"We see this as a kind of DIY manual." Hans Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine co-director, and arguably his generations finest curator, is very excited. He's describing his new book, a radical updating of Marshall McLuhan's The Medium Is The Massage for our, frankly, totallly insane world. "It’s also maybe a form of a cookbook – an extreme present cookbook". He's sat with two friends – and co-authors – Douglas Coupland and Shumon Basar. Douglas Coupland defined his age with a book twenty years ago, with Generation X. British writer, artist, theorist and editor Shumon Basar midway through a day promoting their new book Age of Earthquakes, overlooking a cityscape viewable from the 15th floor of a central London business hotel bar.
Hans, Douglas and Shumon are friends: futurists by nature and artists in mind. Age of Earthquakes is equal parts self help and art book, and, with it's quotable slogan and rich imagery from artists like K_Hole, Trevor Paglen and even Michael Stipe, it's like a very smart Tumblr, but made of woodpulp. Guidebook, map for today and mediation on the madness of our media, it's an awesome, dizzying read. Over the course of an hour, the three thinkers talked us thourgh 14 spreads from the book.
Immediately underneath us are the satellite dishes and turrets of Broadcasting House and the dreamy spire of John Nash's All Souls church. From the bar's vast windows to the horizon, cranes are strewn across the landscape, steadily, ominously building London's tomorrow. The bar feels like a first class waiting room in a second class airport, paused in 1998, and we're all drinking Coke. It's the perfect place to discuss how the terryfing and wonderful future came to be all around us.
Douglas Coupland: You know what’s weird? That quote has been attributed to Bataille, to McLuhan, to Andy Warhol: it's one of those.
Shumon Basar: It’s a meme quote.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: But it’s also the classic empty page, and in a way the book is a medium. There is a long history of that – from Tristram Shandy’s black page and throughout art history. For the avant garde of the 60s, the artist book is very much at the call of conceptual art: you need to credit Lucy R Lippard: she’s one of the great inventors of this idea that you are curating what happens within a book. She did this amazing exhibition in Vancouver – all roads always lead to Canada!
Douglas Coupland: I think the history of the world is the history of time. The future for me, growing up, was always something that was ahead. In the distance – then it started to get closer. Then it was there, and now suddenly, right now actually is the future. What we’re inhabiting is no longer in the distance anymore but in this state of very, very profoundly accelerating flux. And it’s not going to stop, you can’t take a break from it, even something as simple as not using your device for a weekend, nothing's going to work. Technology is not going to take a holiday. It’s going to happen more and more faster and you’ll be stuck inside the thing. So how do you cope with that?
Shumon Basar: The image that we’ve used to illustrate that spread is from Michael Stipe, and it’s such a beautiful image, because, of course, the telephone box is a quintessentially 20th century phenomena that already feels deeply from the past. I think Michael has a very interesting practice as an artist, and particularly as a photographer. He seems to take photographs of almost like micro moments, the detritus of the modern condition, and this just felt like a beautiful moment.
Douglas Coupland: Aren’t we just the worst species you can imagine? You know if you said in the early 90s: “In 20 years, you will have the answer to any question you ever wanted, right there immediately, literally in the palm of your hand, no matter where you are on earth,” you would say “No that’s not possible. No that’s too unbelievable.” And, of course, now it’s true, now everyone’s like (yawns) “Next!” We have these amazing things that just dropped into our laps, and now we just want something new. That’s the other part of the relationship with the future we just spoke about it. You’re scared of what’s coming next, but you also want it. What would you call that kind of relationship? Co-dependent?
Shumon Basar: One of the phenomena of being alive today is this process of outsourcing various parts of our personality, our identity, and, particularly, our memory to machines – hard drives, servers, and the Cloud. We remember nothing we don’t have to. So we don’t have to remember the past, because we feel like it’s being stored somewhere and can access it if and when we want to.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: We have more and more information but less and less memories. Maybe amnesia is at the core of the digital age, and that leads us onto this paradox, that, on one hand, in a potential digital collapse. It could all be lost, yet at the same time, there is also this awesome possibility of deleting things so they aren’t there forever. Hoarding is the central impulse of our age.
Douglas Coupland: I think there’s a link there to collecting, or curating your own environment. Minimalists always act so superior, like “Oh, we’re not hoarding.” That’s bullshit, they’re just hoarding space.
Douglas Coupland: Kinda strange isn’t it? It’s not even metaphor. You really have a lot more in common with some guy in Indian subcontinent, or Mongolia or California than you ever did before, and a shared set of experiences. Even if it’s just playing Grand Theft Auto or something, you can say, “Oh! I do that too!”
Shumon Basar: It’s part of this notion of redefining what generations are. And suddenly it’s really not to do with when you were necessarily born, but it’s much more about your relationship to technology, and to your openness to technology. My father, up until very, very recently, was a total technophobe. Everything changed when we got him an iPad, and now we basically can’t get him off it – my mum has to yank it from him. In a way, he has joined this generation even though he was born in 1937.
Douglas Coupland: It’s like the death of intuition. Or the outsourcing of intuition to the Cloud.
