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Imagination infrastructures

Imagination is (still) not a luxury

Or, some personal and meandering thoughts in the aftermath of “a time between worlds”.

Written by:
Gabriella Gómez-Mont
Date published:
Reading time:
19 minutes

All the world began with a yes.

— Clarice Lispector

Somewhere deep in our bodies - human bodies the world over, in all sorts of contexts, and most probably deep within other animal bodies too - we are sensing that these are transitional and future-defining times; transition into what is still yet to be seen. And the uneasy question that seems to be traveling across the planet like a murmur is the following: how much agency - agency as we used to know it at least - do we still have at this point to effect any sort of influence on the current trajectory of things?

(Yes, this feels like a time between worlds).

(One for the ages in fact).

Photo by Victoria on Unsplash

Putting the event together

After Cassie put us in touch to start co-curating Imagination Infrastructuring no. 002, Keri and I spoke extensively during those first meetings, sharing notes and the questions we are asking ourselves nowadays. We both felt that a different sort of entry point was needed for the day-long conference - one far from the reductionist imagination of the let-us-fix-it-all-in-a-three-hour post-it workshop variety - and that instead brought us closer to the substance and shape of these ineffable times. One that cannot be easily explained away or neatly ‘solved’, but that instead supports a process of evoking diverse ways of meeting the world as it unfolds around us in its new forms: a world asking us not only to imagine differently, but to become differently too - ‘political ontology’, would perhaps be the way that Arturo Escobar and Michal Osterweil might describe it. And as I would translate it in this context: an embodiment of the otherwise, or a cognitive and emotional predisposition to shape-shift symbiotically with the world as it unfolds.

This elusive and restless feeling - the murmuring, subterranean question - is why we proposed to start a conversation on imagination with, well, the unimaginable. Within a necessary hesitation, as Dougald Hine called it in the opening panel.

Along the same lines, Keri and I also shared a mutual interest in exploring the space of the mythopoetic imagination which, arguably, taps into a deep, ancient, intuitive and embodied understanding of the human experience, in compliment (sometimes in opposition) to other ways of knowing that have become dominant. “The mythic imagination”, Martin Shaw has said, “is not just about telling stories, it's about creating a new story for our time, in relationship with the larger forces that shape our lives.”

And Sophie Strand, the first keynote of the day, has also compellingly proposed before that myths are like air: invisible until you realize you live inside of them and thrive or die according to their limitations. “When we hear the word myth we think of heroes and battles. But patriarchy is also a myth - as is heteronormativity and capitalism and human supremacy. Civilization is a myth. And it is within these imperceptible yet encompassing narrative structures that we now find ourselves stuck like flies in a spider’s web.” The mythic, I would add, has a size that can encompass enigma; that is made of awe and also the awe-ful; that works upon us in oblique ways.

The poetic also grants us an adjacent space of discovery. I have been fascinated by how the poets and the mystics, throughout time, often seem to get there first - writing eloquently and intuitively about the entanglements of life, the workings of the cosmos, the fact that the stomach has just as many neurons as the brain, the urgency of specific social justice agendas, the biochemistry of awe, ways of dealing with grief et cetera, et cetera - and then science and society seem to soon follow (sometimes). As Audre Lorde wrote back in the 1970s: “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

I also feel that the poetic allows for us to unravel more willingly, to become pre-disposed; pre-possessed by the things we can only sense as possibility, which might soothe a bit the pain of transmutations with (and within) the enigmatic pleasure of language at play; creating strange hungers, infusing things with both ‘terror and beauty’ (á la Rilke), fueling us with the desire and the will for a world felt (if not yet seen). A way of making sense of life that does not reduce it in our anxiousness to manage existence, but rather makes us susceptible to other ways of perceiving and being that can also go beyond the space and scope of our rational brains.

