Emerge 2015: The Future of Choices and Values

How do we decide what futures we want? What do those choices say about our values as a civilization?

Dancing robots. Google Glass theatre. Wearable electronic utopias. Cameras that record in deep time for 100 years. Fine art created by algorithms. Emerge is a festival of artistic and scientific visitations from the future featuring performance, improvisation, games, dance, hands-on opportunities to design and build the future, and a multimedia performance by Radiolab co-creator Jad Abumrad!

The Oracle

After you’ve been dazzled and challenged by all the other Emerge 2015 “visitations from the future,” you will of course have a head full of questions. Luckily, we’ve arranged a visitor from 2040 – The Oracle of South Scottsdale. This entity, this creature, already knows what our futures have turned out to be. And the Oracle knows what were the roles of our present-day choices and values in creating this future. So this is your big chance. As with any good Oracle, you get to ask one – and only one – question about the future. So make it the best, and most important question you can possibly imagine. Think hard. And listen hard to the answers. For sometimes Oracles can be cryptic. We will be collecting your provocative questions – and the Oracle’s responses – on Google Glass for future generations to ponder. (The Oracle sometimes responds to the name Brad Allenby.)

The Deep Time Photo Lab

One hundred years ago, Phoenix had fewer residents than Apache Junction today. Transportation was still primarily by horseback, although the steam locomotive had made a big difference.   There wasn’t a single high-rise on the Valley horizon back then. Yet over the next century, the region will be transformed even more radically. Visit the Deep Time Photo Lab to see into the future – and change what will happen beyond your own lifespan. Laboratory director Jonathon Keats will show you how to make a camera with a hundred-year-long exposure, for you to hide in the city, invisibly monitoring changes to the urban landscape between now and 2115. You might think of your camera as a black box that monitors local building decisions, making everyone alive today accountable to Arizonans not yet born. Or you may think of it as a collaboration with future generations on choices and values that will provide for the greater good. Either way, this is your chance to take part in the century ahead. Attendees of Emerge 2115 are depending on your participation.

You Have Been Inventoried

When it’s possible for everyone to know who you’re talking to, what you’re touching, where you are and who you are, how do you really feel about that? At Emerge 2015, you’ll find out. In You Have Been Inventoried, Eric Kingsbury – the Arizona futures-oriented marketing creative – produces a networked physical experience in which you can be explicitly cataloged and tracked using RFID and display technology. You will see yourself and everyone around you – simultaneously, suddenly, and subtly – as known objects within a system to which information can be added that everyone can see. Through these real systems – originally created for commerce – we challenge your traditional notions of your human relationship to all your surroundings, raising important questions of freedom of choice, and the value of privacy.

Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA

Imagine a dystopian future wherein the Internet has fallen under control of the federal government and has been saddled with restrictions, oversight, and fear. Countering this infringement on freedom is the renegade Johnny Appledrone. Johnny’s response is to build an alternative Internet comprised of thousands of drones. These insect-size drones restore the freedom of the Internet, as enjoyed in the decades prior to strict government control. It also raises the ire and animosity of the federal government which vows to eliminate this threat to its authority. This is Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA, Don Marinelli’s one-man dramatization of the short story by Lee Konstantinou from the volume, “Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future,” created by the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination.   Don Marinelli, co-founder of the world-renowned Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center, now with ASU’s School of Arts, Media + Engineering, performs a visitation from the future that is both terrifying, and in which we can thrive.


What do you call an iconic, elaborately-costumed slow-mo human “statue” magically projecting utopias, in combination with dozens of flickering images of utopian concepts, raw light, and collages of utopian experiments and dreams. You call it Abraxa, created by the renowned ASU artist Rachel Bowditch in collaboration with Emerge 2015 and InFlux. Utopians can be seen as visionaries representing the noblest aspirations of humanity. The utopian impulse can be seen since the beginning of the written word – the desire to dream of a better world. Often these utopias emerge as a radically different response to current societies. Rachel’s focus is on the concept of the “ideal city” – an ideal, utopic world that features an historical silhouette with a futuristic twist—a blend of old and new choices and values. In performance and installation.

Artwork Forge

Have you ever seen a whirring collection of gizmos the size of a truck create a painting that appears to be produced on the spot though the choices and values humans have made online? You will. Emerge 2015, in collaboration with Scottsdale Public Art and ASU techies, features this creation by the artist Toby Fraley. You walk up to this art installation and drop in a couple of quarters. A rough block of wood pops into the machine. You hear the whirring of motors and, as you peer through a window, sawdust flies and blades spin. Meanwhile – behold – this visitation from the future seems to be scouring the internet, seeking what is popular among our choices and values at that very moment. A screen rapidly displays a feed of words and images as the machine seems to think about what it should paint. Then, through the next window, you peer into a paint-splattered chamber where pencils move over freshly cut and sanded wood, before paintbrushes move in and do their work.  Finally a 4-inch by 6-inch painting drops down a chute, for you to take home and forever contemplate. Is this the future of art?

Future Design Studio

Come design the future. What does a parking ticket look like in 2030? What will be your most valued reading object in 2050?  Instead of a leash, what will you use to walk your dog in 2065? At the Future Design Studio, we will help you think through what kind of invention you want n in the future. We will help you build a low fidelity prototype that will be added to our Digital Future Artifacts Archive. Your concoction may also play a role in the Future Design Studio Improv Hour, during which professional improv actors build scenes around these visitations from the future. What will become of your future artifact? Will it save or destroy the world? Come play in the Studio of Megan Halpern and company.

