Question Everything

Posted on October 29th, 2015

[Tassos Stevens writes…]

I was invited to make a provocation for Question Everything, an event curated by Index on Censorship and hosted at Junction in Cambridge as part of the Cambridge Festival Of Ideas.

All us ‘provokers’, from diverse backgrounds of art, activism, academia, politics, and more – were given the same four questions to answer about a topic of our choosing, expressed in one single word.

The questions were: where are we headed? what are you questioning? why should we (the audience) care? what’s the alternative?

My single word topic was agency.

Following is my provocation. With a few [spoilers redacted]

Hello, I’m Tassos Stevens. I’m an artist and runner of Coney. Coney makes theatre, adventures and play in which the audience can take a meaningful part. If they choose. And which can happen not just in theatres but anywhere they happen to be.

But the important thing is that it’s not about me, it’s over to you, the other people.

Three examples of Coney’s play to which I’m going to refer in this talk:

First. Adventure 1 is an adventure in a secret location somewhere in the financial district of London. Secret because we don’t have permission to be there. You’re tailing someone who works in the heart of the financial system. You are guided by phone calls at first, playing to blend into the everyday background of the City, before… [spoilers redacted]

Second. The Green Gold Conspiracy I’ve just been making for Chester Zoo, about the impact of the systems of production of palm oil on the rainforest and on the orang-utan. It’s a game you play with a table of people over dinner, in which you take different roles inside the system – a government, a retailer, a palm oil plantation – playing the system from their perspectives. But then… [spoilers redacted]

Third. #agoodquestion is a conversational game I’d devised for talking about politics, and having better quality of dialogue especially with people who have different politics to us.

Like all the speakers, I was asked to answer some questions here. First, where are we headed?

I think we’re headed into an increasingly precarious world, where the stakes are getting higher and higher, but also where systems of capital and control are becoming more pervasive and hardwired into our everyday lives. We might need better tools to see the systems we’re inside and understand the relationships we have with them. So that we can see more clearly how and where we might most effectively challenge and even change these systems.

Second what am I questioning>

I’m questioning agency. And I am also going to make a series of points about systems and how we think about them.

Agency is the sense that I have influence, that my voice is heard, that my actions matter. But I think our desire for an immediate sense of agency for ourselves can sometimes blindside us to how best we might act, and by best I mean most effectively make the impact which we want.

The question is who is this for? Our desire for agency can stop us from seeing systems as the interconnection of different agents with different values and objectives to ourselves. And not recognise that the systems themselves are infinitely capable of assimilating our dissent and providing us with an array of choices which satisfy our desire for agency without disrupting the system.

Sometimes the kind of work I make is described as interactive theatre. There’s often an assumption in the discourse around the work – how interactive is it? If it’s more interactive, if I have more freedom, if I can do more things, then it’s better?

I disagree. Interactivity doesn’t equal freedom, more interactivity as represented by more choices of how to play doesn’t make it better. It’s how meaningful the impact of your actions inside a framework. You might only have one choice rather than hundreds but if it’s the right one, that counts more. And a completely free space to act is often paralysing of agency.

Action always happens inside a system. And it’s important to map the interactive system to understand what is really going on: we model the systems, the various agents interacting, what they can do, understand what are the values driving them in the system. And then discover what scope do we have to rewire the system, to change the game.

And in theatre, in play, as if in life. I was inspired by the radical game-designer Paolo Pedercini – to change the world, don’t just play games, rather make games so you can get your hands dirty with what is really in play. I’d add: sometimes you can play and then reflect on how you’ve played, and see more clearly, what you’d want to change.

In Adventure 1, you’re walking [spoilers redacted]. You’re guided by your phone, by phone calls from someone called Josh, from a playlist of instructions voiced by someone called Fiona. You’re following Mr X, someone who works in high-frequency trading. And as they invite you to follow him, step by step, every interaction you make is you saying yes to them… [spoilers redacted]. Later, you’ll find yourself in a discussion reflecting on what you chose to do, and how that may have been influenced by your own relationship to the financial system.

