Last week I embarked on the 10 hour train journey to Dundee in Scotland to visit a project I had heard about on the radio called Art Angel. We know that stress, trauma, anxiety, loneliness and depression all have an adverse impact on the human imagination, causing it to contract and shrink. We know that people suffering from those things find it far harder to think about the future in positive ways, to feel any hope of possibility in what lies ahead. As the UK faces what people are calling an 'anxiety epidemic', with an accompanying decline in imagination, I was curious as to what I might learn from an organisation that works with people on the hard end of the anxiety crisis, and how art, play and imagination can help.
A question that has arisen in my research around imagination and also in the recent interview I did with Stuart Candy was what would it look like if a local, city or national government were to create a ‘Ministry of Imagination’? If the revitalisation of the imagination were felt to be so important that its protection, enhancement and cultivation needed a bespoke department, one that cross-cut other departments, attempting to raise the imaginative capacity of the entire administration. It was an idea that really stuck with me.
Today Stephen lives two lives. One is that of a professor at New York University where he teaches about history and the politics of the mass media and writes books. His second life is with the Centre for Artistic Activism which he co-founded with artist Steve Lambert. He travels the world teaching activists to be a bit more like artists, and artists to be a bit more like activists. Noble work. I
Kyung Hee Kim’s paper ‘The Creativity Crisis’ was published in 2011, and its impact was huge. Its finding that since the mid-90s imagination in the US has been in a ‘steady and persistent decline’ while IQ continued to rise made the headlines, even the front page of Newsweek magazine. It led to a period of national soul-searching. When I came across it several years later, I was fascinated that I had never heard mention of it from anyone in the climate change and social justice worlds. If climate change is anything, it must be the greatest failure of the imagination in the history of the world. Perhaps K’s paper might offer some illumination as to why our response isn’t happening fast enough?
One of the highlights of my summer was collecting my Totnes Passport. The whole Brexit debacle from inception to its current state of woeful ineptitude and brazen jingoism has been one entirely bereft of imagination. Neither side has presented any kind of an imaginative story, either as to the wonderful things Brexit might enable, or the wonderful possibilities that remaining in the EU might present. The whole thing has felt like an imagination vacuum. I was delighted then to hear that in my town, a local solicitor, Jonathan Cooper, had decided to start issuing passports for the ‘City State of Totnes’ – a member of the European Union, and that within just a few days, the story had spread around the world.
Just before the summer, I attended the Transition Design Symposium at Dartington, a fascinating two-day event. I was the mid-dinner speaker, and found myself sat next to Grace Turtle who says, when asked to describe herself says “I’m a design strategist, or sometimes an experience designer, depending on what I’m doing. Sometimes a design futurist”. We had such a fascinating conversation about imagination, that a couple of weeks later we followed up with an interview by Skype. Sadly the quality of the recording was so poor that I only have a transcript to share here, but it was a deeply insightful conversation.
What happens when play disappears from our cities? In a report for the National Trust, Stephen Moss writes “a potential impact is that children who don’t take risks become adults who don’t take risks”. One response is the Playable City movement. It defines a Playable City as “a city where people, hospitality and openness are key, enabling its residents and visitors to reconfigure and rewrite its services, places and story”. It’s a movement that started in Bristol, and believes that “by encouraging public activities that actively bring joy, we can create a happier, more cohesive urban future”.
A planet that four billion years ago was a boiling orb of molten lava, and then can unfold towards Jimi Hendrix and Nina Simone, and these great exemplars of human creativity. I mean, that all came from a boiling orb of lava four billion years ago! The planet is imagination. The planet is creativity. The galaxies and the stars and the cosmos are imagination and creativity. When we tap into the most creative dimensions of ourselves, we’re tapping into some of the deepest dynamics of the universe itself.
“The thing that excites me about your project and your focus on imagination is that it is a capacity that we airily talk about as being valuable and important, kind of like poetic language. “Isn’t it nice? Imagination? Isn’t it liberating?” But imagination to me is actually a collective capacity, and the ability to think about futures is a collective capacity. It might seem individual because that’s where the thoughts appear to be happening in our own minds, but the societies that we’re in and the people we’re around are the kind of enabling or disabling container for that”.
Last week, close to my home, was the Transition Design Symposium. It brought together people from around the world interested in what design can bring to the need for an urgent societal Transition, and for 2 days its attendees basked in glorious sunshine and fascinating interactions. I managed to catch up with Michel Bauwens who was attending and speaking at the conference, and we took some time for a short chat sitting under a tree in sunshine.
Rima Staines is an artist, musician and illustrator, puppet-maker, stop-frame animator, clock-maker, theatre designer and one half of Hedgespoken with her partner Tom Hirons. Tom is a writer of poetry and prose and teller of traditional folk tales. Together they created ‘Hedgespoken’, a travelling off-grid storytelling theatre run from a 1966 Bedford RL lorry, converted to be a home and a go-anywhere stage. On one bumper it says ‘Vehicle for the Imagination’ and on the other ‘Imagination, Liberation’. They travel, present stories, share artworks, having raised the money to convert the vehicle through a crowdfunder.