"Imagination at the helm" - Rob Hopkins chats with French art collective Catastrophe


We have previously blogged about the work of Rob Hopkins, co-founder of both Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and we are big fans of his personal blog 'Imagination taking power' on which he shares the findings and insights he gains whilst doing research for his upcoming book on imagination. 

In particular, one of his latest interviews with the French performance art collective Catastrophe inspired us.  The group have been invited by the National Theater of Munich to perform in a touring show called '1968: Imagine Now' together with other companies from around the world. For the show Catastrophe have chosen to set up an 'imagination factory', where they through their collective artistic expression will attempt to actualize ideas collected from 'the crowd'.

At our political laboratories, we wish to see communities explore their imagination and share their ideas for the future. And we would like artists to be there, making these ideas come alive there and then, inspiring us and showing us that our dreams for the future of our communities can become a reality. Are you an artist, or part of an art collection, and up for the challenge? Please get in touch. We are in the midst of designing labs in Devon and London (King's Cross).

Below is an extract from the interview, conducted via email. Head to Rob's blog to read the full version and many other fascinating interviews with great thinkers on why imagination matter.

I wonder why you feel the need to focus your work on imagination?  How would you judge the state of health of our collective imagination in 2018?

We have the feeling that today imagination is only viewed as a way to escape reality instead of a tool to change it. Very often new ideas appear to be mocked, at least in France — such as the Universal Income defended during the last presidential election by Mr Benoit Hamon, which was perceived as a really childish idea. This reaction led him to a total electoral defeat (only 6%, whereas he belonged to the Socialist party, the former president’s party). Of course, there are other conjectural reasons for his defeat, but we were hit by the mockery climate around its proposal.

Here we’re not talking about arguments (there are good arguments against Universal Income, of course) but about the easy laugh — a sort of generalized ‘troll’ laugh. The internet is fascinating for that. On YouTube, under any video featuring something new, something fragile, you’ll have comments of people destroying it as a ‘non-serious’ proposal. It is comic to see how systematic this is.

It is also funny to see that forty years ago, the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, sent a golden record into space - when now it would be totally unthinkable to do such thing. Today you’ll be laughed even if you mention the conquest of space.  ‘Being realistic’ is an expression that we encounter all the time, forgetting that most of the time realism is nothing but am abuse of power.

You are asking people to send you in their ideas for the future. Why?

Because there is no future without new ideas. Because we were invited in Munich to do something around 1968 and because ‘Imagination should be at the helm’. Because it was the only idea we had. Because we’re tired of the same old pattern repetition – the repetition of the same. Because 1% of ideas can change 99% of the world. Because we have this magical power in us. Because imagination is a good way to sublimate our sexual urges. Because it permits one to feel one’s strength easily. Because it makes us laugh, after all. Because Einstein. Because David Bowie. Because Virginia Woolf. Because Kendrick Lamar.

Because planes were invented in 1890 by a guy who wanted to fly like a bat. Because we need the ideas of others, because we’re not sufficient on our own. Because we want ideas and not fears to unite us. Because it’s an easy way of passing time. Because we are coming from Pluto and we need ideas as fuel for our spaceship. Because we like to think it was simple after all. Because people think they can’t change the world and it’s only partially true. Because a new idea is a life instinct which has found its shape. Because we wanted you to ask us this question.

If you had been (collectively) elected President of France in the last election on a ‘Make France Imaginative Again’ platform, what might you do in your first 100 days in office? 

First of all, we would launch a global reform of the public media, focusing on innovative, bold and demanding contents. We have the feeling that it is the role of the state to defend culture in the age of mass media. Not only because we like culture, but because it changes minds. The responsibility of public media is enormous regarding political changes, we have seen it well with the election of Trump. 40 years ago, in France, there was this incredibly poetic generic video in public television. Today it would be unthinkable when everything has to be entertaining, nervous. In one word, bankable.

In parallel, we would initiate a reform in education, by creating lectures devoted to imagination: workshops about precise problems that are dependent of us, and how to imagine solutions to solve those, on an individual level for the first step. Scientists, workers, artists, everybody could do some masterclass in these workshops. They could propose and find ideas elaborated by students and teachers. It would be a collective approach to education - contrary to an individualistic, competitive logic.

After that, we would probably take a big rest, realizing that running a country is not an easy task and that things are more complicated than we thought. And we would finally make some music. Have you heard of that ?

Do you have any last thoughts about why imagination is important and why we need to focus our attention on it?  

In 1890, Clément Ader was fascinated by bats. He wanted to fly like them. He brought gigantic bats with 1 meter long wings from India and studied their morphology by letting them fly in his private garden. His intent was to create a flying machine that would look like them. At the end, the product looked like a huge, pink machine, completely non-proportioned, made of fabric. People surrounding him were constantly making fun of him and this nonsense project while he kept believing in it. His first try out happened in the Gretz-Armainvilliers’s castle’s garden, where this construction flew for 50 meters but only with a height of 20 centimeters above the ground.

This attempt was like an imaginary fantasy--it was absurd, it was nothing. However, it was the start of aviation.