The following text was co-authored with Makan Fofana, and is written in the first person, from Makan’s perspective. This article is an account of our latest collaboration on the Banlieue du Turfu (Banlieue meaning hood or suburbs, and du Turfu meaning of the future), a project Makan launched five years ago.
🥞 The Agoraverse
Every first Saturday of the month from September 2021 to June 2022 the Banlieue du Turfu (a french design practice I created several years ago) was invited by the Gaîté Lyrique to facilitate a series of peer-learning workshops. During these ten months Hugo and I met with participants to dream together a new world: the Agoraverse using a range of activities including video gaming sessions, debates, co-creation workshops and a Game Jam to close the conference cycle in June. The common thread of these gatherings was the following question:
What will daily life look like in tomorrow’s digital worlds?
The Agoraverse is a neologism I invented with Hugo to encourage us to imagine an alternative metaverse in response to the craze caused by the announcements of Epic Games and Meta. The former had announced in April 2021, an investment of 2 billion dollars to create the first metaverse (an actual metaverse, not just as imagined through novels or video games). While the latter, the parent company of the social network Facebook had then announced on Thursday, October 28, 2021, that it was changing the name of its company to Meta.
The name of the project Agoraverse, a contraction of agora and universe, seeks to encourage the creation of digital spaces that foster successful cohabitation among its dwellers and visitors, as well as vibrant economic and ecological development. For this first edition, we decided to focus on the importance of artistic practices, especially those emerging from the banlieues of the world. The project aims to imagine desirable futures (physical, digital, and sometimes fantastical) from the peripheries rather than the centers, by the those who live in the banlieues of all types, rather than the inhabitants of the Silicon Valley, biased by the hyper-technological stance of the start up nation.
The Banlieue du Turfu resembles the literary universe of a novel that unfolds from volume to volume. The entry point into this world can often be confusing for participants (as it might be for you?). This is in part because the Banlieue du Turfu is at the same time an oasis in a desert, a fictional universe in the making but also a societal project that I am implementing with anyone interested in its sensibility. My hope is to create a new societal model that transcends current narratives of success in the banlieues in order to find an alternative to the current life in the big cities which seeks to answer the fundamental question:
Will we always have to leave the banlieues to accomplish our dreams?
Let’s start by introducing ourselves, Hugo Pilate is a Franco-American designer, he’s worked in the United States, India, and France, in various sectors including maker culture, sex education, and access to solar energy. Through these projects, Hugo has developed a collaborative design practice that often (but not always) involves the use of digital tools to collaborate in an immersive fashion. And I, Makan, am a writer and artist. My research focuses on speculative design and imaginaries. Founder of the Banlieue du Turfu, I design co-creation workshops and participative fictional experiences, and I regularly collaborate with different people like Hugo to make the project of the Banlieue du Turfu come to life.
In March 2021, while Hugo and I were in the final preparations for the workshops at the Gaitée Lyrique, I had the opportunity to meet Arnaud Dressen, the director of Wonda and a multimedia producer, who was interested in our approach and suggested that Hugo and I think about an idea for a co-creation workshop of 3D worlds, around the Agoraverse project.
Thus was born the Agora Jam.
🎮 The Agora Jam
The outcomes of the first seven peer-learning workshops of the Agoraverse, served as the conceptual foundation for the Agora Jam, during which we prototyped a V0 of the Agoraverse. These reflections and the prototype created during the Agoraverse were then showcased during a public exhibition, presented on June 4th.
The Jam was a collaborative creation event held on two dates, April 2 and May 4, in which a team of 25 passionate creators, aided by Wonda, a platform for the creation of online virtual spaces, met at the Gaîté Lyrique to create the first Agoraverse. For Wonda it was also an opportunity to open up to a new creative use of the tool, that of worldbuilding. The Jam was also the perfect opportunity for Wonda to discover new talents, better understand their expectations from the platform while helping people who had never used this type of 3D space creation tools take their first steps into the virtual. In this article, we will take you on a journey through the most unlikely of virtual worlds. How to create a creative project in a metaverse? How do you get people to collaborate in such an impalpable world while making them feel the deepest emotions? This is what we will discover together.
🕳️ Part 1: Stepping into the void…
“In 2222 of our time, the Agoraverse has become an essential place of the turfurocosmic scene. It is said that the first version of this mythical place was born on April 04, 2022, during an Agora Jam commissioned by the Ministry of Magic in order to create and launch, within the shortest possible time frame, the first civic-minded metaverse…Will you be able to answer the call of the Ministry of Magic?”
Such was the text which welcomed the participants. The Agora Jam was conceived in the image of the Agoraverse workshops: with the intention of blurring the line between physical and digital, poetry and investigation, fiction and reality, center and periphery.
