Future caucus: Thinking beyond Capital and the Human

Issue no2
April - May 2020
Fluïde monumenten

Ten years ago, the Van Abbemuseum organized a research and exhibition project called Be(com)ing Dutch to gather and strengthen existing alliances and to create new ones in times of essentialist forms of identity. To celebrate this tenth anniversary, Be(com)ing More was brought into existence. Where each day, a different author(s) is asked to curate a program, bringing different forms of knowledge and experience into the museum. The days are interwoven with events organized by DAI students at the Van Abbe’s Planetary Campus, with shared food and commissions, such as a compelling mural by Navine Khan Dossos and a confrontational installation by Iris Kensmil, in order to “be(com)e more” together.

The second day of the convention, titled “Future caucus”, convened by Eric de Bruyn and Sven Lütticken, aimed to investigate what can be learned from past and present imaginings of the future, as we seem to slide deeper into “the Capitalocene”. We are living in the Anthropocene, a post-ecological era with a shrinking future. What seems to be the only path forward is the endless accumulation of capital, which makes us only see the end of the world, instead of the end of capital.

The day was ordered into three segments, addressing “The Labour Of The Future, The Future After Labour”, “Speculative Practices”, and “Socialist and Afro-Futures (on Film)”. Speakers from different disciplines and nationalities were invited to present on these topics. According to De Bruyn, an alternative title for the day could have been “Speculative Capitalism”, homonymous to the book written by Mark Fisher, that was referred to throughout the day. The conference was meant to be a productive critical speculation on the topic of “Speculative Capitalism” and tapped into the wider trend of speculative philosophies and realism. After Manuel DeLanda declared “I am a realist”, others followed swiftly and declared the same, such as Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux, who are involved in the group known as “Speculative Realism”.


During the first panel, McKenzie Wark (author and teacher at The New School in New York) discussed a return to the future, to past utopias and paradoxical modernism, where complex temporalities are at play. He talked about the second nature of modernism and the third nature, where the accumulation of information becomes a goal in order to achieve acceleration. He also talked about the interaction between the two. It is a new tactics of time, where all the futures have already happened, as they can be calculated and assessed. Therefore, this tactic is a disenchantment of the eternal. Examples of this disenchantment are the market and nature, since they can both collapse. It is this third nature that destroys itself by acceleration.

From left to right: Tolk, Lazzarato, McKenzie Work, and Anna Teixeira Pinto (moderator)

Wark also mentioned a slow geological time, which shows up in the fastest financial time: now, we can trade on disaster and catastrophes. A prime example in his talk, was the book Possible World by J.B.S. Haldane, a British-Indian science fiction writer, who had a visionary view on the world. The book deals with humanity in geological time; a slow Anthropocene; the end of humanity and our world. He experiments with a non-human point of view and looks at existence from outside of us, speculating on possible kinds of worldviews and systems. Haldane’s only suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. According to him, to see the world in a useful way is to become post-human. The future will not be as we wish, and Work concludes that only by becoming inhuman, the human will endure.

Sociologist and philosopher Maurizzio Lazzarato held an interesting and clear-cut talk in French on re-inventing the future, which was translated into English on the spot. He claimed that the concept of accelerationism in fact belongs to the nineteenth century, with its ideology of progress and emphasis on the future. WO I broke with this conception, in which history is seen as directed towards a better future. The past is devaluated and cannot teach us anything, and the present is just a transition to the future. The purpose of history is an acceleration of time towards the future. Lazzarato uses the metaphor of a train to illustrate this temporality. However, after WO I, this idea collapsed and was critique by Benjamin, who said we should pull the breaks and get out. This idea was continued in the ideas of the 1968 movement: it is the present that should have the focus, not the future, signifying a radical change in perspective.

Right: Maurizio Lazzarato, left: tolk 

Lazzarato emphasized that we should not separate the means and ends, we cannot sacrifice the now for a better future. He argued that the present is a rupture, a break with the accelerations that introduces other possibilities that are not foreseeable: possibilities can only be created by this rupture. We shouldn't think of another world, but the world of otherwise. The 1968 movement brought this into action. Capital is mentioned as the capacity for endless innovation, while simultaneously being an ancient form of enslavement, racism and subordination of women, that according to Lazzarato, was something that Marx didn't take into account. On top of that, he argues that war was one of the most constitutive elements of capital. What we need to do now is go out of history and out of the future to think about the present.

