Where to Imagine?- on the obstacles and potentials for imaginaries in cultural transformation.
Global society is characterized by imbalance. Colonial hierarchies are kept alive by the ideology of the “free market” and powers of capitalist extraction keep generating violence and inequality on a global scale. Within nation states, the gap between the general population and the few very rich is becoming undeniably wider as well. Furthermore this social order of exploitation has created conditions for a climate crisis that is now seriously challenging the future of living organisms inhabiting Earth, including ourselves. It is especially the image of a dying planet that has finally seemed to create a broad consensus that we need new visions for the future.
How then, has my generation been brought up to think about the future? We were taught to dream up new business adventures and invent ourselves as entrepreneurs for progress. The revolutions had already happened and the people won the battle for democracy, enlightenment, workers rights, gender equality and liberty. Now, it was just up to us, to gather all of these victories and bring them to their fullest potential by realizing them in the narratives of our own individual success. The capitalist class were role models rather than a power to be challenged. The greater amounts of wealth they amassed, the higher was the sky in the imaginary of our own freedom – the potential of how far you can take a project. Furthermore we were taught that a profit-seeking adventure could take us to the highest socially moral level: In countries like Denmark because wealth means welfare (“don’t you want to give back to the state what it gave to you?”), elsewhere, perhaps in the shape of trickle-down ideology or just general social status and recognition by financial gain.
It is obviously illogical to organize a society around constant growth benefiting the very few, when the organism of society consists of the whole mass of people living in it – an organism that needs a circulating and sustainable distribution of resources for the common good. However the immediate response to the climate crisis, is to solve it according to the same old commercial production and market-logic that lead us to the current state of affairs: Businesses are looked upon to lead the way in green innovation and political interference should be minimized to lifting the obstacles in its way and improving the conditions that could make this new market for green technology profitable. At the same time, in contrast, the state takes strong action when it comes to closing boarders and protecting property rights.
We do need new imaginaries and visions for a better world, but they cannot function according to the way that western society teaches us to dream of the future. As much as we need to construct new models, we need to deconstruct the current ones. Because solving the imbalance is not just a technical matter of reducing carbon emissions, it is a matter of restructuring what is now a distorted social order.
To strive for such a fundamental change is obviously naïve and utopian. Perhaps not because an actual better world can’t be envisioned, but because getting there seems unrealistic. The world-engulfing power of big corporations is too much of a challenge to be up against and even if such a countermovement could be orchestrated, then good luck getting people to join forces: Every aspect of our lives is claimed by commercial interest and we are compelled to participate, as it is only through the market that we have access to basic life requirements. Many of our hopes and fantasies are shaped within a capitalist logic as well and you can’t just ask everybody in one day to snap out of their general lifestyle and habits. As we are participating in the system simply by being placed in it, how can we be against the system without being against each other? And as we are all placed within a hierarchy of systematic inequality, how can we speak and act without reproducing the privilege that we might have been granted according to class, race, gender and citizenship? When moving into the future, we must indeed be highly sensitive to these implications, if we are to not bring the same destructive mechanisms with us.
In the light of all the things that tear us apart, I want to consider the act of imagining as a task to be done in a process of cultural transformation. In the collective creation of imaginary futures we are not played out against each other and the obstacle of getting out of our current situation does not obstruct the dream of what kind of society we want to live in. The practice of imaginaries would be based on a fundamental critique of current power structures, and the visions it creates would not be limited by compromises and negotiations. Imagining could never stand on it’s own. Political involvement and activism is necessary and crucial and without the effort and will to push through in a reality where people and nature is hurting as we speak, our dreams would in any case have nothing to attach themselves to. However, unlearning capitalist ideology is a long process: One where dreaming of a better future just might be a necessary step to get to the point of fighting for it. We need more people to unite in struggle; a struggle fueled by our very best hopes for how we could live together as human beings.
Building visions on the left is however not an unchallenged practice in itself. How can it manifest itself formally when the models and platforms we have at our disposal, seems to have tried and failed in the past? The twentieth century’s socialist utopia is now most of all utilized as an example to warn us of the totalitarian evil looming in every challenge to capitalist democracy. Meanwhile new technological and cultural inventions are, with the blink of an eye, adopted for en ever-expanding market and enfolded into the capitalist logic of culture being a matter of consumerism. If the Avant-garde once promised a challenge to the industry of popular culture, then that momentum is long gone and we have witnessed the leftovers from counter-reactive movements being nicely archived for art-institutions or as highlights in private collections. This shattered vision of the transformative power of art within western capitalist culture, can create a sensation of being left with no tools at hand and no option to act. It might, however, also be welcomed as a part of a process in which the field of art is challenged to get over its fascination for the individual artist genius, and concern itself more with its potential for critical thinking and for questioning its own modes of operation. If we hold on to this possibility for critical awareness we might still in artistic practice, find a platform from where we can work on a general deconstruction of capitalist power structures and create new imaginaries and visions for a better world.
There is no place from where to operate that is not implicit in the system that we need to counteract but with enough sensitivity, we might be able to recognize the traditions within our practices that are reproducing capitalist ideology, and still find that we can claim a space to challenge the situation that we have been placed in. From here we might find that the things we need to dream up is something that we already know; held as information within our own bodies, our communities and the planet that we live on.
This text was printed in the catalogue for Hannibal Andersen's exhibition Payments end Tomorrow at PET Projects in Athens and on display in the Utopia Salon at the festival Ejerslev Dreaming