On a recent visit to the city I headed over to Télescope, a small but rather lovely café in the first Arrondissement, near the Louvre. It is a place which clearly cherishes coffee, and the art of creating it. It has been run for the past 7 years by Nicolas Clerc, who sat down with me in a quiet moment to tell me more about he came to be running a wi-fi-free café. I started by asking him whether the lack of wifi was deliberate? “Yes. Absolutely deliberate, yeah.”
“I’ve found myself, in imagination, finding an activism that I never had before, as I practice it more. When you practice imagination, and keep trying new things, you begin to develop more and more confidence that it’s possible. It’s not so crazy that to think that we could find another way forward and reverse some of the trajectories we’ve been on for the last 150 years”.
“I know one of the things that you’re investigating is the imagination. Why I like it is that if you don’t ask yourself ‘what if’ questions, then it keeps you in a static view of the world, “I’m going to play by the rules as they exist and I’m going to just try to deal with the terms and the alliances that presently are”, which is very limiting from a political space. To be able to think about, “what is it that we might actually be able to do to move a particular force?” enables us to see things differently”.
“My main take-away from the 2018 IPCC report is that there may still be time, but only if we can bring about a deep reimagining of what the world could be and how it might work. As Daniel Aldana Cohen put it, “we are only doomed if we do nothing”. While mass arrests and a firm “no” is vital, our “yes” being sufficiently rich in imagination, play, invitation, joy, awe and possibility matters just as much. “Rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. How deeply do those words call to your imagination? What yearning do they evoke? What possibilities and delights do they invite, what do they call you to step up and do?”
“From my perspective, globalisation through multinational corporations has really stripped us of imagination because it’s all about replication. It’s all about spreading your brand around the world or whatever. And in order to do that you have to reach the common denominator. You have to routinize and make things the same. It’s the opposite of imagination. It’s to try and routinize the economy so that you can grow that big. A local economy by nature is more creative because we’re looking to see what does my community need? What does my place want to be?”
“To me the most radical thing that you can do is to centre the wholeness, to centre wellness, not brokenness. The way to respond to some of this stuff is to imagine what we want as opposed to constantly reacting to what we do not want. You know, to me, when I am spending too much time thinking about that which I don’t like, or I’m dissatisfied with, I’m feeding it, and giving it all of this energy and then it comes the biggest thing in the room, and I’m just not interested in that, right? I’m more interested in movements that centre wholeness and wellness and fundamentally reject and silence any narrative that says that there is an inevitability to our destruction”.
“The minute we start saying yes to everyone, and to everyone’s creativity, we’ll have a really different culture. But unfortunately a lot of the people who are in the creative world are scared of letting other people in. And I get that. It’s scary. There’s no money. There’s not enough of it to go around. The scarcity thinking is terrible but the scarcity thinking also limits our culture. We could do astonishing things but we are going to have to say yes to everyone”.
“I think it’s brilliant. There are so many opportunities for engaging in imaginative activities that everybody takes advantage of, including adults as well as children. Sometimes people worry about children’s imagination being not as well developed because of all the fantasy material they’re presented with, and all the scheduled time they have, but I haven’t seen any decline at all in the years that I’ve been interviewing children.
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.