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Circular society meets art and creative practices

What could the office of an academic in 2063 have to do with the songs of lyrebirds and glaciers? As it turns out, this is just a glimpse of the fascinating world of art and creative practices! Last September we, Nur and Jonas, had the opportunity to engage with this inspiring world through co-organizing a workshop “Circular Society meets art and creative practices” at the third Circular Society Forum in Berlin. The Forum is organized by the BTU Cottbus, the Hans Sauer Stiftung and the German Federal Environmental Foundation and offers a yearly platform for various academics and practitioners to come together, discuss and engage on the topic of the Circular Society.

Our workshop took place in the Spreefeld boathouse which sits in a communal living space aimed at creating socially just, economically stable, and environmentally responsible urban blocks at the heart of Berlin. The carpentry atelier, daycare centre, catering kitchen, and co-working spaces enrich a cooperative way of living with affordable housing. It was a great fit for our workshop, as our goal, too, was to go beyond dominant practices, narratives, policies and explore alternative ways of living, thinking, and being in a circular society.

We called it a ‘collective experimenting with art and creative practices’ to build on their unique way of engaging people at the deepest levels of emotion, imagination, and inspiration. CreaTures (2022) framework created the basis of reflection on how to change/challenge/disturb/unlearn meanings, connections, and power relations in the workshop and beyond.

Nine dimensions – ways to talk about creative practice and change (CreaTures, 2022)

For the first part of the workshop we collectively travelled in time to the year 2063, to visit a very peculiar museum exhibition. After reassuring our audience that time travel is completely safe and conducting a brief time travel ceremony, we all arrived in the year 2063 and visited the museum exhibition we had installed in the Boathouse. The exhibition represented the office of an academic living in the 2020s and displayed various objects and practices that were ‘typical’ for that era, but that proved problematic in light of achieving a more sustainable society – ranging from electronics (headphones, smartphone) over clothing (a ‘fast fashion’ blouse) to (broken) publication system in academia.

Exhibition 2063: August’s office - a worried academic in the 2020s

We then offered the participants a tour of the museum exhibition. This involved a backcasting exercise in which we provided brief backstories for how the displayed items have changed in 2063. To do so, we narrated the exhibition as if it was the office space of one particular, however fictional, young academic named ‘August’. Alternating between voice recordings of her diary and us providing additional background information on the objects, we guided the visitors through the exhibition. For instance, we had several pieces of electronics on the table such as a laptop, monitor, headphones, and of course: a good old smartphone – a device that was rather common in the earlier decade of the 21st century. So, to give an example, we then learned from August’s diary recording that, on the 13th of July 2026…

“Dang, my phone was broken today! That was not the best timing. I was on my way to meet friends over lunch. Luckily, I was on time and didn’t miss them, but I hope I can recover what’s inside. It’s only been two years since I changed the old one. Goodness. A friend suggested me to go to a repair workshop to try repairing it myself, that does sound interesting. My guarantee has expired already and repairing through the company is too expensive, so I might try it. I’m not sure though, what if I do something wrong and it crashes altogether? We’ll see…”

We then picked up on August’s personal story by pointing to the poor quality of certain electronics back in the earlier 2020’s, and that there used to be something called “planned obsolescence”. Looking back from 2063 we, as museum guides, narrated the potential starting point of how the poor quality of electronic devices and planned obsolescence was tackled as…

“People living now find it difficult to imagine, but the minimum legal guarantee periods were only 2-3 years back then. But societal pressure against ‘planned obsolescence’ started rising in the 2020s. A whole social movement emerged that claimed ‘the right to repair’, they managed to create awareness, cultivate knowledge with the public, and pressure policymakers. This led to a policy that increasingly empowered consumers to gain access to skills and resources for repairing their electronics.”

And many other changes in parallel: a ban on private jets after mass protests; universities providing basic research funding for researchers, exclusive 2 hours for peer-review every week, and non-profit, open-access journals for academic publishing! After the whole exhibition tour, we asked the participants to get their creative juices flowing themselves. In small groups they got the assignment to pick one contemporary object or practice they would like to add to the exhibition and construct a potential backcasting story themselves. We were happy to see they came up with some creative narratives!

Museum 2063: group assignment – add an object/practice to the table

For the second part, we jumped to the other side of the Boathouse to connect to non-human perspectives with artist Penelope Cain. Penelope works at the art-science interaction as a “speculative storyteller”, especially in the colonized, extracted, and transformed landscapes of the Anthropocene. She introduced her impressive artwork on water, land, and fire.

“Hear us, you who are no more than leaves always falling, you human beings, turn your minds to our words, ethereal words.” (excerpt from Aristophanes, the Birds)

Have you ever listened to lyrebirds and glacial ice as connected historians? We did! Lyrebirds with their excellent mimicry skills perform a sonic recollection of life in the forest. They are so magnificent in their skills that it is not possible for humans or other bird species to tell the difference between mimicry and original sound. Sorrowfully, nearly half of the lyrebird population was lost in the 2020 Australian summer fires, taking all their sonic memories along. The impact of ash on the melting of the New Zealand glacier landscape connected the two in their bitter stories as songs of lyrebirds sung to glaciers.

Songs of Lyrebirds Sung to Glaciers ©Penelope Cain

Water, air, and bacteria in Atacama had stories, too. Long lasting memories told by the trio following every phase they had gone through in the Atacama Desert in Chile: from an ancient inland sea, surrounded by volcanoes, to the driest desert in the world. This unique and highly diverse ecosystem is full of life that is seemingly inert to humans and oh, home to the world’s largest lithium reserves, too. Lithium-led carbon-neutral transition stories are diverse when heard from groundwater, lagoon bacteria, and satellite images of expanding mines. Entangled tales of climate policies, justice for nature, and struggles of power are narrated marvellously in Penelope’s artwork.

The Entanglement of Desert Water ©Penelope Cain

For the interactive part of the second session, we came together around the table to form a cycle of wishes. After a joint discussion on the non-human circularity perspectives, we wrote something we appreciate in the non-human world, that we wished we could have in our lives. Then, personal wishes were put in the bee-wax amulets which required warmth and care to fold before circulating within the group. What do -you- admire in nature the most? Is it the generosity of rivers, modesty of the earth, compassion of the sun?

Non-human wish-cycle © Hans Sauer Stiftung

All in all, we travelled to different regions, visited diverse geographies, zoomed in/out from bacteria to satellite images, listened to lyrebirds, sensed the bee wax, and reflected on academia’s structural deficiencies as well as personal struggles in one workshop. This is the merit of art and creative practices! All these were interconnected in terms of willingness to learn/unlearn (diverse) ways of doing, being, and knowing as well as co-creating a space for imagining alternative futures! Intriguing, isn’t it?

Penelope, Nur, Jonas

Nur Gizem Yalçın is a PhD researcher for C-PlaNeT working on the project ‘Politics of circular plastics economy in Europe’, in the Centre for Sustainable Development at Ghent University (Belgium) and Brandenburg University of Technology (Germany).

Jonas Van Gaubergen is a PhD researcher at the Center for Sustainable Development of Ghent University (Belgium), studying institutional dynamics involved in emerging cases of product-service systems related to the circular economy.

Acknowledgements: we thank our dear colleague Juliane Höhle for being our voice artist at Museum2063. This workshop has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 859885 (C-PlaNeT) and from the Brandenburg University of Technology -Cottbus, Germany.


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