Large-scale trans-media futurism exercise ZED.TO was a nine-month project created by Toronto creative collective The Mission Business over 2012. Explicitly drawing on the principles of experiential futures articulated by the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, The Mission Business used live-action and digital storytelling experiences to engage theatre audiences, game players, and the broader public in an exploration of what it might feel like to live in one possible future.
The central conceit of ZED.TO was the rise and fall of ByoLogyc, a fictional corporation whose synthetic biology and genetic engineering practices evoke the tensions and concerns currently arising from the commercialisation of research into viral therapies and subscription based personalised medicine.
Over the course of the nine month story, ByoLogyc releases a new personalised healthcare platform called ByoRenew — a “software update for your immune system” activated by ingesting a single pill. ByoRenew is sabotaged upon release by an activist organisation opposed to the corporation. The result is a lethal pandemic which quickly spreads beyond the corporation’s desperate attempts to control it.
ZED.TO took place over four key live events throughout 2012, supported by an ongoing and diverse stream of online activity. Public involvement built over the course of 2012 until there were thousands of participants engaging across the spectrum of forms. Each of these ‘performance tentpoles’ mapped to one of the four future images articulated by Jim Dator and the HRCFS:
The first event (Continuation) was an invitation-only launch for the company’s new line of products held in a gallery, offered to a select group of VIPs.
The second event (Transformational), taking place as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival, offered audiences the chance to take part in ByoLogyc’s intern program, giving them tasks and responsibilities within the company and allowing them to sample the company’s products. This event also signaled the initial outbreak of the lethally mutated version of ByoRenew.
The third live event (Disciplined) took the form of an immunisation clinic open to the public during Toronto’s ‘Nuit Blanche’ event, illustrating the corporation’s efforts to contain the spread of the disease.
The final phase of the story (Collapse) was a ticketed performance event for 350 participants taking place in an abandoned brickworks outside the city, which represented the company’s final stand against the outbreak: a kind of corporate concentration camp for victims of the pandemic, defending itself against attacks by the paramilitary wing of the anarchist protest organisation.
The core creative team of The Mission Business coordinated a huge range of creative collaborators and unfolded the story simultaneously through multiple mediums. The success and popularity of the work indicates the effectiveness of the trans-media form and the resonance of the themes.
It is significant that the Mission Business, consisting of artists from live performance and gaming backgrounds, explicitly adopted the strategic foresight methods advocated by futurists in the creation of the work. ZED.TO is perhaps the first major project where ideas from Futures Studies have been put into practice by professional artists, rather than by futurists adopting some artistic practices or creative collaborators.
In his research paper exploring ZED.TO, Mission Business member Trevor Haldenby examines the challenges of manifesting the work as both a rewarding performance experience and as a scientifically informed work of experiential futures. ‘During the production of ZED.TO, I struggled to find a way to transform game-like audience experiences into more rigorous and methodologically aligned research exercises. Sustainably integrating an entertainment experience and research practice is a tall order.’
Nevertheless, it is clear from the dialogue around ZED.TO (captured in online reviews, alternate-reality games forums and personal responses) that the work prompted numerous and thoughtful reflections on the future, and argues for the more central role of artists in constructing meaningful futures scenarios.