Witte de With Contemporary Art
Program—Fallow Futures
M
Sediments — Future | March 2016

Fallow Futures
By Natalie Kane

Tobias Revell, still from Blackspot (2014)

We are, as Mark Fisher observes, experiencing a “Slow cancellation of the future,” the dismantlement of the world as we once imagined it.1Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life (New York: Zone Books, 2013). Read an excerpt on The Quietus here. Life is now experienced at wildly different speeds, with the future happening in different places and at different times, as futurist Stewart Brand has argued. I am trying hard not to cite William Gibson’s much-used line that “the future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet,” since, as a friend once told me over dinner, the more times a quote is used in a talk or article, the less relevant or interesting it becomes. But perhaps our sense that it has worn out is just an acknowledgement that we have cemented his realization, and now we have to do something with it.

This is where art comes in. It allows us the luxury of being slow in the face of extreme, unbridled fastness. As I will explain later, it also allows us the power to press pause, and to have time away from this acceleration, providing richness to alternate visions of the future.

Tobias Revell’s short films, such as his three-part The Monopoly of Legitimate Use (2014), ask whose future we are aiming at, casting us into a near future to test our current anxieties around citizenship, connectivity, and labor. In the first part of Monopoly, titled “Blackspot,” a woman is forced to find an unmonitored network to read a personal, emotional e-mail, in a speculative society where all communications are subject to governmental scrutiny. Although the e-mail checked away from the prying eyes of the authorities and other people is only to confirm her pregnancy, the film shows the potential lengths that we will go to for privacy as industry and governmental bodies push for ubiquitous surveillance.

As a practice, the business of anticipating the future has developed an understanding of time that is varied and multifaceted, with horizons spanning seasons to centuries. In many ways, futures is the act of acknowledging uncertainty as it increases over time. Perhaps it is the act of acknowledging that the depth of what we are uncertain about becomes less understood as our horizons race away from us. If we are struggling to grasp what this potential, uncertain world, could be, the application, or weaponization, of slowness becomes an important act of sabotage and of radicalism.

I am in favor of the slow, of understanding the minutiae, the broken or the to-be-broken, and pulling apart the things that give them speed or force it upon them. Utopian visions of technology that will supposedly save us originate in a misunderstanding of speed, growth, or progress, not unlike running before we learn how to walk. When we look toward a home that is smart, and design it to help other parts of our life become more efficient, we forget about the myriad possibilities for frictions to occur. When we thought ahead to a connected fridge, we never imagined we could be locked out of it, both literally and technologically. The connected items we let into our houses are black boxes, where we see the data go in, and come out, but not the processes that lead to the result. This produces an opaque, closed system that we have no control over. As Jacob Hoffman-Andrews said, “There is not Internet of Things, only other people’s computers in your house.” In this future, our deviances, in all their human glory, are not accommodated, our capacity for unanticipated pleasure halted: a midnight snack denied by your smart fridge because you have already had your count of calories for the day. Now is not the correct time to be enjoy this, maybe tomorrow. The data collected silently slipping out of the door, into the hands of the who-knows-what. Our houses may cease to belong to us anymore, held ransom by falsely benevolent poltergeists.

Startup culture rushes toward the rapid, the quick-time-to-market, the “Don’t worry about the consequences, we’ll sort them out later.” There is never any time to sit long enough with the potential problems caused by technological solutions. The process of slowness as a necessary tool to analyze the future has been integrated into the work of cultural laboratory FoAM, based in Brussels and headed by Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney. Their work centers on experiential futures and their live-in concept of the ‘prehearsal’ model. A prehearsal is to try out an undefined near future by using play, resilience, and invention as means to tackle uncertainty. This way of literally experiencing a future, in real time, allows for you to see the possibilities for failure, and where new positives can be drawn. It is not that every problem will be surrendered in this process, but the practice of allowing yourself the space to know that they will arrive is invaluable. It is performance, but not as we know it.

In their latest essay on their practice, “Thriving in Uncertainty,” FoAM talk about the need for a “fallow period,” a regular, slow portion of time simultaneously passive and active, lying outside of normal modes of operation. This necessary interruption, drawn from agricultural practice, allows for cycles of “fertility, growth, and renewal.” It is a time where something other is done, but largely to explore away from the pressures of having to get it ‘right’: “Imagine explicitly creating space for open exploration without having a specific goal.” Seeing this as an experimental “working rhythm,” FoAM uses this fallow approach in their microtransiencies, a process meant for those undergoing a huge transition in their lives, be it illness, career change, or immigration. The studio asks participants to pause and actively engage with this transition, acknowledging their journey to the present, taking steps to prepare, learn, and heal ahead of potential uncertainties. This kind of thinking could be vitally useful when taking into consideration the rate at which innovation moves, particularly its inability to reflect (beyond reports, beyond huddles), slow down, and take stock of what is being damaged in the process, what ground is becoming infertile.

