Pre-future:

examining the 

post-contemporary

Pre-Future - composed by Connor Grant
00:00 / 00:00

Pre-Future serves as a guide to a speculative temporality in which the future has superseded the present. This time complex, which has been described as the “post-contemporary,” is a result of accelerated economies and preemptive conditions. If the post-contemporary is the erasure of the present, Pre-Future examines how to make the most of a hybridized temporality. Works by Morehshin Allahyari, Zach Blas, Cybertwee, Tabita Rezaire, and Fannie Sosa examine current modes of artistic production, expose the biases of networked systems, create shared resources, and propose thoughtful alternatives for our shared futures.

In their recent book The Time Complex: Post-Contemporary (2016), Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik argue that the linearity of time has been disrupted—the future is replacing the present. Signs of the post-contemporary include prefigurative systems such as preemptive military drone strikes, preventive policing, and the algorithms designed by Amazon to predict the preferences of shoppers (sometimes called “preemptive personalization”). The Time Complex also calls upon the idea of “precrime,” first mentioned in Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story “The Minority Report,” which in 2002 became a blockbuster film by Steven Spielberg. These phenomena show the future unfolding before we can experience the present.1 If our future is the post-contemporary climate, we should be evaluating what resources we will need after the contemporary period has ended. Malik characterizes contemporary art as the product of a globalized neoliberal society, which he defines as “a globally integrated ‘operating system’ of socioeconomic domination by a state-business power nexus directing the reorganization of markets, states, populations, and social goods towards intensifying the concentration of capital accumulation.”2 Contemporary art fuels and is fueled by these systems. Pre-Future is a reaction against this economy of contemporary art and an exploration of how to get outside its hegemonic structure. The exhibition presents artists who investigate alternatives to our present climate. They are contemporary in the sense described by Giorgio Agamben, who calls the contemporary individual “the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time.”3

Many have used the term “contemporary” in theoretical efforts to better understand art’s current condition. But contemporaneity is a reoccurring temporality—we always live in the contemporary, always live today, no matter what our historical period. This leaves contemporary art in a dilemma of historical authenticity: the term “contemporary art” can refer both to all art made today, anywhere and everywhere, or to art as a present-day economic phenomenon enmeshed in complex systems, a component of the “globally integrated ‘operating system’” discussed by Malik. The term “post-contemporary” suggests a period “after” the contemporary period. But what appearance would post-contemporary art have, what would its characteristics be? The precarity of our current cultural climate allows us to imagine—even prescribe—how to look toward a future of post-contemporary art. In using the prefix “post-” to coin a term describing the present, Avanessian and Malik look to the past, a moment that must come “after.” What if, instead of contemplating our present through the word “post-,” we considered this present a pre-future, a foreshadowing of what is to come? Pre-Future explores the possibility of alternatives. In the wake of the periodization of the contemporary, it is time to reconfigure new foundations for art.

To examine how the post-contemporary would operate, we can trace the path of neoliberalism to what some have deemed the “end of history.”4 Comparisons between an earlier period’s declarations of postmodernism and our own speculative future can also help us to arrive at an essential criticality for navigating the post-contemporary. In Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Fredric Jameson defines postmodernism as a culture directly emergent from capitalist systems.5 Identifying a crisis in postmodern life, a split between history and lived experience, Jameson wrote on the discrepancy between taught and lived histories. This separation is mirrored in Malik and Avanessian’s investigation of the post-contemporary, as well as in the work of other scholars writing on the contemporary and the end of history. 

