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Thousands of Tiny Futures

Below is a text I was commissioned to write for the Seoul Museum of Art(SeMA)’s exhibition “Digital Promenade: 22nd Century Flâneur” for the 30th Anniversary of SeMA. The text will be out soon in their catalogue but here is already the (not copyedited) version online for those interested.

Thousands of Tiny Futures

0 Ruinscape

To state the obvious: the interesting thing about future or futurisms is not really about the future but the operative sense of this temporal tense. The now and here of the work of futurisms is inscribed in words, images and sounds; it is painted as landscapes and visible in such traces that constantly expand the particular living and breathing space of the present. Future is involved in forming what the now is, and even more so, what times are our contemporaries.

Times are entangled and switch places; markers of fossilised pasts appear as imagined indexes of futures too. Future fossils – a topic that ranges from the 19th century geologists and popular culture to contemporary imaginaries of a projected sense of now – comes out in other ways than merely ruins of contemporary landscapes of consumerism. Why are so many artistic and popular culture examples of future landscapes of fossils an imaginary of a future that repeats the trope of its own invention – that is, the modernity of technological objects that defined its start are also the defining features of its seeming end? As such, it is a recursive imaginary that merely tells what we knew already since Walter Benjamin (1999, 540) at least:

“As rocks of the Miocene or Eocene in places bear the imprint of monstrous creatures from those ages, so today arcades dot the metropolitan landscape like caves containing the fossil remains of a vanished monster: the consumer of the pre-imperial era of capitalism, the last dinosaur of Europe.”

Instead of the cyber cool aesthetics of future fossils of technology that merely returns to the consuming human subject of digital gadgets, consider what times are we living in now: times of toxic ecologies in which the future tense takes different forms for different forms of life (cf. Tsing et al 2017). Consider futurisms and the temporal imaginaries not purely as the solitary “when” but as the contemporary question of where and to whom? What sites are identified as part of this futuristic pull, where are futures placed, how are they inscribed in contemporary cityscapes and landscapes as if signs of things to come? What else besides the Blade Runner styled Asian cities are indexical of what counts as future (Zhang 2017) – and what else than remnants of the visible markers of technological now of gadgets is significant in terms of this out of place of a future present?

Hence, a shift in focus: away from a fetishisation of future that inspires the Anthropocene-led aesthetics of future ruinscapes towards an analysis and art of contemporary signs and images. These ruinscapes involve imagining what time is this place in and where it lies and is it seen from. A good example would be Point Nemo, a region in the South Pacific pretty much more imagined to most than actually visited by almost anyone. And yet, it is perhaps one of the most apt sites to consider as a fossil site: it is where the international space agencies are dumping much of their retired space technologies, in no man’s waters, also coined “the least biologically active region of the world ocean” (in the words of oceanographer Steven D’Hondt ) because of its remote location and particular rotating current. With its lifeless bottom of an ocean, with dumped technologies from Cold War to the current day practices, it seems a likely site for a future fossil ruinscape very much existent now – as undramatically invisible as the disappearing ice that defines the transformation of much of planet’s expected future.

No mountain of garbage for art photography and the white cube, no site of exquisite trash and remnants of most familiar everyday things, but just the disappearance on the seabed, and the disappearance of ice – the future arrives as a temperature shift.

This short text engages in this topic through figures or fields of time that are also visible in contemporary media theory and art practice: archaeologies, futurisms and futurities. All of the briefly discussed themes relate to different ways of engaging with time and futurity, with fossils and fossil fuels, including the ones that are predicted as part of constant financial speculation on the energy market. The past was already a fossil that determined the mess we are in.

I Archaeologies

At first thought, it is somewhat odd to assume that archaeology – or media archaeology – would have anything to say about futures and futurities, only about the past. The way in which archaeology has for a long time referred to much more than just the specific discipline is here however the significant cue: archaeology has infiltrated philosophy and the humanities from Immanuel Kant to Sigmund Freud to Walter Benjamin to Friedrich Kittler and contemporary media archaeologies and presents itself as more than a specialised discipline. As Knut Ebeling (2016, 8) argues, these various philosophical and artistic wild archaeologies present not merely an image of layered pasts but they become sites of practices of experimentation with “a material reflection of temporality that began in the 18th century and reached a definite climax in the 20th century.”

The epistemological figure and field of archaeology becomes then less a complementary sidetrack to the work of history than its alternative: instead of narrating, it counts, instead of text, it applies to the other sort of modalities of materiality as sound, image, number, which is also why it has become the preferred term for so many media theorists. Furthermore, as Ebeling continues referring to Giorgio Agamben, the archaeologist maps what is originating, what is emerging and what is productive of new temporalities. It becomes a map of times of different sort, which often are recognize as stretched between the layers of the past and their effect on the present, but what we could also develop into the recognition how they issue different potentials of futures.

