Future Vocabularies: Survival

Over the course of the next three years, the program of BAK, basis voor actuele kunst—a discursive space of interlocution between art, knowledge, and advocacy—unfolds through a project titled Future Vocabularies. As a multifaceted series realized between 2014 and 2016, the project is organized as a succession of a number of semesters of collaborative research, exhibitions, curricula of learning, conferences, and publications. The programs are brought to life in dialogue with research fellows—artists, scholars, and activists—who accompany us in codeveloping the semestral agenda while concurrently exploring the possibility of—and, importantly, the new evolving tasks and accountabilities for—a theoretically-informed and politically-driven art institution in the face of the radically changing structure of power relations within the global condition of the present. The project is initiated in 2014 with an opening vocabulary entry on survival. It is envisioned as a foundational sequence, evolving over the course of the full year and made up of multiple conceptual narratives from which to draw the subsequent themes and methods for both thinking and acting. Unlike the semesters that follow, each of which entails collaboration with an individual fellow, the inaugural term brings together a number of artists and theorists[1] from several of BAK’s key past and ongoing projects. In this way, we wish to draw a line of continuity from within both our dialogues with our publics and our archive of knowledge, composed in various collective collaborative constellations, into the unknown of the future. Brought together under the common denominator of (rethinking) survival, the project attempts to act out concrete propositions that explore the “conditions of possibility” from within what is largely considered the crisis-ridden, ruinous folds of today—working not against, but “in spite of the times”[2] we live in.

Such thinking and acting in spite of the times, philosopher Rosi Braidotti[3] argues, implies a motion “not in a belligerent mode of oppositional consciousness, but as a humble and empowering gesture of co-construction of sustainable futures.”[4] Taking place “somewhere between the no longer and the not yet,” it does not mean “looking for easy reassurances but for evidence that others are struggling with the same questions. Consequently, ‘we’ are in this together.”[5] If the commonality in the “we” is always necessarily slippery and escaping proper definition, then the current lived interstice between the no longer and the not yet as we presently experience it may possibly lend it, even if only intuitively, a tangible meaning. For the (largely shared) discontent with the contemporary world, expressing itself as the time of crisis in its concomitant multiple inflections—economic, political, social, military, cultural, aesthetic, and otherwise, uncovering the deep structural contradictions of capitalist democracy—might be what institutes the common ground of the now. Judging upon the chain of “a great variety of morbid symptoms” through which it expresses itself—stemming from the oppressive “exceptional” reality that has become normal as it penetrates our daily struggles—we might consider, in line with the late notes of political thinker Antonio Gramsci,this time of crisis as an interregnum that “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”[6]

One could argue that the gap in between historical epochs in which we live marks an intricate and agonizing period of parting from the modern under the pressures of new contemporary realities. Everywhere, we see extant hegemonies losing their grip and collapsing as the western modernist legacy, soaked in the illusion of progress (including its decadent neoliberal edition), seem to become unmasked and can no longer hold together—and all this to the disquietude of those advocating that the march of progress, of going “forward” in the same way as was the case till now, should proceed as a matter of “business as usual.” Inevitably, we hover past the end point of one era, unable and unequipped to reach even the undersill of the not yet. And as we probe and fumble into the frightful prospects of that which is to come, the prime casualty of the dramatic measures of today’s condition appears in our incapacity to articulate the contours of new prospective itineraries through the existing conceptual vocabulary.

Consider, for instance, the workings of critique, itself a modernist paraphernalia. Linked etymologically to crisis (through krino, “to judge” in Greek), it gathers negativity from within the circumstance at hand in order to arrive at an opinion, or better yet, a verdict—much like in a disease or a trial, or even the writings of a typical art critic who acts upon the flawed entitlement of setting up a tribunal. Critique “did a wonderful job,” as with it “you may debunk, reveal, unveil,”[7] but “you cannot repair, take care, assemble, reassemble, stitch together.”[8] And as it seems to bind us perpetually to that which we critique, it condemns us to the routine of rehearsing the same, time and time again. We might begin to find a way out of the torpor of the bygone era by leaving that sort ofcritique behind altogether, or at the very least, repurposing the being against contained within it alongside the logic of proposition.

Yet if we must retire concepts of the former times, then what is it exactly that we want to survive, and how do we want to survive ourselves?

