The new capitalist realism: Science fiction in art of the 2010s
When artists and curators became interested in science fiction in the 1960s it was because the genre offered a way of bringing the future into art, and art into the future. In Europe, curators cluttered galleries with robots and spaceships, while Robert Smithson terraformed the American West. Science fiction was a way of provoking new states of mind, new ways of being in the world. It was estranging because it imagined that one day people would live differently. Today such dreams have passed us by, as the present presses upon us with its anxieties about ecological collapse. The future is no longer the province of a hopeful, techno‑scientific imagination, but a place where technologies are in the service of the powerful. Such world‑shaking sciences as biotech and robotics that once promised to save the world now threaten to destroy it, as genetically engineered crops and flying drones participate in extinctions and wars.
The fictions that describe this apocalyptic turn support new sub‑genres of Cli‑fi or eco‑fiction. George Turner’s The Sea and Summer, for example, published as long ago as 1988, imagines Melbourne being submerged by the sea. Its protagonists claim that the “Greenhouse Culture” condemned them to a watery dystopia. Today, it is impossible to think about art as anything but immersed in the geopolitics of Greenhouse Culture, in which the inability of nation‑states to manage runaway levels of pollution promises to bring about an apocalyptic future. Even nature, once the most reliable of subjects for artists, has become something very different, appearing almost as manufactured as an aquarium or a manicured garden. But the difference now is that nature is out of control. It is no longer, to borrow Kant’s terms, a form within the formless, beautiful and sublime, but is instead spiralling toward monstrosity.
Artists can no longer rely on nature to produce a transcendence of mind. Nicholas Folland’s series of works that use refrigeration units to grow ice on chandeliers illustrate the point. Here, what should be beautiful installations that combine intricate, artificial glasswork with ethereal, natural forms are suffused with the cold spectre of climate change. How to see ice creeping around the ornate, blown glass without thinking of the changes in the planet’s atmospheres and ice fields, of polar bears swimming desperately across the widening ocean? Explaining his influences, Folland quotes the doomed explorer Robert Falcon Scott who decided with his team that they would endure a natural death by marching across the Antarctic, rather than to take the poison they carried with them.
This proved not to be a choice at all, as they died before they could leave their tents, ice creeping into their beards and swallowing their breaths. The natural order claimed them before they could claim themselves; the ice that grew in their tent, is hardly the stuff of the heroic outside, but of an awful, creeping, internal demise. The ice on Folland’s chandeliers also materialises from the atmosphere of an inside space, and like the breath of the explorers is both natural and artificial. There is no longer a distinction to be made. But like a tent flapping in the wind, there is an uncertainty about where and what to do.
It may well be that the anxieties that drive Cli‑fi in both literature and art is no longer science fictional, since this genre depends for its imagination upon the ongoing conquest of nature. Since global warming has come to constitute the future’s horizon and every new storm, every annual record temperature, promises more of the same this future has come to appear as a deadly spiral of carbon and capital, the atmosphere and the economy. Capitalist realism goes further than Cli‑fi in its predictions of doom, describing and capturing in works of fiction that which is both probable and possible in a future beyond economic and environmental collapse. For capitalism is the cause of this immense ecological spectacle; capitalism lies at the horizon of possibility, beyond which it is impossible to imagine.
This is not the capitalist realism of the 1960s represented by Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, but the devastating argument set forth by Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009) that describes capitalism’s grinding sense of inevitability, the way that it has closed off possibilities other than itself, as the condition for future histories of the eco‑apocalypse. Here capitalism has come to occupy the place of nature as the metaphysical, atmospheric cause of the changes around us. Capitalism has become the invisible and inevitable cause of the world, the principle by which it is possible to predicate the existence of climate change and understand its effects. What is the place of art in the absence of nature? What is art’s transcendental deduction amidst the decline of bee populations and increasing global temperatures, before extreme weather events and the rising of the oceans?
