Only our most distant descendants will be able to decide whether we should be praised or reproached for first working out our philosophy before working out our revolution.
Heinrich Heine, On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany
The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.
G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right
The time for farewells has finally arrived.1 This exhibition is part of my larger engagement with the notion of contemporaneity and its various ramifications. Our contemporary times are characterized by political turbulence, which has stripped away any possibility of hope, justice, and asylum. Because unprecedented economic, political, and social turbulence has resulted in a climate rife with insecurity and precarity, authors such as Brecht, and later Hal Foster, have termed the situation as “bad new days.” These seismic changes in everyday life force us to look to the future with apprehension. Utopia seems more necessary than ever. How will we characterize the age we live in, based on the dominant emotions of pain and suffering that people experience? Has the time come to move ahead and forge a better future? What ideals would we hold on to, and what would we abandon in this quest towards the future? Are philosophy and art ready to imagine the beginnings of that better society?
The enchanting fantasy of the future has slowly been obliterated from the public sphere in the last few decades. The spectre that haunts humanity now is the spectre of apocalypse. A collective trauma plagues us, rejecting any utopian thought and delaying the arrival of the future. We live around the debris of lost opportunities to emancipate us, for the possibilities are only realized when they are lost.
I would like to begin with such an example of a collective trauma discussed in Rebecca Comay’s book Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution.2 According to Comay, in 1800 German intellectuals might have looked across the Rhine and meditated on the chaos and violence of the French Revolution. They might have even congratulated each other for foreseeing such carnage. However, they believed they did not need a similar revolution, as they had already gone through the radical Protestant Reformation, experiencing it at the spiritual level, while its practical manifestation unfolded in the form of the French Revolution. Through this act, they claimed the legacy of the radicalism of the French Revolution. Comay observes that Germany was able to “position itself as the French Revolution’s predecessor, successor, and most faithful contemporary.” Years later, Karl Marx would denounce this pompous yet futile attitude of projecting German realities onto world events as “German misery.” He writes, “We are the philosophical contemporaries of the modern age without being its historical contemporaries.”3 While France reaped the benefits of modernity and democracy during the same period, German society lagged behind under the weight of the same feudal system which its intellectuals had consigned to the backwaters of history.4 This example encapsulates the general tenor of German modernity, its “failure of actuality and action.” The potential that Germany had during that period unveils itself as a series of missed opportunities. Before Germany could even realize the future, it had already gone. Walter Benjamin famously identified this as the “hope in the past,”5 while Derrida characterized it as the “impossible mourning,”6 a loss which it had never experienced.
To imagine the future is also to take the responsibility of the actual. The specific emotional mood of our time is the sense of crisis and fear, a presupposition of an upcoming cataclysm. It is the vision of the end of civilization in an apocalyptic climate. The lingering fear of our inner demons and external enemies is more active than ever. How do we overcome this? There is suspicion in the air, and it stems from the realities of violence and doom. Such a situation can be averted by collectively imagining a tomorrow which is radically different from the present.
This exhibition is an attempt to foster a vision for the future, to seize upon possibilities rather than mourning for the hope lost in the past, and to actualize them. Hegel has brilliantly summarized our inability to understand the potential of historic moments in the present through the allegory of the owl of Minerva which will only fly at dusk. According to Hegel, we only comprehend the meaning of a historical condition after it passes away. We remain to take stock of the missed opportunities after each epoch. The task today is to be both politically and philosophically revolutionary. Such a task also comes with negations, actively working on the present by rejecting the oppressive structures and institutions of the past. To achieve that we have to say farewell.
This exhibition seeks to celebrate the multiplicity of our possible futures. I therefore invite artists to conceptualize a role for the arts as an agent of change. Through art can we foresee what is to come? Would we be able to speculate and conceptualize the arrival of that hopeful tomorrow? How would we anticipate this possibility? How does one see this arrival? Would we be able to visualize a future which is inclusive and just in nature?
