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The FutureEverything Story: Assembling a Timeline Part 1

Discover the history and current significance of FutureEverything

Tracing key moments in FutureEverything’s emergence as one of the central organisations shaping early digital culture in Europe


By Bilyana Palankasova

I’ve spent much of the last year getting acquainted with the organisational records of FutureEverything, with the goal to understand its unique history and current significance. A logical first step in understanding a cultural organisation is to make sense of its trajectory and construct a timeline. Here I review the early years in the organisation’s history – from its beginning as Futuresonic to the emergence of FutureEverything as a leading cultural organisation working at the interface of art, technology and society.

The significance of FutureEverything is evident in the huge number of initiatives and artists it has influenced and supported since it was founded in 1995. I’m especially interested in what drove its trajectory and how it came to have influence far beyond the community of artists, thinkers and technologists who came together to first make it happen. In the story I tell I’m going to highlight those points of connection and translation between creative and technical worlds.

I’ve started by trying to identify and characterise key periods for the organisation from 1995 to 2009, covering roughly the first half of FutureEverything’s 30 years. There are three periods I’ve identified, 1995-2002, 2003-2006 and 2007-2010. These early phases show the development of a cross-disciplinary digital culture and arts organisation, which sets the scene and contextualises the later changes and transitions.

1995 – 2002

The first stage of FutureEverything’s story sees the emergence of the festival as a platform for people working critically in the arts and digital technology. FutureEverything was conceived in 1995 as Futuresonic and under the leadership and guidance of its founding director Drew Hemment the first festival was delivered in 1996. The spark that lit the fuse was the electric energy of early nineties Berlin, when Hemment travelled there to give a talk on electronic music and the interface between the human and the machine after the digital revolution.

Futuresonic Festival, 1996

Futuresonic quickly became established as the UK’s festival for arts and digital culture. The festival continued to be called Futuresonic until 2009, several years beyond the formation of FutureEverything as a ‘community interest company’. It produced exhibitions which engaged with social themes and approached artistic process and emerging technologies in an immersive way. Since its early editions, it looked to draw unexpected connections between art forms and practices and to facilitate interactions between different artistic languages. From the beginning the aim was to contribute to understanding of new technologies and how exchanges between art and technology contribute to social change and innovation – laying the foundation of FutureEverything’s future interdisciplinary approach.

After the first festival in 1996, Futuresonic continued as a series of events and projects, the SenseSonic online exploration of spatial sound, the Minimal Data project on digital sound and moving image, and the Submerge immersive interfaces for club environments at ISEA1998. The festival became annual in Manchester from 2000, with editions continuing in 2001 and 2002. It promoted interdisciplinarity by initiating often unexpected connections and interactions between different artistic languages, audiovisual media, DIY devices, data systems, and Internet cultures, and curatorial interests including audiovisual arts, women in electronica, and migrations.

Maryanne Amacher, Futuresonic Festival, 2002.

In 2001, Broken Channel was launched – a key project and exhibition, which included the work of international artists to explore the emerging nature of data-based surveillance. This took a critical exploration of digital technology to a new level for the organisation. It also introduced an important theme that would underpin the organisation’s activities in the future – the design and implications of data systems and the ways data are collected, stored, accessed and used.

TaystesROOM, Jenny Marketou, 2001. Commissioned by Cornerhouse. Broken Channel exhibition, Futuresonic Festival, 2001.

The festival explored new creative and technical horizons and was committed to expanding the understanding of emerging technologies through experimental art practices. Even in the early years there was the ambition to cater to diverse audiences and to create a platform to develop and share emerging ideas, and a strong emphasis on spanning boundaries and communicating complex ideas to non-specialised audiences.

By the end of this first period, the organisation was delivering a programme of exhibitions, conferences, and club nights weaving together different streams of creative production and facilitating spaces for exchanging cross-disciplinary ideas. A celebration of collective and immersive experiences – continued from its roots in club culture – was fused with critical debates and a curiosity about the creative potential of technology.

2003 – 2006

This second period is marked by the transformation of the festival into a space to incite and introduce significant art movements, and the demonstration of an independent capacity to undertake and lead research.

An important milestone which encapsulates this is Mobile Connections (2004), the biggest and most ambitious festival programme to date which reflected a deepening interest in and pursuit of innovation and infrastructure projects. This was the first major international cultural event on mobile technology and ‘locative media’ – a technical and creative field exploring the potential of mobile and location-aware technologies, a precursor to the smart phone and Internet of Things. The festival in 2004 convened this community and presented the major artworks and innovations, from Blast Theory’s Uncle Roy to Open Street Map. It featured the first major exhibition on the field, and was accompanied by a conference.

Crucially, the festival itself was the culmination of two years of R&D and community building that helped to shape the emergence of the field. From 2002 to 2004, Hemment and the festival team were immersed in an international community exploring the potential of locative media including key figures such as Ben Russell. This set a new tone for the organisation and was the first FutureEverything ‘innovation lab’ – a multi-year project in which the festival is a part of the journey, not the end in itself.  