Like Folland, Melbourne artist Kate Shaw is interested in ice, but more explicitly ties her work to the problem of visualising climate transformation. In 2013 she took up a residency in Iceland to see the melting glaciers, and came to paint them in luminescent colour. While we are familiar with photographs and video of these glaciers collapsing into the sea, to think of such natural events as the effect of climate change requires a fractal leap of the imagination. For climate change remains an invisible logic, part of a spectral world of information, its details drawn from ice cores that stretch back into the Pleistocene. Shaw’s landscapes are not pictures of climate change as such, but of its chimera, of graphs and tables, of the chimeric threats that are both invisible and all around us.
The irony here is that Shaw’s paintings strike us as aesthetic in an older sense, that they appeal to an appreciation of nature in an era in which nature can no longer be natural. They invite the same kind of hesitation that we might feel before thinking of a flood or a volcanic eruption aesthetically, because behind Shaw’s work as behind any disaster lies the possibility of death and destruction. They pull away the illusion of nature to leave us with the hyper‑reality of the Anthropocene throbbing within. This Anthropocene has condemned us never again to appreciate the Earth as beautiful, but instead to see a terraformed dome all around us, within which we are condemned to live out an apocalypse of our own making.
Shaw’s video The Spectator (2010) illustrates the contradiction of this kind of realism, in which the human race is a witness to its own extinction. People watch avalanches and volcanoes from behind a railing, casually absorbing the spectacle. It is after all possible to enjoy the end of the world if you are cushioned from it. So too in the classic works of capitalist realism, in films like Children Of Men (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013), a class of people are protected from global disaster, able to observe and appreciate it from a distance. Inter‑passivity is the condition not only of consumer society, but also of the apocalypse itself.
How not to be at one remove from the end of the world? How to think realism in an age of metaphysical spectacle? How to act upon or within a world that one can only know about through fantasy? French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux argues that such paradoxes reproduce a circle of “correlationism” in which we can only know the world through its representations, and yet the world is also only ever produced by such representations. Shaw’s paintings of climate change describe this dilemma. We know that climate change lies within the work’s reason for being, but cannot see this reason. Our eyes search her paintings for evidence of the apocalypse but find only paint.
The effect relies not on nature but on its disappearance, on surfaces that are haunted by the Anthropocene and yet which resemble nature. Meillassoux’s book After Finitude (2008) is at the foundations of a movement in philosophy called “speculative realism” that attempts to think its way around this central paradox of modernity, that is also the animating contradiction of science fiction, in which one believes in scientific reason but does not know what to do once one has mastered it. Meillassoux proposes that the solution to correlationism lies in a return to metaphysics as absolute truth, and argues that science has already made this leap into a truth beyond that which we can see. To know that the Earth is 4.56 billion years old is to trust metaphysics rather than observation, obscure scientific instruments rather than reason. Such truths lie beyond not only that which an individual can see or reason about, but beyond the time of the human race and its capacities.
The correlationist dilemma is a pertinent one for artists, who remain tied to what can be seen and known, to the humanism of the mind. As such, they are unable to make the leap into metaphysics and make the truth‑claims that science does. Artists could never announce something as significant as a climate change apocalypse because they do not bear the news of unseen truths, but are instead dabblers in the visible, superficial world. Pushing this problem of appearance to its limit is Stelarc, whose works are as much scientific experiments as they are performance artworks. Paul Virilio famously called Stelarc a “laboratory rat” for his incessant drive to turn his body into the subject of innovative machines and modifications. Recently, in Propel (2015), Stelarc was strapped into a giant, robotic arm that jerked him from one position to another. Then a giant ear, the size of a human body, was attached to this same arm, and swung around in the same robotic dance.
Through this doubling of body and body‑sized ear, we are reminded that Stelarc’s own left arm has a prosthetic ear grown upon it, an ear that is attached to an arm that is then attached to a body that is being swung about by a robotic arm, that then is then attached to another ear, in a metonymic regress of body parts. Propel brings into being what Deleuze and Guattari called the body without organs, a body in pieces rather than unified by the organs inside it, a body that simulates the conditions of life in an indifferent universe in which nothing adds up to more than itself, but is godless, materialist, and fragmented.
