The Dance of Not-Knowing

Maja Kuzmanović & Nik Gaffney

Cultivating beginner’s mind in a thickening present.

Including excerpts from: Start from not knowing, a conversation on Art, AI and Everything Else with Art Center Nabi; Enacting Futures in Postnormal Times, FoAM’s contribution to the Experiential Futures issue of the journal Futures; and Thriving in Uncertainty, a web article commissioned for Rekto:Verso

All I know, is that I know nothing.

Socrates (as quoted, paraphrased or misattributed)

The present moment is an infinite moment, as much as a fleeting instant. It contains multiple layers of the now. The now of a heartbeat; the now of today; the now of an epoch. Coalescing into a thick, atemporal experience of being alive.

Time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.

Richard Powers

Now, and now, and now. Lives unfold through a mosaicked layering of perpetual presents. Moment to moment, making small adjustments to the ever-changing constellations of the now. Never knowing what the next moment will bring. We jostle and slip, occasionally evolving – a stumble becoming a leap – with the uncertainty of what comes next. With curiosity, irreverence, and equanimity, we can thrive in uncertainty.

In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations. Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.

Donna Haraway


And if you stay with whatever is happening? If you stop doing and focus on being, staying with not-knowing? The present becomes something to dwell in and explore, rather than merely an instant to move through. Consciously stepping outside of the linear progression of time. Noticing the flows of sensations, thoughts and affects that come and go. What happens when you stop and listen? Staying your hand, what does now sound like? Listen until you can distinguish the textures of silence, between and beneath the polyphony of rhythms and voices. Discerning minor changes or liminal patterns, observing reactions to what is emerging, without judgement.

“Temporal bandwidth,” is the width of your present, your now. It is the familiar “[delta-] t” considered as a dependent variable. The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow


Do you remember a time when not knowing was thrilling, a source of excitement? Think of a situation when you were absorbed in your interactions and your surroundings, loosening the grip of what came next. In make-believe games, children willingly throw themselves into another world, not knowing what might happen. Entire worlds can be created and destroyed, while the players emerge (relatively) unscathed. Such loosely-structured forms of play offer a unique combination of lightness and seriousness, where not knowing spurs serendipity. If you hold reality lightly (yet earnestly), you can access possibilities that may not be available through the usual channels of consensus reality.

Not(e) Book Playshop, FoAM Brussels 2015. Recycling 15 years of meeting notes into dadaist poetry and hand-made paper.


Agree to discuss nothing that could be acted out.

Bertold Brecht

Improvisation relies on spontaneity and synchronicity to resolve uncertainty on the spot. Dramatist Keith Johnstone warns that would-be improvisers “mustn’t try to control the future”. Instead, they learn to hone their skills of observation and interaction in the present, thereby contributing to the future’s unfolding. It approaches problems intuitively, with responses derived from previous experience. In improv, you can feel the thrill of shaping live action. Learning to trust and amplify others’ gestures and utterances, responding with a "yes, and", rather than "yeah, but…". Not knowing, making decisions with incomplete information. Acting with and building on whatever happens.

Dancing & Drawing Microresidency with Auriea Harvey, FoAM Brussels, 2015.

Inhabiting Uncertainty

What motivates us to act is a sense of possibility within uncertainty – that the outcome is not yet fully determined and our actions may matter in shaping it. This is all that hope is, and we are all teeming with it, all the time, in small ways. We plant a seed expecting both that it might grow and we might be around to see it grow, to admire the flower or eat the fruit.

Rebecca Solnit

Meditating, playing, and improvising are most effective when you don’t know what the next moment will bring. Holding space for the unsettling (or exhilarating) experience of uncertainty, you can act from within this experience – resisting the forward movement of progress, diffusing focus, and attending to what would otherwise be overlooked. With looser attachments to past and future, learning can be a dance of not-knowing. Learning, unlearning, experiencing, and understanding, receptive to different ways of being in the world.

Collapse contains the fractal seeds of transcendence. Things come together as they fall apart. […] In this context, our best weapons are imagination, creativity, and a recognition of the sheer contingency of the times in which we find ourselves.

Justin Pickard


Further reading & references