Improvising Futures (IF) is a 5-year SSHRC-Funded Partnership Grant (2022-2027), housed at the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) at Guelph University, that asks questions about the future of our world: can we improve the social, environmental, cultural, and spiritual well-being of everyone through improvisatory practices? IF builds on work carried out previously by IICSI, namely through the ICASP project (Improvisation, Community and Social Practice, 2007-2012) and our previous partnership grant (2012-2022), through which we established IICSI.
Our central goals for this phase of research are to expand our network of international partners (thus making a bigger impact through our research) and, in so doing, explore improvisation beyond the context of the arts (i.e., what role does improvisation play across disciplines, from science to law? How does improvisation turn up as part of everyday life?).
This phase of research has been spurred by recent international crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, protests against racialized violence, and ecological disasters related to climate change. These crises have demonstrated the need for improvisation; individuals and communities must adapt to unprecedented situations, build new ways of communicating with and relating to one another, and, in the words of activist Arundhati Roy, “imagine [the] world anew.” Through real-time creative decision-making, risk-taking, and collaboration—central tenets of improvisation—we can respond to this call to action, interrogate unquestioned assumptions, and try out potential solutions to these pressing global challenges.
By the end of this project, we hope—with your help—to reach some profound and useful discoveries regarding how improvisational practices can cultivate wellbeing, strengthen interpersonal ties, and develop more inclusive, cooperative, and sustainable futures for all of us. See appendix for more detailed information about the improvising futures research streams and how to get involved.
Research Streams for Improvising Futures
IICSI research is currently indexed to 4 strategic research priorities: Improvisation, Media, and Stories of Change; Improvisation, Public Spaces, and the Practice of Everyday Life; Improvisation, Decolonization, and Making Peace; and Improvisation, Wellbeing, and the Social Determinants of Health.
Improvisation, Media, and Stories of Change
Research Lead: George Lipsitz
This stream will investigate possibilities for developing and negotiating community at the intersections of enactive narrative—nascent contemporary practices of storytelling, both live and mediated—and improvisation. It will also investigate the problem of knowledge transfer, using improvisational methodologies to test the building of interdisciplinarity as a communication strategy for addressing key issues such as the climate crisis.
Objectives: Researchers will engage with improvisatory narrative methods through multiple forms of media as a channel for social and climate justice efforts, with the aim of sharing world-views, exposing contradictions in dominant logics, and allowing us to approach other people and the natural world empathically—ways that are critical for not only imagining, but also inhabiting, spaces and futures that are healthy and just. Researchers will develop solutions to the problem of knowledge transfer within and among scientists, artists, Indigenous knowledge-holders, and the public by engaging with improvisation as a method of spurring innovation, inclusivity, and adaptation.
Sample Guiding Questions: How does making choices about the lyrics and rhythms of songs, the colours and materials of art objects, or the language or mixtures of languages in a story cultivate collective abilities to imagine and act, to make informed decisions, to build social cohesion through collaboration? How do improvisatory disaster survival responses become catalysts of adaptation?
Improvisation, Public Spaces, and the Practice of Everyday Life
Research Lead: Mervyn Horgan
In the practice of everyday life—from the basics of provisioning for ourselves and our communities, to learning how to dwell together in our increasingly dense and heterogenous cities—what we do, and how we do it, is necessarily improvised. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into relief the relationship between improvisation and everyday life, as each destabilizing wave of the pandemic has brought about new regulations, societal pressures, and creative solutions that position people differently toward one another in public spaces. The pandemic has also made evident that “everyday” means something entirely different if you are an under-privileged frontline worker than if you are a privileged remote employee—“same storm, different boats,” as the adage goes. Researchers in this stream will employ an intersectional lens in order to paint a picture of what “everyday life” can involve.
Objective: Considering public space both in times of baseline activity and notable crisis, researchers will examine the local as “a site for emancipatory practices that members of communities may carry out in an effort at establishing common bonds with members of other groups” and investigate improvisation in everyday life as a practice of trust-building, solidarity, and community-making.
Sample Guiding Questions: How do communities—particularly those in highly fluid, constrained, and/or conflict-ridden circumstances—improvise in their everyday lives to carve space for meaningful connections with others and to generate and sustain possibilities for more just and equitable collective futures? How does collective improvisation cultivate a group’s capacities to make judgments and reach conclusions together? How does the practice of listening, responding, and sharing help build a “we” in solidarity rather than a “me” in isolation?
Improvisation, Decolonization, and Making Peace
Research Leads: Dustin Brass and Sherry Farrell Racette
Our work to date has taught us how improvisatory models for research and practice offer nuanced approaches to difference, accountability, and responsibility in (post)colonial, (post)conflict, and pre-peace societies. In order to achieve these objectives and include a greater diversity of Indigenous voices in the field going forward, our team—led by Indigenous researchers at URegina—will work in consultation with Elders, academics, artists, and community groups, and in partnership with First Nations and Métis organizations across our network, to encourage meaningful Indigenous participation in the new MA and PhD degrees in Critical Studies in Improvisation that launched at the Uguelph in 2019. This not only means encouraging Indigenous scholars to apply to our academic programs and supporting their process of entry by connecting them with grants and University resources; it also means continuing to welcome Indigenous scholars into the field through guest lecture opportunities and directly inviting Indigenous scholars to apply for academic positions as they open.
Objective: We will apply and evaluate improvisatory models in decolonization and reconciliation/ transitional justice efforts; support and mobilize the growing body of research around Indigenous ways of knowing and improvising; and analyze and learn from the lived experience of global communities and scholars dwelling and working where significant social, political, and cultural issues arising from long- standing civil conflicts remain unresolved.
Sample Guiding Questions: How does improvisation enable participants to experience difference without domination, to replace hate, frustration, and fear with the pleasures and dignity of co-creation? How can strategies of improvised collaboration support productive dissensus and counteract oppressive systems including inherited lateral violence? How can colonized systems be usurped and replaced with improvised structures of support/growth based in both traditional and contemporary knowledges? How can re-engaging with the improvisatory offer new channels for artists and communities, working towards what the late Elder Noel Starblanket, among others, has called “an inescapable Indigenous renaissance”?
Improvisation, Wellbeing, and the Social Determinants of Health
Research Leads: Rebecca Caines and Daniel Weinstock
Scholarship on arts-based community-making has focused on topics ranging from aesthetic contexts, through social justice and social change impacts, to information and knowledge about public health. Recent research also includes an emphasis on personal growth, agency, and transformation. However, longitudinal studies on the impact of these improvisational practices on community health and wellbeing, particularly desirable in the wake of a socially isolating global pandemic, are scarce.
Objective: Members of our research team will build on their histories of collaboration and community partnership to investigate how community arts participation impacts social connectivity and equitable participation in society.
Sample Guiding Questions: How does improvisational activity improve wellbeing, cognitive agility, and self-esteem? How can improvisational activity foster mutual understanding and respect, whether between disparate social groups or between communities and the natural resources that sustain them? In what way does improvisation cement social attachments, stretch creative abilities, and resist asocial and othering tendencies through a commitment to create art through cooperation?