Five teams were formed from the applications received, with as a general rule the idea of having two profiles able to manage audiovisual production (3D, collage, illustration, video) and two profiles at ease with storytelling in each team.
It was therefore important to recruit not only technical profiles, but also creative, inventive, playful ones, who wouldn’t be afraid to use storytelling to break through any technical limitations of the digital medium.
Using our respective networks we launched a call looking to recruit the following profiles:
- 🛠️ 3D Modeling: In charge of the visual layout of the Agoraverse, also responsible for the 3D modeling of the space.
- 📜Scenarization: In charge of crafting a narrative around the uses and practices that will take place in the Agoraverse.
- 🐙 Investigation: In charge of the research that will feed the creation of the space. An investigation through the archives of previous workshops will be necessary to inform new inspirations.
- 🔮 Artistic Direction: In charge of the overall experience and aesthetics of the Agoraverse world.
- 📻 Sound production: In charge of the auditory atmosphere.
As for the structure of the Jam it was divided into two parts:
The first meeting, on April 2, was dedicated to worldbuilding and getting familiar with the Wonda platform. The second meeting on May 7th, focused on the production of the worlds and the final presentation.
Between these two dates, a catch-up session was organized with each team to keep the project active and facilitate development of the creations. For each session we had planned snacks: hearty slices of chocolate or lemon cake and after each meeting we took the time to go to the bar and have a drink together.
Regarding the tools, three main platforms were used:
- Our Wonda world was used as the main sandbox to build the worlds.
- Our Miro sketchbook was used to facilitate the immersion of the teams with the beginnings of stories, inspirations, video games, and other references that had emerged from the previous workshops.
- Our Discord chatroom, to coordinate the teams and make visible to each group their respective progress.
Finally, it was decided by mutual agreement with the participants that all the creations made during the Agora Jam would be shared under an open Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0).
🧙🏿♂️ Part 2: The Agoraverse emerges…
— The creations
It was incredible to see the teams take ownership of these worlds, even developing a sense of belonging to them, while trying to figure out what form they should take and what stories they should tell. As the Agora Jam progressed, we saw each team go from circumspection to fabulation, starting from the narrative brief we gave them to then hatch a new world.
For each world created you will find, the creative brief each team was provided with, a GIF of the creation, a summary of the narrative and what the considerations that surfaced during the creative process. You can explore the worlds directly on the Wonda platform.
WORLD 0 <:> THE CYBORG TREE
The World 0 served as our lobby, the crossroads of the Agoraverse’s many worlds. The scene was elaborated from a 3D scan of my neighborhood retrieved from Google Map in which Hugo and I placed a cyborg tree in charge of weaving magical sneakers for the inhabitants of the neighborhood (a character we imagined two years ago during our first collaboration in Fortnite Creative). In the sky you can see one of the first visual interpretations of the Agoraverse, created by the artist Yuvraj Jha. Five vortexes dispersed around the lobby give you access to other worlds created by the participants thus forming a small archipelago.
WORLD 1 <:> THE PIX.SAND FOUNDRY
Riwad Salim: Multi-faceted digital designer
Inès Bel Mokhtar: Student in textile and material design at the school of decorative arts
Stéphane Cretel: Marketing and innovation strategy consultant
Pix.sand is a physical and digital material. Over the centuries, various forms of craft have emerged around its fusion, fission, and other transformations.
With this story we imagined a novel or film that takes root in 2456 AD in a world born from the ruins of the server rooms of the Anthropocene. A new super-energy with memory exists, born from the transmutation of ancient materials and energies, the Pix.sand is now constituted as the syn-crystallization of the know-how and memories of past worlds. The inhabitants of the Agoraverse, holders of this heritage who have learned and developed a particular form of alchemy, make the most of the metaphysical properties of the Pix.sand while seeking to protect themselves from ill-intentioned companies looking for a pure and clean source of energy to rebuild the old world.
My POV: I could see this scenario being used, in a video game or a movie, as a counterpoint to some of the desert worlds proposed in Mad Max-like sceince-fiction in which the desert is an archaic futuristic space in which marginal people live rather than a space in the universe.
What this world explores:
- Thinking of bits and atoms as conscious and autonomous materials, thus offering a new relationship to the living, and to the creative act.
- The inhabitants develop a new science that is not yet named and that does not exist in our reality but is theorized and practiced by the inhabitants of the foundry.
- Thinking of each space and ecosystem for what it is and not what it lacks (water, greenery): just like the desert, the banlieues are complex ecosystems in their own right.
