The Atlantic Project: After The Future – curatorial statement
There are many different versions of the Atlantic. Our personal relationship to the ocean; the inner felt experience of standing at the edge of a vast body of water, stretching away to the far distant horizon, for instance; is a world apart from the geopolitical understanding of the Atlantic that has come to define the contemporary global order. The North Atlantic matrix of power, commonly referred to as the West but more recently as the Global North, has dominated since Columbus first landed in the ‘New World’ in 1492, imposing its master narrative of modernity and Eurocentric universalism on to the rest of the world hand-in-hand with a colonial-settler logic of genocide and enslavement. In its wake, a Black Atlantic has emerged, described by Paul Gilroy (in The Black Atlantic, 1993) as being “not specifically African, American, Caribbean, or British, but all of these at once”, transcending ethnicity and nationality to embody a hybrid counterculture of modernity. Meanwhile, with the rise of decolonisation movements around the world, the Global South has embarked upon a radical process of ‘de-linking’ its own narratives of modernity, dismantling the Western logic of universal ‘extractivism’ that excluded any worldview other than a Eurocentric (Mercator) projection. The former subalterns of colonialism refuse any longer to be defined by the ‘British Atlantic’, the ‘French Atlantic’, the ‘Spanish Atlantic’, the ‘Portuguese Atlantic’, the ‘Dutch Atlantic’. In contesting the totalising claims and epistemic violence of North Atlantic modernity, the ‘pluriversal’ decoloniality of the Global South also puts into question the temporalities and relationalities which have defined Western culture. In their place, new forms of knowledge are required, and with them new forms of subjectivity and new ways of imagining the future.
The idea of the future in Western modernity was a fundamental engine of social development and knowledge production. “Classical modernity”, Boris Groys writes (Comrades in Time, 2018), “believed in the ability of the future to realise the promises of past and present”. The analytic, psychological and libidinal drivers of twentieth century art and politics were fundamentally committed to the idea of a continual (revolutionary) transformation of society for the better. It was a great and empowering myth, but few believe in such an idealistic vision any longer. Instead, our contemporary condition is characterised by uncertainty. The primary experience of the emerging global network society could be described as one of being immersed in a deluge of information, marked by an unprecedented diversity and depth of difference, by the coexistence of incommensurable viewpoints and by the absence of an all-encompassing narrative (such as modernity) that will enlist the participation of all. Within this confluence of multiple temporalities, many different ‘currents’ compete for ascendency, but with no clear vision of the future.
With the shift from ‘the modern’ to ‘the contemporary’, and the convergence of multiple worlds that constitute our historical present, the conditions for experimental arts practice have radically changed too. Whereas modernism required an experimental ‘avant-garde’ to constantly critique and refresh it, as a key part of its future-oriented progression, the future-less present of the contemporary can no longer support such a utopian rationale. As Peter Osborne has written (Anywhere or Not At All, 2013), “if modernity projects a present of permanent transition, forever reaching beyond itself, the contemporary fixes or enfolds such transitoriness within the duration of a conjuncture, or at its most extreme, the stasis of a present moment.” As a result, Osborne says, contemporary art no longer projects a radical imaginary of the future but instead now functions as an expression of the “disjunctive unity of present times.”
With the end of modernism and the rapid penetration of the global network society into all aspects of our personal lives, the new invasive form of communicative or ‘cognitive’ capitalism that now prevails is actively redefining subjectivity in relation to immaterial production. Where the processes of subject formation arising from modern industrial societies required a disciplining of the body (for physical labour), the development of post-Fordist modes of production take the mind, language and creativity as their primary tools. In his book After the Future (2011), Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi describes this process of redefining subjectivity in relation to immaterial production as desingularisation: “Desingularisation of living thought and activity is mandatory for access to the network. In the global network there are not working persons, but an infinite brain-sprawl, an ever-changing mosaic of fractal cells of available nervous energy. The person is nothing but the residue – therefore precarious – of the process of valorisation.” Subjectivity and desire are constantly disciplined by the semiotic flux of communicative capitalism. Our relationship to language, and thus to others, is mutated by the demands of the network, “more and more to do with inorganic connection, and less and less to do with the body of the mother.”
The material infrastructure of the global network society can be found deep below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Artist, Trevor Paglen has documented the physical apparatus of the internet, photographing the fibre-optic cables which lie on the seabed, transporting digital information around the planet. In The Deep Web Dive (2016), he describes how the early utopian ideal of the internet as a universal cultural commons has been turned into “the greatest instrument for mass surveillance in the history of mankind.” 98% of the world’s data now travels under the oceans and, as these cables make landfall, the flow of digital traffic is ‘tapped’ by government security agencies at strategic ‘choke points’ (such as GCHQ Bude, close to the source of the River Tamar in North Cornwall which flows down to the port of Plymouth). In this electronic “space of flows”, as described by Manuel Castells in The Rise of the Network Society (1996), the flow of time has accelerated to such an extent that we are locked into a perpetual present; “the space of flows… dissolves time, by disordering the sequence of events and making them simultaneous, thus installing society in an eternal ephemerality.”
In the context of an emerging global condition of flux, the traditional notion of the self as grounded in a communal sense of place has been washed away, replaced by a ‘network culture’ of shifting meanings and values. In such a fluid state, meanings and values no longer derive from individuals or places, or from fixed intrinsic qualities, but rather they are contingent and relational, generated by interactions in the space of flows. Effectively, the nexus of social relations has shifted to people’s place in time rather than in space, defined by dynamic movement rather than by static location.
The questions arise: how will the role of the artist change in relation to these new conditions of contemporaneity? If the history of modernity cannot be disconnected from the barbarism of coloniality, and a radically different relationship to the future will be required in order to replace it, what will be the function of experimental art practices in the decolonised ‘pluriverse’ to come? In the meantime, what happens when the subjective singularity of the artist is set adrift on the emerging ‘space of flows’, without any collective vision of the future or sense of direction, drifting in the wake of utopian imaginaries – after the future?
In the far South West of England, Plymouth is a city built upon past visions of the future. As a deep-water port, facing the Atlantic Ocean, it was the point of departure for many historic British colonial expeditions and its fate has long been bound up with the acquisitive urge for maritime exploration, referred to in the city’s former motto as ‘The Spirit of Discovery’, in pursuit of unknown worlds that lie over the horizon. From Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe to Charles Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle, from James Cook’s expeditions to Australia to the sailing of the Mayflower Pilgrims, the legacies of such self-proclaimed ‘utopian imaginaries’ have come to define our contemporary world. Just as the barbaric inhumanity of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the inequities of British colonialism have shaped the culture of our times, setting the conditions for mobility and exchange that characterise globalisation today.
As the largest naval base in Western Europe, Plymouth was bombed extensively in World War II (a consequence of another ‘utopian imaginary’ of a new world order), and the subsequent city architecture could be said to reflect a succession of post-war visions of the future, from Soviet-style social housing to European ‘Brutalism’ to American-style free enterprise and global consumerism. However, despite this brave new spirit of civic optimism, the local economy never recovered, and over the subsequent decades the city has fallen into a downward spiral of neglect, accelerated by an extended period of austerity since the financial crisis of 2008. The visions of civic regeneration and forward momentum have blurred into a stasis of uncertainty, social deprivation and economic stagnation.
== Text by Tom Trevor for The Atlantic Project 2018 ==