TAKE2030 – Ilze Black, Alexie Blinov, Shu Lea Cheang, Chia-liang Kao, Paul Khera, Gio D’angelo, Supermodem (Kate Rich and Sneha Solanki), RICHAIR2030, 2004. Mobile Connections live programme, Futuresonic Festival, 2004. Photos Gingersnapz.

FutureEverything over this period deepened its links to research and innovation. Direct outcomes of the Mobile Connections festival edition and innovation lab was the Pervasive & Locative Arts Network, a research project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in 2005, and publications including a double special issue of the Leonardo Electronic Almanac journal in 2006. This was a key period, which demonstrated how an arts festival – and a festival-based organisation and community – can lead and shape emerging research domains. It also confidently set forth the organisation’s interest in the city and urban interactions through digital culture. 

The wider festival continued to thrive, with a vibrant art and music programme taking over the city. This period also marks the development of the EVNTS strand in 2004 – the ‘open source’ strand enabling the programming of independent events as part of the festival which aided in the formation of a wider arts-based community around FutureEverything. EVNTS opened the curatorial model for the festival by inviting members of the public to engage with DIY approaches and think about alternative ways to programme a festival while building a community. 

Battles, 2006. Music programme, Futuresonic Festival, 2006. Photo Neemo.

In 2006, the organisation celebrated the 10th anniversary of the festival, and the same year launched Loca: Set to Discoverable – an artist-led project highlighting the dangers of pervasive surveillance. It was provocatively positioned as a sinister grass-roots surveillance project, with the team installing a network of hacked devices running custom software to monitor and interact with Bluetooth enabled phones as people moved around downtown San Jose. Loca’s presentation at ZeroOne festival in San Jose and ISEA 2006 included art installation, software engineering, activism, pervasive design, hardware hacking and more. In 2008, Hemment and the team were awarded an Honorary Mention by Prix Ars Electronica for the Loca project. 

2007 – 2010

The third period sees the organisation directly responsible for significant new policy and infrastructure, and take on a key role in envisioning the future of Manchester at a time of great transition for the city. 

This phase introduces several milestones. Two key moments for the organisation arrive in 2007. Firstly, the set up of a new operating legal entity named FutureEverything (the festival continued as Futuresonic for two more years). And, secondly, the award by Arts Council England of Regularly Funded Organisation (RFO) status with a three year commitment to support the activities of the organisation. The new name reflected the scope and confidence of the organisation, and the funding award served as evidence of the value the cultural platform generates nationally and internationally. 

The Environment 2.0 art exhibition at CUBE. Environment 2.0 exhibition/projects curated by Drew Hemment, Futuresonic Festival, 2009. Photo WeAreTAPE.

Environment 2.0 was an innovation lab which was announced in 2006 and culminated in 2009, with the Environment 2.0 edition of the festival. This extended the work in locative media and marked the organisation’s first major engagement in the climate crisis. This lab explored how data and locative technologies open new possibilities for our relationship to the environment, particularly through innovative approaches to participatory mass observation on climate change and the environment. It involved multiple partners, such as the UK’s Met Office, OPAL and the National History Museum, and became a Leonardo special edition in 2010 and a Leonardo journal theme (still running in the year of publication, 2023). Environment 2.0 continues to resonate and led directly to later work on citizen sensing, climate services and the GROW Observatory.

Urban Prospecting, John Cohrs, 2009. Environment 2.0 exhibition/projects, Futuresonic Festival, 2009.

Open Data Cities, one of the most influential innovation labs, was launched at a festival workshop in 2009. This was one of the first open data projects in Europe, through which in 2010 FutureEverything, in partnership with Trafford Council, established DataGM: the Greater Manchester Datastore. This also led to the formation of the Open Data Manchester community (still active today), and to some of Europe’s most significant open data projects, such as CitySDK. It also embodied the organisation’s new-found impact beyond the festival and its path towards developing projects in its own name. FutureEverything had founded one of Europe’s first open data stores, with a community of open data activists, leading on local policy and shaping international development. It became established as a key actor in European innovation programmes, and deepened its partnerships with Waag Society in Amsterdam, Forum Virium the innovation agency of Helsinki, and others.

At this time FutureEverything became more prominent in spearheading digital transformation in Manchester. It was commissioned to develop a cultural strategy for MediaCityUK and it hosted major policy and industry events such as The City Debate. In doing so, it placed the arts and the international networks of digital culture centre stage. 

The festival commissioned and premiered significant work over this period. One was a collaboration between AntiVJ and Mexican electronic pioneer, featuring live visuals and three dimensional displays, which launched a tremendous period of success for AntiVJ artists Joanie Lemercier and Simon Geilfus.

AntiVJ + Murcof, 2009. Audiovisions live programme, Futuresonic Festival, 2009.

Artistic experiments at the festival had started to create tangible infrastructure, such as DataGM, and novel tools and techniques such as participatory data collection by citizens to plug data gaps for national and international climate agencies. By the end of this period, FutureEverything was established as something unique, a festival-based organisation that led infrastructural projects, sustained active communities, and collaborated with international agencies to address environmental crises. In 2010, the organisation’s achievements were recognised by the Lever Prize – the year which completes the transformation from Futuresonic to FutureEverything. 

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