Clearly a large phenomenon that manifests in many ways, in art-historical terms postmodernism emerged in the 1960s as a cultural reaction against the expressive, individualized characteristics of modernism. Since the advent of postmodernism, contemporary art has often been accused of abandoning its history. Art historians Hans Belting and Arthur Danto, in their respective books The End of the History of Art? (1987) and After the End of Art (1998), have identified the symptomatic shift from postmodern to contemporary art as “post-historical.” Both critics address contemporary art, by which they mean art made after 1970s, as art that does not belong to a narrative.6 In After The End of Art Danto likens his argument to Belting’s; both writers argue that, as Belting writes, “contemporary art manifests an awareness of a history of art but no longer carries it forward.”7 Both also muse on contemporary art’s lack of recognition of the art that came before it. Jameson relates this trait to Hegel’s argument, in Vorlesungen über die Äesthetik (1835), on the period “after” art. As Hegel writes: “Just as art has its ‘before’ in nature and the finite spheres of life, so too it has an ‘after,’ i.e., a region which in turn transcends art’s way of apprehending and representing the Absolute. For art still has a limit in itself and thereby passes over into higher forms of consciousness. This limitation determines, after all, the position which we are accustomed to assigning to art in our contemporary life. For us art counts no longer as the highest mode in which truth fashions an existence for itself.”8 

For Hegel, the dissolution of art as truth marked the beginning of the period “after” art. The structure he proposed for the cycles of history is restated by Francis Fukuyama, who writes in his book The End of History (1992) that history has ended, with the normalization of Western liberal democracy acting as the final point of man’s conceptual development.9 The idea of an end, a post-, or an after, then, is often revisited in philosophy and art history. It can still be rearticulated, however, in new and productive ways. 

The weak point of contemporary art, for Danto, Belting, and even Avanessian and Malik, is that it has forgotten its own history. Contradicting that claim, however, are the artists in Pre-Future, who evaluate the future with a pointed understanding of the past. It is through this knowledge that they can present alternatives, fueled by the past and inspired by the present. In their digital project A White Institution’s Guide for Welcoming People of Color and their Audiences (2016), for example, Tabita Rezaire and Fannie Sosa acknowledge past and present to make way for a new future.10 This interactive web-based guide explains how white institutions can thoughtfully welcome artists of nonwhite backgrounds. Sosa wrote the text for the guide, then collaborated with Rezaire to produce the final online work. The pair use their own experiences of racism and bigotry to elucidate how artists of color have been treated within arts contexts historically. This work introduces a number of actions, concepts, and gestures that can lead to positive working relationships between institutions and people of color. It is a guide for a future standard of behavior that has yet to become the norm.

This dynamic project proposes ways to build relationships for curators working with artists. On the opening page of the website, images of black artists, activists, and writers such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Victoria Santa Cruz, and Zora Neale Hurston are collaged with purple lighting, pink smoke, swiveling GIFs, word bubbles, and stacks of hundred-dollar bills that ornament a background image of the Black Sea. In the introduction that begins the project, Rezaire and Sosa describe how they were motivated to create the work through their experience of what they call extractivism: “Extractivism—getting the knowledge without caring for the people who produce it, thus leaving holes in existence—is what white institutions are almost irredeemably built to perpetrate, unless they have a strong will, purposeful practice and vigilant understanding of redistribution and reparation.” This mission statement presents the need to address how artists of color have been treated in the past, how they are treated now, and what can be done in the future to educate white institutions. In an article for Paper magazine Sosa further explained, “There needs to be a genuine will to keep acknowledging our complicated realities, to let go of a universal framework based on vague notions of diversity, and to provide tools for a targeted approach relying on inquiry, analysis, criticality, and reparation.”11 A White Institution’s Guide presents a specific alternative to the present and long-standing museum and gallery structure. The identification of this alternative makes its goals more obtainable. 

The guide is laid out in numbered entries and chronicles the artists’ experiences from start to finish :

 

1. First contact (URL / IRL)

2. Preparation of the event (URL / IRL)

3. Arrival of the artist 

of color to the venue (IRL)

4. Documentation

5. During the event (IRL)

6. After care (IRL)

7. Money (URL / IRL)

 

Very little published material explicitly outlines how artists might conduct meaningful exchanges with institutions. The distribution of power between the funded institution and individual artist is often uneven. Rezaire and Sosa show that as a starting point one should address the history of the institution (museum, gallery, public space, etc.) in terms of supporting artists of color. They also argue that support means more than shared ideologies and financial backing: artist fees must be agreed upon, paid, and delivered; artists should have time to decompress before the beginning of the event; proficient documentation of the event should be offered for the entire length of the exhibition or event. Rezaire and Sosa address issues of audience and how the institution can reach out to local communities that cater to nonwhite publics as well. 