WORLD 2 <:> THE BAYT-AL-HIKMA
Michael Baumgarten: Multimedia artist, with roots in photographie
Anifa Chanfiou: Screenwriter and Director
Yanis Ratbi: Facilitator of collective intelligence, podcaster committed to the deconstruction of cultural stereotypes and syncretic digital artist
Dji-Ming Luk: Designer in invisible architecture
The House of Wisdom (Bayt al Hikma) is a center of reality-fiction (making reality through fiction) in which knowledge, research, and translation transcend preconceptions. It is a polymorphous university where contemporary and ancient works are translated into Turfurist slang.
It is 1995, somewhere in a self-contained suburb of the south, of what used to be called France: the neighborhood is governed by a new code, that of the Multirêve (polydream). In the center of this city, a strange institution was born, the Bayt-al-hikma. It’s a watery space without sharp corners where the slang is transformed into a luminous and colored atmosphere. The slang spoken there is oceanic and mediterranean. Each year, ten people chosen at random must embark on an initiatory journey to the Bayt-al-hikma. Only one of them will come back with the title of Great Intergalactic Sage.
My POV: I enjoyed working with this group on the idea of turfurist slang. I think that Tolkien-like linguistic invention brings another dimension to the practice of worldbuilding.
What this world explores:
- The banlieues not as a space to escape from but as a journey of initiation.
- Visiting the Bayt-al-hikma rather than the Eiffel Tower as a symbol of success and of awakening.
- The love of languages and their transmutations as a timeless practice.
- A new job-title, that of a Great Intergalactic Sage, which consists in participating in the development of the banlieues in its broadest sense.
WORLD 3 <:> THE DIGITAL FIRDAWS
Sandra Coulibaly: Head of Strategic Analysis at the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie
Maéva Bigot: Social Psychologist
The Digital Firdaws is a cosmic-o-digital garden in which you will discover capsules left by its visitors in the past and in the future. You can also leave your own capsules for future generations. In the Firdaws we seek to discover how to awaken unsuspected symbioses between mineral, digital and organic.
Garden of the worlds of the future and of tomorrow, of the I and the We, cradle of our dreams and of our imprints, the Firdaws is a slow spiritual and carnal walk to relearn and interpret the diversity of our origins and of our tomorrows. This universe does not propose a scenario but rather a new experience of the living which is embodied in this tree’s poem as transcribed by Ardan El Roy:
The Whispers of the Tree:
I was, I am and I will be, between the Sky, the humus and the concrete:
I will survive you.
Fragile as the burnt bush, voluptuous as a Conpee River…
I am what, who am I? :
Turfu, tufted, tundra, forests and loose vines!
I am to the eyes of those who look at me,
I am to the blood of those who suck on me.
My rhizomes are crossed lands: edens, secret gardens….
Simultaneous secret murmurs, of present and past times.
House trees, vase trees, hut trees, nest trees… Infinite
I was, I am and I will be, between humus, Heaven and concrete,
I will survive you!
Come to lose yourself
Come to find yourself.
My POV: I can see this universe in an anime with contemplative scenes a bit like Miyazaki and the like. But it could also be a film that introduces a new aesthetic to the mythology of the banlieues.
What this world explores:
- A new non-monotheistic spirituality with a non-linear relationship to time.
- A place to stow fragments of time, ancestral futures, and futuristic ancestralities.
- A more complex way of creating social bonds and identities that are not based solely on the identity of neighborhoods, countries, nations or origins.
WORLD 4 <:> THE INTERNET OF CHICHAS
Aura Hernandez: Social Psychologist
Pierre Rose: Designer (motion, 2D, 3D) and developer (web, java)
The Internet of Chichas is a democratic space run by masters of ceremony in an intimate and decentralized committee to imagine and debate together the next policies of the Agoraverse. Whether you practice chicha or not, it is above all a culture of reunion.
In a world that is both dystopian and marvelous, a conflict breaks out between the territories of the East and the West. The Internet of Chichas is a powerful institution that regulates the life of the community. The Chicha has the power of memory and to keep the traces of the heritage of the turfurists. Through a prolonged inhalation smokers are taken over by the sounds and the dreams of their peers and then, the exhalation form holograms of lived experiences and their influence on the debate.
My POV: I can imagine a group of individuals who would use this technology to hack the hologram of the Code of the Streets, destabilize the new economic power of the region and take power over the emerging Sixth Republic.
What this world explores:
- Seeing the chicha as a space for meetings, debates and celebration of life in the Banlieue du Turfu.
- A technology of memory and empathy that is ephemeral but intense.
- The peaceful management of controversies and confrontations necessary for the development and political modernization of the City.
