Art for the Multiplicity, or Making the Future

photo credits: watonmuni.com

Speculative practice and theory are predicated on the desire to chart vectors of the future, and art plays a central role in such an undertaking. Aesthetic and political speculations can be approached through a largely dialectical opposition between two logics of structuration: where capital and the dogma of capitalist realism (“there is no alternative”) considers the future to ever be falling into itself by means of the mechanical self-assembly of machinic capital predicated on the maxim of “best practice” (meaning maximalization of profit and optimization for those ends), much of the contemporary left considers the future to be constructed along various party lines – Promethean modernism (L/ACC), feminist anarchism (XF), Metamodern bigotry (Luke Turner)… I want to briefly unravel some of the implications of the construction of the future from the perspective of post-sustainability. If the future is largely based in necessity as a result of climate change and the more general ecological crisis, where does that leave the ever bootstrapping project of humanity and the aesthetics which inevitably underwrite such a self-constructing project?

The first thing to acknowledge is that “the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” I would like to qualify that statement and say that in fact many futures are already here, but not evenly distributed – the accessibility of the virtual realm and telematic affordance is not equally distributed, just as the vertical paradise of a select few is already here in inchoate form in havens of the wealthy, and which are just as real as the starving, marginalized and disenfranchised demographics in the slums of the global South. These realities are ones among countless other “lifeworlds” currently present in particular spaces and serve as models for extrapolating the virtual image of ‘the future.’ And they are indeed not distributed equally. If we disregard the larger question of whether there is a single future distributed equally – which is largely the question of eschatology – then we can ask, what role does art play in the framing, mitigation and dissemination of futures?

Technologizing Art

I would like to take the notion of art beyond the white cube and the standard churn of the Western art market supply chain – from maker, to curator, to institution, to marketing channels, to investor, etc. Rather, I am speaking of art as a type of technology. In the Heideggerian sense, it can be regarded as a form of action in which techné (or craft) and poésis (or bringing forth) converge in order to frame a new vision of the World. This enframing is however not in any way passive, but rather actively constructs the slither of the wider reality within which it is nestled.[1] In a gesture which N. Katherine Hayles called the Platonic backhand,[2] the world of ideas today, when the affordances of digital imaging, 3D printing, post-truth politics, memetic warfare and other methods predicated on informational equivalency, impact the former and largely static perception of ‘reality,’ Art plays a fundamental role. It is however imperative for it to take stock of this new-found vista and adapt its working processes and values to the new, post-sustainable situation in which the World finds itself.

If technology is a craft which is at the same time a bringing forth, a revealing as well as a form of enframing, then it naturally follows that it is a form of making. This fundamental technicity of art needs to again find its relevance in a world which is becoming ever increasingly entropic.

Making the Future

The fragmentation and simultaneous acceleration of cultural processes (what Uhall calls the “ecological crisis,” which disrupts) constitute the conditions which usher in the post-political. An exodus from the world of politics seems to be the only option for certain segments of the demographic, and it is these demographics, or “multiplicities,” which will be searching for a new, relevant type of art. Of course politics will always find its subject, no matter how far she might go, or in what floor of the building he might lock himself in. But if we take as a point of departure Paulo Virno’s opinion that ‘the multitude’ constitutes a new paradigm which follows on the heels of the conception of ‘the people’ (the proper subject of nationalist politics),[3] then such a decentralized understanding of politics indeed largely works towards Virno’s espousal of “civil disobedience and exit.”[4] Faced with the coming climate displacement, the conception of ‘a people’, with all its nationalist and ethnic baggage,  will contend with a new conceptualization of the human as the post-Fordist multitude, ushering in a new sphere of publicness, or rather a fragmented multiplicity of public spheres which will overlap in emergent and complexifying assemblages of meaning. This is the situation in Europe and North America, and there is no reason to think that the spasms of the repressive state apparatus will stem these trends any time soon.

