A wide-ranging conversation about co-creation kicked off the inaugural Future Imagination Summit

By Katerina Cizek | December 18, 2019

Conventional Futurists — especially techno-futurists — lay claim to our collective future. They sell the inevitability of new tech solutions and how they will improve our lives. Yet these futurists reproduce current systems that benefit only a privileged few. Rather than “predicting” the future, corporate-aligned forecasters write the future in the very act of telling it. It is not magic. It’s a design to trick the eye.

We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future,” noted Marshall McLuhan in The Medium is the Message.

But there are also radical futurists, grounded with deep critiques of the current world, calling into action a collective future for all, based on compassion, justice, and harmony. By imagining radical futures, people’s movements can conjure these visions into actions in the present day. The newly minted Guild of Future Architects, led by Executive Director Kamal Sinclair, seeks to network these radical futurists across many fields and practices. The Guild convened for the first time in New York City in November 2019.

The key to much of this future imagination work is co-creation: collective practices that function outside the limits of single authorship, and the hierarchies of current domains of expertise and media industries, as described in a recent field study, Collective Wisdom.

“Co-creation is the ability for people to humble themselves and let their guard down, to create something that they cannot do by themselves,” said Opeyemi Olukemi of PBS, in an interview in Collective Wisdom. “Co-creation to me is the attempt to reach this whole mind state, where people also understand that everyone has a piece of the collective puzzle. And jointly, and only jointly, can we create something that is truly revolutionary and meaningful”.

At the Guild’s recent Future Imagination Summit, Executive Director Kamal Sinclair (pictured above) introduced the authors of Collective Wisdom who kicked off the gathering by hosting a conversation between four artists who co-create blueprints and projects for  just visions. The discussions were grounded in Indigenous epistemologies and antecedent technologies, critical design justice practices, Black-centred collective media and community creation, and art performances that showcase the entangled relationships between humans and artificial intelligence. All of the projects highlighted the role of co-creation in re-imagining a future built on justice. 

The following insights come from earlier conversations in preparing for the event.

A just future includes the wisdom of the past 

The first speaker reminded us that the First Draft of the American Constitution was in fact The Great Law of Peace, a document that unified the legal, social, and cultural aspects of Iroquois society, woven into a wampum belt. Amelia Winger-Bearskin is an artist/technologist who explores how democracy and technology hinge on the concept of  dependencies – the often-invisible systems that are required for things to work the way they do.Winger-Bearksin, who is from the Seneca-Cayuga Nation in Oklahoma (Deer Clan), described her new project called Wampum.codes that she is developing as a Mozilla Fellow at the Co-Creation Studio.

Winger-Bearskin explained:

“In my culture wampum was a way we recorded community contracts that were agreed upon in front of the group. Wampum was the way we created contracts that were based in public agreement. So you could think of it like a blockchain contract where you have an agreement between two parties, but there’s a witness from the community, and [the agreement is] verified and protected by the community.

It was used for trade, it was used for peacekeeping, it was used for land territory –almost everything that was very important was recorded in wampum. Wampum is a shell that then could be woven into a patterned design. It could be an image, or it could also represent  a number amount. Wampum designs are binary, either white or purple. They call them belts because people could carry them with them, tied around their waist like a belt. That would then be a moving verification of this agreement.

So it was a record, it was communication, it was an agreement. That’s why I like using the construct of wampum as an analogue for a new type of ethics-based dependency. I would hope that we could think of a 2020 version of wampum contracts that could be woven into our software code and our legal codes.”

Healing Art: Back and Song

Weaving healing into her art,  Elissa Blount Moorhead (pictured above) explores the poetics of quotidian Black life, to emphasize gestural dialectics of quiet domesticity and community making. Her work is concerned with both immutable elements of Black culture and the impermanence of its tangible manifestations in visual culture, sound, and dwellings.

Her latest co-created art installation is called BACK AND SONG. It is a 4-channel art and video installation that was exhibited in the chapel of Girard College in Philadelphia. She co-created the work with Bradford Young. This kaleidoscopic installation reflected on the manner in which health and wellness are part and parcel of the American Black experience from cradle to grave.

