...the old is dying and the new cannot be born

Antonio Gramsci, circa 1930


Emerging from the latest round of Covid-19 lockdown feels like exiting a dark basement. It’s been safe but suffocating. Now I’m taking hesitant steps around my scarred neighbourhood. Which shops are still standing? Who’s been destroyed by the catastrophe? Where’s the street energy? I’m blinking in an uncertain light, wondering what’s next, relieved my favourite Italian restaurant is still there.

The world feels wobbly, tentative. The virus is tamed (for some of us in privileged countries). But it will lurk, hidden and potent. Other bacterial disasters will occur. And we will get used to living with them. As we are used to living with climate catastrophe. Taking in only what we must (I should recycle my plastic) and denying the huge reality of the earth approaching its melting point. I have new routines when going out: Wallet, check. Keys, check. Mask, check. With the world heating up, I will need to add: Water, check. Protective clothing: check. Body heat monitor, check. Avoiding acres blackened by fire, check.

I review the crises I’ve experienced in my lifetime, considering what can be learned from events I’ve already endured. The Coronavirus is not a personal threat. It’s a generalized destruction of a sense of well being. I’ve been here before. What’s different is that I’m an elder now, and my own sense of mortality is hard to separate from the latest assault. When I was younger, there were infinite openings. Not so now. I can’t go about my own affairs so quickly, putting behind me a set of fears. I wonder if this particular impersonal assault will be the one to catch up with me.

My first recollection of global catastrophe was when Mrs. Packard, my second grade teacher, explained to us seven-year-olds what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. We should go under our school desks and cover our heads. Just so, she demonstrated, crossing pale arms across her kindly face. We should huddle there until the all-clear sounded, and follow the instructions given by our school principal, Mr. Watts. Under no circumstances should we panic nor cry out for our parents. They would arrive when they could. I nodded, fearful and not reassured, hoping my dog Cappy would be okay.

The nuclear attack didn’t come, though the Cold War with Russia continued. As it still does, with cyber weapons as potent now as uranium enriched ones. Amazing how solid long-standing enmities are, flourishing unabated over changed times and circumstances. Rooted in Moscow and Washington, DC, blooming still, even as other hatreds arise which equal them in destructive rage.

The fears I felt as a young girl about dying in a nuclear attack faded. The residue is there, though hard to pinpoint except as I consider how little prepared I can be for exterior events. This sense of futility was reinforced during two US wars: the one in Vietnam and the other in Iraq. Both of these conflicts tore America apart. Their impacts continue to fuel hardcore assumptions about what the mighty United States of America has the ‘right’ to do. And they demonstrate how groupthink can pull others into a sinkhole. Vietnam intensified the culture wars that now rage in infinitely more destructive form. Those of us on the Left were horrified to discover that our distress at the catastrophic destruction in another country, a country the US government insisted we had the right to invade, wasn’t shared by all citizens.


For many of our fellow Americans, Vietnam was a just war, keeping the commies at bay and protecting our god given rights.

When the Twin Towers were bombed on 9/11, I was on an airplane travelling solo from London to San Francisco. Watching the flight indicator on the seat back in front of me, I was confused. Even someone as map-challenged as myself could see we were heading in the wrong direction. Soon four uniformed flight attendants appeared, arms akimbo. The pilot’s voice came on, announcing: ‘I have grave news. There’s been an emergency. We’ll be landing in Edmonton, Alberta.’ He told us of the New York City attack along with the bombing in Washington. Passengers were calm, a number of British travellers commiserating with me as an American. One woman screamed out, her cries filling the 727. Her daughter worked in the Towers. Permitted to phone, she learned her family had not been killed. Landing, we were greeted by the Canadian Red Cross, making sure we knew where to go and giving us donuts and coffee. Like refugees everywhere, relying on the kindness of strangers.

That catastrophe was somehow easier to face as I was in transit, neither here nor there. It became more real back home in Berkeley. I travelled over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco twice weekly for work. Due in at 7 pm, I left my house at 2 pm so as not to be on the bridge during peak drive time. ‘They won’t blow up the bridge, I reassured myself, when there are so few of us on it. They’ll do it during rush hours. This crazy magical thinking continued for months, the general atmosphere in the fourth largest American urban area tinged with unease. In public spaces, I sometimes heard an eerie announcement: today’s threat level is yellow (not so bad); red (not so good). And the US President, George Bush, definitely not so good, dumbly leading us into another global mess, the war in Iraq.

