I’ve only been back to art school a few times since leaving.
This week I went back to one I’d not been to before, but it was familiar. The first thing you see and smell when you walk through the front door of Kingston in Surbiton is the art supplies shop. I immediately wanted to buy paper and magic markers.
I also immediately wondered if I know anything at all about creativity.
It’s how I felt about everything except music when I was 18. Which I shared with the students as I stood in front of them a while later. Soul sister Rina Atienza had invited me up to guest lecture in one of her classes. She’d set her class Unsee The Future as a theme and I was a bit weirded out by seeing interpretations of this phrase that had fallen out of my head by a group of young strangers. She’d sent me their initial poster designs before Christmas, but now they were working on vision boards towards a three-episode media experience.
What does Unsee The Future mean?
A designer doing standup.
Standing in front of them, I felt more conscious of needing improv skills. I was there to listen and interpret, so we’d kept it entirely loose for me. Young people can smell truth and fakery with heightened awareness, I think, and I wanted to be useful to them. Unpracticed as any kind of teacher. Rina has always said her forays into standup comedy have stood her in very good stead to manage an art philosophy class.
Truth and fakery were just some of the themes that came out of the students’ vision boards. Money, ritual, religion, faith, conspiracy, ancient prophesy and techno destruction panned around us by the time we’d met the groups and placed their work together on the walls.
“How does it make you feel, spending time with all this doomy imagery?” I asked. They gave a collective inevitable shrug to my rhetorical seeming question.
Someone had commented on the whiteboard by one of the boards: Optimisim. Haha. That’s a good one.
“We all recognise this, right?” I said. “I think it’s interesting how you’ve drawn out different themes of doom from across centuries – very interesting how you’ve intersected across that” I noted, “but we all recognise this world we’re in. This story we think we’re in.
“The world is f***ed” I said. “So what?”
They all watched me.
“I think you have two jobs here now. One is practical and one is philosophical” I began. “Philosophically, so what if you know the world is ending?”
“We’re all so bored of that!” Rina interjected.
“We’re all so bored of that,” I echoed. “Now how are you going to help your audience unsee that future? Unsee the story that seems inevitable?”
“The second job is the mechanics of storytelling. How are you going to tell it and keep anyone’s interest?”
A generation wishing it could stand up.
Now, I may be wantonly uncommercial. I express my blogs and and writing as I do my music – personal, idiosyncratic, not precisely audience-driven. It feels like me and it’s made me wildly obscure and unheard of.
But, as a creative, I am still a pilgrim of storytelling. And I know good storytelling when I see it.
I asked them what they’d watched recently that grabbed them. That they couldn’t scroll past.
It unlocked a number of examples. Stories of unseen lives, from across cultures. Audio books and TV and film alike. Documentaries of truthful experiences, told compellingly in honesty. Honesty that could feed the way the story was shot, edited, paced, produced. And intriguingly, not one TikTok was mentioned; the shortform film platform may be the very school of efficient narrative engagement but when people feel hit by a deeper connection, they flow into long-form reads and listens and watches without thinking about it.
Intriguing was watching them as I threw up last week’s Global Goals Music Roadshow – #37, in which AY and I simply presented edits of our interviews at COP26. I had the sound off and was talking over the imagery of him and me bantering silently across the big screens in the lecture theatre.
While I explained a bit about some basic tricks to keep things moving, they clearly found two blokes laughing at each other across the Atlantic engaging. I told AY this later that evening, after we’d filmed the first fully live show of the new series and he was touched.
Our GGGuests find hope an optimism in each other. But that is because they so easily feel alone in wanting to stand up for positive change.
They’re not alone. Far from it. As Rina said to me over a later evening drink: “I see an image of individuals all around the margins feeling alone. But strategically placed as they may turn out to be, the whole middle could suddenly seem to flip.”
I came away from this reminded. That trying to unsee the future is a lifetime’s thing. To undo all the habits of our expectations, our systems of valuation, our hopes and clear lack of them.
But the doomsroll of the now of fearsome unrealities IS a construct in our heads. Oppression, violence, political intransigence, systemic prejudice – they’re all real. They may all wreck and defeat fragile lives, yet the culture driving them, causing them, maintaining those political systems, unchallenging those stifling robot bureaucracies, encouraging those fear-driven behaviours… that’s all a story we think we’re in.
If we can’t change that, we can’t change the way the world impacts us.
But we can.
And we must.
And if every artschool had a Rina in it, an oracle of sensemaking as a metamodern world flowers, we might begin to believe in different futures.
And not simply believe that another world is possible, but it was unstoppable.
Optimism? Yes, as truthful feelings go, that is a good one.