In the spring of 2018, I was invited to do a workshop at the De Appel curatorial programme in Amsterdam. Today, that workshop seems more relevant than I ever imagined.
I called it “TAIATEOTWAWKI,” short for “The Art Institution After the End of the World As We Know It.” The title was inspired by the so-called Prepper movement’s notions about The End of the Worlds as We Know It – often abbreviated TEOTWAWKI in internal communication among those in the know. The Prepper movement is a more or less formalised global network of people who, each in their own ways, are preparing for the end of the world and, importantly, to survive the existence that follows. I had addressed the phenomenon in connection with an exhibition featuring Søren Thilo Funder at my exhibition venue X and Beyond (2015–2017), where I spent two and a half years curating a programme focusing on “art in an age of disasters.”
However, the workshop was not in fact about preppers. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. The set-up was that the participants were divided into groups who each had to rethink and reimagine the art institution in relation to one of three fictional scenarios. Each group was free to choose whether it wanted to focus on overall or specific aspects of TAIATEOTWAWKI.
The first scenario was taken from J. G. Ballard’s novel The Drowned World (1962). The year is 2145, and radiation from the sun has melted the polar icecaps. Northern Europe and America have been flooded and are now tropical lagoons where evolution has run wild in a kind of return to a prehistoric stage. Some people seek to recreate Western civilisation, while others embrace the extreme conditions as the beginning of a new world. The task set was this: What art institutions will emerge and survive after this kind of ecological upheaval?
The second scenario was based on Cixin Liu’s trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past (2008–10), also known as The Three-Body Problem. The plot of the novels concerns how humanity discovers that Earth will be invaded by an alien civilisation 450 years from now. The alien civilisation is in search of a new planet to inhabit because its own is doomed to collapse in an impending cosmic disaster. The invasion is likely to mean the end of humanity, but mankind nevertheless readies itself to take up the fight, preparing to resist the invasion with a blend of advanced science, war tactics, philosophical reflection, and layman’s knowledge. The task: How would knowing that the Earth is about to be invaded and that the annihilation of humanity will take place a few centuries from now affect the dispositions and strategies of art institutions today?
The third scenario was borrowed from George A. Romero’s six-film epic The Living Dead (1968–2009). The United States is hit by a zombie epidemic. All citizens are potential zombies, making them enemies, and stigmatisation and mistrust permeate all of society. Eradicating the epidemic seems impossible, and American society is in a permanent state of emergency. The task: How should an art institution act in a world where social interaction is problematic and our humanity and fellow feeling are put to the test?
TAIATEOTWAWKI sprang from my interest in disaster fiction as a sophisticated vehicle for articulating and thinking about change. Over the course of millennia and through countless tales, it has developed a vocabulary that holds comprehensive and unique insights into how people and communities deal with the changes brought about by disasters.
Disaster fiction basically operates with two forms of narratives of change. The first concerns those where the disaster is overcome and the known order is re-established. Business and power go on as usual; no real change occurs. Think the setting of Neil Blomkamp’s film Elysium (2013), where only the very rich are allowed to live on the idyllic space station while everyone else is sentenced to a life of poverty and pollution, or the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road(2006), in which the nuclear family is restored as a social ideal following a disaster caused by the parent generation. On the other hand, we find those narratives where disaster leads to a permanent and radical change of society, its institutions, and citizens. For example, George R. Stewart’s novel Earth Abides (1949), in which the protagonist begins by desperately trying to navigate a post-apocalyptic United States, but ends up embracing the new ‘primitive’ existence, hoping that the new world will not rebuild the former civilisation. Finally, a very pertinent parallel to our current situation is offered by Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome (2009), in which the inhabitants of the small town of Chester’s Mill are cut off from the outside by a giant glass dome, and go on to experience dramatic changes in their community’s social dynamics and power relations.
The two kinds of narratives of change reflect reality. As described by journalist Naomi Klein in several of her books, disasters are often exploited by capitalist interests – usually assisted by political interests – to expand their territory in society and continue their regime as if nothing had happened. At the same time, anthropologist Rebecca Solnit has documented that paradises are being built in hell, as the title of her main work reads. The paradises to which she refers are those extraordinary communities that have emerged from the ashes of disasters through the ages, communities that have reinvented and developed society in new and progressive ways.
In their essence, the two narrative modes are about either counteracting change or working with change, growing and developing in a state of interaction with it.
TAIATEOTWAWKI was conceptualised in response to what I saw as inertia and lack of consistency in discussionssurrounding the future of art institutions – and, by extension, the art world – in a world seeing profound changes to so many parameters. These changes are of such a nature and scope that, in my view, it makes no sense to blithely go on applying the same formats and structures, more or less as if nothing had happened. To persist in accelerating the number of biennials, flying swarms numbering tens of thousands of art workers around the globe, connecting with an elitist and dubious capitalism, et cetera, et cetera.
Seen from my disaster perspective, this system was not sustainable – financially, economically, ecologically, and socially. But only few spoke seriously about changing the system, let alone asked critical questions about it. Ironically, this inactivity was seen at the same time as institutions were exhibiting artists whose works directly addressed the changes. It seemed as if those shifts were not really taken seriously. Whether this was due to a lack of will, sheer indolence, to protect one’s own power and interests, or something entirely different, I cannot say. But I was nevertheless frustrated by the lack of visions for art institutions to reflect and engage with the world we live in. That is to say, a world of climate change, social change, and technological change, to mention just three of the most important ones.
In the context of a disaster scenario, there is no escape; changes need to be taken seriously, quite literally. In the scenarios of disaster fiction, art institutions cannot remain sequestered in their bubbles. They cannot take themselves for granted. They must take into account a concrete reality where all tradition and normality has been suspended, and the only way they can survive is by offering visions in response to the new and changed world.
The workshop was deliberately radical in its approach and choice of scenarios. This was done to avoid having the participants, who mainly consisted of curatorial students, work pragmatically and conventionally with the task. They were to be ripped out of their comfort zones and encouraged to embrace a freer speculative rethinking of the art institution, a reimagining that concerned its concrete form as well as the principles upon which it is based. The intention was to release the participants from a discursive mindset, for it is easier to imagine the end of the world as we know it than to imagine the end of the art institution as we know it. It worked.
The workshop prompted, inspired, and pointed discussions where imagination trumped theory as a critical tool. Thinking within the given situation outmatched all concerns about (maintaining) the existing economy and hierarchies of the art world. More specifically, the discussions resulted in a series of flow charts or mind maps containing a wealth of words, images, and diagrams. These were not so much definite solutions as they were sketches and outlines for new approaches to the art institution as ecologically, socially, and cosmically situated. And they were based on questions no-one had asked before. Should zombies have access to museums? Should the museum be a sanctuary where the rest of the population is protected from them? Should art help us defend ourselves against the invasion from outer space? If so, how? Is art the only thing to serve functions that merit display in art institutions? Would the re-emergence of prehistoric plant and animal life be an integral part of the art institution in a flooded world?
In the context of the dominant art-institutional discourse, such questions may seem ridiculous, even frivolous. Nevertheless, the response from the workshop participants reaffirmed my belief that these are the kinds of questions we will have to start asking in order to envision the art institution anew in a world that is changing beyond what we can imagine.
In light of the current situation, where art institutions around the world have been closed for more than a month, and we do not yet know how or when they can open again, I hereby ‘publish’ the concept of TAIATEOTWAWKI as an open-source workshop. That is, anyone interested can run the workshop and adapt it to their own needs entirely freely and for free. All I ask is that I be credited as developer.