Archaeologies are also maps of futures – or more likely, they complexify the linear temporal coordinates as past, present and future. Media archaeologies work with a different set of physics than any assumed simple causality (cf. Elsaesser 2016), which is likely one of the explanations why it has become such an interesting field of resources for artistic work too. Not just the materials of the the quirky retropasts, but the subtle definitions and search for other times in which media from cinema to AI is also part of production of that time.

In this context the media archaeological perspective to fossils would not be merely about searching for an image of a future fossil, but to understand how the image itself is premised on the existence of fossil fuel. While the technical image from the photograph to the cinematic is according to Nadia Bozak (2011, 29) the perfect crystallisation of how we, in her words, capture, refine and exploit the sun, it is also the sun energy in fossil fuels such as oil that mobilizes the industrial culture of which technical media is one part. Bozak refers to the wording by Alfred Crosby that oil is the “fossilized sunshine”. This wording is an apt start to establishing the link between energy and the particular different sort of mobilization of light and sun that we can speak of as practices of visual culture (cf. Cubitt 2014). The first fossils are, then, the images and the fossils are also imprints. There is a surprisingly tight link between the history of technical images and the history of mobilization of fossil fuels, which also Bozak (2011, 34) observes:

“The relationship between sun and cinema, light and the film environment, is especially apparent when cinema is juxtaposed against current environmental rhetoric, which ultimately fuses the fossil fuel with the fossil image, both manifestations, mummifications, of captured light.”

The forms of energy and their forms of capture as technical media present a new time – both in the sense of technical media time, and in the sense that pertains to the massive changes in environmental conditions of living in contexts of the capitalocene.

II Futurisms

If future fossils were already embedded in the history of fossils as fuel, what becomes of our task to map the different technological futures? Futurisms in 20th century art have a particular relation to technology. The Italian futurists are located at a very particular phase of European history and a very particular machine aesthetics that offered a one temporal sense of progression by way of technological progress. This aesthetic became one recurring reference point to how futures are visualised, sonified and written as poetry in the age of mass-scale industrial systems including electricity and electric light. Energy is not merely represented but imagined as the motor of the aesthetic expression – it becomes its motor of imaginaries (cf. Bozak 2011, 38). It is the city, the urban sphere that was for the contemporary Benjamin also the start of the ruinscape, again later ruined in the bombed down European cities, a form of technical change and planning replicated in many other forms across the planet since the “Great Acceleration” of the Anthropocene post-1950s.

Of course, the later (art) futurisms take a different tone that is less the masculine, celebratory stance of a future that should arrive as progress, but a writing of a future that was never allowed or the future that was imposed. It is in such political archaeologies that Afrofuturism and many later ethnofuturisms (as they are sometimes coined) emerge. Whatever the collective term might be, Afrofuturism, Sinofuturism, Gulf Futurism, Black Quantum Futurism and other current versions speak of the multiplication of futures in contemporary art and visual culture (Parikka 2018). Some of it feels like future overturned. For Gulf Futurism, and in works by artists such as Sophia Al Maria, the placement of a future that already arrived is read against the backdrop of the architectural built environments in the Arabian Gulf states. The artificial environments that work both horizontally and vertically as significant elements coined also as Dubai Speed (Bromber et al. 2016: 1) speak of one particular version of capitalist futures. Built from oil and fossil pasts, such cities and environments necessitate imaginaries of the future: how are architectures, building materials and infrastructures primed at the back of fossil fuels for a post-fossil life? While a key archaeological question for Walter Benjamin was how to read the city through its fragments as a slow emergence of capitalist consumer culture, the current version in such situations is how the city is imagined towards a future while trying to deal with that industrial legacy and its toxic environments.

Gulf Futurism and other artistic futurisms are, in many ways, artistic discourses in this context of toxic environments. Toxicity of course comes in many forms, where chemical toxicity and political pollution go hand in hand. (Guattari 2000). But how does one then imagine in visual arts and in visual forms the style of pollution that is subtler than mere piles of rubbish? The cultural techniques of environmental monitoring are already rather an important form of visual arts in how they make invisible traces perspective and part of matters of concern (Latour 2008). Hence the sort of contemporary arts about air pollution and chemical waste, about radio activity and the loss of biodiversity speak of modalities and scales that otherwise would not be included in registers of futurisms now. Any adequate futurisms need then to be able to deal with the invisibilities that are the ontologically urgent side of what counts as slow violence (Nixon 2013). Hence the future tense in the aesthetic and artistic sense needs to be capable of rather radical detachment from the usual dreamy anthropocentric narratives of worlds without humans, and to engage with contemporary cultural processes that already are without humans. What’s more, the forms of futurisms all speak to the mentioned meaning of archaeology for Agamben: production of new times.

