October 17th, 2008

operesque

2015 and 2058

Back in Berlin after my three days in London, I've reported on the Frieze Art Fair opening for The Post-Materialist, contrasting the dandy fizz of Wednesday night's VIP party with the menace of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's new installation in the turbine hall at Tate Modern, TH. 2058. That piece imagines a disaster-stricken London in 2058, menaced by Louise Bourgeois' spider and other spectres.



An article I wrote last week for a special issue of Moscow magazine BG (BG stands for Bolshoi Gorod, which means Big City) has just gone online. I was asked my predictions about life in 2015. Since the article appears in the magazine only in Russian, I'm putting the English version here. It was quite a difficult commission, because 2015 is in a kind of "uncanny valley" relationship to 2008, neither far enough away for us to be able to say anything (because if you look far enough into the future pretty much everything that can be true will be true) nor near enough to us to be exactly like today.

Uncanny Culture
Bolshoi Gorod magazine, Moscow
October 2008

2015 is a difficult date to predict. It's not so far into the future
that we can use it as a Rorschach blot for elaborate futuristic
projections (utopian or dystopian), not so close that we can say --
based on what's happening now -- exactly what it will be like. In
robotics they speak of the "uncanny valley" -- the anxious, slightly
nauseous moment when a robot is improved to the point at which it's
suddenly neither robot nor human, but something unsettlingly poised
between the two. 2015 is an "uncanny" date in this sense; it is
neither going to be unlike what we see today, nor like it. To imagine
it makes us shiver slightly.

To get a sense of this awkward distance in time, I need to think back
to the year as far behind us as 2015 is ahead: 2001. I need to think
about what it felt like for me. In that year I released an album of
"laptop Americana" called Folktronic. One of its subjects was the dot
com bubble burst I'd witnessed at firsthand in New York in 2000; I
imagined Appalachian hillbillies with Casios, employed as web
designers. It was a topical anachronism at the time, but now it would
just be an anachronism; the "freak folk" scene of the noughties (think
of Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Cocorosie and hundreds of others)
has more or less run its course by 2008. And I doubt the Flash media
files of dancing hillbillies I exhibited in a New York gallery back
then would even play on today's computers. If they did, they would
look dated -- full of 1990s-style irony and heavy-handed
postmodernism.

Ah, postmodernism! There's something that's gone out of date in the last seven years, for a start. The binary collapses executed strategically by postmodernism (the collapse of high and low culture, past and present, local and global) are, by 2008, boring us to death. We're thoroughly sick of art which appropriates popular culture, of meta-layering and shallow, reflexive irony, of pastiche and of the mapping of museum to supermarket and supermarket to museum. Philosophers like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have proposed forms of neo-foundationalism, austerity, even collectivist authoritarianism as ways beyond postmodernism's banal ouroborosity (the ouroboros -- the snake that eats its own tail -- is the perfect symbol of postmodernism's unbearable reflexivity, and the choking it provokes).

In the art world there have been attempts recently to escape
postmodern banality by reviving eclecticism and Modernism (Documenta
12 was a pivotal show in this respect). But shows like Documenta,
quiet, quirky, academic and neo-Modernist, fail in two respects:
they don't entirely escape postmodernism (which after all loves to
revive, pastiche, devour and vomit out again all former styles). And
they take their place in an annual cycle of biennials which endlessly
"interrogate" or "dialogue with" globalization as theme, and gaze
guiltily at "the Other".

In other words, they are still anchored in a unipolar and imperial
cultural model rooted in the 1990s, a model in which the US and Europe
consume, either guiltily or admiringly, the rest of the world's
culture, and in which globalization happens, by and large, for their
benefit. I call this the Andreas Gursky model, after the photographer
who best captures the 1990s idea of globalization.

But it's now becoming clear that 2015 will not be so much about
globalization in the sense in which Fareed Zakaria describes it in his
book "The Post-American World": "Generations from now," Zakaria wrote,
"when historians write about these times, they might note that by the
turn of the 21st century, the United States had succeeded in its
great, historical mission—globalizing the world." That's a peculiar
construction; why did it take America to "globalize the globe"? Surely
the globe was already global?

I think by 2015 the US will have declined sufficiently (economically,
militarily and culturally) for us to see that there is a difference
between globalization and globe -- between, in other words, a world in
which an array of colourful "Others" are arranged around a central
"sole remaining superpower", and a world in which the Others relate to
each other on equal terms, and don't worry so much about how they're
represented. There will be a clear shift, in other words, from
monopolarity to multipolarity; from what, in the airline business,
they call the hub-and-spoke model to the point-to-point model.

What that means, in cultural terms, is that there will be a net
decline in orientalism (the Magic Realism and World Theatre of the
1980s, for instance, or the constant "dialogue with the Other" seen in
today's art biennials), and a net increase in point-to-point
conversation which cuts out the middle man, the arbitrator, the hub,
which is, in most cases today, the United States and Europe. Instead,
aided by increasingly sophisticated digital translation tools, there
will be, by 2015, a many-to-many culture, a point-to-point culture.

The digital will continue to make old media irrelevant: CD albums,
paper books, newspapers and magazines, public cinemas will all more or
less disappear, except for peripheral retro-fetishistic enclaves (like
the flourishing vinyl fetish). Physical goods will circulate less,
while intellectual goods circulate more and more freely. Copyright as
we know it will die. National television and radio will also melt away
after a series of crises. Media which bring people physically
together, on the other hand, will flourish -- ephemeral performative
arts like live music, theatre and dance have a strong future. People
don't want to spend all their time online, after all.

More spontaneous actions like flash mobbing will develop, and cities
will become backdrops for ludic "urban exploration" and "pervasive
urban gaming". Some of these new "disorienteering sports" (the
"ostranenie" of Russian formalist literary critic Viktor Shklovsky
mapped to the "derive" of Situationists Guy Debord and Michel de
Certeau) will be organized by city mayors as part of local tourism
initiatives. Others will be more dangerous and unpredictable, shading
into terrorism, autonomy, and micro-revolution.

At the same time, people will travel less as oil costs increase and
travel is seen as environmentally unacceptable. So the point-to-point
global dialogue will happen mostly in the digital realm, whereas the
performative boom will be a local one, centred on particular cities.
We will see cities become semi-autonomous, as they were in renaissance
Italy. (Some may, alas, need fortified city walls.)

Steep increases in basic commodity and transport costs will make
people adopt more austere and self-sustaining lifestyles, the kind
once called "post-materialist". There will be general exhaustion with
the old consumer capitalist tension between haves and have-nots,
between boom and bust, between anorexia and bulimia. Instead, modest,
simple lives organized around local barter, community arts, and
self-sustainability will become the ideal, although people may well be
inspired by models on the far side of the world.

Just as we'll see a return to Renaissance-style semi-autonomous
cities, I think we'll see the re-emergence of the "Renaissance Man" --
an all-rounder who can bake bread, edit films, code for the web, write
poetry, eat fire, and cook home-grown vegetables for twenty friends
and neighbours. As the mist clears on the "uncanny valley" of 2015,
what emerges is not a robot, but Leonardo da Vinci.