, and the people that come after us can pick up where we left off.’
I thought that was a really nice reflection, and an encouraging and thoughtful takeaway from the activity.
Then another woman spoke up and said, ‘No, you’ve completely misunderstood. The whole point was that with complex problems, you can’t just pick up where the last generation left off – the whole problem has changed, the pieces have changed, the picture’s changed, the goals have changed, the rules have changed. We’re not working towards a single multi-generation solution, we’re working in a massive, complex, ever-evolving system that completely flips the rules on us all the time, but which we can never stop doing our best in because we can’t afford to just let it run off the rails.’
As soon as she said it, I realised she was right, and while bleak, it was probably a better diagnosis of the situation. And I then had to reflect on the fact that even facilitating the exercise, delivering the moral, I managed to kinda miss the point of it.
(the lesson is, missing the lesson: what’s the lesson in that?)
I wrote a trio of plays that have never been performed – and they never will be, really.
I spent a good chunk of 2007-09, in between working on the first two Boho shows and starting the Crack Theatre Festival, sketching out the broad outlines of these works. The other week it all came back to me, as it does, from time to time, and I sat down to attempt to capture what it is, what it was that I made, for my own head’s sake if no-one else’s.
It’s a trilogy with a kind of sci-fi fantasy bent, but I never thought of it in those terms. There was a world that was building up in my imagination, and I was trying to capture it. If I’d been a novelist or a prose writer, it woulda come out in that form – but because I write for theatre and performance, that world came out through the medium of three one-act plays. But it would never have been possible to do these plays onstage, not really.
They came under the banner of ‘War in the North Sea’ and they were all set in a kind of Arctic ocean – an imagined version, anyway. I was picturing a mass of little rocky islands, ice shelfs, and huge floating icebergs.
In this setting, there’s a war with heaven. It’s because humans have come too close to the top of the world, or because heaven has dipped closer to the surface of earth. But either way, there are angels loose in the north sea and there are human armies opposing them.
image by frosty
The city of heaven is made from wires that run straight like a massive cobweb stretching thousands of kilometres in all directions. Angels run along the wires, and fly sometimes from spot to spot. It’s not really clear what angels look like in this setting – only at the end of the trilogy do you see one for the first time, and I never quite got to the point of writing that sequence down. For me, the presence of heaven was the more interesting fact. Imagine looking up and seeing a wire, like a telephone wire, stretching a few metres above your head, running straight from one horizon to the other. And in the distance, another wire, at a different angle. And another. Off into the sky as far as you could see. Like a huge spiderweb, with angels running along the wires. That is heaven. It was sinister and abstract, and it meant something to me – not like a literal metaphor, but something that nagged at me.
Anyway, the first story in the trilogy wasn’t even set in the north sea. It was called Silent Movie Play, and it was about a documentary film-maker who’d come back from the front line. Not like a recent documentary film-maker with a little digital camera, this was like a film-maker in the early 1920s. Like Robert Flaherty going to film Nanook of the North in 1922. Taking kilometre after kilometre of film reels and huge heavy equipment.
So it’s an editing studio, but it’s the early days of film, so think, early 20th century, huge iron machinery, big spools of nitrate film, scissors, glue. Anyway this documentary film-maker arrives with footage he’s shot from the frontlines, which is supposed to be turned into a propaganda film. There’s an editor there, and together they watch the footage that this guy has filmed, and they’re supposed to re-edit it and add subtitles.
Now what the guy has filmed is a little bit of a raft voyage through the iceberg strewn ocean near the frontline. This low-ranking soldier who works transporting things around the battlefields is taking a very high-ranking woman to a particular iceberg. She’s like, aristocracy, as well as being an extremely well-regarded doctor. The Empress’ pharmacist. And she’s being transported by this low-ranking nobody who paddles a raft made from sealskin.
Anyway, the pharmacist woman hits on the soldier transporter. Hard. She decides she wants him, and she basically uses her authority and power to intimidate him into an intimate liaison. And this is captured on film by the film-maker.
So what the film-maker and the editor are doing is playing bits of this footage, and then shuffling them around, editing them into a coherent story, and supplying subtitles for the dialogue that you can’t hear.
But because this was a play, or at least it was intended to be, this all happened onstage. On one side of the stage was the editing studio, the film-maker and the editor, having their discussions and debates. On the other side, the projected footage, played out live, of the pharmacist and the soldier in the tiny sealskin raft amid the icebergs.
Now the gist of this whole story is that the film-maker and the editor are fighting about what they’re making. The film-maker thinks that the footage should be shown as close as is possible to what he shot – to tell the story as it happened. But the editor thinks, no, this isn’t suitable as propaganda. Partly because it’s not a glorious war victory that’s been captured on film – but mostly because it’s a woman seducing a man, and that’s not acceptable to show in a cinema.
image by frosty
So bit by bit, and against the film-maker’s objections, the editor slices up and reassembles the footage to tell a different story. Using the same sequence of images, he changes it from a tale in which the elite pharmacist imposes her will on a terrified man, into the tale of a noble soldier who wins the heart of a cowering woman through his masculine prowess. He cuts snippets of footage and moves them out of order to seem to indicate a different person taking the lead, and recontextualising other moments so they suggest a whole different narrative. And then finally, he inserts subtitles which puts words in the mouth of the two film subjects so that they adhere to his reinterpretation of events.
It’s a story I guess about how people reshape the world to adhere to their particular narrative, and how for so long humans have been conning other humans into thinking that there’s only one way to see the world.
But alongside that, there’s the simple fact that this is happening live – so when you see bits of footage sliced out of order and placed in different parts of the sequence, you’re watching the pair of actors on the other side of the stage have to somehow snap from one motion to another, to physically enact these jarring jump cuts. And to speak the new lines that are being forcibly inserted into their mouths.
It was an incredibly specific and challenging format for any kind of live performance. I actually did some development with this idea, with Max Barker directing and Hanna Cormick and Lloyd Allison-Young performing. It was amazing to see, it made me think this idea could genuinely work.
But maybe that idea, that staging concept, should have been its own thing. Live actors portraying a snippet of film that’s re-edited and the story reconfigured so that it has a different meaning and message. That’s a complex thing in itself. But I was lost in this universe at that time, this whole setting of the war in the north sea. I couldn’t let it go.
Like I said, one of the big challenges with this setting was that I was exploring it through the medium of performance rather than, say, a spec-fic novel. But I mean, shifting mediums to prose wouldn’t necessarily have brought the world out in any clearer way. Shaping it as performance, as a series of one-act plays, didn’t make it easy to express some aspects of the world, but it forced me to open up different channels.
How do you tell a world in a live setting?
image by frosty
The second play in the trilogy was called This Mixtape Must Reach You, and it took a different tack. This story took place a little before the events captured by the film-maker in the Silent Movie Play story. The low-ranking soldier, whose name is Annon, has just been summoned to his commander’s tent for a special mission.
The army is camped out on an ice shelf, and we see Annon make his way slowly through the camp, from the outskirts where his tent is pitched, through to the commander’s HQ at the heart of the army. And on the way, he is speaking into a little dictaphone, recording an audio letter for his young son at home, assembling a mixtape.
The format of this performance was a solo show, a narrated letter, with the songs in the mixtape peppered throughout. Stars of the Lid, the Stooges, the Cinematic Orchestra, Rasputin’s Stash…
image by frosty
Anyway, through Annon’s introductions to the songs, and his encounters with other soldiers on the way to the commander’s tent, we get a picture of Annon, his history and his life. He’s a miserable specimen, a low-ranking loner, despised and abused by the other soldiers, coerced into acts he doesn’t want to do, forced to stay on the perimeter of the camp. And we learn about his history – his life in a small seaside village in the tropics, his home in a small hut by the shore.
We learn more about the history of the war, how people have been recruited without really knowing what they’re fighting for or why, how the disparate nature of human society means that information is so diffuse and unclear. And how the army in the north sea has coalesced into its own kind of social organisation, its own informal economy where food and medicine are traded between soldiers in a grey market.
And lastly, we learn about Annon’s relationship with his son, who it seems is likely to be an adopted son… maybe? The more Annon addresses him, the less clear it becomes, the harder it is to have a fixed sense of their relationship. And I don’t know exactly, because it’s nine years since I wrote it, but I think that was part of the point.
Anyway, Annon’s journey comes to an end when he reaches the commander’s tent and is given his mission; he must transport the Empress’ pharmacist on his raft to a remote iceberg outpost, where the human soldiers have stopped reporting from. And they’ll be filmed en route by a documentary maker who is making a propaganda film about the war.
So the second play ends where the first begins – and we see Annon and the pharmacist (whose name is The Sun, of course) depart on the raft.
image by frosty
And then, finally, the third play. This one didn’t have a name, or at least, I can’t find one for it. And this was a solo play too, but a very different kind to the last one. This play takes place on the iceberg outpost that Annon and The Sun are sailing to, the outpost of human soldiers that has gone mysteriously quiet.
What has happened is this: there were 90 or so soldiers on the iceberg, camping on the tiny portion of ice that sits above the waterline. There to keep guard on a thread of the heavenly city that runs dangerously close to the sea. But they were attacked, by an angel or a group of angels, who tipped the iceberg over and consequently managed to drown most of the soldiers in the sea.
Only two soldiers survived: Catch, who was wounded in the attack and who is now gradually slipping away, and Amicitia, who was diving underwater in a drysuit when the angels attacked and managed to avoid the worst of the disaster.
The only person that the audience see is Amicitia, and what they are watching in this performance is Amicitia try to do everything at once. She is trying to tend to Catch’s wounds, she is trying to find a way to keep herself warm, she is trying to guard against the returning angels, she is trying to signal for help, she is trying to build traps and defences against her foes, she is recording her memoirs in case help doesn’t come in time, she is chattering to herself in order to keep her spirits up, she is trying to do everything, all at once.
The hook for this play, really, is that Amicitia is splitting her focus between a million high priority tasks, and gradually, each one is getting on top of her. The angels are getting closer, Catch is getting weaker, help is nowhere in sight, her spirits are flagging, but she just keeps pushing and pushing and pushing and will not give in.
This is where we encounter angels for the first time, when they come to finish off Amicitia and Catch. And we learn more about the war, too – for example, that all the soldiers on the iceberg were tied together with tiny black threads, so the whole network of humans, linked together, went underwater all at once – Catch and Amicitia had to sever their connections in order to avoid being drowned.
This play ends with the arrival of Annon and The Sun on the raft, to administer medicine and save those that can be saved – although The Sun’s intentions are far murkier, and it’s not at all clear that Amicitia is going to be saved, or that Annon will be allowed to return to the camp when the job is done.
image by frosty
How it ends, I don’t know – I only have notes, and if I went to finish writing it now I’d have to find a completely new ending. But in part, at least one character ends up fleeing into the city of heaven, running along the wires up into the atmosphere.
So, I don’t know quite what to do with all of this. I have hundreds – literally hundreds – of pages of notes, and scraps of dialogue, pieces of scene… but of course, this isn’t a work that anyone would ever produce. I mean, I believe that there’s some kind of audience for this stuff, but really, who produces work like this? Why should they? It doesn’t tick any box for how a work of live performance should be.
How do I reconcile that awareness with the fact that I sunk probably two years of reflection and detailed scribbling into it? Other people were studying at university, earning money, engaging with the world around them. I got lost in this – still do, always do. Sometimes when I’m dancing (and it was during a gig in Stockholm last month, 2am on the dancefloor, that I decided to sketch out this summary) I start to recall the world, and I get lost in it, tracing out the paths, contemplating all the ways that story went, all the characters, the threads in that odd tapestry.
The last fragment of text in my notes is a line of dialogue, said by an angel to Annon. I don’t know how this encounter comes about, there’s nothing written around it – but the angel says:
Four times to build the city in your mind Four times and then it’s indestructible
working by lanternlight in Flaten after our fuses blew. pic by nikki kennedy.
A few weeks ago I sat down to reflect on the last couple years of work and projects, and to look ahead to the next couple, and I had the weird realisation that this blog might be the closest thing I have to a thread tying my whole practice together. That’s a strange thought. With all the various projects and strands to my work, creative work and otherwise, it’s hard to pick out a through line. But this blog is a way to talk about everything, no matter how off-base it seems, and to try and find the common links across different cities and projects.
From that little epiphany came the thought: well, it behooves me to update the blog more often to simply say where I am, and why I’m there, and where I’m going next, and for what.
So, what’s happened at this end of 2016?
Well, I spent a good chunk of the year in Melbourne. The middle months, I can’t remember the exact dates, but from around April through til late September. Living in Fitzroy North, working with Jordan on our boy bands / futures scenarios project, and making Kill Climate Deniers happen.
There were lots of other bits in there – going to Manila for Karnabal, working on the Kids Killing Kids radio play – but I think the main focus was Kill Climate Deniers. Lots of project management stuff, some marketing, as well as all the creative bits – the film clip, the photoshoot, the listening party, the album launch tour…
the bolted film clip! pic by sarah walker.
And then, late September, I got on a plane and headed to Stockholm. Boho have been commissioned to produce a new participatory work building on the Best Festival Ever model, based on the Flaten nature reserve south of Stockholm. We’ve been working with Swedish NGO Miljöverkstan to map and model the system, and construct a game for their gallery on the shores of Flaten lake. More of an explanation about the project on the Boho website, if yr curious.
It was a beautiful month, and super productive, but also, hectic. Me, Nikki, Rachel, Nathan and Muttley were joined by Gillian Schwab and Nick McCorriston, who dived in to contribute set, props and sound design.
So the seven of us lived in a beautiful old mansion in Danderyds Sjukhus, north of Stockholm’s CBD. It was a hundred year old house, and we were lucky enough to live in it while the family who owned it were in the process of selling it. Which was extraordinary, and lucky, but also entailed doing some dancing around removalists.
I said hectic. Maybe it’s just the inevitable result of a team of seven doing an international development to build a brand new participatory work in a tight timeframe. But yeah, it had a tenor of, no, can’t keep going like this indefinitely. But we did it, we made it, and it looks good, sounds good, and plays well. There’s a long way to go. But a prototype built and tested in a month, I’m proud of that.
I’m especially happy because the five of us worked quicker and sharper than we have before. It feels like the process that we developed over three years through creating BFE is now in really good working order, and we were in really good shape when it came to generating games, testing them, wrapping script and performance images around them, and dividing when necessary to pool our strengths.
Plus having Gills and Nickamc contributing design stuff lifted the whole thing so, so much. Have a look at these photos, my god.
So then. From Stockholm to London, and now I’m holed up in a flat in Hackney, looking at the half moon at 4.30pm through the grey brown apartment blocks. On Saturday I met up with Tassos in a cafe under the arches where a guy was just eating salt by the spoonful, looking grimmer and grimmer every minute, and where the ad for the local tarot card reader said ‘All readings confidential UNLESS you express an intent to commit a crime’. This town is wonderful.
I’m here doing some work with Coney, some work with Forum for the Future, and otherwise, presenting several scratches of Kill Climate Deniers. I’m really curious as to whether the show will have any resonance with a UK audience – and if so, which bits work and which bits don’t. Two shows, alongside Nathan’s new work How I Saved The Western Black Rhino:
And then, at the end of November, I go to Singapore for three weeks. I’m sinking into the R&D phase for a potential new Boho collaboration with the Earth Observatory Singapore, a research foundation based at Nanyang Technical University. The goal is to produce a new scenario-based participatory work around natural disasters in the south-east Asian region – so I’ll be spending three weeks learning about volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.
And then Australia. And then 2017. And then and then.
Some days are nothing but panic and scrambling, others are a little more peaceful. There’s nothing particularly clear about the future at this point, I’m pretty close to the wire financially and there’s no guarantees about anything, but I had a good lunch and the moon is bright, so I’m gonna claim the day as a victory.
this is a picture nikki took of me and a cygnet in Flaten, who did not give a damn about me, but still I was very happy.
Well, so this is a lovely thing to get to lay out, and, in a way, lay down, at least for a good while.
One of the bigger arcs in my creative life this last half-decade was the Battalia Royale project, and the fall-out from it. Short version: me and Too Many Weapons headed over to the Philippines, worked with the Sipat Lawin Ensemble to adapt Koushon Takami’s Battle Royale for the stage, the production got out of hand, in a lot of interesting and headfucking ways.
So we produced the Kids Killing Kids show, to reflect on our role as writers in the whole affair. Out of that show, we were invited to take part in the 2014 Next Wave Festival to do an extended version, A Wake: Kids Killing Kids, bringing in five members of Sipat Lawin and their perspective.
We weren’t in any position to be able to keep on performing that show, and it would’ve got really morbid if we’d tried. But we wanted to find a way to document the story, and to be able to share it out more broadly to anyone who might be interested.
pic by Martin Vidanes
At this point, we were invited by Jesse Cox from ABC Radio National to try adapting it to the form of a podcast. And with his careful guidance, we went into the studio and recorded the show.
That didn’t work. And after a second rewrite, it still didn’t work. What had been clear as a story told on stage started to sound really weird as an audio piece.
At that point, Jesse threw out the original script entirely and proposed an alternative model. Rather than trying to replicate the Kids Killing Kids performance in radioplay format, he interviewed each of us – Jordan, Georgie, Sam and I – and then edited those interviews together to tell the story.
The result is a totally different take on the saga, and a lovely one from my perspective, because it finally shows up the differences in perspective between the four of us that got flattened out when we began work on Kids Killing Kids back in 2013.