III Futurity

Lawrence Lek’s recent work on Sinofuturism and Geomancer picks up on the futurist trope but places it in different geographical regions and with a different centre of subjectivity. Furthermore, Geomancer’s CGI film protagonist is an AI instead of the usual human narrator. The AI dreams speak of different worlds and of different modalities of art than ones with a voice or hands could have. The calculational dreams of an AI system are viewed as part of a total memory and calculation system that itself is not only an imaginary of a future but one that prescribes a way to think futurities as a contemporary cultural technique. These are futures that are constantly counted into existence than merely narrated into imaginaries.

The mobilization of AI systems in multiple areas of industry and culture is emblematic of what future now means as calculation. Consider then the future image as one that is future in the most limited sense and yet effective in the most widespread sense: the mobilization of various datasets from satellites to ground remote sensing, from media platforms to urban smart infrastructures as part of the training of AI algorithms and predictive measures. For example satellite data on ground level changes – infrastructures, buildings, urban growth, agriculture and crop yields – can be fed into machine learning systems with the aim of predictive data that can feed into for example financial predictions. The temporality of data is here key to understanding the little futures that are constantly created in machine learning and in financial contexts, and with most effective turbulence in terms of the futures market (see Cooper 2010). The machine learning of prediction of surface changes on global datasets or the prediction of real time changes in video feeds such as in experiments with neural nets like Prednet are good examples of the very local techniques useful for an image of a future one step ahead. Recently Abelardo Gil-Fournier has engaged with these machine learning platforms, farms and techniques as part of his investigation about the operative image in relation to earlier forms of operative light, as in industrial agriculture. Furthermore, this resonates well with the wider picture painted by Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun (2003: 290) writing on SF (science fiction) capital based on the various forms of futurism:

“[it] exists in mathematical formalizations such as computer simulations, economic projections, weather reports, futures trading, think-tank reports, consultancy papers—and through informal descriptions such as sciencefiction cinema, science-fiction novels, sonic fictions, religious prophecy, and venture capital. Bridging the two are formal-informal hybrids, such as the global scenarios of the professional market futurist.”

Futures exist as constant reference points for models, and unpredictable patterns or events are attempted to be constantly “factored into the calculations of world economic futures” (Cooper 2010, 167). Hence, also the unruly non-linear dynamics of any natural system are in this sense not anomalous but merely turbulent and as such material for the various ways different futures can be created, including accounting for the environmental crisis as one part of the work of management (Cooper 2010).

From future fossils and apocalyptic far or near futures scenarios as imaginaries we shift to the technological counted futures that are the standard operating procedure of financial markets. It is in this sense that the work of futurisms and creating new temporalities are somewhat paralleled by these tiny futures that are the constant business of the market. This proves the point that imaginaries of futures are not inherently or necessarily anything progressive in the sense of addressing planetary scale justice, but need to be complemented with the analytics, aesthetics as well as imaginaries of counter-futurisms (cf. Parikka 2018) – the work of not merely dreaming but creating infrastructures that imagine and count for our benefit.

References

Benjamin, Walter 1999. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Bozak, Nadia 2011. The Cinematic Footprint. Lights, Camera, Natural Resources. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Bromber, Katrin, Birgit Krawietz, Christian Steiner, and Steffen Wippel. 2016. ‘The Arab(ian) Gulf:

Urban Development in the Making’. In Steffen Wippel, Katrin Bromber, Birgit Krawietz and Christian Steiner (eds), Under Construction: Logics of Urbanism in the Gulf Region. London and New York: Routledge, 1–14.

Cooper, Melinda 2010. “Turbulent Worlds. Financial Markets and Environmental Crisis”. Theory, Culture & Society vol. 27 (2-3), 167-190.

Cubitt, Sean 2014. The Practice of Light. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Ebeling, Knut 2016. “Art of Searching: On ‘Wild Archaeologies’ from Kant to Kittler. The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics No. 51 (2016), pp. 7–18

Eshun, Kodwo 2003. “Further Considerations of Afrofuturism”. CR: The New Centennial Review 3:2, Summer 2003, 287–302.

Latour, Bruno 2008. What is the style of matters of concern? Amsterdam: van Gorcum.

Nixon, Rob 2013. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Parikka, Jussi 2018. “Middle East and Other Futurisms: imaginary temporalities contemporary art and visual culture.” Culture, Theory and Critique, 59:1, 40-58,

Tsing, Anna; Swanson, Heather; Gan, Elaine and Bubandt, Nils, eds. 2017. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Zhang, Gary Zhexi 2017. “Where Next?” Frieze, April 22, 2017, https://frieze.com/article/where-next.

 

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. dmf
    July 5, 2018 at 5:28 pm

    what’s the future of data storage/archeology post collapse of power grids and the like? do we imagine another dark age with small strongholds of monkish folks powering aging batteries with exercycles, hoarding memory chips, and praying for the return of old school networks and satellite links?
    https://deterritorialinvestigations.wordpress.com/2017/06/02/the-mundane-afrofuturist-manifesto/

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