This online publication of this work, and the net aesthetic employed in doing so, intentionally engage online spaces. The artists use this web-based work to call attention to the colonization of the Internet. Many points within the guide are accompanied by the phrase “(URL/IRL),” juxtaposing the name for a website address with a common online abbreviation meaning “in real life” to remind readers that online contacts should be held to the same standards as face-to-face interactions. At the bottom of the page Rezaire and Sosa designate a key point with three asterisks. Here they point out the whiteness of online platforms by addressing the white background color of interfaces and software programs ranging from Facebook and Microsoft Word: “There are countless interfaces we daily interact with, where white is presented as a blank canvas. This visual association between whiteness and ‘infinite potential’ is ideological, because it makes us think of white as default, as the quantum field, the ‘everything-nothing,’ as the place of creation. The artist of color knows the quantum field is Black and femme.” These efforts to decolonize white institutions and online spaces are great strides toward a future of equality. 

The urgency of Rezaire and Sosa’s need to create this work leads to a larger discussion of race and privilege beyond the walls of the art world’s institutions. A White Institution’s Guide is a strong statement and a powerful resource. When in conversation with Sosa, the artist mentioned that the guide employs certain language to render it more opaque to the white gaze. The artists call for a new standard of decolonized interaction by sharing a tool of knowledge, yet realize that this piece has still not been recognized within a white institutional setting. 

This resource allows us to envision a pedagogical future in which our temporality hasn’t been prefigured and for which we are well prepared. Biases are programmed into the Internet in the same way that they are hardwired into software and technology, and are seen within people and institutions. This is why an escape to the “outside” offered by alternative structures is imperative. This point is echoed by each work within the exhibition, from Zach Blas’s Facial Weaponization Suite, through Morehshin Allahyari’s Dark Matter, to Cybertwee’s Dark Web Handbook.

The artists in Pre-Future situate their practice within the temporal arch of the Internet. The effortless 24/7 ability to both post and view online allows art to reach users far and wide. The enormous daily production of digital imagery has a direct relation to the growth of personal computing and Internet use; the advent of mobile photography and social-media platforms has also greatly expanded access to images of art and exhibitions. The contemporary art world has participated enthusiastically in this mass proliferation—artwork in galleries and museums can often now be viewed on networks like Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Art viewing has taken on the virtual. In our contemporary consumer-driven culture, standing in front of an art object has been replaced by scrolling through hi-res installation images on a mobile device. 

Allahyari’s Dark Matter (2014– ) is an ongoing project that addresses the dichotomy between virtual and physical objects. In this series Allahyari assembles images of a variety of objects into virtual sculptures whose every curve can be examined through an online 3-D modeling interface. The curious stature of the work begs to be investigated. First of all, since the objects Allahyari chooses are forbidden in various territories, including China, Saudi Arabia, and her native Iran, her choosing them is, among other things, a statement on censorship. Items that the general public is forbidden to own in Iran, for example, include dogs, dildos, and satellite dishes, images of which the artist amalgamates into a totem of forbidden iconography. The assembled black masses are clunky in their apparent weight and somewhat comical in their fused stature. Yet possession of any one of these objects in Iran could lead to a fine or even jail time.The artist’s recombinations of objects constitute a kind of archive of items that, if current conditions continue, will be unknown to future generations in the countries where they are forbidden. One can imagine that in the years to come, quotidian things such as satellite dishes will be publicly forgotten in Iran, though perhaps archived in private collections of banned objects or possessed by wealthy members of the elite. In this sense Dark Matter is realized as a presentation of relics from a not-so-distant past. Like Rezaire and Sosa, Allahyari uses the past to warn users of a possible future. 

