A Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Douglas Coupland, and Shumon Basar
We talked to the curator, author, and writer about their new philosophy book "The Age of Earthquakes," FKA Twigs, and Generation Z's perception of time.
In Back To The Future: Part II, the year 2015 is awash with flying cars and hoverboards. In Neon Genesis Evangelion, teenage Shinji Ikari arrives in Tokyo-3 and begins piloting colossus-size flying robots. As you look out the window, however, our skies are still disappointingly quiet. The year 2015 is nothing like it looked on television; but then, who watches TV anymore anyway?
Many of us feel like technologies of the future are arriving too slowly, but a new philosophy-cum-modern-self-help book by novelist Douglas Coupland, writer Shumon Basar, and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist suggests that, in fact, it's dawning on us faster than we ever thought possible.
The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present hypothesizes that the internet is changing not only the way our minds are structured but also the way Earth itself is structured. The central premise is a dystopian one; just by reading this online, you're contributing to global warming and thus the increasing prevalence of earthquakes. You're becoming part of a collective mob, whereas if you were reading a book, you would be fostering your own sense of individualism.
Visually, The Age of Earthquakes isn't an ordinary book. Of course it's not. Rather, we are presented with experiments in sparse email- and meme-like layouts, heavily pictorial, and featuring specially commissioned artworks. There's also glossary of words of the authors' own invention, and it's all in quick-fire paperback—a deliberately archaic format for such stark discussions about our present and future.
I met with Coupland, Basar, and Obrist for an interview very early one morning in the latter's office above the Serpentine Gallery, where an idyllic panorama of Hyde Park is visible through the windows. A selfie stick hung from a coat hanger by the door, and we began our conversation on the morning after the night Obrist saw FKA Twigs perform.
VICE: So Hans, you went to the FKA Twigs show last night?
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I went to the Roundhouse, yeah. It was very interesting because I know her voice really well from listening to her all the time, but for the first time her voice wasn't in the center anymore. She made it very polyphonic in a way. The dancers were super present, there was a Leigh Bowery moment involved—this very strange, transgressive figure in the middle of it all—and there were all these flex guys. You can't believe that they can move their arms and their legs in these incredible ways.
She wasn't really visible for the first 40 minutes and people almost got nervous, you know—"Where is she? What is this?"—so there was a suspense. I found it interesting... She's on to something because it was experimental and full of risk—not the kind of mainstream pop concert you expect her to do in front of 6,000 people. It was a weird experiment, yeah. It was good!
Let's talk about The Age of Earthquakes. In the book you suggest that, because of new technology, we now perceive time as faster. But how can we possibly slow down time?
Douglas Coupland: From what I've seen there are a few people who've written books along the lines of "I got rid of my mobile phone and went landline for a year," and what happens is they've just been living absolutely miserably and their brains haven't changed back. I don't know if it's possible to actually slow down time once you've already entered the process of speeding it up. I'm very curious about people who have been born after a certain time because the way that they discuss time will never ever match ours. It's like they're able to see a color that we can't.
Shumon Basar: I read somewhere that our experience of the present lasts roughly 2.5 seconds. When has this moment become the past, and when do I enter the future? Certain neurologists say it's between 2 and 2.5 seconds and then there are some people whose brains are wired in a way that actually it may be 3 seconds or 0.5 seconds. That small calibration changes everything and creates a sort of time autism.
Douglas: Would that be like ADD, or ADHD?
Shumon: Yeah. It's interesting because time is what's processing in our brain but is also this kind of cultural construct. I don't know if you've ever read it, but there's a famous book by Mircea Eliade called TheMyth of the Eternal Return, which is basically about how ancient man experienced time. It was cyclical, living the same day, the same month, and the same year through the commune of things like agriculture and other sorts of rituals.
Douglas: With no expectations of change?
Shumon: With no expectations of change. Then there's a radical shift. It's somewhere in the Renaissance, where time goes from cyclical to linear. Obviously you have eschatology, which says that the universe will end at some point, but ancient cultures could have notions of cyclical time and eschatology at the same time.
With modern time—especially when you get into industrialized work-life—you have a weird kind of capitalist eschatology, which also doesn't have an end. It's all about getting to the end of the work day, getting to the end of the work week, living for the weekend. I think there's a line in the book about it: We basically do the same things 22,000 times, and then we die.
Essentially, our perception of time is always the confluence of what our brains allow us to perceive, but then also how culture and, increasingly, technology mandate us to imagine our insignificant life in relation to something much, much larger.
Hans: Édouard Glissant [a recently deceased writer and poet from Martinique] also talked about the homogenization of time. He would say that what it's really all about is developing an idea to resist this homogenization of time, by creating almost like a roller coaster that moves across waves, with slow moments and fast moments, and draws on pauses and silences.
