Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska work closely with institutions, exploring the systems by which culture is produced, disseminated and consumed. Their 2008 film ‘Museum Futures: Distributed’, commissioned by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm to celebrate its 50th anniversary, began as a series of discussions with museum staff. In the seminar following the recent screening at Cockpit Theatre in London, Cummings explained that these were not as productive as he’d hoped: quizzed on their vision of Moderna’s future, the staff were either indifferent or hoped that things would remain the same. It seemed Moderna had no vision of the future.
So Cummings decided to extrapolate. First, he constructed a chronology of landmark exhibitions, from the Great Exhibition of 1851 to the current time. Then he projected his timeline into the future, right up to the Museet’s centenary in 2058, placing his speculations in a wider global context.
Historian thus became futurologist. At some point, futurologist became science fiction movie director, for what we saw at Cockpit was a lavish cinematic production. Cup your ears and you could have been watching a lost scene from Blade Runner, or some unknown adaptation of Ballard’s Vermilion Sands ; uncup them and you were watching a satire on institutional curating and exhibition management.
‘Museum Futures’ is a half-hour interview between an aspiring young curator, Ms Chan (Crystal Yu), and Ayan Lindquist (Chipo Chung), Executive of the 2058 Moderna Museet (‘Moderna v 3.0’). Through their conversation, we learn that ‘early 21st century… exhibitionary practice based around art-artefacts, spectacle and consumption’ has evolved—or rather, ‘devolved’—into a system of ‘embedded co-production’, and that Moderna was instrumental in this development, pioneering a ‘shift from a cultural mind-set of “broadcast”, to that of emergent peer-to-peer meshworks. Following the logic of practice [Moderna] became an immanent institution.’ We are given to infer that Moderna is the first of its kind, the rest of the interview supplying a mixture of real and fictional exhibitions, events, collections, foundations and academic arcana in support of this claim.
Speaking from different countries, Lindquist and Chan communicate via huge wall screens, with continual telepathic recourse to something known as ‘composite’; a Public Domain database, which they consult throughout their ‘livethread recall’. As they retrieve information, they appear to zone out, like narcoleptics, before resuming their dialogue. They present, not as freethinking individuals, but as avatars of a corporate curatorial algorithm that has assimilated all cultural possibilities: ‘text and images… artefacts, systems and processes; music and sound… all embedded plant, animal and bodily knowledge; public research and all possible ecologies of these resources’ have been ‘aggregated by viral licenses into our Public Domain’. The distinction between organic and synthetic intelligence, and by extension between individual and institution, has dissolved; subjectivity itself is ‘streamed’: when Chan and Lindquist get excited, the building shakes. That’s how ‘immanent’ the institution’s become.
Their interview has an amusing inevitability: they ‘scan’ for curatorial ‘precedent’ when conversation falters, and duly serve up the required data. Their constipated discourse seems doomed to arrive at a predetermined conclusion, intellectually foreclosed by the technology of its facilitation.
The initial feeling that Cummings has not packed enough narrative clay onto the armature of his timeline, that his protagonists merely adumbrate its landmark developments, slowly yields to an admiration of his futurological prowess, even if this prowess is unmistakably that of theorist rather than fiction writer. As with much satire, the scene is played with smiling sanguinity: ‘composite’ is presented as a breakthrough, when it is more like a cultural holocaust. We may already live in a world in which individuals do not so much ‘create’ culture as plug in and minimally alter its course, but here, in Moderna’s ‘peerto- peer meshwork’, authorship has shrunk to infinitesimal proportions.
The script is rigorously colourless: the dates, names of foundations, titles of exhibitions, all the details used to corroborate Cummings’ extrapolations, risk boring us. Occasionally they do. But we lean in again at key moments, at mention of ‘The Nordic Congress of the European Multitude’ (surely a pop at Moderna’s claim to be the first European MoMA) and ‘the Frieze Art Academy in Beijing’ (perhaps not so far-fetched… ). I also detected a long-suppressed desire to lampoon both academic English and the science fiction hack’s penchant for vaulting technological innovation: asked to recall some ‘beacon exhibitions’, Lindquist notes that ‘Rädslan’s ekologi, or the Ecology of Fear was timely, given the viral pandemic throughout DNA storage’. These moments of terminological compression are especially funny.
In the main, however, the writing is deliberately prosaic. And yet the actors manage to make it roll off the tongue. When they saw the script they must have winced at all those dates, the generic terminology, the discordant acronyms—only to discover an exquisite perversity in negotiating phrases like ‘the MACBA cluster in Mumbai’. Yu and Chung perform intonational miracles with euphonically dead prose, often at great verbal speed. And they hold you right to the end, their pauses, interruptions and parentheses perfectly judged and smoothly syncopated, together embodying the ‘self-conscious composite intelligence’ that emerged at some point between 2008 and 2058.
Sean Ashton is a writer living in London
Screenings at MACBA, Barcelona, June and in Sequelism at the Arnolfini, Bristol, July