Allahyari not only documents her fundamentally archival process through modeled forms viewable online; she also gives it literal substance, 3-D-printing objects from the series to instantiate a physical archive. So what happens when the virtual becomes real? The virtual and physical possibilities of this work remind us of the tentative relationship we have with our future. Allahyari instructs 3-D printers to realize her computer-based creations, making blueprints for infinite reproduction. In this way the viewer can experience the precarity of these outlawed objects not only as an archival synthesis of the virtual and the physical, but as a tangible expression of government control.

When the series is viewed online, its user interface recalls the software of architectural mapping, product modeling, and gaming. Allahyari employs this treatment for the work because many browsers cannot embed 3-D models without accessory plugins or downloads. This function allows the work to be shared easily with links or screenshots. The artist uses a free online viewer, Autodesk’s A360 platform, to let users examine the details and shadows of the pieces. Online we can inspect every angle of each object, pan around the frame, and explore from whatever perspective we choose. This requires a certain engagement from the user, but the navigation system is actually simple and quick to learn. Allahyari creates an interactive component with the virtual object, allowing online users to examine the work as if they were seeing it in person. The virtual component of this piece enables it to be shared via hyperlink across countless borders, alluding to the futility of outlawing physical objects. These confusing, misshapen forms amplify the hilarity of what the different governments deem unfit for their citizens, showing the power of an image. 

Allahyari’s forbidden objects address ideas of the unpresentable. This tactic—presenting the unpresentable—is another characteristic of Pre-Future that foreshadows future cultural conditions. Jean-François Lyotard, in his book The Postmodern Condition (1979), discusses the idea of the unpresentable: “The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.”12 Allahyari’s virtual objects articulate aspects of Lyotard’s argument, which is also echoed in Blas’s series Facial Weaponization Suite (2011–14). The series includes the video work Facial Communiqué: Fag Face, which grew out of a three-year investigation of digital surveillance. Blas examined where and how biometric facial-recognition software is used and created a prototyping workshop to produce masks that effectively block and protect faces from scanning. In showcasing the hardwired biases of software, mechanics, and networks, the artist is exploring minoritarian politics. 

Facial Communiqué begins with a curious image: a man wearing a glossy, bulbous, pink plastic mask. As the man commences his introduction we find that his voice has been masked by a generic computer tone. At first impression this anonymity reads as threatening; we have been conditioned to be wary in the presence of masks and concealed identities. (The video reminds us that in New York in 2011, in response to the Occupy movement, a law from 1845 that banned large groups of people from wearing masks in public places was revived.) The man is then joined by another narrator, an animated version of the same pink form. These enigmatic characters explain that in today’s world, information is capital, and biometric control has risen to the position of market control. Face-scanning technology allows faces to be read as data: fingerprints, eye movements, pupils, irises, and the components of an entire face can be easily read. These profiles can be applied for policing uses—border and immigration control, for example, or public surveillance—and also, of course, for marketing. Expanded development of these systems has led to terrifying possibilities of gender and racial profiling. However, despite attempts to formulate homogenous systems, these technologies often fail to read the data of those who have different features from the majority. Fingerprint scans, for example, often fail to read the hands of Asian women, and technology based on readings of people’s eyes cannot gather data from eyes with cataracts. Normative categories do not work within diverse populations. Yet biometric recognition continues to proliferate in systems ranging from smartphone cameras to immigration services. 

Blas moves from the present state to a foreshadowed future when he addresses research discussed in an article in Scientific American on the use of photographs to identify men as homosexual.13 This study suggests that it may be possible to compile data on a man’s sexual orientation based solely on a picture of his face. The artist uses this information to show how important it is to protect our data and ourselves in an increasingly surveilled world. This work anticipates surveillance systems of the future, acting as an intermediary between the preset and things to come. 

