This year, Claire Donato, acting assistant chair of the Writing Department, and Audrey Massmann, visiting instructor in the Math and Science Department, are leading colleagues and students across Pratt Institute in developing language and practice to wrestle with the complex ways in which our world is changing. Their workshop, Speculating the Environment, is taking place over four themed sessions, each of which will welcome guest facilitators from across disciplines. A culminating symposium is planned for spring 2023, in which work generated in the workshops will be on display, with the aim of centering speculative practice as a means of creating tangible change.

Donato and Massmann shared background and details about the workshop and symposium in a Q&A with Prattfolio in August.

The workshop is called Speculating the Environment—what do you feel is the power/potency of speculative work? How does that practice help us grapple with emergent issues?

Writers think often about how language brings into being that which could not have been until it was put into words. The limits of my language are the limits of my world, Wittgenstein famously wrote. We cannot actually begin to reshape the world without words: speculative language can help us exercise an empathy muscle and project a better future. Here, there exists a direct correlation with art and design practice. In much the same way speech acts serve to cultivate projected futures for writers, conjecturing via other mediums also marks the possibility of alternative future realities and helps us grapple with emergent issues such as wildfires, flooding, changing migration patterns, extinction, and so forth. 

Scientists recognize a continuum of certainty, and many of our statistical tools reflect this. Convention tends to exclude large swaths of this continuum from scholarly discussion, but asking a scientist to speculate seems to open a door for her to share ideas that are still evidence based, but highly uncertain. In the context of our symposium, we hope that speculation allows scientists to engage creative aspects of their practices that are perhaps not already named as such, and vice versa: that artists and designers who partake in this symposium will explore more precisely the evidence behind any sense of environmental hope or doom in their work.

For these generative workshops, will you be presenting prompts to the participants? If so, is there an example you might share?

We indeed plan to present prompts to the participants. Guest facilitators (artists, activists, and scientists) will create these prompts and guide participants through them. As an example, the topic of our first workshop will be Climate Doom, and one facilitator will be Dianca London Potts, who is writing a book about the apocalypse while also teaching writing here at Pratt as well as at Eugene Lang College (The New School). Dianca recently taught a course at The Center for Fiction called Writing the Apocalypse: Cataclysmic Cartography as Narrative Design, prompts from which will serve as inspiration for the prompts she develops for our symposium.

 One of Dianca’s prompts for Writing the Apocalypse is: 

Craft a packing list for the end of the world.

Once you complete your list, write 1–2 paragraphs inspired by your list.

As you write, consider the structural, subtextual, and temporal geographies of your prose and the list that shaped it.

Here’s another sample prompt:

Reflect on an ending you’ve experienced and survived.

What are 5–6 words that come to mind when you think of this experience? What are 2–3 words that come to mind when you think about how you survived this experience?

After you’ve come up with a few words, create a 2–3 sentence story that captures the ending and what came after.

What works are you engaging with to prepare for the workshop, and perhaps sharing with workshop participants? Maybe there are two or three examples—literature, art, theory, etc.—that have been particularly influential as you’ve planned the workshop series?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) selects a handful of possible emission levels based on a social science model of potential future societies, then describes the climates of these possible worlds. Countless researchers dedicate themselves to informing the predictions in these reports, resulting in huge bodies of evidence behind the expectation of higher temperatures and more extreme precipitation. Other changes unfolding around us, like the rapid reassembly of ecosystems, defy such a deterministic understanding. On these topics, the reports say very little. To Audrey, whose research spans both contemporary ecologies and evolutionary history, this simplistic vision of the future seemed analogous to the improbable images of ancient animals generated based only on fossilized skeletons. We know animals have a wealth of soft tissues, but without clues to their exact nature in extinct fauna, the tendency is to resist speculation. Some paleontologists, though, have turned to artists to envision ancient soft tissues (see: All Yesterdays by John Conway, C.M. Kösemen, and Darren Naish). Although there is little evidence for any particular unfossilizable feature, the least likely possibility of all is that ancient animals were skin stretched over bone. As an ecologist, Audrey wants to engage artists in envisioning the soft tissues of future history, the aspects of life that emerge from or adhere to the hard structure of high-confidence scientific prediction.

Claire brings a perspective of grappling with our agency to write that future history. She wrote the introduction to The One on Earth: Selected Works of Mark Baumer (Fence Books, 2021). Mark Baumer was a Providence, Rhode Island–based climate activist who was killed by an SUV in 2017 while walking across America barefoot to raise money for an anti-fracking group. (You can read more about his life and death in The New Yorker.) Claire thinks every day about Mark’s playful, strange, and performance-driven approach to climate activism and writing.

Speculating the Environment will advance through conversation and creative practice, rather than readings, but Claire teaches a course in the BFA Writing Program called The Oceanic Feeling, which weaves together psychoanalytic, ecological, and poetic texts. Many of the works she’s taught in The Oceanic Feeling have influenced her thinking about the climate emergency. These include Sarah Manguso’s “Oceans”; Astrida Neimanis’s Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology; Anouchka Grose’s writing on ecological grief, eco-anxiety, and mental health; Melody Jue’s Wild Blue Media; and former Pratt Writer in Residence Jenny Offill’s novel Weather

Do you want to share a bit more about the symposium in spring 2023—what vision or goals do you have for that event and what it might generate? 

Our workshop is inspired by the success of two previous initiatives: Practicing the Environment at Eugene Lang College (The New School) and The Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative at Arizona State University. The former was a series of public talks about environmental issues in performance art, complemented by a seminar course in which students privately workshopped their own creative practices. The latter, an ongoing initiative, produces short story anthologies, freely available for download as attractive PDFs. Teacher training programs direct educators to these anthologies as a resource for teaching the climate crisis. 

Speculating the Environment adds new dimensions to this nascent creative tradition by centering the practice of speculation. Our goal is to explore the transformative power of speculation through case studies of phenomena like stock market speculation shaping extraction or sea level rise projections affecting the built environment. It is for this reason that our workshop title frames speculation as an action done to the environment.

One collaboration we have confirmed for our initiative is to work with the new Master of Landscape Architecture program in the School of Architecture. We also hope Pratt students, faculty, and staff across disciplines develop ecologically grounded projects.

Read more stories from “Start Here” in the Fall 2022 issue.