Poems are bullshit unless they are 
teeth or trees or lemons piled on a step. 
Or black ladies dying 
of men leaving nickel hearts beating them down. Fuck poems 
and they are useful, wd they shoot 
come at you, love what you are, 
breathe like wrestlers, or shudder 
strangely after pissing. We want live 
words of the hip world live flesh & 
coursing blood. Hearts Brains 
Souls splintering fire…

— Black Art, Amiri Baraka

The poetic and the mythic give shape and rhythm and meaning; but they also leave gaps and allow for leaping between images, between words and sentences and senses. And how to sense our way in the dark will be one of the big questions of our time. Feeling the entropic forces tugging at the back of our necks, but without succumbing to them completely. Here, Vanessa Andreotti, and her book Hospicing Modernity, resonate powerfully. Questioning how stories interact with our bodies, how certain collective thought-experiments around our social and ecological predicament might allow us to start conjuring new languages, paradigms, images and vital strategies to navigate it all and hospice modernity properly: to assist in the birth of something new amongst all of the things also dying around us. She pushes us to explore (lovingly, unflinchingly) ways we could help ourselves intentionally let go of a world, to sit with our collective “shadows and shit” as she says, and find ways of expanding our capacity to hold space for difficult things; the discomfort and grief of difficult learning - “a language and a pedagogical approach to clear the space for seeing, sensing, relating and imagining otherwise”.

This is the complex nature of a time between worlds. It asks us to sit with the unthinkable, with yet un-worded sensations; while old stories still hold us hostage; with the pull of the abyss within us. These threshold-times will not relent to a nostalgic past nor will they release anyone from unknowable futures - so learn to sit and withstand we must. Because imagination, like nature, also abhors a vacuum. And when a vacuum is left untended for too long it is dangerously easy for both nascent and ancestral imaginings to get sequestered by shiny neoliberal fantasies: the loud voices, the no-outside-to-capitalism, the smart cities, the survivalist bunkers, the techno-solutionism, the universal (man).

Cuando a la casa del lenguaje se le vuela el tejado y las palabras no guarecen, yo hablo.

—  Fragmentos para dominar el silencio, Alejandra Pizarnik

In fact, I believe that the crisis of imagination does not stem from a lack of imagination, as has often been said, but rather from its entrenched and monolingual excess. Imagination gone stagnant. Unseeing and stubborn and only self-referential: other bodies as commodities, extreme forms of nationalism, nature as pure extractive ‘resource’. (How to feel out other shapes and collective forms, how to explore diverse ways in which we could make life within life? And how do we both acknowledge and celebrate how much a particular way of understanding the world has added to the spectrum of human experience - from the atomic to the cosmic - as well as acknowledge and grieve how much it has ended up costing the planet, costing others, costing us?.

In this context - which seems to beg for a language of paradox - how do we infrastructure imagination? Not only to democratize and expand who exactly gets to imagine our collective futures - but also to have a scaffolding to transport images and ideas and possibilities across space and time: alternate (pluriversal) ways of being in (and with) the world, experimenting with diverse ways of funneling social energy into novel, tangible, flexible, more generous and generative shapes.

It is difficult 
to get the news from poems 
though men die miserably every day 
for lack 
of what is found there

— William Carlos Williams
Photo by Giulia May on Unsplash

Imagination is not a luxury

This has been my leitmotif for almost 20 years, the tagline of the cultural organization I founded in Mexico City when I was 25, and it has traveled with me into different fields and roles: from journalist, documentary filmmaker, experimental curator, cultural producer, visual artist, magazine and book editor to even (gasp!) public servant. And in this last role its meaning was most definitely put to a different and extreme type of test.

In fact, an interview I gave for the TED Blog, more than a decade old and which carries that exact title, now feels like a premonition of sorts: as if some part of my subterranean self was already preparing for that seemingly impossible leap - entirely inconceivable at the time - into what I then considered ‘enemy lines’ (i.e. government).

