Culture as a laboratory for collective imagination

Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall once said ‘People have to have a language to speak about where they are and what other possible futures are available to them.’ For Hall, and for me, culture is that language. 

Art and culture offer us spaces to come together and reimagine ourselves and the world: to laugh and cry together; to connect with each other and with our collective humanity.

What could that mean in our particular era, in which we are seeing the rise of new digital technologies, massive socioeconomic shifts and  the increasing impact of climate change. And in which we – or some of us – are waking up to the need to build more equitable, diverse and accessible futures.

The answer is not instrumentalism – art created to ‘solve something’ – nor is it art-for-art’s-sake. It is something in the middle: art as a public space, a place for collective imagination. It is practical: we make objects, stories and experiences. And it is impractical: we explore outliers and alternatives, we give room to philosophy, creativity, emotion and ideas. From that, we discover new ways to speak about where we are. And out of that, we imagine new futures.  

Culture as a beginning, not an end

We are living through complex shifts and changes, many of the problems we face are global problems. We need to dream bigger. It isn’t enough to conduct our research and use it to make beautiful, urgent, meaningful work as an end in itself. Work that is taken down from the gallery wall, work that is done with at the end of its theatrical run. Yes, that work will stay with its audience. It can nudge behaviour. It can spark conversations and drive incremental change.  

But the problems we face are huge, systemic, existential. And our existing structures and approaches are not producing solutions. Incremental change is not enough. We need space for radical ideas. Culture offers us collective spaces for imagination - an infrastructure of buildings, ideas, history, creative practices and ways of creating. It is a space that can let us imagine impossible solutions to impossible problems… The question becomes “and then what?”

I’m interested in art and culture that doesn’t see itself as an endpoint but as a beginning: a place where we bring people and expertise and industries and possibilities together, imagine together, perhaps make stuff together… and then keep going. 

Culture as a space to reimagine work 

We need to find new ways of working and new ways of sharing. We need to honour the local, the indigenous, the wisdom of the past – and we need to connect that on a global scale to enact change. 

Culture can be a space where we reimagine how we work together, how we produce stuff and when we don’t produce stuff, when we bring people together physically and when we don’t. How we create meaning locally that connects into the global, when we use the power of digital and when we really really don’t.

For art and culture to play a role in change, we can’t go it alone. We need partners who will shape our thinking, who will ask intelligent questions, and who will take the baton from us. We need to bring together artists and technologists, communities and policymakers, engineers, scientists, philosophers and activists. We need to make our own network into part of a larger network, a constellation of interconnected people and partnerships that think, experiment, make, learn and implement new ways of doing things together, building a wider movement for equitable change.

I often use this word – constellation – because it captures what I mean: a set of collaborators that are brilliant in their own right but become better together. Constellation thinking moves us away from the individual and instead seeks the power of connection. It likes and embraces difference and multiplicity. It is decentralised. It is about trust and shared curiosity. It moves us - away from the single genius and towards collectivity and exchange; away from hoarding and winning and towards sharing and solving. It goes beyond disciplinary boundaries and challenges assumptions of linearity, coherence and progression. It is a way of working that in itself is radical, and which can produce radical ideas.  

Culture as a laboratory for impossible change 

In this time in which the world seems to be on fire, we need to create interconnected spaces in which we can work together to start imagining radical new ways of doing things. We have so much work to do to care better for each other and our planet – so we’d better get to work. 

Culture can host interdisciplinary work, create space for experimentation and bring people together to imagine how we do things differently. This also means we need to see ourselves as makers of art and culture in a wider network of change. Culture and imagination can be powerful sparks for change – so who do we work with, who will fan the flames?

Building our own constellations of change, embracing and being open to partners in different fields with different processes, finding new forms of collaboration and doing that across borders – that is what is inspiring me right now. 

Art is not a magic bullet for change. But it gives us a language to speak about possible futures. And it frees us to imagine impossible ones – which might be what it takes to save us.

Image credit: Munkination by HAM the Illustrator in collaboration with ROH Audience Labs and Visualise. Digital Visualisation by Kayleigh Eliza & HAM the Illustrator