To see what is coming is to anticipate, expect, and wait, but it is also to prepare a blueprint for its achievement; it is to unravel the wonder of the new now so that we do not miss the opportunity. The time is for farewells too: to say goodbye to the old rigidities, to limitations of imagination, to constraints of institutions and structures. This exhibition attempts to collectively lay the foundations for a new art and new art world which can foresee and actualize the possibilities available to us for a better future.
Why the Future?
Let me begin with a simple proposition: the future is not a finished project. This exhibition is an attempt to open various conceptual outlets to recast the nature of the future as an idea. The idea of a future is characterized by promises of emancipation and continuous progress. As explained by the Italian autonomist and theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi in his seminal work After the Future:
The rise of the myth of the future is rooted in modern capitalism, in the experience of expansion of the economy and knowledge. The idea that the future will be better than the present is not a natural idea, but the imaginary effect of the peculiarity of the bourgeois production model. . . . In the second part of the nineteenth century, and in the first part of the twentieth, the myth of the future reached its peak . . . based on the concept of “progress,” the ideological translation of the reality of economic growth. Political action was reframed in the light of this faith in the progressive future. Liberalism and social democracy, nationalism and communism, and anarchism itself . . . share a common certainty: notwithstanding the darkness of the present, the future will be bright.7
The remains of that future lie in the ruins of modernity, unfulfilled and unrealized, buried beneath the debris of its disastrous course, waiting to be excavated. In the beginning of the 20th century there was collective hope about a different tomorrow; humanity believed that we were progressing towards a future awaiting us with the open doors of a technologically determined paradise. The historical force of progress, like that speeding train that was carrying us to the distant land of emancipation and advancement, was fuelled by wars, machines, and speed as the Italian Futurists claimed. Nonetheless, during the first quarter of the 20th century, hope in the future shattered with two cataclysmic world wars; subsequently, humanity woke up from the nightmare of “progress.” The future was dead and from a future oriented society humanity has moved ahead, charting its journey nurtured by two imaginations. One is fuelled by the nostalgia for a distant past, the good old days, which were pristine and authentic: a paradise lost forever in our attempt to modernize ourselves. The second is a cautious imagining of the future as a modified version of the present, rather than a radically different world. A short quote from the essay “Memories of the future” written by Ross Wolfe in the blog The Charnel House explains this poignantly: “Never again will [humanity] wander too far afield. From this time forward, it’ll stick to the straight and narrow.”8 The problem with both approaches is that we are lured by a past which is nowhere to be found, and we await a future which never arrives. Even though we have buried the physical remains of the future, such as the art and architecture complexes of modernism, their ghosts still lurk in our imagination of the future. The ruins of the past and present, together with the elusive nature of the future, comingle together in Vivan Sundaram’s photographs. Extracted from his series, this set of photographic works recreates an arc of time which is cyclical and non-linear. Vivan’s works warn us that the ruins we inhabit may not be from the past but from our present, and what awaits us in this course is also the debris.
We suffer from a trauma not unlike the protagonist in Sumedh Rajendran’s short film Half Return. In the film, which is set in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the war, the protagonist navigates between forgetting and remembering in order to recover self, land, and memory. We too are haunted by a sense of unbelonging that occupies an in-between space. We too are pulled apart each day by the ghost of the past and the impending ecological crisis. Our contemporary anxiety is fed by two important contradictory factors, especially in relation to the future as noted by Peter Frase. One is the abundance of technological resources, and the second is the looming scarcity which awaits all of us due to large scale environmental destruction. Escalating automation has caused a great deal of panic among the global workforce which is compounded by ongoing conflicts, forced migrations, displacements, and the expanding refugee crisis. Apart from contributing to the unfortunate rise in the global refugee crisis, these geopolitical conflicts also provide a cheap workforce for wealthy nations. Zoya Siddiqui’s project titled To God Shall Alien Return uses the popular Lollywood sci-fi movie Shaani to comment on the status of citizenship and refugee crisis through the genre of horror. In the movie’s themes of accepting the “other” through empathy and acknowledging alternative truths, the film is an attempt at reconciliation. In the contemporary landscape, refugees are stripped of their rights and are reduced to speaking bodies—not altogether different from the existence of ghostly aliens dispossessed of legal rights of belonging. With this subtle satirical undertone, Zoya grabs our attention to engage with citizenship much more deeply in the changing political landscape.