In this sense, my time as Chief Creative Officer for Mexico City and the founder of Laboratorio para la Ciudad (the experimental and creative arm of Mexico City government reporting to the Mayor) was a fascinating one for me, even though the extreme learning curve left me black and blue, stretching me way beyond my capacities at every turn, and pushing me continuously to put my money where my mouth was. (Want to think about how urban imaginaries and urban DNA relate to social justice and next-wave human rights? Well, here is your chance to crowdsource the Mexico City Constitution - which would become the city’s highest law in 2018, plus a written statement of the city’s highest collective ideals - a first not only for us, but for the world. So, Gabriella, now you want to talk about the necessity of novel forms of participation and experiments in democracy, even during volatile times? Well now also watch how a big protest forms around your office building when news gets out that the Lab would be hosting a city-wide debate on the Uber verus taxi intensities, that had until then boiled to a point of violence. Or do you wax poetic about experimentation and the need to take risks in government? Feel your stomach clenching every time you are about to throw the team again into the unknown, forever learning how to learn, and learning in the public light to boot, with the city controllers and Kafkian bureaucratic rules breathing down your back…)

Exhausting, have I said? But exhilarating too. Because it was also a beautiful excuse to explore democracy as a creative practice, and at the scale of a fascinating and unruly megalopolis; hand in hand with a young, talented, transdisciplinary team of 20+ people just as in love with our city as I was; and, increasingly, hand in hand with growing circles of committed and creative citizens as well. And so a new leitmotif was born at that time: your community is your superpower.

Since then, I have remained obsessed with both the envisioning capacities of humankind and simultaneously convinced that this is just the starting point. Political imagination needs to also give birth to its corresponding participatory scaffolding; collective imagination needs to be accompanied by enabling next-wave institutions and experimental territories; tangible action and new social capacities need to give life to new forms of collaboration; remade into a daily, resourced, praxis - all which is essential for any sort of sustained transformation to take place. We need wild imaginations and expansive social ideals, yes, but also the personal initiations and collective tools that can truly make reality malleable again. (In hindsight, “The Man Who Lived in a Shoe”, my first feature length documentary, touched upon both the beauty and the tragedy of the quixotic imagination in its quasi archetypical form: a fantastic and brilliant man that does not manage to find a bridge between the life of the mind and the life of the world.)

Sylvia Wynter's “On being human as praxis” says it well. Her approach to humanism is grounded in praxis, on the transformative and liberatory practice of being (and becoming) human. Wynter critiques the traditional humanist framework, which is based on the idea of a universal and fixed human nature, as fundamentally flawed and exclusionary. This traditional framework, she argues, has been used historically to justify the oppression and marginalization of certain groups of people, including women, people of color, and those who are differently abled.

Photo by Yumi Kim on Unsplash

This need for deep and ongoing praxis - plus different ways and excuses to collectively rehearse futures and rehearse freedoms (as Farzhana Khan and I have talked about on many a delicious conversational afternoon) was one of the other issues that Keri, Cassie and I reflected upon as well, in regards to imagination. Because on one hand, what a magnificent thing that suddenly the wider world, beyond the usual suspects, has rediscovered the importance of narrative, imagination, culture, myth… All those other ways of making meaning that we also urgently need to explore again, while we witness the ‘reasonable and the rational´ imploding all around us nowadays. Creativity then - as ‘reality’ itself becomes up for grabs - needs to become feral - not sidelined, not curtailed to museums or academia or studios, but escaping into life and suddenly, sometimes: life itself. Language and imaginaries as a vital force, jumping from body to body; as borrowed vitalities that then become one's own; ideas gathering momentum, creating space for the possible, enfolding us into a larger social body or a bigger collective story we are all in the midst of telling together… fragments and assemblages, personal transmutations, micro epiphanies, grunt work, social movements finally breaking through to the other side of history; the unthinkable changing skin.

