UKAI’s studio is where we test and build culture for what’s coming. We deliver internal and partnered cultural experiments and prototypes that create the conditions to deal with the broad social, political, and ecological uncertainty we collectively face.
Culture is a collective inheritance we draw upon to make sense of the world around us and to find solutions to challenges both existing and emerging. An impoverished culture leads to an impoverished set of tools with which to understand and act in the world. Our projects, co-productions, and commissions demonstrate that other values can be put at the centre of technological, social, and economic development. The dominance of the moral positions of capitalism – growth and efficiency – too often squeezes out ideas of compassion, care, generosity, and wonder. Our Studio puts other ways of knowing the world at the centre of cultural infrastructure and expression.
We are not born with the skills to organize the facts of the world but develop them as we interact with others and the world around us. What happens, then, when we assign more of our decision-making to systems that are optimized only for size and efficiency? What happens when there is little interest in providing people with diverse and potentially unsettling (yet generative) sets of experiences?
Convenience becomes a trap.
Consistent stories, intolerant of other ways of seeing the world, start to shape what we notice and how we experience things. This leaves us ill-equipped to deal with large-scale shocks.
A deceleration in the development of ideas starves our culture of the necessary diversity to assess and categorize events as they emerge. Systems committed to stability and efficiency select against experiences that do not contribute to the kinds of engagement the system wants to see. Confusion, disorder, discomfort are necessary to drive creativity but are increasingly seen as negative outcomes to be avoided. We stop stumbling into things.
UKAI’s approach celebrates the uncertain and the contingent, creating openings for new ways of understanding the world around us and new approaches to deal with the massive challenges we face.
Our Methodology can be understood as follows:
- Immersive experiences and environments that provide participants with an embodied and embedded experience of the issues being explored
- Facilitation and capture that emphasizes relationships and connections rather than abstractions or ideologies
- Sense-making that prioritizes how those we are working with make sense of the world around them and the patterns they apply to experience to take action
- Insights that offer unexpected ways of viewing or constituting the situation and that suggest a sustainable pattern of advantage to bring into subsequent interventions
- Prototyping that is situated and testable and that leads to material outputs that inspire future rounds of testing and response
Insights are then translated into prototypes that invite additional interaction and that can be directed toward creation and production of evidence. Our preference for immersive experiences and environments extends from a desire to invite participants into spaces that generate a sense of awe or wonder, and thereby bypass pre-formed responses. By challenging the existing conceptual categories on which people rely, we have access to greater diversity of potential responses.
We seek to distinguish between habitual and abstracted responses to invisible sociotechnical forces and the particular knowledge of how they are manifest in life and living. There is a considerable distance between an abstracted knowledge of fire and the experience of being burned.
We understand creativity as a communicative and collaborative process, which demands contexts that support interaction and collective sense-making and our environments are designed with these needs at the center.
Sample Client Work
Through a structured process of experimentation, a digital strategy was developed that allows for a sustained exploration of the artistic affordances of emerging technologies in the augmented reality/extended reality (AR/XR) space while deepening impact in community, and generating new sources of revenue to reinvest in artistic creation.
Six experiments offered artifacts and direct experiences of what potential strategic directions might entail. The work enables the client to act globally through exchange and participation in communities where rapid innovations in XR experiences are evident. As a contribution to these spaces, Zuppa is developing works that are hyper-local, prioritizing the participation and experiences of communities in work.
This approach aligns with broader trends in the AR marketplace, where the need for solutions that reflect very local needs and contexts is becoming increasingly evident while the tools being deployed continue to rely on scale and global deployment. Scale requires alienation from place and Zuppa is positioning itself as a mediator between emergent technologies and the idiosyncratic and place-based needs of communities, audiences, and clients.
The Maitri Platform
The Maitri Platform arose in April 2020 to address the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on under-served communities such as Indigenous communities, migrant workers, refugees, slum dwellers, and people living in rural poverty.
In its short history, Maitri has accomplished much. It has provided direct and indirect support to those being left behind by the broader COVID-19 response. Furthermore, Maitri represents a new model for emergency aid. Emergency response traditionally focuses on what needs to be done and how best to do it. Maitri moves support to those most in need. It operates as a fluid and boundary-less system and prioritizes what Blackness scholar Michelle M. Wright calls the “wheres and whens” of networks. Specifically, Maitri responds when events overwhelm the ability of existing institutions to respond and where individuals and communities are being left behind or ignored due to lack of access and/or systems of oppression and marginalization.
UKAI worked with Maitri in December 2020 to document the progress of Maitri to date; to identify gaps in infrastructure, processes, governance, communication, and other parts of this volunteer initiative; and to develop media for on-boarding new members (above).
immersive context: fully virtualized digital residency
COVID-19 led to forced isolation in much of the world and many were required to seek cultural experiences and meaning online. The crisis put enormous pressure on cultural organizations to adapt to a world of physical distancing. The default response was digital transformation. Unfortunately, our desk research suggested that most of the tools and approaches being developed assumed commercially-oriented cultural practices, Western European in derivation, or both.
Working with eleven performance organizations, we explored the relational qualities of practices that must be preserved when migrating works to digital platforms. Working with a community of 28 creative technologists, insights were translated into working prototypes which could be shared with community members to support additional development in ways that celebrated the specific and contemporary nature of culturally diverse practices.
The Computer is Your Redacted (2021)
immersive context: role playing game (RPG) audio radio play (Toronto)
Four experts in the economic, ethical, policy, and cultural implications of artificial intelligence were brought together to take part in an audio series through the Goethe-Institut’s Algorithmic Culture programming. Rather than hosting a traditional conversation or interview, we invited them to play the 1984 role-playing game Paranoia over the course of several hours. Immersive role-playing bypasses the pre-formed language that often defines discussion around these polarizing themes. Play became an invitation to imagine other futures and other responses to the automation of culture.
The outputs were widely distributed through podcast and other platforms, which generated a wealth of response and dialogue that could be drawn upon to suggest future action. Role playing became an immersive and improvisational model for anti-algorithmic, instantiated, and empathetic responses to the actual and potential hegemony of algorithmic culture.
Read more about The Computer is Your Redacted
Restructuring Futures (2022)
immersive context: inner-city vacant building inhabited as an artist’s work-live space (London, UK)
Restructuring Futures is a 2-year project directed at building collaborative tools for cultural production that are resilient to the changing landscape of political and ecological disturbances, authoritarianism, and the failures of centralized systems. The project is funded by the Canada Council for the Arts.
In service to informing technical development, UKAI invited a socially, culturally, and economically diverse community to inhabit three entwined scenarios in service to imagining new digital and material infrastructures emerging from the ruins of today. The design aimed at assessing how means of artifacting and creation can feed into the design of decentralized systems, peer-to-peer networks, and social justice movements, thus re-organizing and reshaping the ecologies we inhabit.
The immersive experience was hosted in an abandoned council house and nursery now occupied for artistic production and living. Participants collaboratively re-imagined the urban ecology visible from the building, reorganized the landscape, and assigned new functions to current day infrastructure and utilitarian spaces — digital and otherwise. The outputs were then collectively edited and assembled into a print publication to leverage in future prototyping and iteration efforts.