The conception of survival itself, while it holds a particular crucial relevance for our case, requires a retooling in order to retrieve its propositional ethos from the obscurity of the circumstances that dominate the contemporary hour. This shift in emphasis requires a reclamation of the term from its late-capitalist, post-democratic appropriation as the natural selection dictum, “survival of the fittest.” This reclaimed notion is then the articulation of an altogether different—active and activist—form of surviving: “the most intense life possible,”[9] coupling together the meanings of both living and living beyond.[10] Here, survival is imagined as a force through which an individual, even if consigned to nothingness or stripped to “bare life,” retains her own existence as a source of possibility to shape the conditions ahead. In spite of the politicized vulnerabilities, and perhaps even due to the acute uncertainties[11] surrounding such a reality, this process requires creating sustainable interconnections to others, human or not. As we speculated earlier, we are in this together.

If ours is the time of interregnum, it is when “rulers no longer can rule and the ruled no longer wishto be ruled.”[12] Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman suggests that from within the countless concerns raised by this systemic shift and its consequent planetary recompositions, three questions appear to be of foremost urgency: institutional disparitythe future of migrants, and the endurability of the planet. Arguably, whether and how we survive largely depends on how the scarce and increasingly inaccessible resources for survival—ethical, relational, infrastructural, and other—are distributed among precisely these three (interconnected) arenas.

It is from here that we wish to draw our artistic, intellectual, and activist charts for the series of propositional inquiries under the common denominator of survival during Future Vocabularies/Survival/ at BAK in 2014.

If the notion of institutional disparity addresses the asymmetry between power and politics today on a worldwide stage—a fatal disconnection between global power and local politics that manifests itself in the discrepancy between conflicting powers with no political control on the one hand, and powerless politics on the other, to put it blankly—then how can this diagnosis help us to understand what can be done in terms of rethinking the notion of (institutional) infrastructure? And what would this mean in regards to the question of how we wish to organize ourselves in the fields of our artistic, intellectual, and activist practice, so that through our work we might enact the society we desire? That is, what would it mean to institute ourselves in a way that is independent of both market fundamentalism and an increasingly control-savvy public administration? These and similar questions are explored through the series of gatherings and lectures under the title of Other Survivalisms.[13] Curated by Boris Buden and Simon Sheikh, the series seeks a possibility in instituting-in-common as a way of constructing meaningful trajectories out of the current impasse through art.

Complementarily, a series of collaborations with other cultural institutions take place around a project of New World Summit by artist Jonas Staal, which explores, through an exhibition and a number of discursive meetings, how art can balance the democratic deficit in our contemporary societies, while simultaneously inquiring into the very notion of art through this lens. Also, a new edition of New World Academy (NWA), which Staal and BAK co-instituted in 2013 in order to allow artists and political movement representatives to potentiate collectively towards “fundamental democracy,” is organized. As a continuous parallel structure folded into all aspects of BAK’s programing, a learning place—conceived as a network of interactions between art, knowledge, and the political as they relate to the questions of survival—is set up for and with students from art academies and universities.

Within the conceptual proximity of the planetary survival-extinction thread is the two-part exhibition by artists Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann, In the Stomach of the Predators. It brings us to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen, Norway, set up to protect all existing agricultural kernels in the world from eventual extinction. The seed bank, however, is financed by the very corporate lobbies that exercise interests and practices that threaten crop diversity. In the work, the seemingly inescapable logic calling for disaster when it comes to the survival of the genetic material is tried through multiple scripts that utilize a variety of vernaculars. Oscillating between the pictorial language of Otto Neurath, the dance diagrams of Andy Warhol, and Brechtian theatrical stagings, Creischer presents a film of four animals on their global journey and Siekmann an installation of pictorial tableaus (both realized over the course of 2012–2013), investigating the consequences of the privatization of the commons in the cases of seeds, land, and intellectual property.

Uncovering the ecological ramifications under the regime of the Anthropocene,[14] another exhibition—this time by artist Aernout Mik and titled Cardboard Walls—steers us towards the aftermath of the (un)natural nuclear disaster of 2011 in Fukushima, Japan. Claimed to be an act of nature, this event of huge global consequence might better be understood as a result of our enduring hazardous, obscene, and abusive genealogy of relations to both the environment and to each other. The installation addresses how what we thought we controlled (nature), or created and thought to control (capitalist doctrines), has in fact taken charge of our lives in an authoritative swoop, announcing loudly that the era fully engineered by the actions of humans has reached a level that batters the very prospect of survival. Shifting seamlessly from daunting questions of the planet’s future to present-day disparities of power and politics, and exploring the subsequent pressures that the status as refugee from one’s very own “humankind” have placed on individuals, the work weaves together the various lineages of thought that we have marked for ourselves as critically important for rethinking, and outliving, survival.

