Futures and Options

The story of the 21st century, so far, has been dominated by two major themes: technology and finance. The digital revolution, still in an early phase, is reconfiguring our relationship to the external world by means of a heightened visual language based on function. Modularity, instantly graspable iconography and efficiency are essential characteristics of a new visual paradigm, which, ever so subtly, is universalizing the way we consume information — on a global scale.

As the visual logic of the screen comes to increasingly dominate our everyday lives, we are presented with a uniquely contemporary platform to examine human nature. The Surrealists were the first to conduct a systematic exploration of the visual content of our experience, treating the common objects of the external world as elements in a solidified dream to be rearranged, psychoanalyzed and reinterpreted. Their efforts yielded an unflinching and unprecedented view into our internal visual activity, what J.G. Ballard termed ‘inner space’. Through the mixture of disparate objects and scales, these explorers of human consciousness were conducting a form of iconographic alchemy, mingling carefully selected elements from the visual ingredients of our lives into new formulations of human expression.

The Pop artists continued the exploration of juxtaposed imagery in a similar vein, but turned their content from dreams and mundane objects to the shared iconography of the consumer society and the mass media, providing an updated and equally tantalizing window into contemporary unconscious activity. In so doing, their focus shifted from the individual to the mass subject and crowd psychology, a fitting transition for a world ever more dominated by pop culture and mass production. Today, the digital screen has emerged as a new focal point of visual activity. With its scientific precision of color, endless capability to edit and near universal adoption, this tabula rasa of seemingly infinite possibility has become the leading indicator of the future course of human consciousness.

The common view of the user interface is that it helps navigate and manipulate content. However, like banal objects for the Surrealists, icons — and even layout — have become content in and of themselves, as the template logic of the digital medium, in particular the feed, emerges as a universal feature of digital content. In a constant state of evolution and refinement, these visual elements beckon to us from our space faring future. Websites, like apps and software user interfaces, are landscapes with no horizon, intimations of the horizonless landscapes of space.

For all of our technological prowess, deep problems haunt our political landscape. In a world facing exponential population growth and resource scarcity, developed economies struggle to expand. Unpayable debts predicated on low cost energy and unlimited growth are now coming due, leading to a drawing down in the standard of living of Western capitalist nations. Meanwhile emerging economies aspire to middle class lifestyles, heightening the demand for the world’s dwindling supply of natural resources. Today, more than ever, financial markets dominate our lives. As such, the iconography of finance provides a powerful metaphor for contemporary life.

In a larger context, the stock market can be viewed as an expression of mass psychology, a system that runs according to the universal instincts of greed and fear, represented by the timeless principles of buy and sell, one of the simplest and richest metaphors for decision making that can be applied to anything — and everything. In so far as cultural studies can be scientific, financial markets provide us with a unique vantage point to observe the irrational truths of human nature in that they are a quantification of human emotion on a mass scale. Many artists look down on financial markets, condescendingly mocking capitalists for their short sighted, greedy ambitions to pursue wealth and material gain. In their moralistic judgements, however, they ignore the most accurate gauge that currently exists for measuring the mass psyche.

They also ignore history. Thales of Miletus, the first philosopher and scientist of the Western intellectual tradition, is renown, amongst other things, for having correctly predicted a drought a year in advance. As a result of his speculations, he cornered the olive market in anticipation of a failed harvest the following year. When his prediction came true he made a fortune, which was interpreted by the ancients as a demonstration of Thales’ wisdom, showing a correlation between financial and philosophical speculation at the very outset of Western philosophy.

Following the tradition of the Surrealists and the Pop artists, the true role of the artist in today’s society is to unify disparate narratives, in other words, to render coherence out of the fragmented experience that characterizes 21st century life using a globally common iconography. Of all disciplines, it is the artist who is tasked with creating an accessible visual philosophy that addresses the common experiences we all share. Today’s artist is a synthesizer, a unifier of narratives, a synoptic eye that helps generate a grand unified story out of the ordered chaos of our common experience. In short, someone who makes ‘sense’ of the stories of our lives.

Toronto — London — Amsterdam — Paris 2012