But there is also (always) the danger of language as mirage, as political theater. First losing nuance and complexity; finally losing any type of substance or transformative capacity, becoming cliché. Or worse yet: spilling into the world in its most corrosive form, like the brutal imagination of Q-Annon, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and so on.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, in this respect, would mention the need to creatively dismantle structures as well. The ones that replicate those dark imaginations (like racist and neoliberal American prison systems). And she reminds us too: body is a place, freedom is a place, geography is a body of sorts. And I would add, in terms of infrastructuring imagination in the social realm: words and theories are there as trojan horses to let other realities in, to remake ourselves together. Infrastructuring as embodied politics. A symbiotic embodiment, a dynamic geo-socio-cultural-political body that can blur boundaries in its interactions.

In this sense, I admire the work and ethos of people like Teddy Cruz, Fonna Forman, Michele D' Alena, Christina Adane - all speakers in this other session - who have managed in different ways to set parameters for civic imagination to take hold in specific urban geographies: grappling with the complexities of collaborating with government; reweaving the social, the political and the creative into new forms of institutions, collaborations, policy, structures. Smuggling provocative ideas into the shape of daily collective life. Trans-border architectures. Civic Imagination offices. Exploring ways of enacting other forms of citizenships without even waiting to be of voting age.

Work in the social or public realm - in any capacity - takes a lot of rawness and continuous soul-searching. First, in the acknowledgement that it is work never to be fully realized, always in process. Second, because It is easy to forget to recalibrate often and then unwittingly replicate dominance in other directions. For example, by demanding de-policing towards the outside, while becoming punitive towards the inside of complex social movements, as adrienne marie brown has pointed out in many occasions. (And let’s be honest: we have all tripped, in some way or another, many times over. But do we self-correct and walk into these collective spaces with humbleness and an open predisposition towards generosity, continuously learning? Or do we grandstand and preach and become self-righteous, entrenched in our own narratives, as the new self-appointed gatekeepers of the land? One other thing I learnt in government is that we cannot be naive about the mutating complexities of power dynamics, in ourselves and in others.)

The rawness and messiness of having skin in the game is both a poignant and inspiring sight. I have met activists that have filled me with wonder as I witness the level of their commitment, even when their liberty has been at risk. In terms of our speakers, I think of Shilo Shiv Suleiman who has very publicly denounced India’s horrific governmental stance in regards to its muslim population - while being Indian, living in India, and being half-muslim herself. I also think of Aldo Esparza, who had to flee Mexico and leave his home, friends and family behind, since his life was at risk because of political persecution. After living in a refugee camp for over a year, and after long talks with other refugees from Iraq, Colombia, Afghanistan, he made two important choices. First of all, he would keep working and supporting others, that like him, have been persecuted by the state, particularly land defenders in Mexico and Colombia (two of the most dangerous places in the world for indigenous land defenders) and also specific communities that have suffered epistemic violence, whose way of life and ways of knowing have been under colonial attack for centuries. Secondly, when he was granted political asylum in the Netherlands, he decided to leave law and explore art as both a platform of thought and as a way to help finance projects in Latin America, such as supporting the creation of community-run schools based on local and ancestral knowledges - a project now underway in collaboration with The Arhuaco, an indigenous people of Colombia, in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, who requested his support.

On the other end of the spectrum, and to my initial surprise I confess, I also found great admiration for several people working within what I once considered those governmental ‘enemy camps’. Here I think of people like my friend and colleague Nicky Gavron, who went from neighborhood activist to politician and has been tirelessly campaigning from every front for more progressive policy around housing, community infrastructures, play, transportation, urban biodiversity, first Vice Mayor of London and beyond. Or Patricia Mercado - ex Presidential Candidate and now a Mexican Senator - who has diligently worked on policy with a deeply feminist stance; most recently designing a historic law to protect home workers across Mexico.

I also think of Diana Rodriguez Franco, Officer of Women’s Affairs for the city of Bogotá, who took a marginalized ministry and transformed it into the driver of one Bogota’s urban legacies: the lauded Care Blocks project, created under the administration of Mayor Claudia López, the first openly gay mayor in Latin American history. (Full disclosure: I am an advisor to Bogotá, so I come with my biases. Together, we have been holding a common question: how can we reimagine and restructure a whole city around care? This has pushed us to explore the more emergent, experimental and transdisciplinary edges of care economics, traveling the scales of the city, rethinking urban imaginaries, social systems and public services, while also folding in subjects like spatial justice, the politics of time, and architectures for collective life. The smarts, commitment and boldness of Diana and her team have been a sight to behold from up close. Political imagination and deep pragmatism, hand in hand.)