I went to protests, wearily carrying my banner. I knew the struggle to stop the invasion was doomed. The powers-that-be had decided upon their course, lying about weapons of mass destruction. Even the British endorsed the Iraq war, their prime minister sucked in by an insane camaraderie with Bush. The Iraq War would happen, as had the Vietnam conflict, until massive and sustained outrage finally cut it off, until the profiteers had what they needed.

Most difficult living through this latest global teeter-totter is the sure and certain knowledge of powerlessness. It’s a struggle to remember that this sense of limited control is true and limiting. But it must not be paralyzing. When I was younger, I felt certain my resolve could alter events. Along with like-minded people, I could shift the direction of the world, definitely help move it in another direction. Living now in a time of profound shifts to the Right, with demagogues and destroyers from the US Republican Party to the UK’s Tories, leaders as corrupt as Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin, corporations as godlike as British Petroleum and Amazon, I’m flummoxed. I don’t give up my shrieks of protest. But I have to ignore the tinniness of the sound. I’ve always told my young friends that futility is not an option. Now I get to see if I can put my efforts where my mouth is and not be overwhelmed by despair.

I don’t want the Coronavirus, the unimaginable dangers of climate catastrophe, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the venality and corruption of world leaders to pull me under. Living with ambiguity and doing the right thing is what counts, right until the last syllables of my recorded time.

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All good myths and fairy tales begin with a journey. The heroine takes their first step into the unknown, a new vision of the world is revealed on the path before them. They stop and see the world anew before taking the next step.


…..


THE CONTEXT


I first read about zoonotic pandemics as a threat to planetary health whilst researching my PhD nearly ten years ago. Covid-19 is not happening on top of climate and environmental change. The virus is an integral part, a symptom, of the environmental crisis. Viruses that should not be transferred between species would not be -- if we understood how to live with our planet and its life systems in a reciprocal way.


We have much to learn from the wisdom of indigenous First Nation peoples and nature-based rituals, along with what we know from climate scientists. Opening to ancient knowledge along with contemporary insights, we will better know how to forestall deadly climate and environmental mutations. Pandemics, along with pests, fire, floods, drought, massive storms and mass migration have long been foretold, going back to Judeo-Christian narratives and other ancient myths. Contemporary global research updates the realities of climate change, augmenting age-old tales with scientific data.


In this first quarter of the twenty-first century, a global viral pandemic has been unleashed. Surely we must rely on science, technology and political will to get us out of this mess? Surely the wealthy West can prevail, given our technology? Of course we’ll return to normal – if not the old normal, we’ll paper over the cracks to bring back our sense of certainty in comprehending past, present and future. We’ll return to expectations of progress, jobs, justice, homes, holidays, health, social events, coffee shops and pubs, friendships.


I think not.




I began construction of the Future Machine in 2019. It continues to evolve, and to make its journey amongst communities across England. The Future Machine is a witness to change, and a way to voice our hopes and fears for the future. I wrote about it in December 2020.


When the lever on the back of the Future Machine is pushed to Present mode, sounds emanate from its large copper trumpet. The sounds are based on data captured by weather sensors attached to a wooden pole affixed to the back of the machine. The performance brings these scientific sensors -- a technology driven process I designed with engineers and programmers -- together with the human feelings of the weather, the climate, the moment, the place.


The Machine compares the data to the monthly averages for its particular location and then an algorithm decides if it is cold, mild, warm, hot, breezy, windy etc. The algorithm also ‘decides’ if the climate is expected, unexpected or extreme. A collection of weather-descriptive words was given to the composers and musicians Alex Dayo and Dave Kemp. They created a process on improvisation with the words, the weather and their vast variety of instruments, along with Miles Ncube's bird songs and the singing and mutterings of Alex and Indira Lemouchi.







In a live performance, the Machine plays the algorithm and the musicians play their feelings. Their creativity demonstrates an emotional, reflective and experiential ability to translate the being-ness of a place and time. Their music incorporates the wind, rain, air and smells along with sensations of moisture and dryness, warmth and coldness, the air prickling their skin.