Moorhead explained:  

“I think of the project itself as a form of healing as opposed to just a representation of it. It is a healing thing unto itself. The starting point was Brad’s wife, who’s a midwife, and a book of medical texts were our jumping off point. And we used that to start to dissect our bodies and interaction with the medical system. And then, halfway through talking about it, we decided we wanted to just completely turn our back on that and refuse that. And what was nice is we were able to just say, ‘This isn’t what we want to do’ and push back. And then, we decided what we wanted to talk about was healing, ritual, and euphoria. Those were the things that we thought mattered and that we wanted to center women that we considered healers; there were textile artists and funeral workers and midwives and doulas, all kinds of people that we also sort of put their fuse together in the 16 millimeter portraits that we shot without identifying anyone.”

In addition to shooting their own cinematic material, Moorhead and Young worked with archivists, editors, musicians in a very collective, non-hierarchical approach. They both have extensive experience in the commercial film industry, and intentionally sought to approach this project differently. Moorhead said:

“We’re always thinking about the hierarchy of film and the nature of it lends itself to people throwing each other under buses, and not working or bringing your best forward. It’s about being  in service to this director who’s been falsely held up as the voice when actually, they are more in a midwifery role with the DP and others. And so we always are in contention with that. And so when we entered this project, first we are co-creators and we also knew we had to contend with the fact that Brad had quite a bit of celebrity status, and that he’s in a male body, which he’s always trying to deal with, and what that might mean on the back end. Brad talked a lot in the process about humility and what you give up to be in concert with folks. It was more of a respectful, more creative, less stressful kind of way to get to an end. And we just felt much more fulfilled and much more … oddly, by not being tied to an end product, we felt more tied to the end product.”

Design Justice

Both process and product are important to co-creation. Yet in the design industry, both — like claims to the future — are often controlled by the privileged few. The next speaker, Sasha Costanza-Chock, is part of a growing movement to hold designers accountable to principles of justice.

Sasha Costanza-Chock is a Steering Committee member of the Design Justice Network. They are a scholar, activist, designer, and media-maker, and currently Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT. Their new book, Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need  will be published by the MIT Press in early 2020.

Costanza-Chock started by questioning the field of design itself:

Who gets to do design work and be paid for it? Because everybody designs. Human beings design. If we think of design as sort of making a plan, trying it out, shifting it to work better, it’s a human activity. Only some of us get recognized as designers and get paid large sums of money to do this work,Although all humans design, and design is crucial for how we address the future…” 

I think in the Design Justice Network, we are trying to shift from a vague kind of hand-wavy, design for good feeling to a much more specific and clear critique of the ways that design is often involved in reproducing racial disparity and what Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins calls the matrix of domination, or the intersection of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, and settler colonialism. What would it mean if we could build a community of people who have that type of specificity and clear analysis of the harms that many design professions are currently causing as a baseline when we start talking about how we want to do this better?

So, for example, think about affordances. Affordances are basically this idea that originally comes from  cognitive psychology. It’s about how we perceive the actions that we can take with an object in the world.

An example would be a doorknob that affords opening a door, and we can tell it’s a doorknob because it’s sort of shaped like the palm of a human hand. But there are many other ways to create a door that could clearly afford opening, for example, a swinging door in a restaurant kitchen that has a flat panel with the word “Push” written on it, and can more easily be opened by wait-staff whose hands are full of plates.

Affordances is a concept that then gets applied in human computer interaction, and in the design of VR projects and AR projects, and sort of everywhere. Can you tell that you’ll be able to do a particular type of action with an interface, for example? Design justice  takes that concept and puts it through this lens of the matrix of domination. It says, “Okay, are affordances equally affordances for everybody? Who is privileged, and who is burdened, in the distribution of affordances in the systems, interfaces, and objects that we are designing?” 

People in the Design Justice Network are also calling out the established design organizations and institutions for continuing to be dominated by mostly cis, white, wealthy men, for marginalizing the voices of women and trans and gender-nonconforming folks and people of color and indigenous peoples, for not making necessary institutional shifts, in terms of how the main conferences are organized and the curriculum that the main design schools teach.

We launched the Design Justice Network as a membership organization a few months ago, and so far the response has been really good. There are local Nodes of the network popping up all over the place, and we hope you’ll connect with us there, or start a node in your own hometown! You can also join us at at Allied Media Conference in Detroit or online at designjustice.org.”

