This year, Cardiff Philosophy Café has been about The Future for Wales, examining the ethical and political aspects of ‘keywords’ that identify key issues about which difficult public policy choices must be made. From sustainability through energy to work and well-being, we have explored a range of questions where the one thing we can be sure of is the uncertainty of the future. But one thing that debates about the kind of future we want do not often address is, how does this confrontation with uncertainty make us feel?
On Tuesday 16 July, the Café presented a session on ‘Uncertainty and Emotions’ intended as a breathing space to allow its audience to reflect on the connections between emotion and uncertainty. This was the first of two linked events, with the second taking place on Tuesday 23 July, entitled ‘Creativity’, featuring two performances designed to explore imaginatively our dealings with the uncertain future. These events also relate directly to a previous Café on the ‘politics of uncertainty’ [PDF] back in 2010.
Tuesday’s Café featured three contributions from artists, all based in Wales, whose work has explored the relationship between the experience of uncertainty and our emotional lives. Simon Whitehead began with a talk accompanied by a performance that embodied the state of confronting an uncertain future, moment to moment: balancing a writing table brought from his workshop in Abercych, West Wales, on one of its legs, he used one hand to spin it, keeping it in motion for the duration of his talk. Alongside this demonstration of unstable yet continuous movement, he offered reflections on experiences of ‘between-ness’, liminal states that are characterised by a kind of ‘onwardness’.
He described the account given by embryologist Jaap van der Wal of how embryos in the womb, with their development taking place through ‘gestures of growth’ that prefigure the expressive forms of movement and language that they will manifest after they are born. He then talked of the experiences of Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweikart, who described how space flight changed his sense of self, no longer identifying with the country of his birth and instead feeling a link to the whole planet that saw him become active in the American counter-culture on his return to Earth. The experience had been one in which he found himself anticipating a new future.
Fern Smith, co-founder of Volcano Theatre, described her experiences, as a performer, of fear and shame as key, orienting emotions. Fear before a performance, shame afterwards: ‘did I really say that?’ Fear foreshadows an imagined future, whereas shame recalls a persistent past. Feeling displaced from the present into future and past, she described realising that, if we relate to ourselves in this way, is there any wonder that we treat the planet without due care? She spoke of the importance of a pause she gave herself in her professional life, a period of uncertainty but one in which she sought to be re-connect with the present, inspired by, among others, Joanna Macey’s work and her idea of the spiral of change, to seek to be comfortable in uncertainty, rather than to give into discomfort and rush to change.
Gareth Clark, one half of Mr and Mrs Clark, described his search for defiance in the face of austerity and urban decay in Newport. Since it attained city status in 2002, he said, Newport had entered a prolonged period of uncertainty, in which its future had been up for grabs, open to being shaped, but which remained empty of plans in which people could have become involved, leaving only the possibility of empty shops being filled by another national retailer to give some measure of hope. He described a number of art interventions undertaken in taking over public and unused private spaces to hold conversations about the future of the city. In particular, one such event, in which a ‘councillor’, having presented a description of official plans to an audience of members of the public which was delivered in a bland, patronising manner was subsequently taken hostage, bound with gaffa tape, and an invitation delivered to the audience to present their demands for a new Newport to him. The difficulties people experienced in articulating demands were significant – a moment where the future seemed to have been actively opened up to the imagination of members of the public proved to be a space of uncertainty that was deeply challenging for them to respond in.
The CPC audience were then invited to reflect together on the question of what aspects of the future, personal and public, they felt to be most uncertain, how these factors made them feel, and what the consequences of these feelings might be. Selected written comments contributed by audience members can be viewed in the slideshow below.
It was pointed out that uncertainty about the future, by itself, is neither good nor bad – but omnipresent and inextinguishable. Yet perhaps the present is characterised by more uncertainty than before, with apathy and anger in varying mixtures being a common response. It was suggested that precariousness (or ‘precarity’) should be distinguished from uncertainty as such – the possibility that the rug could be pulled out from underneath you, as it were, thanks to the actions of others. The creation of uncertainty – or precariousness – was seen as a kind of ‘risk-management’ strategy employed by the powerful to contain potential unrest, and make it governable.
Uncertainty, by contrast, was seen by some as necessary and positive, even ‘intoxicating’ as one audience member put it. Uncertainty could be seen as the material for art, with the re-invention of possible futures a major role for artistic work – particularly in the ways in which it can (as with The Passion and Port Talbot) release energies within communities and allow the kind of space Rusty Schweikart seems to have found in his vision of the Earth, to re-imagine relationships between people and the places they inhabit.
Paying attention to concrete aspects of life – in place and time – is particularly important to avoid the ‘optical illusion’ associated with fear of the future, which austerity, climate change, the possibility of energy shortages and so on may provoke. Through the lens of fear, everything looks ‘bigger’ – an audience member from the Valleys made this point, describing small, local community initiatives as unleashing energy and confidence to deal with uncertainty. The capacity to recover from disconnection from place and community, the effect of decades of burgeoning individualism, was seen as essential, with art playing a role.
The ability to shift away from the dominant narratives about places and communities told by politicians and the media that present them as degraded, hopeless and in need of ‘special measures’, and to reinvent stories that bring out other aspects of life there, was seen as crucial to reshaping a sense of what people can do, of what futures are possible (with the Gurnos estate in Merthyr Tydfil being presented as a good example of a community defamed in this way). What, then, is the relationship between hope and confidence, what can new stories do to stimulate both – and are there dangers associated with hope? Is the best way to shape the future to live in the moment?
The telling of alternative stories about the future, as a way of changing our assumptions about what it might be like, and what we can do to shape it, is the subject of the second of these two events, which will take place on Tuesday 23 July, at The Gate, from 8.00pm.