What Lazzarato postulated is a time of the political, that is the present. Wark, however, questioned this assumption and asked why it is always the magic space of the political where everything needs to be done? According to Lazzarato, it is necessary to build organizations that respond to the necessities of the here and now, organizations that are completely different. Since it is only the present that can open up a space for critique.


In the second panel, Diedrich Diederichsen and Marina Vischmidt discuss “Speculative Practices”, or rather, “Speculative Futures”: Thinking from the future, as if it happened before the present, such as future castings from the realm of art. Diederichsen delivered a highly creative and inspiring talk about the dreamer as producer of passivity. First of all, he tried to understand how dreams function. He looked at their form, their logic, instead of their content. Dreaming is passive, but at the same time active: it is a formula by which the desire to receive is articulated. It is also a transformative practice. The shaman, for example, performs as the receiver; while you are passively negating yourself. Also, responsibilities begin in dreams, according to Diederichsen. A dream is a way of time traveling, it disappears after it happens and can therefore not be a commodity. It is rather a utopian form of art production: there is a media specificity of passivity and activity that are also necessary conditions of an artwork and the main characteristics of “dream logic.” He concluded by hoping that in the future, these aesthetic passivity’s and dream logic might be used reflectively and will help to educate blind activism about the knowledge of passivity and letting things take their course.

From left to right: Diedrich Diederichsen, Marina Vischmidt and Sven Lütticken

Van Abbe director Charles Esche referred to the current Venice Biennale show (curated by Christine Macel) by pointing out the shaman’s section used in the Giardini exhibition, where in the first room men are sleeping in beds and in the rooms after that, intense activity is displayed by producing migrants and visitors in a work by Olafur Eliasson. Here, according to Esche, the dream is already commodified, unlike Diedrichsen’s earlier statement that this was impossible. Diederichsen makes a sharp critique on the way Eliasson employs the refugees for a medium-less work, strongly exploiting the bodies in a way that is not different from the logic of reality TV, quite the opposite of dream logic. Within the logic of reality TV, it is all about performances; the moment of attraction and what we want to see. This is where it is “one turn of the screw more perverted,” according to Diederichsen, because it is about the refugees doing meaningful things and that is what we want to see. It is a kind of perverted pleasure of having the body go through something and then enjoying this. According to him, there is a complete lack of discourse and criticality in relation to works with living people; there is no discourse about what is aesthetically and politically going on, and no medium reflectivity. Esche consequently concludes that it is precisely the artist who is absent, because he is sleeping. However, is it desirable that the artist is sleeping? And what are the implications for art and the art world?

Marina Vishmidt talked about the accumulating futures and the fear of the futures, where the fear of presence is slipping away. Taking ownership of the future seems to be the solution. She quotes Steven Shaviro and his notions of open and closed speculations, where possibilities are opened and oriented towards a goal, as happens in finance. She focused on the latter and identified time as the resource of accumulation, which is exactly how financial instruments work. This view created the fear of being taken over by algorithms, and artificial intelligence. To stop this, we need to re-invent and re-capture the future. Another response to this fear is seeing it as an affect and inverting it to see what it is about the present that blocks the future.

Art also fears the future, as a holder of unknown speculative futures, affirmative speculation that seems to be trading on subjectivity. Unknown futures become market commodities located in the nexus between open and closed speculation. Art, therefore, is a driver instead of a symptom. She uses a video by João Enxuto and Erica Love, called Institute for Southern Contemporary Art (ISCA) (2016), where the contemporary art market is taken over and automated by algorithms in order to emancipate it. The video raises questions to what degree algorithms are already shaping the world and market in advance, as happens in finance, but also in the art market. The future now revolves around being freed from the present; “it is disrupted, coming unstuck in and from the present”, as writer and artist Evan Calder Williams would say.


The final panel caused the most reaction from the audience, in a positive way. Not only because it had a lot of humor - mainly because of an East-German Sci-fi movie from the 70s -, but also due to the urgent statements that were made. Both Doreen Mende and Kodwo Eshun used a Joachim Hellwig movie in their talk. Mende took the movie Im Staub der Sterne (in the dust of the stars) to investigate what we can learn from different futures. Is it possible to re-activate these futures? Can we de-colonize socialism? In order to look at possible answers, Mende looked at the 1960s and 1970s and transposed and translated those imagined futures in present conditions informed by capitalist realism. Her main focus was a collectively written PhD by Claus Ritter and Joachim Hellwig about Defa Futurum, an artistic group responsible for East German sci-fi movies. In this PhD, they tried to define principles of the socialist future. Defa Futurum is a kind of constellation of various genres, from sci-fi to utopia. The film discussed is defined as a Gegenwartsfilm, addressing contemporary East German life in the future as departed from the present condition. It is a socialist work of art about the processes and desirable future images that stimulate the people in the present for the future. Mathematics play an important role as well as basic processes of creative thinking, which is needed to liberate the human from thinking to ultimately become automatic and make humanity better.