And there are particular roles we can find ourselves in relation to a system. Outside we might keep clear, or confront it, try and knock it down. But rarely we will see it clearly, Inside we can feel pressure to conform, but we can also see how it plays. And to challenge the system we need to understand it, to change the system know where best to apply pressure. This is the approach of the corporate lobbyist to influence power for their own agenda. It’s also the basis of the political science of Gene Sharp, another inspiration.

In The Green Gold Conspiracy, the audience play three interconnected games which each model very simplistically part of the system around palm oil production. As an oil plantation, they face increasing pressure to chop down rainforest in order to grow palm oil to stay afloat. As a government, they make decisions to win status, but which might impact regulation on the plantations they are playing. And as retailers, they try to undercut their competitors’ price for say cooking oil in the markets of India but therefore drive down the price of palm oil. You play different objectives and agendas of different agents inside the system. [spoilers redacted] and the question of how we should win the game: by playing sustainable which is the only way to save the orang-utans from extinction, or playing realistic and ruthlessly driven by the bottom line, or [spoilers redacted]

And in making the game we had to make the case that to deliver best the message, the game might not always be on message – that rather than making a statement we wanted to open it up for play, to ask questions. But that this would ultimately make a stickier message, and if in 3 weeks’ time the players remember ‘sustainable palm oil’ and are left mindful, then we’ve made the right impact.

The research we did for this game made me feel a little pessimistic. The more you look at the system of palm oil production, it’s hard to see how its current direction can be steered towards a more sustainable future. But it’s important to keep a little agency burning, a belief and hope that we can do something.

Still it’s not enough for us to think from our own position in the system as UK consumers. We have to recognise the positions of others in the system – often those without the economic luxury of choice – and understand what drives them, and the differences between us. A new thought I’ve had in preparing this talk: I’d like to explore how we’d tackle challenges if we were lassoed to another person, someone with a very different background and point of view.

I felt a bit of despair earlier this year in the run-up to the election after watching the leadership debate. Despair at my own lack of engagement in electoral politics, but also at the shit quality of dialogue in the debate, and the absence of decent political conversation in my own everyday life. But inspired by a book by the brilliant participation designer Nina Simon, I thought about the problem of talking about politics from the perspective of participation design. Many of the social barriers to participation boil down to a fear of being judged. And therefore talking politics with other people is bloody difficult because judgement is everywhere. Political discourse is mostly tribal, designed to affirm your belonging to a party or particular point of view, or to knock down others. Politics is complicated and it’s difficult to start a conversation without feeling stupid or out your depth. The fear of judgement means that political discourse values hard-baked opinions, showing no weakness – but how then to talk to people who might be very different to you?

Applying some of the toolkits of participation design to the problem, wanting something simple enough to be sticky and easily spread, I came up with a 3-step format. A format towards having a better conversation about politics with someone who is different from you – #agoodquestion.

Step 1 – find someone who is at least a bit different in background from you who is happy to have a conversation. This is the hardest step.

Step 2 – talk about your politics – I found a useful opening question to be ‘what are the experiences in your life that have shaped your politics’. And as you both talk, you’re alert to the differences between you. Not as a barrier, as a problem to be solved but to be discovered, acknowledged, and even celebrated, because these will be the source of richness in this conversation.

Step 3 – having discovered your differences, ask each other questions. But the only questions you need answer are those which make you ’that’s a good question’.

I’ve had some better than good, some brilliant conversations using #agoodquestion, from some young conservatives randomly encountered to my very own uncle. I am keen to explore how and where this format could be deployed.

But I am also interested to discover how the same process and toolkits, of participation design and of systems thinking, which I’d used to devise #agoodquestion in the first place can be shared with people easily so that they can learn to use these same toolkits to see more clearly the systems around them, make play inside them, and hack them if they choose.

Why should you care? we were asked to ask.

Because it’s all about you, the other people. And it’s important to remember that for any action, any participation, there are many people in play: the actors, the recipient, the others caught up in the action, the passers-by, the people who hear the story later on. And we might consider where the impact best lands with each of them to effect the change we want.

And what’s the alternative? Well, that’s over to you.

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