Can humans co-create with algorithms?

The last discussion was more speculative. Lauren McCarthy is an artist who interrogates and explores co-creation with non-human systems such as Artificial Intelligence. Her projects provoke visitors to drift in the in-between space between humans and machines and entangle with all the mythologies constructed around these systems of surveillance, automation, and algorithmic living. McCarthy is also the creator of p5.js, Co-Director of the Processing Foundation, and an Associate Professor at UCLA Design Media Arts.

McCarthy describes the central theme of her latest collection of five performance and interactive piece works, entitled Someone: 

“I am interested in this concept of home and what it means to have this space that feels private, intimate and feels like a safe place, to have that invaded by technology. Or to have a place where your social,cultural, and ethical values are shaped and formed from by AI trained on data and created by developers that may not represent or share your values. What happens when we insert technology and AI into intimate spaces was one big central question that ran through all these works.

There is a process that happens every time we make a tool, every time that we build a system. Our own beliefs, biases, anxieties, particularities get embedded in this thing even without us intending to. So, there’s a very visceral moment of reckoning with that in this work.”

WAKING AGENTS is the most recent of these works. Visitors are invited to lay down and nap with a smart pillow, attended to by its embedded intelligence. The intelligence serves as guide, companion, and caretaker while the user drifts between awareness and unconsciousness. Behind the scenes, the “intelligence” is driven by human attendants that listen in and interact with the visitor using text-to-speech, music, and light.

In her earlier work called LAUREN, the artist set up an elaborate system of surveillance in participants’ own homes so that she could interact with inhabitants as if she were “Alexa, except better, because she’s human.” McCarthy explains being hung up in the matrix as the artist, imitating an algorithm: 

“Amelia Winger-Bearkskin (the earlier speaker) was one of the participants. She asked me if she had taken her pill, because she’d forgotten. And I was searching through the footage, trying to remember.  I was scanning because I couldn’t watch the whole thing. And I didn’t see it and I didn’t remember it. And so I said, I don’t think so, but I’m not sure. And I remembered feeling this jealousy that if I were just an algorithm, I would just be able to run one command and have the answer.

And that moment made me, in other parts of my life, notice these times where I was yearning for that. Some of these abilities that we’re so used to relying on tools to do. So, I think in terms of co-creation those moments make me feel what is was to give up control, to rely on another, human or not.. I understand how much these tools are changing us and shaping the way we think about ourselves, and about the world around us. And I’m hoping people that experience the work have similar moments like that.”

Why Co-Create Now?

Lastly, the four came together to discuss why they co-create. In the Collective Wisdom field study, one key reason to co-create identified by interviewees was “Deep Time. Co-creation stretches conventional notions of time. It may be a term that seems to be currently entering the zeitgeist, but it refers to millennia of human practice. It can also describe processes that may be perceived as long, messy, and not defined by what they can deliver at the onset. Co-creative processes acknowledge that trust, relationships, and democracy take time.” 

Image from the Collective Wisdom Field Study.

McCarthy insisted that co-creation is urgent. Costanza-Chock emphasized that the need for co-creation stems from the idea that “Everyone is an expert based on their own experience.”

Moorhead suggested it is important to “name the thing we’re already doing. We need rest, contemplation, and shared values of community work”

Finally, Winger-Bearskin introduced the concept of Seven Generations, which is “the way that my culture and community thinks about any type of impact you want to make. You have to imagine how it should be made for seven generations, and also understand that whether you like it or not, it will have an impact for the next seven generations. It’s both an encouragement and a warning. So if we don’t make explicit the values of the code within the code of the projects that we’re creating, in seven generations, those ethical frameworks, could be lost. ”

“Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place,” writes Anna Tsing in The Mushroom at the End of the World. “The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment. It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction. Luckily, there is still company, human and not human. We can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscapes — the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations. We can still catch the scent of the latent commons — and the elusive autumn aroma.”

Amelia Winger-Bearskin (left), Sharon Chang of Guild of Future Architects (middle) and Sasha Costanza-Chock (right).

Photos of event by Alexis Hoyer, courtesy of the Guild of Future Architects.