3.05. Experiential Futures

Experiential Futures

99 cent store
99c Futures. From the Extrapolation Factory website.

While the tools and techniques of future studies have been adopted by many corporations and policy-makers over the last two decades, there has been very little engagement with the wider public. People are often unaware that futurists exist, let alone understand what it is they do. The result is an unfortunate disconnect, which separates the public from the valuable tools Futures Studies offers to help us think about and plan for the future.

In the last few years, a convergence of ideas and practice has led to the emergence of a new way of doing futures, one that sidesteps intellectual discussion in favour of provoking more emotional responses.

A diverse selection of visual art, films, theatre performances, digital games and artistic interventions has been gathered under the banner of ‘Experiential Futures’. The term, coined by futurist Stuart Candy and adopted by Bruce Sterling, Anab Jain and others, refers to the practice of embodying elements of hypothetical future scenarios through visual media, film, industrial design, theatre and gaming.

The last two years has seen an increase in this kind of practice, which seeks to ‘de-abstractify’ how the future might look using the tools and techniques of the arts.

From large-scale participatory theatre works involving thousands of participants, to corporate videos promoting as-yet-nonexistent technologies, to ‘future artifacts’ installed as guerilla artworks in urban spaces, the Experiential Futures label includes work in any creative medium.

Procession for cyborg saint Santa Ste.la as part of the 2011 Lecturas de Cruce (‘Crossing Lectures’) on the US-Mexico border

The guiding principle connecting and underpinning these projects is the idea of manifesting some aspect of a hypothetical future in the present day. Rather than communicating ideas about the future verbally, practitioners seek to create an ‘experience’ of the future for their audiences / viewers / participants.

‘Given that future scenarios have no factual, “evidentiary” referents per se,’ says Stuart Candy, ‘Experiential scenarios and artifacts afford people the rudiments of a common vocabulary, a virtual shared experience, however basic, around which their contributions can cohere, and push off in discussion.’

From the futurist perspective, the intent behind these works is to prompt conversation or reflection around the idea of the future. The artistic intention, meanwhile, is to use Futures Studies ideas to generate works of art that are emotive and effective.

At its core, the practice of Experiential Futures is fundamentally inter-disciplinary. The artist needs the futurist’s insights and strategies of in order to meaningfully convey anything about the future. And the futurist needs the artist’s creative and design skills in order to convey those insights in an effective and accessible way.

One of the major challenges in creating an Experiential Futures work is to strike an effective balance between the ideas and the form. If the science is prioritised over the art, or vice versa, the work may end up either:

  • Aesthetically rich but analytically impoverished, OR
  • Intellectually rich but creatively uninteresting

The only way to negotiate those difficulties is to dive in and begin.