The Future Machine prints future quests for people to take away. An algorithm decides what will appear on these quests. It’s based on four dials representing myths we humans hold about the future, our moods, our planet and the seasons. The choices people make on the dials compose personalized future quests. I want this to be a poetic undertaking, the quest as something people will treasure and which will inspire renewed imaging of the future. I want people to inhabit different moods and stories. I insist the future can be a journey of our own making.





MY INTERIOR JOURNEY


Working on the Future Machine, especially after the first lockdown, I’ve thought more and more about poetry, about the experience of being in a place that attunes you to feelings you cannot place. It’s a space where emotions arise, the sense of an unspeakable moment, being-ness, awesomeness, sacredness, uncanniness.


It’s hard to connect to feelings as you write rules for algorithms, testing and blowing up computers and printers in the process of creating. It’s hard for any of us to connect to deeper realities as we go about our everyday lives. Feeding, clothing and housing ourselves; getting absorbed by our phones, social media and streamed video dramas; zoom calls and objects of desire; letting consumption and other banalities be the stuff of our lives.


I’ve been working with a senior climate scientist, Prof. John King from the British Antarctic Survey, to create Future Machine quests. We’ve been having ongoing discussions about poetry, art, science and data. We talk about what happens when what science shows us about the world reaches its limit, and it’s time to look to experts in human behaviour and emotion to understand how we might react. Increasingly, research shows that the stories we tell and how we then respond to our imagined tales is a very different process from gathering evidence and using cognitive processes to understand the data we gather.


Suddenly, in the midst of creating Future Machine quests, I realized I had to stop. This was not poetry. The technology, the data, the systems, the algorithms could never create a mystical, poetic, emotional and transformational experience.


I moved away from the pile of technology, the Machine's innards strewn like cold spaghetti on the floor of Furtherfield Commons in Finsbury Park, where I have generously been given residence during this pandemic.


I stopped, went for a walk under the London Plane trees, with their crackling tawny and orange leaves underfoot. The sky was autumnal blue, sparklingly clear. The oxygen of the trees mingled with the poisonous emissions of the North London traffic. I wrote about our mutating world, and the story of the Future Machine became clearer. I returned to it.



TRAVELS OF THE MACHINE


Now the Future Machine is fully functional, ready to move from place to place in its journey around England as the seasons change.


In November 2020, the Future Machine was due to appear in Nottingham when one of my collaborators, Caroline Locke, ceremonially planted a new blossom tree in Christ Church Gardens to replace one blown down. We zoomed the event. Frank Abbott, another artist collaborator in Nottingham, witnessed the tree planting on his mobile phone, leaving a message for the future via Zoom.


Highlights of this ceremony are available at https://www.emergingvoices.co.uk/profiles-of-activists


In April 2021, the Machine returned to Nottingham, when the cherry tree blossomed in ChristChurch Gardens on the hottest day in April ever recorded. Sounds of the Machine mingled with the murmurs of seven socially distanced people gathered under the trees. A local school (Mellers Primary) made light boxes with birds which we hung in the tree. At the witching hour, Frank Abbott filmed the magical moment when the sun went down. We lit the light boxes using small hand generators, creating a new ritual to celebrate the coming of Spring. We hope the rituals will evolve as the Future Machine returns each year, hopefully for the next thirty years.


THE QUEST CONTINUES


Now, as the country is tentatively opening up and Spring turns to Summer, I plan to throw myself into exploring the ineffable and the poetic. I want to create ritual and a sense of special occasion with the Future Machine in each of the places it will appear as the seasons change. The music of weather and the Autumn leaves falling in Finsbury Park (London), the cherry blossoms in Spring in Christ Church Gardens (Nottingham), the bells ringing change, renewal and the planting of new trees in Cannington (Somerset), celebrating the harvest along a watershed and the uncanniness of a damaged river (the River Leven, Cumbria) the growth, change and survival of ancient woods and still existing commonland (Rotherfield Peppard, Oxfordshire).


