Hull, 2097

The Guardian - G2 - - Arts -

Up on the roof of a mu­seum in Aarhus, Matt Adams is of­fer­ing me a vi­sion of the fu­ture. “This is where we’ll put the habi­ta­tion pods,” he says, sweep­ing his arm to­wards the white wall of this build­ing in Den­mark’s sec­ond city. “And over there is where the molec­u­lar print­ers will come from.” Try as I might, all I can see is a mid­dleaged cou­ple up here to en­joy the sun­set. They’re eaves­drop­ping and look­ing a lit­tle alarmed. Adams ap­pears not to have no­ticed, and is cheer­ily say­ing some­thing about locust farms.

He and a team from the ex­per­i­men­tal troupe Blast The­ory are in the mid­dle of mak­ing a sec­tion of their latest multi-faceted piece: shoot­ing five short movies that will form part of the au­tumn pro­gramme for Hull’s stint as UK city of cul­ture. Com­bin­ing film, live per­for­mance and dig­i­tal work, 2097: We Made Our­selves Over is of­fer­ing the cit­i­zens of Hull and Aarhus a sci-fi vi­sion of what life might be like in their cities in 80 years. Habi­ta­tion pods and locust farms, brought to life with spe­cial ef­fects, are only the half of it.

Next morn­ing, I sit down with

Adams and his Blast The­ory co-di­rec­tor Nick Tan­da­van­itj to get to the bot­tom of what We Made Our­selves Over ac­tu­ally is. As planned, their full-scale, hi-tech in­va­sion of Hull is un­der way: elec­tric cars are prowl­ing the streets, of­fer­ing se­lected par­tic­i­pants free rides, while phone boxes will let passersby speak with a char­ac­ter from the fu­ture.

Al­though the films are be­ing re­leased on­line, they are also be­ing screened at pop-up lo­ca­tions. A free app of­fers an­other gate­way, al­low­ing in­ter­ac­tive ac­cess to el­e­ments of the show. Some of this will be re­peated later in Aarhus, in a live event cre­ated by Blast The­ory’s other co-di­rec­tor Ju Row Farr, in which elec­tric cars will whisk au­di­ences to a mys­tery lo­ca­tion to ex­pe­ri­ence 2097 for them­selves.

When I sug­gest the project sounds some­what am­bi­tious, Adams con­cedes that there are “a num­ber of mov­ing parts” while Tan­da­van­itj nods gravely: “We have thought a few times, ‘Have we bit­ten off more than we can chew?’” Wet day in Hull … a scene from 2097: We Made Our­selves Over;

a call from the fu­ture

Then again, Blast The­ory have never been shy of tak­ing risks. Formed in 1991 and now based in Brighton, the com­pany op­er­ates at the fur­ther reaches of the­atre and per­for­mance art (their name is a nod to the short-lived vor­ti­cist jour­nal Blast). One early piece, Stam­pede, in­vited au­di­ence mem­bers to touch pres­sure pads that ac­ti­vated au­dio record­ings de­scrib­ing mind­con­trol tech­niques. In 1998’s Kid­nap, par­tic­i­pants paid £10 to en­ter a lot­tery whose first prize was to be bun­dled into a van and taken to a se­cret lair. Au­di­ences ob­served this or­deal on­line.

In re­cent years, their in­ter­ests have been in­creas­ingly dig­i­tal, not to men­tion dystopian. I’d Hide You was an on­line game that al­lowed users to fol­low run­ners dash­ing live around Manch­ester. Their big­gest re­cent suc­cess is Karen, an app claim­ing to be a vir­tual “life coach” who re­veals that she has more than a few is­sues of her own.

The con­cept for We Made Our­selves Over came from Hull’s city of cul­ture or­gan­is­ers, who wanted a project that could occupy vir­tual as well as phys­i­cal space. When Blast The­ory sug­gested in­volv­ing Aarhus, which was after some­thing sim­i­lar, the links be­tween the lo­ca­tions seemed promis­ing – both are port cities with proud his­to­ries reach­ing back nearly a mil­len­nium, both former in­dus­trial towns bat­tling to rein­vent them­selves for the 21st cen­tury.

Ex­plor­ing what to­mor­row might bring seemed the next ob­vi­ous step, Adams says. “We wanted to cre­ate a fu­ture that was far enough in ad­vance where we could think freely about what things might look like, but close enough to feel tan­gi­ble. Eighty years away felt about right.”

Pub­lic work­shops gen­er­ated nar­ra­tives. One team of pri­mary school­ers pitched the idea of down­load­ing their grand­par­ents’ mem­o­ries via a smart­phone-like de­vice. Older peo­ple spec­u­lated what might hap­pen to the city if – as some pre­dict – global warm­ing leaves much of it sub­merged. The com­pany also in­ter­viewed Dan­ish ac­tivists, Bri­tish ex­perts in sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, and a group of ar­ti­sans in Aarhus who have con­structed a ram­shackle vil­lage out of ship­ping con­tain­ers. A story emerged about a com­mu­nity called Aarhull which, fol­low­ing a se­ries of floods, is un­der the con­trol of three teenage girls. They alone can de­cide how it will be re­built.

Adams and Tan­da­van­itj em­pha­sise that, though 2097 con­tains el­e­ments that will hope­fully ap­peal to devo­tees of Doc­tor Who or Hu­mans, they re­gard the piece as so­cial ac­tivism as much as en­ter­tain­ment. “Sure, we’re us­ing app de­vel­op­ment, vis­ual ef­fects and film-mak­ing,” says Tan­da­van­itj. “But all of those things are to get peo­ple to go, ‘OK, 80 years into the fu­ture, my grand­chil­dren will be 80 or 90 years old, how do I want them to live and how do I get there?’”

How­ever the work is re­ceived, the pair are op­ti­mistic that Hull’s in­hab­i­tants will get a glimpse of some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary. Adams likes to imag­ine some­one walk­ing through a shop­ping cen­tre, catch­ing a seg­ment of film, and do­ing a dou­ble-take at the oth­er­worldly scene in front of them, with molec­u­lar print­ers rov­ing across the land­scape, con­struct­ing a new city out of thin air.

“They’ll look at all that and go,

‘Oh my God, that looks just like Hull!’ Wouldn’t that be great?”

Phone boxes in the city are let­ting peo­ple talk to some­one from the fu­ture

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