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15 Jan 21

The spectre of speculation


This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2020, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

In our season of Great Confinement, a spectre is haunting us – the spectre of speculation past. It is not one past; rather, it is our collective pasts, and now it has turned into a speculative execution with observable side effects that we can no longer ignore. A place featured in much historical literary fiction – 2020 – is now a lived and embodied reality.

Cultural artefacts of the past contain many imagined futures; these futures are found in significant works of poetry, long-form texts, films, and art and design. In particular, the prescient thinking exercised through art and design, in works that have largely been inspired by cataclysmic events, have enabled us to more vividly imagine the future.

Following such events, a recalibration of systems has been required to repair, regenerate and meliorate after such seismic shifts. As French theorist Michel Foucault describes it,

In the first case, there is an exceptional situation: against an extraordinary evil, power is mobilised; it makes itself everywhere present and visible; it invents new mechanisms; it separates, it immobilises, it partitions; it constructs for a time what is both a counter-city and the perfect society; it imposes an ideal functioning.1Michel Foucault, ‘Panopticism’ (1975), in Neil Badmington & Julia Thomas, The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, Routledge, London and New York, 2008, pp. 178–200.

For many, 2020 is a moment of great speculation. Media literacy is heightened, platforms collapse against a deafening, constant news cycle of ruination that is simultaneously punctuated by moments of complete silence and isolation. Where do we turn to understand, to gain succour?

J. G. Ballard writes that ‘Art exists because reality is neither real nor significant’,2J. G. Ballard quoted in Jean-Paul Coillard, ‘J. G. Ballard: theatre of cruelty’, Disturb magazine, 1998, accessed 8 Sep. 2020. and after such eruptions many may question what reality is and how we might make our way through our temporal confusion. Artists and designers have depicted ways and means of looking to the systems, technologies and imposts that ail us or at least inhabit our worlds, and they also construct lush utopias that act as a salve for dystopic anxiety.

In this volume we see the work of artists and designers operating in the spaces of speculation and ideation, through practices spanning augmented reality and gaming, critical design, film, installation, photography, fashion, and architecture. These works sit alongside texts by key thinkers, cultural critics and academics, who discuss the context in which the works were created. The texts span critical and auto-fictive accounts of memory and experience; modern monetary theory; the future of the cultural sector, of gender and the way we work; and deep knowledge systems.

The texts explore how individual subjectivity can become more complex and organised, and how discourse and ideas contribute to understanding the stories we are telling and those we are building. As theorist and author Donna Haraway states:

It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.3Donna Jeanne Haraway, Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2016, p. 4.

In imagining an alternative future, theorist Benjamin Bratton points out that ‘alternative does not mean disengaged’.4‘Benjamin Bratton on speculative design’, May 2016, e-flux, accessed 8 Sep. 2020. The practices of the artists and designers represented here are deeply engaged with propositions for both our lives and our imaginations; they are interested in augmenting and enriching as well as presenting potential pathways forward. However, it is simply not enough to propose these futures. These artists and designers mount a double refusal – of the current situation and the previous conceptions of the future – and enter a completely new terrain that draws upon knowledge and knowledge systems across time. This de-futuring relies on the immense creativity of so many, to begin to actually enact rather than just propose.

Notes

1

Michel Foucault, ‘Panopticism’ (1975), in Neil Badmington & Julia Thomas, The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, Routledge, London and New York, 2008, pp. 178–200.

2

J. G. Ballard quoted in Jean-Paul Coillard, ‘J. G. Ballard: theatre of cruelty’, Disturb magazine, 1998, accessed 8 Sep. 2020.

3

Donna Jeanne Haraway, Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2016, p. 4.