In a second recent performance, ReWired/ReMixed (2016), Stelarc plugged himself into prosthetic eyes, ears and arms. His eyes were in virtual reality goggles that saw a collaborator cycling and walking around London, while his ears heard a collaborator’s life in New York. His arm had been inserted into a mechanical carapace, through which visitors to an exhibition or to an online site could manipulate his fingers, elbow, wrist and shoulder. In both performances Stelarc’s face (or, as Stelarc would put it, “the body’s face”), grimaces in discomfort and pain, as he is subjected to forces of disorientation. Propel and ReWired/ReMixed show what speculative realism, or at least Meillassoux’s version of it, has in common with capitalist realism, if not the end of the world itself.
For while the disorientated senses of ReWired/ReMixed are the disorientations of capitalism, analogous of the mobility of capital, information, people and goods around the world, Propel testifies to the indifference of a materialistic universe. So it is that in Stelarc’s performances capitalism and the universe become interchangeable, their brutal logics shattering that which holds Stelarc’s human body together in one piece. Subjecting himself to robotic and informatic disorientations, Stelarc anticipates the annihilation of the human species through laws that are neither natural nor unnatural, but which are absolute in their brutal indifference to the body.
Stelarc and Shaw lie on two sides of capitalist realism, what in science fiction would be called the “hard” and “soft” stories of the material world. While hard stories come from actual and possible technologies (like spaceships and time machines), soft ones (like Asimov’s psychohistory) are modelled on human behaviour. Capitalist realism changes the rules of this distinction, presumes that the worst is imminent, and that science will serve only the powerful, rather than the whole of the human race. Capitalism has superseded science in a post‑natural world, to assume the place of natural law. Stelarc and Shaw constitute the tensions between capitalism and this law that assumes the scale of the planet itself, offering us a series of configurations by which we are able to navigate our present historical moment.
Just as science fiction imagined the various possibilities implicit in the twentieth century, so in the twenty‑first century artists play out the end of the world (Folland), nature (Shaw) and the human (Stelarc). For as Fisher originally describes the problem of capitalist realism, it is impossible to imagine anything but this devastating end that has become the totality of our historical horizon. It may be that Fisher overstates the case, and that capitalist realism is simply a version of dystopian fiction, whose monolithic vision acts as a warning rather than a guide to the future. Donna Haraway argues that the sky‑gods have always portended apocalypses of one kind or another, and suggests instead looking to the relationality of the Earth where such singularities disappear into complex, tentacular arrangements.
In her recent video Driving to the Ends of the Earth (2016) the artist Erin Coates does not take the apocalypse so seriously, casually steering through blizzards, fires and storms while feeding herself and her dog from an onboard garden and pantry. For footage of avalanches and aircraft crashes are all too familiar in an era of mass media and YouTube, and for Coates they are not so much a portent of the end times as they are incidents to be navigated one by one. As Francis Russell writes of the video, there is never just one apocalypse but many, not one orgasmic, eschatological event but a constant passage of disasters and prophecies.
It is not so much the metaphysics of climate change but its spectacle that constitutes the true subject of capitalist realism, the breakdown of the present not bringing about the end of the world but many ends that recur and defer each other’s finality. So it is that capitalist realism and its forms may one day appear as unfamiliar as the genre novels of the nineteenth century, such as the silver fork novel or the village story. Shaw’s paintings and Stelarc’s performances may turn out to be as incomprehensible to the future as these genres are to us today, while an apocalypse may look completely different to what we are able to imagine. The “atrocity exhibition” that compels our gaze today could well be a legacy of the sky‑gods that once constituted the historical horizon, for we have already seen the end of the world and gone on into the future anyway.
- ^ See Lisa Slade’s interview with Nicholas Folland, ‘Das Platforms/Contemporary Art’, 19 February 2012: http://dasplatforms.com/magazines/issue-22/nicholas-folland/
- ^ Paul Virilio, ‘The Art of the Motor’, (trans.) Julie Rose, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1995, p. 113.
- ^ Donna Haraway, ‘Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene’, e-flux 75 (September 2016): http://www.e-flux.com/journal/75/67125/tentacular-thinking-anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/
- ^ Francis Russell, ‘Slow traumas of apocalypses of choice?’, Real Time 134 (August–September 2016): http://www.realtimearts.net/article/134/12398
- ^ The phrase is from J.G. Ballard’s ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ (1970).
Darren Jorgensen lectures in art history in the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts at the University of Western Australia.