Increasing automation under capitalism makes it virtually impossible to imagine technology as a liberatory force. In such inertia and uncertainty, how can we chart an optimistic future? One way out may be to recast the future and reimagine many of its fundamental assumptions about work, citizenship, time, gender, sexuality, and care.
Remembrance of Things Future
The future requires a reinvention, one that is unmoored from the notion of progress but present in our times as signs. To make this proposition clearer I want to turn to Slavoj Zizek and Walter Benjamin and their understandings of the future. According to Benjamin, “The past has left images of itself in literary texts, images comparable to those which are imprinted by light on a photosensitive plate. The future alone possesses developers active enough to scan such surfaces perfectly.”9 Indeed, a radical futurist perspective is required to understand our own times carefully. We have to locate the seeds of any potential revolutionary possibilities in this time and space rather than waiting for the emancipatory future. We all need to perform the role of archaeologists and excavate the memories of the future, read the signs of our times from a futurist perspective, not to revive the modernist project but to rigorously study the future as an attitude.
Such a task to examine the future was undertaken by the artist Tushar Joag. Tushar was fascinated by the genre of science fiction, but he was also a passionate critic of global capitalism. Through a range of performances, interventions, videos, and paintings, Tushar has depicted how the machineries of capitalism are designed to exploit labor. The only solution is to find an alternative to the idea of work. If humanity needs liberation, it is from the task of enforced labor. Tushar’s work allows us to think through Peter Frase’s remarks about “how a postcapitalist society would manage labor and production, in the absence of capitalist bosses with control over the means of production.”10 It is in this background that the future of work has to be charted out. An alternate vision of the future has to dispel the existing technologies of work and their gradual progress.
Slavoj Zizek notes that, “There are in French two words for ‘future’ which cannot be adequately rendered in English: futur and avenir. Futur stands for future as the continuation of the present, as the full actualization of the tendencies which are already here, while avenir points more towards a radical break, a discontinuity with the present—avenir is what is to come /a venir/, not just what will be.”11 The horizon of the future was historically constituted as either utopian or dystopian; the task today is to infuse it with a tragic sense of politics and senile spirit. Since modernity the concept of the avant-garde has enchanted humanity with its juvenile zeal and aggressive passion for adventure. Our times should recast these ideas and model a future based on the whims, desires, and flaws of the times. Omer Wasim’s Component No. 14 (from As the Light Turns) is an example of this difference where his works meticulously move away from any sort of ordering, categorization, and unitary readings of gender, sexuality, desire, and longing. Similarly, Michal Martychowiec in his work The shrine to summon the souls presents an enchanting landscape hiding the rage and violence of the past. He warns us that the landscape of the future is not nurtured by the adventurous spirit of the modern but the senile and tragic consequences of the present. It is an index of our failure. Gigi Scaria’s video narrates a tragic poetry from the future in which the protagonist remembers lost opportunities. The tragic sense of the narrative is similar to what A.C. Bradley has observed in his seminal work “Shakespearean Tragedy.” He writes that, “Tragedy is the typical form of this mystery, because that greatness of soul which it exhibits oppressed, conflicting and destroyed, is the highest existence in our view. It forces the mystery upon us, and it makes us realize so vividly the worth of that which is wasted that we cannot possibly seek comfort in the reflection that all is vanity.”12 Through his tone and mise-en-scene, Gigi creates a world filled with a sense of loss and oppression. Atul Bhalla’s photographs depict an imaginative landscape waiting to engulf the origins, heroisms, adventures, and progress of our times. It waits to create things anew, not to restore or destroy, but to transform a redeemed world which was damaged by its own journey. Markus Baenziger’s installation is a remarkable effort to juxtapose the living traditional practices with the solutions for the future. He brings together the terracotta pot made in the traditional process from India along with colourful pots cast from recycled plastic. Both are symptoms of hope. While one was used for centuries, as part of everyday life, the other makes its way into our lives as a solution for the future. Baenziger carefully assembles these works to show that the sustainable models need not be rooted in the technologies’ future; the solutions and models are also available in the margins.