Ars Robotica

Start with Baxter. That’s a human-friendly Rethink Robotics industrial robot that looks like a hulking fullback on a golf cart. Add dancers and audience members. You teach Baxter how to move – as “naturally” as we do.   What you then get at Emerge 2015 is a team of artists and roboticists creating performance art and a laboratory working session that imagines positive – though not simplistic – futures for human/robot relations. Ars Robotica is a multi-year project that brings together artists, scientists, designers, and engineers to advance research in robotics and to produce creative performances. It’s led by Lance Gharavi and students and faculty at ASU’s School of Film, Dance + Theatre. In partnership with Srikanth Saripalli and his crowd at the School of Earth + Space Exploration. For Emerge 2015 you – the audience – gets involved in conducting on-site research in performance. Our roboticists want to learn about the performance of materials, technologies, processes, and systems. Our theater collaborators are just as concerned with the performance of organic autonomous systems – you.

Bodies for a Global Brain

Suppose the Cloud started requiring – or demanding! – the use of human bodies? Bodies for a Global Brain is a set of performances imagining just that. Funded originally by Google, UCLA’s Bodies for a Global Brain examines our choices, values, and identity in the future – or perhaps its sacrifice in the service of the “global brain.” These performances will make you ponder – will individuals willingly becoming the physical incarnation of the hive mind? Throughout history, legions of humans have valued giving up their personal identity to become part of something seen as transcendent: religious philosophy and movements, government institutions like the military, cults and communes. Will it be like that? Or might it be akin to individuals voluntarily choosing to join Star Trek’s “Borg?”

Jad Abumrad, the founder of Radiolab, on “Gut Churn”

Gut Churn begins with a simple question:  what does it mean to “innovate?” How does it feel to make something new in the world? (These are questions Jad Abumrad was frequently asked after being awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2011).  Gut Churn, on one level, is Jad’s personal recollection of inventing a new aesthetic when faced with the challenge of creating “a show about curiosity.”  It became the wildly popular Radiolab that embodies the intersection of the arts and sciences, airs on over 450 NPR stations, and whose podcasts reaching millions more per month. On another plane, Gut Churn is a clinic – including audio clips, still images, video, live sound manipulation – in the art of storytelling.  On a third and more profound level, the lecture is the result of a three-year investigation into the science, philosophy and art of uncertainty, which all began with the two words that are the title of this talk.   Gut Churn. What use do negative feelings have during the creative process?  Do those feelings get in the way, or do they propel us forward?   After his presentation, you get to ask Jad questions.

The Emerge Team at Play (and Work)

On November 20, the core Emerge team took a break from our work on Emerge 2015 to begin planning for Emerge 2016. We wanted to try something a little bit different this time; something to match the playful spirit of Emerge. So we began a new tradition: an Annual Mini-Retreat for our merry pirate band to gather and participate in shaping the future of Emerge. This particular event involved improv games, arts and crafts, and discussions about jetpacks. This was serious fun and it helped us brainstorm a new model for Emerge 2016. We also uncovered two truths about Emerge that will serve as guideposts for our future work.

1. Emerge is a collaborative, participant-driven process. Because the future is not shaped by a technology or a field, but by many actors across many networks, visions of the future should be collaborative efforts that draw on multiple perspectives, disciplines, and practices. We envision Emerge as a way to share ideas from collaborative endeavors that cross big boundaries. Artists working with scientists; engineers working with digital humanists; historians working with mathematicians. Varied backgrounds make for richer visions, so we want to foster collaborations between and among new partners from across ASU, Phoenix, and our global network of unusual minds.

Core members of the Emerge team form a “human machine” as part of an improv game to express their roles in Emerge.
Core members of the Emerge team form a “human machine” as part of an improv game to express their roles in Emerge.

To ensure these are strong collaborations, we will recommit ourselves to developing Emerge as a process, and to revealing and reveling in the messiness of that process. This means that the work we show at our annual March event might be in different states of completion. Some may require audience participation to complete, and may be presented in full the following year. Others may be polished performances, or written stories. Still others may be failures. Projects that, for whatever reason, did not work. We want to share those, too, to illuminate the challenges of working across disciplines and the ineffability of the future.

2. Emerge shares visitations of the future When visitors step into an Emerge event, we hope they will feel as though they are stepping into a glimpse of a potential future. The playshops (because these are not your average workshops) developed to help shape these collaborative processes will focus on how to think through the complexities of potential futures. They will help creative teams to design not the dystopian or utopian futures we see on television or at the movies, but nuanced, thoughtful investigations and representations that ask more of an audience than they might be used to, or even comfortable with. These visitations beg questions about whether we want the future they predict, and if so, how we create that future.

The Emerge team uses their visions of Emerge 2020 to think about what Emerge 2016 will look like.
The Emerge team uses their visions of Emerge 2020 to think about what Emerge 2016 will look like.

To better align these two visions of Emerge, the March event for Emerge 2016 will be a culmination of a yearlong process involving quarterly playshops. The first of these collaboration-building events will incorporate a kind of speed dating game to develop partnerships across disciplines. Over the course of the year, these partnerships will periodically meet and be led through a process that involves design prototyping, improvisation games, and even field trips to create their visitations.

We will also be hosting a special event for participants in 2015’s Emerge to bring them together to find connections between and among their visitations. This event will be half party, half playshop, and may well transform what we think we have planned for 2015.

In the next few months, we’ll be introducing our reinvention of Emerge, beginning with never before seen mission and vision language for Emerge and a new handbook for participants. Like the retreat, and the playshops we envision for 2016, these documents are likely to be a transformation of their traditional forms. Won’t you join us?