Up on the roof of a museum in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, 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 a white wall. “And over there is where the molecular printers will come from.” Try as I might, all I can see is a middle-aged 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 that the project sounds somewhat ambitious, Adams concedes that there are “a number of moving parts” while Tandavanitj simply nods gravely: “We have thought a few times, ‘Have we bitten off more than we can chew?’”
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 mind-control techniques. Four years later, 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 the streets of Manchester. Perhaps 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 two 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?”