WORLD 5 <:> THE CIRCULAR E-SPORTS ARENA
Members of the team:
Florence Bamba: scriptwriter and self-taught director
Mamady Diarra: digital artist, live coder, and musician
Matthias Honorat: Digital art Director
Diane Despois: Territorial development catalyst
AstroBoi: ARTivist, director, editor and video maker by profession
A place for Turfurist sports practices, the Circular E-sport Arena is a space in constant reinvention, where the fields and rules evolve with the inspiration of the players and their fans. But above all, it is also a hyper-local fair-trade ecosystem where the profits collected during the athletic confrontations are used not only to pay the athletes but also their fans and their neighborhoods.
The arena is composed of a set of towers and constellations with an architecture that reaches beyond the clouds, more than 10 kilometers away, in a city that is called the Binks Village. In this arena, each athlete will be teleported from floor to floor where they will face a series of physical or lyrical tests (darts, songwriting, martial arts) orchestrated in a random way.
My POV: I would imagine in this universe a thriller in which the mistress-gambler of the sky would have been brutally murdered to prevent the next Turfurolympic Games from being held…
What this world explores:
- A new interpretation of the iconic “tower” element of the banlieues.
- A new relationship with sport in the neighborhood that is not only a competitive element but a safe space.
- The possibility to create new sports, some which may not necessarily be competitive.
🪐 Conclusion and Turfu of the project
We could have shared a lot more, the world of the Turfu just keeps getting richer and more complex with every minute that passes, but it is time to wrap things up. The nature of the jam challenges the participants to (re)define what the metaverse is or could be for them rather than running away from it, demonizing it or excluding themselves from a possible future that might seem seem too removed from their daily concerns, even if to arrive at the conclusion that it is still not for them.
It is important to also highlight that the Banlieue du Turfu exists across the physical and the digital, sadly this reality is often difficult to convey. Too many people have asked us to choose one or the other. And when they assume we see the virtual as an escape, they often follow that question up with “What the heck are you doing in a virtual world when people are having problems in the physical world?”
This seems absurd to us, hence the importance for each Agoraverse workshop, to be held face-to-face, while simultaneously keeping a continuity from workshop to workshop thanks to digital means such as online archives like the Digital Firdaws.
It seems to us that the participants were receptive to this fluidity between physical and digital, centers and peripheries:
“The Banlieue du Turfu represents for me a field of possibilities, it represents the future, a philosophical form of optimism and the right to dream, the right to transform ideas … The Agoraverse represents for me a virtual space composed of “real” elements in which we can escape for a moment.
“The Agoraverse is a Think Do Tank able to give a new function to digital tools and materialize a new ambition for society in general and in the banlieues in particular.”
“I see the Agoraverse as a collective compost of collective imaginaries, an unconscious that surfaces and suddenly takes shape. The Banlieue du Turfu is for me an invitation to put philosophy and poetry back at the heart of how we dwell together with the Earth as human beings.”
“The Agoraverse, at this point, represents much more to me than just its virtual state, it is also a symbol of all this collaborative work, the bubbling discussions, the debates, the new encounters, and the Gaîté Lyrique cakes of course!”
“Perhaps the Agoraverse carries the intention of creating a digital space as a medium for a psychic space of personal and collective creation where interactions are aimed at fostering the emergence of alternative worlds in our minds, hearts, and environment while the Metaverse is a factual description of another space of interaction than the physical world.”
We must craft new representations of the banlieues (and metaverse) in the digital world that are not only emulations of reality but opportunities to transform them, modify them, materialize them, prototype new projects, powerful dreams, and desirable futures. To capture the higher-level takeaways, we’ve put together a set of 10 principles concerning the relationship between the banlieues and metaverse that you can find here.
All the exchanges and encounters that emerged during the Agora Jam and the Agoraverse conference cycle have been transcribed in the form of an archive made accessible to the participants and hopefully soon to a wider public by making it into a documentary. For the moment, the Agoraverse as a workshop format and creative space has no official continuation, however, I would like the program to continue to live on in order to raise awareness in a collaborative way to localities, companies, institutions to the question of the metaverse and make it a tool for reflection. And hopefully go beyond prototyping to finally create one, one day.
Don’t hesitate to knock on the door of the Ministry of Magic, if you can find it!
This Agoraverse is the continuation of a previous project on thinking digital spaces from marginalized voices made possible by Superrr Lab, in which the Banlieue du Turfu used Fortnite’s Creative mode to prototype the cities of tomorrow. You can find and article on this project here.
A big thank you to the participants and the teams who made this Jam possible! Arnaud Dressen, Elie Mietkiewicz and Quentin Veillas from the Wonda team, as well as Anne Le Gall, Théo Kuperholc, Tanaquil Dirand and Manon Delambre from the Gaîté Lyrique.