This idea of resistance wouldn't be about only slowing down, and it's interesting that there's this new movement in philosophy called accelerationism [the idea that the prevailing system of capitalism might be accelerated to the point that it self-destructs].
A lot of people think that our promised future has not arrived yet, as there are no hoverboards and such. Why do you believe it has?
Douglas: We tend to see time as horizontal in our culture, but in a lot of cultures it's actually vertical. The future used to be out there, but now it's like, "Oh, we're actually inhabiting the future." It's a perpetual state now—only going to get faster and weirder. I know what you mean about hoverboards, though. Growing up, it's the sort of Southern California version of the future—but no. Every day there's some sort of new insult to the past introduced to our culture. I wonder what will be today's?
Hans: In terms of the future, as a curator I'm often asked about the future of art, and I always categorically refuse any comment because, how could I? But there is this generation that was actually born with the internet, the "89plus" generation.
Simon Castets [a young French curator] and I started this research—given this impossibility that we can't speculate about the future—looking at where art might go, looking at this generation of artists and poets and philosophers and thinkers born after 1989, many of whom made illustrations for the book. In the art world, books as exhibitions have been an important thing.
Shumon: With the format of the paperback, if bells were the internet of the 15th century, then the paperback was kind of the internet of the late 60s and the early 70s. The 16th-century pamphlet was also a proto-internet, too, with its distribution systems.
Hans: It's amazing how this is back and incredibly present in publishing now, both in New York and more recently in LA, at the Printed Matter Art Book Fair—one of the events in the art world where most of the energy is. It's extraordinary what's happening there, and I was mesmerized by all these new publishers that publish zines and pamphlets.
Douglas: I think it's because of Hurricane Sandy and the flood of the basement at Printed Matter. Suddenly everyone's realizing, "Oh my God, this stuff's not transient, this is valuable." It kind of woke everyone up and galvanized people.
Is that why you wanted to make a book like you have?
Shumon: We knew that there was a certain perversity in doing a paperback in regard to our relationship to the internet, but that was a perversity we wanted to embrace. One thing that we're really interested in—we call it "screen matter"—is the immersive world of imagery and texts that we encounter pretty much 24/7 on a screen.
However, we may not accord it the significance that it takes on once you move it from there onto a piece of paper, and in a weird way I think it requires that translation into an old-fashioned paper book for the mirror to appear of what the internet really is today.
Douglas: I think the litmus test of this book is: Would any page of this book make any sense to someone from 1968? I think probably not. That's how far we've come.
Shumon: We all share a vivid interest in what makes the present moment the present moment. To ask that question in the last two or three years, you can't escape the way in which these very profound shifts have been taking place in terms of our relationship to time, to place, and how something as physically small as this [holding up his phone] precipitates that.
For me, one of the most important lessons of Marshall McLuhan (the Canadian philosopher of communications and the major inspiration for this book) was when he said that man creates media and then that media recreates man. We're in a constant feedback loop.
We create technology thinking and hoping it will do certain things for us. But, as we say somewhere, the unpredictable side effects of technology are what dictate the future—there is always an excess to what we invent. We would argue that it's those excess effects of technology that produce the most radical—and also sometimes most unsettling—moral, philosophical, social, and cultural changes.
Douglas: I just remembered—while I was just trying to gracelessly shake my leg and the table shook—going to art school in Japan every day and getting a little bit seasick. Recently, we found this article that showed that there'd been more earthquakes in the last decade than in the previous century, and then another article came out that said, "No, wait, look at their data! It could be anything!" And then Shumon said, "We have earthquake deniers!"
Maybe we'll have more volcanoes, and then we'll have more carbon, and then we really will have a permanent winter. And it's all because we want it now, all because you want a kitten video on that thing (my phone), and you want it now in real-time HD.
OK. What do you watch on YouTube?
Douglas: Fukushima footage... La Dolce Vita, I'm really into Italy in the late 50s, early 60s right now, so anything to do with that... Oh, this guy from YouTube, I was talking to him and I said, "I'm sure you must have seen everything, what's the most boring thing you've ever seen on YouTube?" and he said, "Oh that's easy, elevator rides..." What about you Hans, what do you look up on YouTube?
Hans: Lots of conversations and interviews. It's super exciting that there's infinite conversations online. What else have I been watching lately? Lots of music clips, all of Jesse Kanda's things for Arca, which are amazing. Oh, and Adam Curtis, of course. Again and again Adam Curtis! And the new Afghanistan film by Adam Curtis [Bitter Lake]. Super urgent!
The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present will be published by Penguin on March 3.
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