This blog emerges from the Imagination, Margins and Tacit Knowledge ESRC Festival of Social Science event. For more information click here.
This is an attempt at an origin myth. A speculative writing of a future history. We aim to talk something into being. In lay person’s terms, this is a project that has happened yet. Starting co-produced projects is not impossible under lockdown and physical distancing but it is a gravity that works against the quality of emotional, relational and temporal investment in a project. There was a funding application but it fell at the last minute due to issues with partner commitments.
We begin with an 18-month dialogue between MMU and the Niamos theatre in Hulme. Our concern is the disparity between the rich cultural achievements of Hulme and the simplicity, lack of care and imagination of the various institutional and social policy interventions aimed at the area and those that live in it. Hulme has made profound contributions to the arts, cultural and political vibrancy of Manchester and without exaggeration through at least its music and fashion the world. So, as we encounter an issue we are interested in thinking, What Would Hulme Do?
This orientation suggested an approach to the issue of, from one perspective, increasing the diversity in the university and, from the other, expanding opportunities for young people in Hulme:
SODA, MMU’s new School of Digital Arts is looking to create educational spaces to increase the diverse of its students and so skills pipeline and so the future workforce of the region. SODA aims to be the region’s home of next generation storytelling so whose stories are told and who tells them is crucial. Unfortunately, many of the existing approaches to increasing diversity often fail to scratch the surface.
WWHD? Co-produced projects often begin in messy places and well set sail and navigate other messy spaces. So, one co-author (Duggan) thought the other (Ali) had produced an Afrofuturist pantomime at Niamos titled Snow White Privilege. As it turns out, the panto was not Afrofuturist but this error led to an interesting place. The idea was to co-produce an Afrofuturist intervention in SODA where the aim is not to integrate or accommodate racialised young people into an educational space but instead re-imagine the places, spaces, relationships and temporalities of digital education. The prospect of co-producing an Afrofuturist project to transform the university raised concerns of the ways in which co-production itself might work to shape, constrain and resist these research processes of imagining beyond the university from within and without.
It might not feel like it to those of us struggling with the lack of recognition for the emotional and relational labour involved in developing co-produced projects within the university but co-production is an institutionally sanctioned discourse, like participation, inclusion and diversity. Co-production is typically constituted from project management technologies, contractual relations, upholds liberal Intellectual Property rights and so on. We might question whether these dynamics constrain the bases on which co-production is advanced, to empower, enact equality and democracy, contribute to social justice. The point here is not to nitpick. Inspired by speculative pragmatic approaches, we seek to identify and explore new propositions that are interesting, work to situate us otherwise.
Re-imagining the practices of co-production through Afrofuturism is, if nothing else, interesting. It enables us to learn the lessons from moves to decolonise research methodologies and the university and apply this to research co-production. This is the work of co-production but it is not a neutral and apolitical set of practices in this work. Hence reimagining co-production through Afrofuturism.
Afrofuturism is not just a critique but a generative focus for co-producing research because of its diverse, live and lively practices and applications: For Womack (2013) it is… ‘Both an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory, Afrofuturism combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs.’ These lenses and inspirations kindle an Afrofuturist co-productive imagination which will begin moves to re-imagine the methodologies, ethics and practices and ways of valuing co-produced research. Co-production involves citizens in planning, collecting and analysing data but making theory remains the elite preserve of academics. Afrofuturism’s emancipatory politics inspires the attempt to co-produce theory with citizens, re-imagining what theory is and how it connects to everyday life. Co-produced ethics emphasise equality. Afrofuturism invites us to think of being alien and alienation rather than equality and participation posing profoundly different ways of understanding ethics, relationships of obligation, and the micro-social relations of accompaniment in research.
We are at the beginning of this adventure but we hope to develop an Afrofuturist-orientated co-production which involves collaborative theory building between citizens and academics, a process involving a lively encounter with music, film, technology and inspiring retellings of alternative pasts and (hopeful) histories of the future.
Elmi Ali and James Duggan