Artistic speculations, preferable worlds and sensuous societies
The year was 1935 when the city of Broadacre made a public outcry. It was designed in the image of how, the then acclaimed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned the future of the city. It was a three-dimensional 12-foot-by-12-foot model visualising a flat, green and organic landscape with agricultural plots enclosed to little, flat houses put side-by-side to enormous parks. This image was in direct contrast to the conventional city design which separated industrialised mega-farms from concrete skyscrapers and asphalt boulevards. But what was even more outrageous in Wright’s Broadacre City was not its entire lack of tall skyscrapers, but the very fact that there was only one: the skyscraper where people would work. How could one skyscraper fit all the working people of the city of Broadacre, people asked. But for Wright, the question was wrongly put, as Wright envisioned a future where people almost would not work: Why engage in employment when machines can do all the work for us? Wright imagined that an average working week for the future American would start at 10 o’clock and end around 16 o’clock - three days a week. The rest of the time the American would spend time in recreation, leisure and the cultivation of crops and animals. And even though it seemed like a joke for the public, five years before Wright’s model, the most renowned economist at the time, John Maynard Keynes, forecasted that by the time of 2030, the average working week would be 15 hours. Keynes examined how technological change and productivity improvements eventually would lead to a 15-hour workweek.
When we compare Keynes’ forecast with today, we see that we still have a 40-hour workweek. However, examining the numbers Keynes based his forecast on, he was not wrong. Looking at the numbers today, we can, if we collectively chose to, reduce our working hours to 15 hours. But there was one factor Keynes, just as Wright, did not include in their prediction. With the improvements in technology and productivity, people started to earn more money which they converted into juicy steaks and good-looking cars rather than more leisure time. This meant that people had to sustain their working hours to be able to afford the new ‘normal’ welfare level made available by the new improvements. What Wright and Keynes imagined was, and is, undoubtedly a possible world. But apparently not a preferable one. Yet.
Sisters Academy is a boarding school where the »sensuous and poetic mode of being is at the centre of all action and interaction«. A school not based on economic principles like efficiency, duty and discipline but on aesthetic principles like fantasy and desire - an education for the future, as they state. Sisters Academy is an institution with its physical location in Copenhagen, Denmark. But Sisters Academy is more than that. It is a representation of an alternative paradigm distinct from the economic rationality that shape our society today. A not-yet actualised world view virtually embedded in our present constitution of the world. Inside the gloomy chambers, with their velvet-clad furniture and organic matter, the participant faces a number of performers and interactive performances. Some focus on sound, others on touch and some on movement. Key is that rational thought is reduced to give space to a more sensuous experience. When you are forced to put rationality aside, you automatically give space to other senses. It may be that you do not know how to behave during the 24-hour stay. And possibly you are forced to act and perform a new form of self. You need to learn how to reinvent yourself to make sense out of the disorientation you are placed in.
During the stay, the Academy performs a number of enrolment rituals to help your transformation. The anthropologists Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner understand a ritual is a sequence of activities one performs to mark a certain rite of passage, in other words, a transformation that confirms a certain internal logic. This transformation is marked by a liminality. A condition of ambiguity and disorientation in which things have lost their former meaning and not yet acquired new ones. When a ritual is over, the participant has transitioned into- and confirmed a new system of meaning. What characterises the Sisters Academy participant, as with the ritual, is that the participant is embedded in an economic rationality before enrolment, is disoriented during the performance but transitions into an aesthetic being after the stay.
Sisters Academy arose in the wake of the financial crisis. The crisis was a manifestation of an economic rationality that stopped making sense. It opened a gap for something new to emerge. But reality is that the financial system did not really change that much after the crisis. Banks and financial institutions are doing the same thing as they were doing before the crisis. Why exactly is difficult to say. But one reason might be that we, as a society, simply did not have the imagination to rethink and challenge the current system. Perhaps we were too immersed in an economic rationality. In that sense, Sisters Academy is not a critique of the current economic paradigm. Rather, it is a constructive counterimage of a possible alternative, and in their beliefs, a preferable one.
Common for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City and with Sisters Academy, is their willingness to activisticly change the status quo. And not only that. Both worlds are manifested on a material level. Not just something thought but something one can sense physically. An embodiment of a future world to engage in.
When we look at societal challenges today, like global warming and migration, we have on a political level difficulty in addressing these problems properly. A massively distributed and non-local phenomenon like global warming requires transnational cooperation, systemic approaches and active engagement from all parts. However, the political status quo is in many ways instrumental and one-dimensional in addressing these challenges. What we might need is a new common language to address hyperobjects like global warming. And a new form of engagement to change it. At least that is what the Italian philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi says, when he states that the present crisis is not simply the effect of a financial or economic crisis - it is a crisis of our social imagination about the future. Bifo believes, we lack the ability to fundamentally imagine a different world on a collective level. The future is not just defined by the latest shiny gadget. It is a paradigmatic reconfiguration of the present world.
When Sisters Academy creates a space of performance, imagination and an education for the future it is because they want to facilitate an opportunity for people to collectively engage in the development of a new, in this sense, aesthetic paradigm, where the distinction between performer and audience, professional and amateur, production and reception has collapsed only to focus on the social experience between all participants. And in order to do that, we need an embodiment that captivates us. A ritual to transform us.
If we stay in a hoping position we remain passive. But if we dare to perform and embody a future-facing culture that ruptures the existing configuration of the world, we leave open a space that we are forced to collectively engage in. Maybe towards a more sensuous and human-centered society where beauty beats business.