I wrote the following short essay to accompany Carol Condé and Karl Beveridge’s exhibition’Scene Otherwise’ at the Khyber Centre for the Arts in Halifax April 17th – May 13th, 2015 (organized by NSCAD’s Anna Leonowens Gallery and part of the Mayworks Festival).
To see the work, visit http://condebeveridge.ca/?projects=futures-2013
We live in an age of the foreclosure of the future, when it seems that the forces of profit and austerity have brutally consolidated Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum “There is No Alternative.” While the vicissitudes of the capitalist system are still fresh in our mind from the horrific exploitation of poor “sub-prime” borrowers that led to the 2008 financial crisis, seven years later it seems nothing has changed. Indeed, any change at all seems impossible, destined for failure.
We are about to watch our purported political leaders once again fail to come to any agreement to substantially challenge climate change. The gap between the rich and poor is widening nearly everywhere around the world. Work in almost every field is becoming more precarious (part-time, temporary, casualized). What remains of the social safety net is being sold off by desperate governments seeking to appease the relentless dictates of “the market” and to achieve the illusory goal of “international competitiveness” and “economic growth.” Personal levels of debt are growing as the working class and what remains of the middle class increasingly borrow just to make ends meet, and as everything from housing to health care to education become commodities.
We’re exhausted. We can’t face it. We, humans, are future-oriented animals. We are imaginative creatures. Denied a viable future, denied hope, our spirits whither, our horizons recede, we become existentially claustrophobic. Today, capitalist economic forces insist that the future will be nothing more than the endless expansion of “now” unto death. Worse still, in this financialized age, where credit, debt and illusory wealth reign, we are each instructed to envision our individual and collective futures as nothing more than sites of investment and leverage, as sources of future revenue and profit: Go into debt to get an education in order to compete for a non-precarious job to have a chance at a decent life and a secure retirement. Buy a house not in order to live in a community but as an investment vehicle to supply you with liquidity or collateral in case of future need. Imagine even your children as an “investment,” bodies to care for yours when society refuses to.
It’s a fitting irony that one of the signature technologies of the financial sector is the “futures” contract: essentially an agreement between two parties to buy or sell this or that asset at some designated future point. These contracts themselves become assets to be traded, leveraged, securitized and speculated on. Capitalism has, in some sick sense, commodified the future itself. Indeed, today financiers and corporations are actively seeking to speculate on ways to profit from the impending disastrous effects of climate change, or the projected increase in urban poverty, or the anticipated global competition for water, arable land and other scarce resources.
As Franco Berardi argues, depression, anxiety and despair are entirely reasonable and logical responses to such a state of affairs. Hence, the critical role of art must on some level be a form of radical therapy. Not a therapy oriented to normalizing and making us functional within this paradigm, but one that helps us envision alternatives and, more importantly, create the sorts of political solidarity we might need to overcome the present state of affairs. We are now amidst a struggle for the liberation of the future itself, for the right to have a future that we chose. We are at a critical juncture where we must, both individually and collectively as a globalized society, decide whether we will endlessly accommodate and adapt ourselves to the austere dictates of corporate profiteering. Art is one of the few social practices we have left where it is possible to ask this question anymore.
In this sense, Carol Condé and Karl Beveridge’s 2013 triptych Futures could not come at a more important time. Here, in their signature style of staged and edited photo tableau, we are presented with two visions. In the centre panel we see our present moment, pregnant with twin potentials. Here we see the impending rape of nature, the repression and belittling of dissent, the perpetuation of racialized inequalities, the commodification of food, the exploitation of labour, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and the depth of alienation in a world of capitalist commodification, all fittingly staged in the parking lot of Walmart, the world’s largest retail corporation.
To the right, we see the endgame: a world of chaos, violence and pain. Even those who we imagine to be the beneficiaries of our current state of affairs will lose, in the end, reduced to a desperate struggle for what few resources remain. Walmart itself is in flames, the police have been replaced by fascist gangs. Garbage and money lie strewn about the scene, equally worthless, equally toxic. Nature rebels against her own children in a last act of defiance. Here is the culmination of a nightmare that is already brewing in our present day.
On the left, by contrast, a vision of our potential. Windmills power a cooperative that has replaced Walmart, a bastion of corporate power transformed into a symbol of our grassroots collaborative potential. Egalitarian, reciprocal relationships pepper the scene, not only between human beings of various ethnicities and genders, but also between humans, animals and nature itself. Here is not some primitivist dream of a “return” to prelapsarian purity, but a world of organic interactions and democratic technological development.
In an age of vulnerability, fear and sorrow, we defend our souls by insisting that utopia and dystopia are distant countries across an infinite ocean, never to be reached in our lifetime. The reality is that utopia and dystopia are with us all the time. They haunt our imaginations with the ghosts of what is and what might be. The present already bears the seeds of dystopia, and they are germinating in the toxic soil of a commodified, completive culture of corporate profiteering, government complicity and widespread hopeless apathy.
But the seeds of utopia are also growing as we as workers, as citizens and as compassionate, imaginative beings begin to come together to demand and create alternatives. Everywhere around the world, people are building provisional utopias based on the principles of social justice, solidarity, egalitarian cooperativism and ecological sustainability, resilience and reciprocity. They are rebuilding, reclaiming and reimagining the commons.
Both futures are already under way.