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When Will We Ever Learn?

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

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.



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.


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.


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

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.


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.

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