Continuing various coalitions and collaborations from NWA, BAK remains engaged with the trajectory of the collective of refugees, We Are Here, with whom we carry on the exploration of how the space of art might form a meaningful context through which to debate and practically enact the possibilities for survival of those who find themselves in the midst of the (in)human condition of being undeportable, or of being “undeportable aliens” as the jargon of paradoxical Western democracy currently has it. Having fallen into the abyss with no right to have rights (Hannah Arendt), we insist that in spite of such conditions there must be ways to overcome a situation in which the right to live anywhere and at all is at stake and the right to belong to any kind of community whatsoever denied by the powers that be. For the series of gatherings organized together with members of the We Are Here Cooperative, and in close dialogue with the members of action group Here to Support Savannah Koolen and Elke Uitentuis and We Are Here activists Yoonis Osman Nuur and Thomas Philip Guya, BAK makes itself available as a space of learning and connecting—of life-in-common, in other words—engaging the role of interlocution we envision for an art institution while assuring that the right to narrate stories of life and survival is coupled with the corresponding right to be heard.

If all of these projects gesture discursively and propositionally towards the pressure points around which we wish to structure our thinking and acting, it is because we wish to shape and sharpen our understanding of the contours of the not yet. Yet if the goal is being together in the world differently, it is likewise crucial to counter the misconstructions around the concept of audience, away from the strictures defined by those in power. The forthcoming compendium of texts, titled Future Publics (The Rest: Can and Should Be Done by the People): A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art (edited by Maria Hlavajova and Ranjit Hoskote), attempts to do precisely that: gather speculatively from the present of intensifying resistance the possibility of reconfiguring the space of art as a space of politics. For as the extant financial-political-media triune, cemented in the old ideology, repackages its decay into an even more spectacular performance of control and dominance, it seems that what we are left with is precisely this space within the realm of artistic, intellectual, and activist practice that is willing to commit to a seemingly hazardous hypothesis of another possibility, intuiting itself with the task of envisioning the world—and the survival of possibility as such—otherwise. And even if the “future” in “future vocabularies” has itself long been proclaimed an unlikely candidate for survival, it seems to me that we must nevertheless continue to strive towards it, against the future’s philosophical and ideological impossibility, and in spite of the times we live in.

The BAK team and I look forward to you joining us in these endeavors.

Maria Hlavajova


[1] The conceptual framework of the semester on survival was set up in dialogue with artist Aernout Mik and theorist Bram Ieven, and later joined by artists Jonas Staal, Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann, Savannah Koolen and Elke Uitentuis together with the members of the refugee collective We Are Here Yoonis Osman Nuur and Thomas Philip Guya, as well as theorists Boris Buden and Simon Sheikh.

[2] Adrienne Rich, Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (London: Norton, 2001), p. 159.

[3] Rosi Braidotti joins BAK as a research fellow during the first half of 2015 to explore the contemporary condition through the optics of “posthuman knowledge.”

[4] Rosi Braidotti, “The New Activism: A Plea for Affirmative Ethics,” in Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization, Lieven de Cauter, Rubben de Roo, and Karel Vanhaesebrouck, eds. (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2005), p. 270.

[5] Ibid., p. 267.

[6] Formulated nearly a century ago, Antonio Gramsci defined the crisis as follows: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” In Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), p. 276.

[7] Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’,” New Literary History 41 (2010), p. 474.

[8] Ibid., p. 475.

[9] Jacques Derrida, Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2007), p. 52.

[10] In his essay, “The Task of the Translator” (1923), philosopher Walter Benjamin proposed that, one the one hand, there is a life of the original and, on the other, its survival through “translation.” One can see a parallel between the artwork and the human being’s life and afterlife in the biographical traces she leaves behind. See Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Shocken, 1969), pp. 69–82.

[11] As a speculative proposition, one could think of acute uncertainty as what makes the situation tolerable—if not constructive—for all outcomes seem possible.

[12] Zygmunt Bauman, “Times of interregnum,” Ethics & Global Politics, vol. 5, no. 1 (2012), p. 49.

[13] Other Survivalisms (16–17 May 2014) takes the form of an edition of the public editorial meeting within BAK’s key research project FORMER WEST (2008–2016). For further information, please see the FORMER WEST digital platform and archive, online at: www.formerwest.org.

[14] Coined by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and geologist Eugene F. Stoermer in 2000, Anthropocene is a term that refers to a new (present) geological age born out of the impact of humankind’s activities on the global ecosystem.

Part of Future Vocabularies, a long-term research and propositional trajectory rethinking art’s conceptual lexicon