Photo by Alex Perez on Unsplash

As I write, I continue to go through a random inventory of other inspiring people I have met in recent years, from many fields and geographies. And I think again of a quote by Ursula K. Le Guinn, the one that inspired the title of the lightning-talk session:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

— Ursula K. Le Guinn

Realists of a larger reality, another sort of reality structurally assembled in a different way. And “life-affirming”, in the words of the wonderful Amahra Spence.

Reimagining the enabling conditions (from those elusive social imaginaries to concrete spaces to binding legal frameworks to the nuanced social-structuring of projects to the flow of capital) prompts other questions, conjuring other ways to rehearse freedoms, defying invented walls (patrolled borders, policed bodies) and reweaving it all once again into radical inter-dependencies that are truer to the realer larger reality of entangled life. And how we define reality and possibility is a deeply political action, as both Michal and Vlad Glaveanu hinted at in their separate sessions. A rigid imagination makes for a brittle reality; a smaller scope of existence, petty in size.

So yes: there are a set of reigning paradigms, institutions, norms, beliefs, rituals, vocabularies and daily practices that sustain the world as we know it in place, for better and for worse.

Regarding this, practitioners like Marisa Jahn, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Ann Light, Jonathan Holloway, and Toronto Imaginal Transitions shared interesting provocations on how to rethink foundational notions as ideas hit the ground, in the context of different geographies.

I believe rehearsal spaces of all sorts and in-between territories need to be expanded. Urgently. Into better understandings of ecological imagination, for example. A more than human vision of the world - a thinking with that goes way beyond our species as Anab Jain has pointed out - is crucial at this stage. And it might demand that the very substance of what (and how) we imagine stretches us into unknown places, reaching into the unimaginable until we develop new sensibilities and skills and tools. A leap of faith. People showing up with their politics and their passions; but also with their curiosity and imagination and their willingness to sink their hands into the messiness of the political and the personal; to engage with deep code and deep culture, within and without, inventive in the ways we walk ourselves into the public/subjective expanse - sometimes very literally, as in the case of another our other speakers, Nick Hayes and his Right to Roam movement. (Silvia Federici rings in my head: creativity, with the ingenuity of art but also beyond art, as the capacity to discover new dimensions in our collective lives.)

And I do believe the challenge (the daunting, delicious challenge) in the coming years will be how to weave it all into a complex territory with its own aliveness, into the very soil of a system. A system - or system of systems, pluriversal in nature - that is no longer optimized for just productivity, efficiency and extraction; that is more like mycelium and less like a graph; not only politics but also poiesis. Laying (also layering) a literal and metaphoric geography that is meant to imaginatively sustain life in its multiple and unfolding forms - or a world in which many worlds fit, as the Zapatistas would say.

In conclusion, perhaps this time between worlds, with all its unknowns, with all its grief-making and intense necessities, its joys and its terrors, will at least end up being "the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” as Franz Kafka once wrote.

And perhaps underneath the frozenness - plus a layer or two after the blinding pains of breaking through - we might find a new (oceanic) capaciousness of action and invention; both poetic and pragmatic, both mythic and mundane. We - that strange and ingenious and devastating and wondrous species that we are, homo sapiens, homo faber, homo ludens, homo narrans - we have indeed reinvented ourselves before during other critical times in history.

One thing is certain in these uncertain times:

Come what may, 
imagination will not be a luxury, 
poetry will not be a luxury. 
It never was, it never will be.

Gabriella Gómez Mont is the founder and director of Experimentalista and The Institute for Everything In-Between, as well as Visiting Professor of Practice at UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose.

Volunteers tidying a school garden.

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