So where is art testing the future? As our technological systems leap toward a state of all-knowing, the algorithm has become a pervasive element in our daily lives, from the items we are recommended each time we log in to Amazon, to the functioning of our financial markets. The ubiquitous use and operations of algorithms is fast, overwhelming, and largely invisible to us until we see it break.

Erica Scourti’s algorithmic performances and video works enter into direct dialogue with the systems haunting our personal spheres, becoming a second, or even third voice. Think You Know Me (2015) is a live performance in which Scourti used iOS’s predictive text suggestions to create an auto-generated spoken-word performance, with the results unedited and the choice between the three words selected, instinctively, by the artist. Listening, the viewer would catch something, strings of words that work hard to form the bare bones of a sentence, but it is mostly ungrammatical nonsense. The words presented, however, although largely abstract, are deeply personal and unique, with Scourti’s months of communication dictating the words eventually favored by the predictive algorithm. So although led entirely by algorithmic choices, with a dataset that is far from the illusion of ‘neutrality’ or objectivity that these systems feign to provide, there is a shadow of a person there. As our future is buttressed by these all-encompassing systems, Scourti’s serendipitous explorations reveal innovation’s vast strides toward a machine-readable world, and where it fragments. Showing, rather than telling; a red flag.

In the same vein, Matthew Plummer-Fernandez’s Novice Art Blogger (2014) uses machine-learning algorithms to review the art that is fed into it as a value. At times comic, and childishly naïve in its interrogation of art history, it pulls a wiry strand from a utopian vision of a future where intellectual labor, or creative translation, is handed over to automation. Although, like Scourti’s work, Novice Art Blogger is not explicitly about the future, in that it does not speculate on any particular potential vision, it draws our attention to the world as it could be. It slows us down enough to see beyond the humor we get from its analysis (because the bot is not trying to be funny, it would not know that it is being so), allowing us to renew our assumptions of these technologies, both now and in the future. In this way, both Plummer-Fernandez’s and Scourti’s work demonstrate a form of fallow period, a pause to let the ground that has been farmed by these systems (us, perhaps) become fertile again after it has been trampled on. Creative detours, as FoAM encourages, enable us to come back with fresh eyes to look at the worlds we are faced with. They break this process not to slow it down, but to show us where these systems are shaping us, our behaviors, and our culture, allowing us a chance at agency within an apparatus that is utterly confounding and opaque.

So why do futures and foresight need art, aside from the important quantitative and qualitative analysis, aside from the trend reports and near-future scenarios? Because art is a necessary mode of survival.

The band 65daysofstatic, in their response to the British government’s use of cultural whitewashing during austerity, aptly said, “the world is ending. We’re gonna need some imaginative minds to be able to think our way out of extinction.” Building futures as we go, with the fire-blindly approach that Silicon Valley has adopted as default, damages more than it helps in its bland, one-size-fits-all jump to progress.

New mythologies are being written and summoned into reality through the dense, unforgiving tide of innovation, within Microsoft’s Product Visions videos, endless Kickstarter campaigns, and utopian advertising, telling us the future we should have, could have, if we let the flood of innovation happen uninterrupted and uncontested. As mentioned earlier, these ghosts, better known as undisclosed and potentially destructive actors borne from systems that we do not truly understand, can occur and suddenly make life enormously difficult for those that its creators often did not know would exist. From the smart fridge which denies you access against your will, to the decontextualized processing of our culture and communications by algorithms, acknowledging where these breakages place us in this wider system often requires slowing down enough to see them. So, as in physics, friction needs to be forced.

Now is the time to find new methods of delivering resistance into these innovation narratives, learning from those already using the unbundled mess of the future as material. Fictions are being willed into being, with idealized user-testing cases justifying the technologies that we ultimately come up against without hesitating to suppose what horror stories they could tell. These dumb and vastly simplified straw dummies, free from the messiness of life beyond Silicon Valley’s castle walls, become real once the will (or the capital) becomes strong enough, creating new, and evermore terrifying cautionary tales. As these imagined near-future fictions progress, counter-narratives and necessary frictions are needed to knock them off course. Threads need to come undone.

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