Kodwo Eshun takes on a different approach by taking The Black Star as his point of departure, ending up in Ghana, pan-Africanism and euro-Africanism. For the majority of the public, his presentation was an eye opener. Therefore, I will discuss his talk a bit more at length. He refers to the library exhibition at the Van Abbe Museum, where only the “good” names of anti/de-colonialism are on display. According to Eshun, a focus on the “bad” names will be much more compelling. The future that is destroyed and narrated to us is foreclosed, as well as the names responsible for that.

The movie The Black Star deals with the five years of independence under Kwame Nkrumah, first prime minister of Ghana. It embodies a fable that blocks representation, a democracy that was promised but replaced by a dictatorship. The gap between ruler and ruled is bridged by an ideology that identifies the individual with the state, inaugurating a political religion. This system not only characterized Ghana, but Guiney, China and many more. Eshun explained that only the East Germans could film this, since the UK and US were at odds with the ideological institute Nkrumah set up. What Hellwig shows in his film is an affinity between an East German one-party state and a new one-party state. Nkrumah additionally formulated something short of a de-colonial theory, referring to a large scale mobilization system of pan-Africa.

Cheikh Anta Diop is another “bad” name Eshun mentions. Ant Diop was a Senegalese “civilizationist” who wrote an energy doctrine for Africa. He tried to formulate an energetic infrastructure for Africa, or rather, for pan-Africanism. Already in the 1960s he envisioned a scheme of energy development that took into account renewable and non-renewable energy sources, ecology and technological advances of the coming decades. In the 1980s he returned to this and articulated an elaborate system for African-Arab cooperation. He recognized that the oil crisis was only a crisis for the West, and that this was one of the first opportunities for the Arab countries to weaponize and finance the pricing system against America for its support for Israel. He suggested an anti-colonial/anti-imperialist/anti-Zionist financial weaponization of pricing. On top of that, he worked out a plan to understand economy in the light of the coming depletion of fossil fuels. All in all, a man ahead of its time.

The reason that Eshun mentions him, the persistence of pan-Africa as a dream, is the impossibility of it because it was blocked by the European economic community. The resources of the colonies of Belgium, France and Italy would be at service of a greater Europe. If pan-Africanism was a dream, then why were the architects of Europe so insistent on integrating the overseas territories into a greater Eur-Africa? Eshun concludes that this was in reality a contest over resources and the future of the continent.

Mende and Eshun both addressed responses to certain pasts and their blocked futures and conclude that what needs to be done is reclaiming certain modes of operating; of organizing thought and processes. We need to reshuffle everything on a global scale, re-arrange the archive, and de-provincialize it in a way we can access them and think them.

We need to reshuffle everything on a global scale, re-arrange the archive, and de-provincialize it in a way we can access them and think them.

In the context of becoming more - thinking about the future together - setting up a future caucus is of vital importance. De Bruyn and Lütticken succeeded in composing an interesting and stimulating “future caucus” of international speakers that sometimes more than at other times made cross connections among the presentations, which are promising for the future. After all, “becoming more” already implies a certain temporality of the future. The future caucus tapped into the wider trend of speculation and all different sorts of realism. The speakers critiqued, added and used these philosophies to come up with original perspectives and strategies within different temporalities: how to think beyond capitalism, thinking a different world, that the speakers took up, elaborated on and envisioned what needs to be done. The caucus left us dreaming, to speak in Diederichsen’s term, about the future.

Becoming more: “Future Caucus”, Van Abbemuseum, 20/05/2017. More information HERE!

Convened by: Eric de Bruyn en Sven Lütticken  
Lecturers: Diedrich Diederichsen, Kodwo Eshun, Maurizio Lazzarato, Doreen Mende, Kerstin Stakemeier, Marina Vishmidt, McKenzie Wark.

Corine van Emmerik
is art historian

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2020