How can we imagine alternative futures? What role does design play in such thinking? And, most importantly, how can anyone contribute to such imaginings? These are questions at the core of the practice of Extrapolation Factory, the Brooklyn-based art and design team of Elliott Montgomery and Chris Woebken that works to apply techniques used by think tanks, futurists, and designers to collaboratively reshape the future. Transforming the Walker’s Art Lab into a laboratory for futures studies, the duo invites visitors this weekend to survey, from a bird’s eye view, the natural surroundings of the Walker and neighboring Loring Park and to collaboratively design solutions to address the future effects of climate change in this area.
In advance of their Walker Open House visit, Walker public programs manager Jacqueline Stahlmann sat down with Montgomery and Woebken to discuss their practice, why design is an important component within it, and what participants can expect at this weekend’s workshops and during their return to Minneapolis for the reopening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in June, 2017.
Jacqueline Stahlmann: To start out, could you explain your name, “Extrapolation Factory”?
Elliott Montgomery: I think that’s a great question because the name of the practice is a pretty helpful metaphor for thinking about the way we think about futures. So “extrapolation” is the practice of taking a series of data points and then starting to imagine what might come next if you start to draw the line between these data points. And so in the Extrapolation Factory’s work, we generally start with signals from the world around us. Whether that’s in the case of the project we’re doing with the Walker, shifting climates and migratory patterns, species moving into and out of certain areas—like the Mississippi watershed, for instance. So we look at all these signals and then start to think about what the world could look like in very specific stories, and we try to look at multiple different versions of extrapolations. We extrapolate up, we extrapolate down, left, right, all sorts of directions, and that’s where the “factory” comes in.
So when we do the work that we do, we try to bring in a large, diverse group of participants to create multiple, different versions of the future. So you can imagine a factory line where these ideas for the future are the output of the factory and each idea pops off the assembly line, but each one is its own vision of the future. So when we get together with a group of participants working on these projects, they’re the workers fabricating these visions in a sort of factory.
Stahlmann: You two met in a program in London. Was it a design program?
Montgomery: Design Interactions.
Stahlmann: And then who extrapolated, if you will, into futures work when you met again in New York? Was it taught in your program, the idea of futures design?
Montgomery: It wasn’t really taught. We were in a program that challenged the notion that design should serve to just satisfy the most glamorous human needs or solve problems in the simplest way to describe this. And instead, design could play a role as a provocateur, where designers are challenging our assumptions and getting us to rethink the world around us, almost introducing problems instead of answering or solving problems.
Chris Woebken: And we really like the fact that people can come together, old folks, young folks, and all sorts of people from the community can do this, and also have fun doing this visioning and come up with a tangible outcome that you can share and talk about. So what we would like people to take away from coming to our workshops is that maybe this, as a practice, can radiate into other spaces, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be confined to think tanks and gallery spaces.
Stahlmann: We were introduced to you guys through Emmet Byrne, the Walker’s design curator, because he knew you through that world. So initially, we thought your work might be more design-focused, but really it’s much more futurist-focused. Do you consider yourselves more as designers who think about the future or as futurists who use design as part of your practice?
Montgomery: I think we both take different approaches, and part of the reason that our practice is what it is is that I come from a certain background and Chris comes from another background. I really think of myself as a designer, and I use design to make futures thinking in the think-tank context more accessible to people who weren’t trained, traditionally, in futures. I’m really interested in how we can break down methods, distill them, make them useful and engaging and accessible to a broad community, and allow them to pick them up and tinker with them and apply them to challenges that they’re already thinking about. Design, to me, is a perfect example of that language, because we’re constantly surrounded by designed experiences, designed artifacts. And so we speak the language of design whether we are traditionally trained in design or not. We’re buying things and using objects to get through our day-to-day lives and these objects are, more often than not, designed objects.
Woebken: Yeah. And I think the other aspect that we like to explore is how can we create these spaces for people to have fun and get engaged with this. It maybe connects to what Fluxus was doing. There’s a certain history of instructional art, and we want to create experiences and spaces where people can come to and enjoy engaging with some of these methods that we’re presenting. And then ultimately, take that away as an inspiration that they can maybe do this in their own community or their own life or maybe in their profession. So that’s what we are aiming for enabling with these participatory workshops, installations or performances that we’re doing.
Stahlmann: Let’s back up a step. Could you both define what a futurist is and where we see the work of futurists in our day-to-day lives? Most people probably know what a designer is, and we see the work of designers day-to-day, but perhaps they’re not familiar with this idea of the futurist.
Woebken: I have problems with the term futurist. It’s a complicated relationship. I like the practice, definitely, but I don’t agree with everything that comes with it. There is a bigger history of how we think about the future, and a lot of it is coming from government and military practice. At some point, we understood how to extrapolate from data and create models to model the weather and make predictions, etc. But I don’t like the language of predicting. There are a lot of futurists who sell the product of predicting a trend or a vision of what it might be like. We like the idea of multiplicity, and not necessarily saying, “This is our prediction and this is going to happen.” What we do is participatory futures, so that is more our niche field of our futurist space.
Montgomery: Just to nuance that answer a bit more, not all futurists consider themselves to have predictive capacity or a vision for the way the future will go. I think oftentimes futurists describe themselves as people who have experience using tools to think about many possible futures. And so I think it would be short-sighted to say that all futurists are attempting to predict the future, and there are some futurists who do operate much more from a methods perspective to begin with. And that is actually a really healthy way to think about the future.
Stahlmann: How will Walker visitors relate the work of your project to their daily lives?