In this time of uncertainty and survival, during this global pandemic, the value of art, poetry and music is being questioned more than ever. Massive cuts to arts education have just been announced. Yet the story I return to tells me that without taking a step away from the science, technology, industry, economics and systems we’ve built to protect us from uncertainty, we cannot reconnect with the essence of the earth that protects us. Only via a connection to nature, poetry, art and music can we see the world anew, to experience the moment between what has passed and what happens next. To take the next step into the future and create new and sustaining narratives.


………………….


Rachel Jacobs is a practicing artist, academic researcher, interactive games designer, writer and arts facilitator. In 1996, she co-founded the award-winning artist collective ActiveIngredient. Rachel is currently an Associate Researcher at the University of Nottingham and Visiting Research Fellow at Central St Martins (University of the Arts London). Her current project, Future Machine, is designed to help communities across England respond to environmental change. She is a frequent contributor to Emerging Voices.


Also see www.whenthefuturecomes.net



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“And to make an end is to make a beginning.” Little Gidding. T.S. Eliot


I measure time by my years on earth. I measure time by the restrictions of lockdown, trying to peer beyond the curves of confinement... I measure time by wondering what events I’ll live to see my grandchildren celebrate. I measure time by the Jewish calendar when the new year begins in the fall.


I wonder about time, how much I have remaining. I fear time, its inexorable passage. I love time, its endless twists and possibilities, the way it loops back and mushes together past and present. I’m awestruck by time, how it’s real though intangible. I move through time, calculating it via my daily rhythms. (How odd, that notion of moving through time.) Perhaps it’s a thin tissue of undulating threads, shifting with the winds of my temperament.


I beseech the gods of time, requesting more of their precious cargo.


It’s not original with me, though I cannot find the source of the idea that the present determines the past. But that is how I experience it. I’ve always lived beside the shadow of my mother, both when she was alive and after her death. Hers was not the kind of shadow under which I cowered in fear; rather, I was cautious about coming into the light. My mother was a fearful, uncertain person. Towards me, the eldest of her two daughters, she exhibited mainly impatience and anger, threatening to send me away if I didn’t behave. I was then, as I am now, a reactive, emotional, sensitive type. Intensely curious, I wanted to understand everything. She couldn’t deal with me. I asked too much. All my young years, I longed to burrow through her anger and find respite. Growing up, I gave up, replacing my longing to connect to her with the desire to stay away. And with the fervent hope not to emulate her in any way. Let me not behave nor look nor feel as she did. Her shadow pursued me, pushing me to be different, pulling me back into itself.


Years passed, as they do. (There’s that time thing again, moving, flowing, receding, expanding.) I look in the mirror and see the lines of her face etched in mine. I hear myself respond to my life partner in the voice she used with my father, angry, demanding. I recoil from others, unable to feel worthy of love as she didn’t teach me how to receive it. I remember my cruel indifference to her in her later years, and shrink from the possibility I’ll get what I gave her--nothing.


That’s the dark side, the scrim of memories made up of absent feelings. But now, I re-make the memories of my mother, changing our relationship. This occurs despite her having died years ago. Time, that strange mechanism, is at work. It’s elastic, magical shape-shifting meddling with what was fixed, changing it to a present narrative.


In the story now, I understand how difficult it was for her: the middle child of an overbearing Russian matriarch who shouted orders from her bed in the back room of our house. Marriage to a man with a depression which burdened them both. A demanding older daughter who was difficult to soothe. Relatives blaming her for her husband’s malaise. And yet she persevered, spending the last nine years of her life as a teacher’s aide. That was the pay-off; finally a classroom of her own, a dream realized. And that eldest daughter who forged a life of connection, that daughter now comprehends her mother’s sadness and finally, weeps for her.


Time not only heals wounds; sometimes it erases them.


Time is not linear, though it’s what we’re led to believe. One doesn’t go from point A to point B in a straight line. Days are round, not long. And time is not hierarchical, forcing us to look up to where ‘He’ is (and it’s always a he) at the top: father, god, ruler. We’re trained to look up instead of around; we’re told to keep our eyes on the prize, not on the person next to us on the bus. We’re instructed to conquer time and not waste it. Meanwhile, time flows all around us, pushing us towards memories past, re-making old truths, beckoning us to the present moment, merging us with that thing called space, and finally, calling us to enter into its eternal river.

……………………………...






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