Brave new word: Reflections on 2019, predictions for 2020

Needless to say, it has been a turbulent introductory decade to the new millennium with so much profound change and so many challenges ahead. Yet, even as dark as it is politically around the world, and hopeless as it feels with our planet’s health and our people’s happiness, we may have climbed the steepest part. Joan Didion wrote, ‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.’ Great words. I’ve been writing most of my life, and the decade gone has been the most challenging and possibly exciting. In particular, the last twelve months have pushed me to explore beyond my comfort zone and to stay focused despite the chaos that surrounds us. It is equally terrifying and thrilling visiting new people and places, discovering new ideas and worlds that shift the mindset – question the dogmas. 

So, what have I learned? Our lives may not look quite the dystopian vision pictured by the 1980s films ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘Running Man’. Many of us live in homes with doors and windows and refrigerators, and still, drive rectangular cars with four wheels and a conventional engine. But our homes and refrigerators and cars talk to one another and with bigger forces. And, in the way these plots predicted, corrupt elites around the world are gaining power over hopeless populations through media manipulation. The films all have happy endings though.

Extinction Rebellion at the V&A uses bold graphics that are universally understood

This year I met visionary artists, architects, designers, scientists, musicians who are collectively pushing their creative forces to find better solutions for how we live, drive, learn, wear, eat. I drove some conventional motor cars, relics of a bygone era, almost dinosaurs unwilling to give up pleasure when it is clearly killing our planet. I met self-congratulating architects and designers reluctant to part with their egos, still creating work with little social relevance. But then, I also experienced hugely progressive design – community-building, socially-engaged housing projects, and transport ideas envisaged and created by generations embracing change.

Lautre riveimpressions cyanotypes disparaissant progressivement à la lumière du soleil,Irak, Syrie, Turquie, Grèce, Allemagne, Danemark, France, 2011-2017.
Émeric Lhuisset’s ‘L’autre rive’ depicts scenes of the sea where many migrants vanish

Look beyond the headlines and there is much progress out these. Women in art and design are finally getting noticed – as was evident in the number of powerful exhibitions dedicated to lost females of creativity. Vehicles coming off production lines are cleaner, safer and smarter. They may not conjure up the immediate visceral joy of the motor car in its golden age, but why should that matter? Why can’t they instead have their own language to express the new era of clean transport – this brighter future ahead of us. There is huge visceral joy in that. Likewise, with the global population expected to increase to 9.8 billion by 2050, we have to rethink urban planning, architecture, and design, examine health (physical and mental), produce and food, work towards a green economy. And there is excitement in all this. We need to step outside the nostalgia lane and shift our attitudes.

Goldsmith-Street
Mikhail Riches Architects, Cathy Hawley’s RIBA Sterling Prize-winning social housing project

Which brings me to another subject which will increasingly shape the world in this coming decade: movement and migration. Kwame Anthony Appiah writes, ‘cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.’ Towards the final days of the 2010s, I met with a visual artist concerned with the narrative given to the refugee. I am always amazed at how a term, a simple word, can alter the image of a displaced people: émigré, migrant, immigrant, refugee – the first carries such romantic notions, the last such demons. Émeric Lhuisset’s work is a critique of a global culture where facts and truths are in danger of losing all meaning. He offers an alternative story to media photography of war and migrants, with its immediate yet temporary digital age shock value. His is about the power of a photograph, of art to influence humanity’s collective consciousness.

Michael Anastassiades: A Fountain for London
Michael Anastassiades’s ‘A Fountain for London’ are site-specific drinking water fountains

My predictions for 2020? There are huge challenges ahead of us as we figure out how to balance the physical and digital world – how much of our privacy and freedom to give away for security, how to shift our attitude and lifestyle to help better this world, how to be more generous with ourselves and our skills, and towards our planet. And we all need to be involved and be held accountable. Too many rely on others to make things happen. And we need a certain amount of optimism. I am convinced more than ever that, to borrow from the words of another great female Louise bourgeois, ‘art is the guarantee of sanity’. Here’s to a new decade of possibilities.

Take a look at my articles in Forbes Life and Wallpaper*.

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