Of course, a reversal to the sublime politics of the fascist inside/outside remains potent even in the era of post-sustainability, especially with the accelerating potentialities of state and corporate surveillance (Amazon, Facebook, Palantir, Social Credit…). The multitude thus has before it a choice, whether to work against the apparatus through pre-emptive planning and making, or whether to wait for the universalist Politics to come down hard on their head. This overlap between the politics of the state and the publicness of the multitude is the sphere of influence of art and constitutes the battle for the syntax, the very structuring logic, of the future. To what degree will the narrative be multiplicitous and to what degree will it be universalist in its aspirations and in its envisioning of the future?

Art for the Multiplicity

A properly relevant art for the multiplicity would thus take stock of the responsibility for their future. This is not to say that we need more identity politics (unless at that given place and time we do), or that we need art which is populist or bigoted in its aesthetics. Rather, it means that a new objective of art is needed, one which is critical in its effects, but only vicariously, not programmatically. We need an art which does not stare mesmerized at the beast of capitalism, but one which is able to evade its dumb and predictable drag in favor of a rechanneling of general intellect. The multiplicity needs an art whose form is war-like, but only in its guerrilla modus operandi, while retaining its hands free for building the future which it desires. Art should thus become a prism for the multiplicity which allows for its constant flux and would work to support free movement and enfranchisement. Art needs to free the animal spirits which lie dormant in the multiplicity and channel them into projects and actions which do not aspire to be validated by contemporary capitalist structures, but rather cultivate parallel modes of exchange and survival.

As such, relevant art should be fed on the freedom of virtuosity, while remaining relevant as a contingency plan for future survival within an unstable environment (both natural and semiotic). It should above all, but not exclusively, be

  1. Open source
  2. Salvage-oriented

and

3.Prepared to double as a survival mechanism

In terms of its media focus, it should focus on 3D printing, traditional craft methods, decentralized social platforms, decentralized cloud services, small-scale robotics, DIY hardware assemblages, adaptive OS… Programming can be expanded to produce assemblages which are artful. This is not to say that all former traditional media of fine art are irrelevant, but rather that their production has currently become oversaturated and oftentimes co-opted by standing economic interests. As soon as the stressors of 21st century crises set in, art will be the first thing that gets cut from the budget. That is why art production needs to tentatively and pre-emptively decouple from such structures whose financial generosity is precarious (not to mention oftentimes problematic in terms of its back-end ethics). The multiplicity does not need more paintings to be stored in freezones, nor does it need the hybrid warfare of cultural export into the Other’s geopolitical sphere of influence. Rather, the multiplicity needs methods of resilience and survival which would allow for thriving in the face of ecological collapse. The genie of the general intellect is ripe for hijacking and for extrapolation beyond the confines of the bottle of contemporary technocapital.[5]

The implicit dimension of Bookchin’s social ecology underpins the position of the multiplicity which needs to make a future for itself. Politics will not do this. The future does not have to be so much constructed, as state-level universalist projects would have it, but rather must be made at the level of micro-politics, while always keeping in view the meso-political which is the multitude’s true theater of operations. As mimesis, art needs to properly reflect and take stock of the looming catastrophe of the sixth extinction and the wider ecological crisis which howls all around.

This essay was written as part of the Y: Possible Futures exhibition which took place on 12 December 2019 in Prague’s Divadlo X10.


[1] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (Garland Publishing, 1977) accessed 2.12.2019 https://monoskop.org/images/4/44/Heidegger_Martin_The_Question_Concerning_Technology_and_Other_Essays.pdf

[2] Hayles writes that the Platonic backhand “starts from simplified abstractions and, using simulation techniques such as genetic algorithms, evolves a multiplicity sufficiently complex that it can be seen as a world of its own.” in: N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (University of Chicago Press, 1999) accessed 2.12.2019 https://monoskop.org/images/5/50/Hayles_N_Katherine_How_We_Became_Posthuman_Virtual_Bodies_in_Cybernetics_Literature_and_Informatics.pdf

[3] Paulo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude for an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life (Semiotext(e), 2004) accessed 2.12.2019 http://ccs.ukzn.ac.za/files/GrammarOfTheMultitude.pdf 8.

[4] Virno 33

[5] @baroquespiral, “Seven Points of Green Accelerationism,” Tumbler, accessed 2.12.2019<https://baroquespiral.tumblr.com/post/183966564134/7-points-of-green-accelerationism

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