How can we combat the pressures of the future when they arrive before our present? At the rate we are going, the post-contemporary condition would allow us little control. This is where Blas calls on the politics of escape in creating alternatives. He presents Fag Face Mask as an undetectable weapon, a wearable shield. Now the pink mask worn by the narrators comes to fruition. The artist conducted workshops to create a mask assembled from many queer faces, a collective face. He calls this mask the “queer opaque.” The opaque is the opposite of surveillance—it is an unreadable thickness that cannot be penetrated by bigoted systems. It is protection, it is a weapon, it could be our future. Behind the Fag Face Mask, anonymity gains autonomy.

The Internet acts as a starting place to get outside the umbrella of the contemporary. Although it has become a tool of neoliberal commerce and control, its malleable presence, transmittable contents, and hidden forms produce the opportunity for networks to expand outside of government-monitored constraints. With these tools we can envision a sustainable and organic future outside the constructs of contemporary art. The buried cables that carry Internet signals span the depths of vast oceans, powering anonymous browsing systems abstracted by unseen network depths. “What happens when something cute and innocent takes place on the deep web?” Posing this question in September 2015, Cybertwee, a collective consisting of Gabriella Hileman, Violet Forest, and May Waver, launched a Kickstarter campaign for a deep-web bake sale. In the online version of Dark Web Handbook (2017), the collective identifies the differences between the dark and the deep web: “beneath the water are all the pages that can’t be searched normally; these non-indexed pages make up the deep web: emails, google drive docs, password-protected blogs, to name a few. similarly, the dark web can’t be searched by a regulars search engine either. in contrast, it is made up of websites that require special browsers to access.” One of the most popular networks for exploring anonymously is called Tor. The network masks users’ IP addresses, allowing them incognito activity in the deep web. Tor sites are indexed by “.onion” instead of “.com”. Many use the digital currency bitcoin, an online monetary system unregulated by governments. 

Cybertwee actively promotes the strength of femininity, working at the intersection of empathy and shared knowledge. The three artists used their collective knowledge of the deep web to inspire their 2015 virtual bake sale. For $5, contributors were invited to the deep web via a unique emailed link. Specific directions were shared as to how these guests could access the deep web and purchase the baked treats using bitcoin. Beginner, intermediate, and advanced instructions detailed how one could access their location. The sale was a great success, bringing a pointedly femme presence to a stigmatized, predominantly male network.

Dark Web Handbook was inspired by the resources shared in the deep-web bake sale. Community support and response inspired the collective to share descriptions of how to navigate the less-accessible, intimidating realms of digital currency and unregulated networks. For Pre-Future, to increase the accessibility of the guide for downloading and printing, Cybertwee has for the first time put the work online, as a PDF. They encourage viewers to save the handbook for future exploration in alternative networks. The information it outlines is wide-reaching, covering everything from browsing in privacy to bitcoin functionality. Care is given to address such issues as the legality of digital currencies, online safety in unregulated networks, and the overall idea of anonymity. The collective ends the handbook by reminding readers that activity on the dark web is 98 percent anonymous. It takes great care and research to protect your activity online—and it is important to identify what you are trying to safeguard. 

This work provides the steps necessary to engage in non-normative Internet practice. It champions the dark web as a functioning alternative to the use of the hegemonic Internet. It is easier to escape the pressures of post-contemporary markets when operating in camouflage. Dark Web Handbook explores technology and online presence in a pedagogical way—it is an artwork that doubles as a resource. In presenting this information, Cybertwee is urging users to explore alternatives. The time spent in the dark web is not replaced by the future. It is opaque, like Blas’s masks. Dark Web Handbook gives us the tools we need to avoid predictive algorithms. In a time when everything is surveilled, tracked, monitored, published, and marketed, this work gives us the freedom to slip away silently. The reminder that standardized internet systems are not our only option helps to produce agency.

Pre-Future is the first project of Fluidity.Online, a digital platform custom built for online exhibitions. In collaboration with site developer and artist Hector Llanquín, I have tried to present each piece in a context that makes it possible for the work both to stand alone and to be situated in conversation with the rest of the exhibition. The dual aesthetic of the initial site design opening with a white background then switching to black strives to emphasize alternatives. Inspired by the stance of A White Institution’s Guide regarding the whiteness of creative platforms, this site only allows the viewer access to the exhibition once they click on the switch that turns on the black background. Only within this alternative format can the exhibition be viewed. The architecture of the site supports the included works by creating an alternative viewing space.