Shumon Basar: In the spirit of updating our cultural operating system, this is our update of the famous Jenny Holzer quote, “Protect me from what I want,” which I think is one of the defining kinds of the late 20th century. I think so much of our desire is being unknowingly outsourced to a set of algorithms telling what it is that we think we want.
Douglas Coupland: Opposites attract... then they attack. That’s the corporate model of eHarmony.com. Almost every wedding I’ve been to since 2000 has been people who’ve met through eHarmony.com. So, they obviously know something really profound about human behaviour.
Shumon Basar: Goddard said, ‘if two people can’t agree on films, the relationship is doomed.’ Of course he would say that, but things have changed, but obviously going to the movies was something that defined his generation.
Any thoughts spring to mind here?
Douglas Coupland: Almost too many.
Shumon Basar: About “free time.” During the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, one of the things that Mubarak's regime thought they were doing, which was very clever and was going to defuse the situation, was to turn off the Internet. But in fact what this led to was everyone going out in the streets and joining the physical throng and doubling, tripling the number of people: it totally backfired.
The time we spend online is immeasurable, because our phones are on all the time, we spend all our waking – and sleep – time online. It’s our entertainment. It’s our hobby. It’s how we socialise. It’s how we fall in love. The idea that that would then be turned off, suddenly inundates of us with a kind of profound level of free time or empty time. One of the most suspicious things today is to see someone not checking their phone. What must they be doing?
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I was reading a newspaper one morning, it suddenly made me think of my late friend Leon Golub, who just opened a show at the Serpentine. He’s an American artist who died in his eighties in 2004. He was a great inspiration for many artists, from Hanz Harkett, to Martha Roswall, to Prochant and so on and so on. Leon Golub’s whole work is about violence and wars – it’s basically artistic anti-war activism. His work from the 60s, in the context of wars fought with mercenaries in Africa and so on and so on, suddenly looks so incredibly now. Leon Golub would often say that there are always more and more wars.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: With hoarding, there is another oxymoron! If you think about Airbnb, and if you think of this idea that more and more are in the sharing economy, and it’s more and more becoming a reality that you don’t need to own cars, or homes or anything. We just use it, which obviously leads to the fact that it’s less of owning things and more using them when we need them, and that’s the opposite of hoarding right? So, we have this paradox. We have less and less objects and more and more digital hoarding. We depend on objects and are consumers of everything, to the extent that we are not dependent on owning any physical devices.
Douglas Coupland: That’s funny, because the speed of light is only 186,282 miles. Would you do a one-way trip to Mars?
Um, not right now. Would you?
Douglas Coupland: God no I’d be so bored. Whoever did this, i love them dearly but they drive me crazy, couldn’t do it.
Shumon Basar: Definitely not, no.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: One should never say never!
Are you food photographers?
Douglas Coupland: The only food I’ve ever photographed was caviar pie in Paris (pulls out phone and shows a picture). That’s pastry, filling, caviar and sheets of gold, melted with a creme brûlée torch. Obscene, eh?
Douglas Coupland: I know.
Shumon Basar: This quote, “photographing your salad turns it into a ghost,” of course should remind us of the fact that everything has changed, nothing has changed. With our portable cameras today, the two most popular typologies of image making are still the self-portrait and the still life. Vanitas and deathliness.
Shumon Basar: This notion of individuality being the ultimate horizon of self no longer seems to be the paradigm to aspire to. It’s interesting because Japanese pop culture got there decades ago. Here, the idea of youth culture is an expression of your own self, different to those around you. For me, growing up in the North of England, that meant being a kind of sullen indie kid in a sea of, kind of, jocks. But in Tokyo, it’s the opposite. You feel more like yourself by looking more like everyone else. And in a way, I think that logic has taken over now, it’s the logic of the world.
Douglas Coupland: Over in Shoreditch, I saw a big billboard for the Gap, saying “Be normal”. I was like, “Am I hallucinating? Is that really saying that?” I mean, they flipped it, so that being normal means keeping cultural. How did they do that? Curse you fashion!
Shumon Basar: I guess this is when we are most explicitly self-help book-y. One of the popular genres of literature today is the self-help book and it’s very interesting that, again, if organised religion maybe in the decline in the West, but questions of spirituality and self value and self worth have not gone away. And whether you find that solace in kale recipes or in The Real Housewives Of Atlanta, you know it goes to prove that those fundamental questions are what it means to be alive, have not changed.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: But also you know also with these lists, that lists are very inconclusive, in the sense that they are not like any kind of recipe to whatever, but a beginning of a list for a reader to be continued. We believe a lot in a way that this is a participatory book. I mean Duchamp said, ‘the view of an artwork only does half of the work,’ and these lists are triggers and summaries of that. Now, obviously, it is a book which very much has to do with the forces driving our world, which can only accelerate. There is also a connection with this new kind of physiological movement called ‘Accelerationism,’ which basically says it may be possible to integrate accelerated speeds and not always just talk about it in old ways. We can also discuss ‘Posthastism,’ which is the opposite of that. There are changes of life and person and a whole new list of ways of consuming old and new forms of culture, new relationships to history, the relationship between memory, and the expectation of all needs being met on demand. This is a list, but only the beginning of a list.
Age of Earthquakes is out now on Penguin.