The spaceship project of Julia Christensen titled Upgrade to Proxima B is a remarkable experiment to reach out to the farthest corner of the universe and communicate through the medium of science and art. Julia is part of this project working along with “scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to develop an artwork for an interstellar spacecraft concept that would travel to Proxima B, a planet in the Alpha Centauri system, 4.2 lightyears from the planet Earth. The spacecraft is envisioned to launch in 2069, and it will take approximately 40 years to reach its interstellar destination. This project is about time, long-term scientific research, speculation, and obsolescence. The spacecraft will necessarily need to upgrade itself autonomously to survive the journey, due to mechanical and environmental conditions; it will also need to upgrade itself to remain relevant to life on Earth over the course of decades.”13
A careful analysis of apocalyptic films reveals humanity’s attitude towards the future. A majority of these works prepare us for the impending demise of the earth in a politically perverse manner. What these films mainly do is shift the blame onto the ecological crisis facing humanity instead of the greed of capitalism. After watching The Wandering Earth, I recalled that in the imagination of the future, Earth has no redemption. The future is not the Earth but a faraway planet. That future will not only abandon the devastation created by global capitalism, but also push millions of disenfranchised into that peril. The rich will be saved and the forced extinction of the millions will be normalized. As Fredric Jameson has observed, it is now easier to imagine the end of the earth than the end of capitalism.14 The hope for an emancipatory project rests upon the ruins of modernity.
The task of the political left today is to strip the future from its capitalistic burden and infuse it with a revolutionary spirit. The future gifted by modernity is not taking us anywhere, it is dead. We need to reinvent a new future. It is necessary to understand the scale of the problems which we inhabit and attempt to find alternative solutions for them.
Writing on Marx’s notions of the future, Peter Frase notes, “I share Marx’s aversion to recipes for the kitchens of the future, so I won’t attempt some kind of programmatic account of the transition to communism. I’ll merely suggest some basic principles.”15 Similarly, this exhibition attempts to create a constellation of views on the future. Rather than offering a recipe for the politics of the future, my vision establishes some ground rules to rethink time, future, history, and life regressively. This is the beginning of an attempt to write the history of the future and also to use newer models to envision it.
- “A Time for Farewells” is the title of the preface written by Jacques Derrida for Catherine Malabou’s critically acclaimed The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic, published in 2004. Derrida’s essay unpacks Malabou’s meticulous study on the important philosophical concepts used by Hegel. The title, the insights of the preface, and the questions asked by Derrida have been an influential force behind this paper. Catherine Malabou, The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic (New York: Routledge, 2005), vii-xlvii. ↩
- Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011). ↩
- Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm as cited in Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution. ↩
- Comay, Mourning Sickness, 1-3. ↩
- Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History,
- Jacques Derrida, “Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring 1977), 78. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41397444 Accessed on 19-05-2016/. ↩
- Franco Berardi, After the Future (Oakland: AK Press, 2011), 18. ↩
- Ross Wolfe, “Memories of the Future” The Charnel House, August 10, 2012, https://thecharnelhouse.org/2012/08/10/memories-of-the-future/. ↩
- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 482. ↩
- Peter Frase, Four Futures (New York: Verso, 2016). ↩
- Slavoj Zizek, “Signs from the Future,” Odbor (July 25, 2012), http://www.odbor.org/signs-from-the-future/. ↩
- Quoted by T.J. Clark in “For a Left with No Future,” New Left Review, no. 74, (March-April 2012), https://newleftreview.org/issues/II74/articles/t-j-clark-for-a-left-with-no-future. ↩
- Julia Christensen’s statement for her project Upgrade to Proxima B,
- Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005), 287-88. ↩
- Frase, Four Futures, 79. ↩