Accessibility, one of the main threads throughout this show, is an important reason for hosting this exhibition online. The temporality of the Internet allows this platform the space and timeframe for visitors to explore its duration. Links to view these projects can be easily shared, work can be viewed on a variety of devices, and there is no admission fee or institutional context that prescribes social norms or behaviors for visitors to the exhibition. Pre-Future can be viewed in the comfort of one’s own home or in a group in, say, a library. Virtual space allows the luxury of site specificity for each piece. In addition, the sustainability of this site is integral to why these works present an attainable future. It is crucial to the project to operate as an alternative to the brick-and-mortar establishments of contemporary art. However, artworks present within this exhibition will be exhibited as long as the artists choose to host them online. As an exhibitor, not owner, of these artworks, Fluidity.Online will show these artworks in exhibition format as long as possible. If they are removed from their native spaces, the exhibition will be archived in written format, as an exhibition catalog. 

The realization of this exhibition allows me to reflect upon the ability of art to act as a resource. It is easy to be cynical about the future of art in a capital-driven climate, yet it is courageous to prepare for the future. The predictive technologies that Avanessian and Malik outline in The Time Complex are threats, but the better we understand them, the more able we will be to address our future. The artists in Pre-Future acknowledge the post-contemporary as a provocation. If the future is replacing the present, these works detail how to survive our newfound temporality. They muse on the post-contemporary without being symptoms of its categorization. As Avanessian writes, “Every past was a future, and every future will be a past.”14 It is impossible to prepare for the future without acknowledgment of the past. Although there are procedures in place that are working to determine our future, it is still possible to regain the sovereignty of our present temporality. The present is a moment in flux. Amazon’s predictive algorithms may be able to foretell our desires, but they cannot predict the irregularities that we can generate. 

This exhibition is a study in potentiality. It presents resources—targeted steps to welcoming people of color, guides to anonymity, strategies for exposing censorship and thwarting surveillance—that also function as a call to action, a demand for equality, a safeguarding of autonomy, and the proposal of endless streams of networks that can be used to ameliorate our future condition. 

Notes:

1 See Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik, The Time Complex: Post-Contemporary (Miami: Name Publications, 2016), 19.

2 Suhail Malik, FORMER WEST: Art and the Contemporary after 1989 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, and Utrecht: BAK, basis

voor actuele kunst, 2016), 1–2.

3 Giorgio Agamben, What Is An Apparatus? And Other Essays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 45.

4 The concept was popularized by Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992).

5 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991)

6 Arthur Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Updated ed., Princeton: Princeton University

Press, 2014), 5.

7 Hans Belting, The End of the History of Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 3.

8 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, quoted in Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern (London: Verso,

2009), 82.

9 Fukuyama, The End of History, 2.

10 Originallly published online at http://newhive.com/fanniesosa/a-whiteinstitution-s-guide (accessed March 9, 2017).

11 Fannie Sosa, “A White Institution’s Guide for Welcoming People of Color and Their Audiences,” Paper Magazine, June 30, 2016, www.papermag.com/a-white-institutions-guidefor-welcoming-people-of-colorand-their-aud-1894669999.html.

12 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 81.

13 The article Blas refers to is Jesse Bering, “There’s Something Queer about That Face,” Scientific American, February 23, 2009.

14 Avanessian and Malik, The Time Complex, 22.

Image still from A White Institutions Guide for Welcoming People of Color and their Audiences, 2016, Tabita Rezaire and Fannie Sosa

Still from Dark Matter, Morehshin Allahyari, 2014-ongoing

Still from Facial Communiqué: Fag Face, Zach Blas, 2011-2014

Dark Web Handbook, Cybertwee, 2017

Andreas Töpfer, 2016, published in The Time Complex Post-Contemporary by Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik

Andreas Töpfer, 2016, published in The Time Complex Post-Contemporary by Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik