REFLECT | Long Time, No See? Project

Posted on 25/03/2013


Long Time, No See? is an art project and artwork that is concerned with futuring, which as Tony Fry argues demands that we face an imperative for change, a need to tell a new story. In part the old story is characterised by the project’s Artistic Director, Keith Armstrong, as “the storm we call progress” which has wrought havoc across the planet, stressing and destroying socio-ecological systems and resulting in uneven and unjust patterns of development. The project seeks to respond to Fry’s proposition that “We can try to maintain our existing way of life or we can create another more viable one of which there is still no imaginary.” The project’s approach to developing this needed imaginary is to engage people in:

  • Conversations, with an emphasis on personal storytelling, about personal and shared visions and aspirations for the future
  • Narrating and documenting walks that involve a common experience of reading, reflection and response through poetic action, storytelling and metaphor
  • Mapping those walks to generate a pulsing mesh of sentiment, care, meaning and affinity that images a web of a ‘community of change’ (and new stories)
  • Building the ‘community of change’ through the Community Catalyst process and responsibly drawing on localised and common resources

The project’s participation design is multifaceted and there have been two iterations of the workshop program: a test group in February and a prototype in March, both in the northern Brisbane suburb of Aspley. As well, project team members (and our very supportive families) have been testing the technologies and tools throughout the development process.

The community of change, as Fry asserts, requires a wholehearted commitment to change: it is not a popularist revolt but requires sustained learning and engagement. In Long Time, No See? there is an attempt to provide a clearing for participants to engage beyond their everyday concerns, entanglements and urgencies. From the perspective of the clearing as a site of or for community, which may be considered as ‘social sculpture’. Care, as explored through the project, is attentive to care for the world, others and ourselves. Fry provides the following summary statement about care: “in caring for the quality of air, soil and fresh water, we are equally caring for ourselves and [for example] for the quality of food ‘naturally’ produced.” That is, care means recognising our own connectedness to socio-ecological dynamics: our own health and wellbeing – our flourishing – is inextricably linked to that of ecological and socio-cultural systems.

Care is fundamental to who and what we are as human beings, to being human. Everything we do and say demonstrates something of our caring of and in the world, especially if we consider that our wellbeing is not only dependent on the wellbeing of the others but also the wellbeing of the environments in which we live. However, not all people consider this or are enabled to consider this in their everyday living. In part this is because our everyday living is crowded by everyday concerns and urgencies as well as information overload. It is difficult for people to negotiate the kind of complexity that needs to be addressed, yet redirection is a fundamental requirement of futuring.

In a 2011 presentation at the AIDA Conference, Terry Irwin, head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, spoke of many prevailing values and assumptions that inhibit our ‘caring’. Starting with a list of commonly held values and assumptions – to cite a few ‘you can’t be too thin or too rich’, ‘profit is the primary objective of business’ and ‘money is the root of all evil’ – Irwin, then talks about her own experience of coming to an altered awareness of and practice of design and design education. For Long Time, No See?, values and assumptions like ‘the future will take care of itself’ and ‘not in my lifetime’ are held as indicative of a lack of care for the world, others and self. In holding such values and assumptions, the self abrogates their caring and, to continue with the Heideggerian view on this, diminishes their ‘being human’ by failing to recognise the mesh of human existence. Such statements are inauthentic. The failure to look (or care) beyond one’s own life sounds a death knell for other lives. So, even when it appears that there is nothing in common, there is indeed much in common.

At one point in the project’s process, we highlighted the ways in which ‘Cultural Creatives’ engage with and change the world. The term Cultural Creatives was developed by sociologist Paul H. Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson to describe a large population segment in Western society. This grouping shifts the paradigms of Modernists or Progressives versus Traditionalists or Conservatives by identifying emergent tendencies and aspirations for human flourishing and care. For some people involved in the project, this may be useful in helping them position and move their emergent aspiration and tendencies. It recognises a point of difference and a redirection of sorts.

After recounting her own life transitions, which involved a deep engagement with systems thinking and the work of Fritjof Capra, Irwin arrived at a list of priorities for designing and making or being and living otherwise, for caring:

  1. Slow down
  2. Live in and design for place
  3. Focus on relationships not things
  4. Ask how much is enough
  5. Think in longer horizons of time
  6. People, place then profit
  7. Mindful relationships to ‘other’ and natural world
  8. Learn to connect the dots and become aware
  9. Adopt new postures (from new worldviews)

Even though the development of Long Time, No See? was not anchored or driven by this framework, it seems useful, having just delivered the project’s workshop program in Aspley as well as an earlier testing process, to consider what this means for Long Time, No See? (just as we might take some principles from Fry’s work on futuring and sustainment to evaluate the project at a later time). It is also possible to distil a similar list from the personal visions developed during the workshop.

1.    Slow down


The project purposefully asks participants to take a break from busy-ness and commit to an engagement with conversation, walking, reflecting and responding which is, by necessity, slow and takes time.

Participants give the project the gift of their time while also grappling with the idea of futuring or ‘making time’.

2.    Live in and design for place


While not directly engaged with designing places, the project provides place-based and localised engagements including a workshop and walkshop. The project values, integrates and reconnects the local through conversations and walking in place. The walking recognises everyday dynamics in a locality and draws lived experience into the fold of thinking and caring about futuring. It also needs to acknowledge history and the traditional owners of localities.

In a small conversation about housing, a couple of us note our desire for well located modest homes to suit our small families, which seem hard to find. Thoughout the walk the group also bore witness to the difficulty of negotiating the built environment in a wheelchair as our friend was unable to surmount impossibly steep ‘access’ ramps without assistance.

3.    Focus on relationships not things


The workshop and walkshop focus on ideas about caring by considering relationships across self, others and world. It provides opportunities for people to identify connections and disconnections in their social, economic, cultural and ecological contexts.

Overwhelmingly, participants expressed aspirations for more connected and meaningful relationships across social and environmental contexts. One participant stressed the need for functional relationships at all registers.

 4.    Ask how much is enough


The conversations provided prompts for thinking and talking about growth, consumerism and socio-ecological impacts in the present and into the future. This also meant participants articulated ways of being and living that were not intrinsically bound by, in particular, consumerism and growth. There is an emergent socio-cultural engagement with new possibilities for being and living.

One participant highlighted an aspiration to ‘withdraw from want’ because she doesn’t want to be tied to it and because it’s not her dream. Another noted that change should be initiated from and responsive to ‘real needs’ rather than determined by markets and other distortions.

5.    Think in longer horizons of time


The project is engaged with futuring and ‘making time’. It asks participants to think beyond their own lifetimes, embrace futuring, leave a message for future generations, and consider their own vision or aspiration for the future.

Notably, when participants spoke of their vision or aspiration for the future, it was apparent that they were making statements about what they sought for their lives now.

One participant specifically identified the long view as her aspiration for the future: an encouragement of long term thinking rather than short term ease so that alternatives and acting differently are possible.

6.    People, place then profit


Through the workshop and walk, there was recognition that the project is concerned with human flourishing and care, which necessarily prioritises people and place over profit. This is reflected in the choices participants make in, for example, their spending habits as well as in their expression for a sense of security or safety (in place, with each other, and more broadly in the world).

In Aspley, the project partnered with a local coffee shop and social enterprise, Cup from Above, which has a deep commitment to community development and social justice. Local perspectives and experiences provided visitors with a different view of place and community, recognising that community can develop in seemingly unlikely places. One participant commented on the need for better places that invite and encourage social interaction and encourage a sense of community. Such statements and aspirations allude to a desire for meaningful connection, trust and/or respect i.e. care.

7.    Mindful relationships to ‘other’ and natural world


This is integrated into conversations and walking experiences including something as simple as appreciating a tree. The walking encourages a mindful and experiential relationship with place and people through reflection. It takes time to complete the walk given the reading, reflection and response cycle required for each stopping point. The poetic and symbolic actions coupled with reflection provide a means through which participants can experience their world differently and their own worldliness. This includes being exposed to a range of experiences and perspectives including Indigenous, disabled and culturally diverse participants.

One participant called for recognition of the value of care and kindness – for the earth, for other creatures. Throughout the walk, participants expressed their pleasure in seeing birds and wildlife as well as in exploring the creek environment and trees.

8.    Learn to connect the dots and become aware


As a project engaged with the work of ‘serious entertainment’ and reshaping culture, learning is embedded in the project with a view to developing a learning web through the training of Community Catalysts. Participants consider their own relationships at various scales and develop an awareness of change and caring. As the artwork develops and matures, more people will participate in the articulation of a mesh of connections that demonstrates growing sentiment for change and care.

One participant noted that we continue to rely on systems that are continuing to fail and this impacts on our ability to undertake the work of change and caring.

9.    Adopt new postures (from new worldviews)


With deference to the advice of Fry that ‘we cannot change anything until we change ourselves’, the project provides opportunities for participants to articulate their perspectives and perceptions in ways that recognise and respect agency. This also includes exposure to a range of experiences and perspectives from Indigenous, disabled and culturally diverse participants.

It provides some scope for the project team to interrogate their attachment to established and institutionalised ideas/ideals of design and art or artist and designer. In part, this means creating spaces – a clearing – for people to talk comfortably about what they care about and what they discover.

One participant, having been involved in the test group and the Aspley group, commented that her involvement in the project had prompted her to rethink some of her ideas about change.

New worldviews need new stories and imaginaries.


Much of the project’s alignment to the principles outlined by Irwin is through metaphor, symbolic gesture or poetic action, leaving an imprint of something other (or an alternative) in the participants’ experience of their world and their relationships: a shifted sense of possibility and awareness. In a recent article in Nature (21 March 2013) researchers presented sustainable development goals that recognise stable functioning Earth systems and planetary boundaries as a prerequisite for a thriving global society.

In its own way, the project creates a clearing where something else could emerge through walking, gathering and talking. A question for us might be whether this experience of alternative or ‘otherwise’ can open into a new building of community (hence an approach that is attentive to enabling such as training Community Catalysts, developing platforms and tools, and providing resources).

While our engagements with futuring and sustainment are not overtly didactic or rhetorical, there are other aspects which are embedded in the project ethos and method: as integrated and integral. This means purposefully designing the project and the participation in tandem with developing and creating an artwork as an interdisciplinary and participatory exercise. The project is not just a carrier or vehicle for an artwork but a social formation or structure that seeks to develop praxis and practice for human flourishing.

With thanks to …

the project team …
Keith, Petros, Rob, Eric, Roger, Gavin

the collaborators and critical friends …
John, Luke, Ben, Nora, Jason, Cherissa, Sonia, Mirko

the Aspley group …
John, Ross, Kai, Julie, Liz, Julie, Liz, Kathryn, Sonia, David

the venue …
Adam (Cup from Above)

Posted in: long time no see