Montgomery: The most useful way to describe the stuff that we do is, at least for me, to talk about the experience of being a young person and having elders. Maybe a guidance counselor in high school asked you to come up with a five-year plan. And so that person asks you to take on this feat and they never give you any approach or tools for doing it. They just say, “Yeah, come up with your five-year plan.” Then you’re stuck there trying to think about what the future looks like, five years out into the future. Maybe you’re only a 15-year-old person, and so this is already one-third of your lived life that you’re extrapolating into the future, and that can be paralyzing.
I think in a culture that asks us to think about long-term futures but doesn’t give us tools or languages for thinking about future, we actually just have an inherent need for this type of capacity. So as we’re introducing tools, methods, and languages from these other contexts, part of what we’re trying to do is answer to that vacuum of ability to, or comfort with, working in futures and visualizing possible futures for ourselves, for our communities, for larger organizations or even the world.
Stahlmann: You’ve been described as engaging in “democratized futures work and elucidat[ing] strategies and techniques pulled from think tanks and futurists.” What techniques are you using and how are you applying them to the project at the Walker?
Montgomery: There are many tools we use, but we start out with basic ground rules for the way we think about the future—starting out with, as Chris said, this idea that future should come in multiples, that there shouldn’t be any one future but there should be multiple futures. So that guidance counselor really should say, “Come up with five five-year plans,” instead of one five-year plan. “Come up with lots of different alternatives and then let’s use those alternatives to start a discussion about how we navigate forward from the present,” as opposed to just picking a path and then feeling like that’s the only way. It’s either that way or you failed pursuing your future.
Stahlmann: Could you speak to the intersection between your futures work and design and why those two intersect and why it’s important that they do?
Montgomery: As we’re talking about the future, so much of it is… Well, all of it is just a fiction, right? The only ideas we have for the future are fictions and they will not be factual or real until they arrive in the world around us. And so the act of design is, in some way, akin to or parallel to this act of futuring where you’re translating an imagined concept that’s in a brain to something that exists in a material form that allows us to evaluate it, assess it, build on it, make it better or decide that we don’t like it and steer away from it. So, in some ways, design is really just the process of getting our ideas out into the world.
Woebken: That’s also a big difference of presenting these speculative fictions or speculative design, not necessarily in a white gallery, but in these environments where we are allowed to interact with these fictions and these diverse futures. It becomes more activated.
Montgomery: Which is actually a nice segue into what we’re doing at the Walker, where we’re starting with this sketch possible versions of the future, these new ideas that we’re hoping to introduce, that we’ll invite people to contribute to, and then we’ll work to translate the ideas that are generated through this participatory process into habitable, physical, interactive elements that will exist in the real world several months down the road. And so in some ways, this is the most direct impact one might have on the future in the near term: they can come in and sketch something out and then come down to back to the Walker six months later and see that thing sitting there before them and know they have designed the future.
Stahlmann: So, for this project, you created a map of the Mississippi watershed area that the campus of the Walker is a part of, which includes the Sculpture Garden, the Upper Sculpture Garden, the Walker Art Center itself as well as Loring Park across Hennepin Avenue. You’ve been doing some research around that and you’ve already given a teaser of, “If you come in December, your work will be forayed into…” “You’ll see your work here again in June…”
Montgomery: Yeah. We’re going to try to select ideas that may have the most impact to transform the ecosystems around the Walker Art Center campus.
Stahlmann: Could you talk about the map that you’ve been working on? What might participants in the Art Lab project expect to experience? Is there’s any prior knowledge that they need in order to participate?
Montgomery: We are taking the geographic area immediately surrounding the Walker as this canvas of sorts, a test bed, where we would like to examine possible versions of habitats that could allow species to thrive in or occupy, and at the same time to allow for some kind of human need to be addressed. As a lot of species are getting edged out of their habitats or seeing other organisms move into their habitats, there’s just a condensing, there’s a compression, there’s less availability of resources, spaces. And so if we think of habitats serving multiple purposes—sometimes to serve an ecosystem or a natural system, and then at the same time, to serve a human need—that allows us to think of habitats as being these hybrid spaces or symbiotic spaces.
Woebken: So we’re identifying species in Minneapolis that are local. We are also particularly interested in these indicator species where when we see behavioral change that reveal shifts in the environment, and from that we can learn what might happen in the next 10 years from now. We looked at common species: the beaver, certain kinds of fish, the walleye, the ducks that migrate and so on and so on, amphibians, insects, and so on. When you come to the Walker, we try to really present all these characters and some research that indicates how they might be impacted.
How can we communicate with the earthworm? Or how do we build better landing pads for a particular kind of insect or ducks? And then also we will look at the infrastructure in the surrounding area. So we’ll present a bunch of design opportunities of where we can intervene and plug into potentially. And that’s what we present as research and then visitors will come and start responding to this and creating proposals.
Montgomery: You asked if there’s something that visitors should prepare for. I think it could be great for visitors to explore the space that’s covered in this map and to look for examples of infrastructure that are currently serving human needs that could be transformed to serve both needs of human systems and natural systems simultaneously. So what happens if the goal posts on the football field become birdhouses and they serve both as a football goal and a birdhouse at the same time? Or what happens if our parking deck becomes an apiary and we have bees living in the parking deck? So we’re actually drawing bees back into the local area. Maybe there’s a flower garden on the top of the parking deck and the bees are pollinating the local plants around us.
Woebken: And then we’ll also try to make these responsive, so we can add some sort of opportunities for communicating with animals and with understanding these patterns and understanding these shifts. Maybe start with quantification but also going up to actually communicating and responding…
Montgomery: Or coexisting—some kind of proximity that gives us a sense that these organisms are as fascinating as they really are.