New Babylon is a magnum opus created between 1959–1974 by the Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys. Constant was a leading member of the CoBrA group — an avant-garde art movement influenced by surrealism and Dada — before joining Guy Debord in founding the Situationist International in 1957.

The mid-1970s saw the wane of Fordist mass production and the rise of automation in manufacturing and knowledge labor, which planted the seed for our contemporary cognitive-cultural economy. This trend was perceived by members of Situationist International in different ways. Guy Debord saw the saturation of media in everyday life as a detriment to culture, and sought to actively undermine the mass media using tactics such as dėtourment (rerouting, highjacking). These gestures were meant to counteract the effects of alienation in the capitalist society and to recuperate agency in the hyper-mediated urban life. To Debord, his cultural epoch marked the total politicization of the built environment by media and communication.

Constant’s outlook, on the other hand, was more technologically optimistic. A fully-automated society, in Constant’s mind, would liberate people from labor and enable a new kind of existence: homo ludens (men at play, a term coined by Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga). Constant explored these ideas in New Bablyon, a multi-media project that combined drawing, painting, sculptures and blurred the line between art, architecture, and fiction. Constant described New Babylon as an anti-capitalist city of infinite play, where citizens were freed from the “bourgeois shackles of work.” In the 1974 exhibition catalogue for the project, Constant outlined the assumptions that served as the conceptual foundation for his project:

— Automation of all ‘useful,’ repetitive activities frees, at the mass level, an energy that can henceforth be directed towards other activities.

— Collective ownership of the land and the means of production, and rationalization of the production of consumer goods, facilitates the transformation of this energy into creative activity.

— With productive work disappearing, collective timekeeping has no more rasion d’etre; the masses will, on the other hand, have a considerable amount of free time.

While Constant envisioned New Babylon to be a realizable concept, the project remained on the side of aesthetic fiction. The relationship between cultural producers and their means of production remain contentious. Automation did not eliminate the problem of labor. In fact, labor simply has taken on another form, whose exploitation is still pervasive, more insidious, and difficult to detect. To describe this post-Fordist condition, theorist Maurizio Lazzarato coined the term immaterial labor.








Director at IDEO | Lecturer at Berkeley-Haas

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Joanne Cheung

Joanne Cheung

Director at IDEO | Lecturer at Berkeley-Haas

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