Speakers from Doug Aitken’s New Horizon project ruminate on modern-day politics, the future of cities, and the emergence of public art
Doug Aitken’s New Horizon artwork moved through the state of Massachusetts throughout the summer of 2019, anchored by the presence of a mirror-surfaced hot air balloon that, through six separate landings across the state, acted as a beacon for analysing the perils of the present and imagining the possibilities of the future.
Musicians Kelsey Lu, Mac Demarco, Destroyer, and No Age all performed in stunning, wild locations and these secret happenings were complemented by a series of talks and conversations featuring some of the world’s leading thinkers, creating the perfect alchemy of pop and science amidst breathtaking scenery.
Here, we have collected the thoughts of Turkish artist and technologist Memo Atken, the editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review Gideon Lichfield, painter Sarah Morris, and legendary architect Norman Foster.
The conversations fly across topics that define who we are today, and who we’re going to become – from the divisiveness of modern-day politics, through to the future of cities, and the emergence of public art. These are new horizons.
ON THE PROCESS OF DESIGN
“Design, for me, is not a linear process. There isn’t a formula. Perhaps the closest I can get to describing it as a process is: bringing together disparate minds. Trying to encourage mavericks. Trying to cut across disciplines. And in a way, it’s questioning the whole educational process.”
WHY THE CITIES OF THE FUTURE WILL BE LIKE THE CITIES OF THE PAST
“I think it’s really an exciting time because if you take the automobile, at the end of the 19th century it was the friend of the city. The cities, particularly London and New York, would disappear into a sea of horse manure. It was filthy, it was dirty, it was smelly. It was ridden with disease. The automobile came along and suddenly the city was beautiful and clean. I could see the prospect of the automobile becoming a friend again, if that becomes electric, if they don’t have accidents because of artificial intelligence, and it is much safer than the human driver. The space occupied by the automobile – probably a parking lot – is your ideal growing space for the city farms that will provide the needs for the city. So the food arguably could be fresher, be more flavourful, and could be literally there. I think there is the prospect of a more pedestrian-friendly city. I think there are some bigger issues too, but the city as we know it has the potential. Someone described the city of the future being more like the city of the past. The city in the future will be greener, it will be quieter, it will be cleaner. It will have, hopefully, the randomness which makes cities exciting and desirable. Cities are the future, there’s no question about that.”
ON UNDERSTANDING POLITICAL DIFFERENCES
“I’m very much in the Remain camp (when it comes to Brexit) and generally people in the Remain camp call people in the Leave camp either racist or stupid, and I don’t think that’s productive. I don’t think doing that is going to help us get to where we want to get to. We should try to understand why people believe certain things. This doesn’t mean we need to simplify certain answers, but try to empathise with them on a competent level, on an emotional level, to understand the motivations why someone might vote Leave, why someone might vote Trump. You will always have radicals whose minds can’t change, then there’s a grey area of people who can slide back and forth – that we need to try not to lose.”
ON OUR CONSTANTLY SURVEILLED WORLD
“These technologies are being developed for surveillance, that’s who’s funding it – it’s Google, it’s Facebook, it’s the NSA – these organisations who are funding these technologies to make sense of the data they are collecting from us. I just want to get a good understanding of what’s happening and what awaits us. There’s a community of artists working with AI and trying to tell different stories, and trying to raise awareness of the issues that don’t even lie ahead of us – they’re already here. I doubt we have the power to change the course, but my duty is to inform people that this is happening and we should be talking about it.”
“You will always have radicals, whose minds can’t change, then there’s a grey area of people who can slide back and forth – that we need to try not to lose” – Memo Atken
ON PUBLIC ART
“I see there being more public art. I think art is going to become more in the public realm. I see that already happening. I definitely think through certain technologies art is becoming more democratic as a format. Even the gallery structures are being challenged right now because of how statistics, and how the phone, and how the digital mechanisms are working constantly. So I think there’s an undermining of things going on. You don’t even have to view it as an undermining of those institutions but they’re radically changing.”
ON HOW LYING DOESN’T SEEM TO MATTER ANYMORE
“The cost of lying seems to have disappeared. No matter what lie someone tells, it gets washed away in the maelstrom of information in the media and any attempt to set the record straight similarly... it just gets washed away.
The very language we use to describe ourselves – left and right, liberal and conservative – has been rendered near meaningless and it’s not just conflict and elections that are affected. I can see people I’ve known my whole life slipping away from me on social media. Reposting conspiracies from sources I’ve never heard of. Internet undercurrents pulling whole families apart.
As if algorithms knew more about us than we do, but contained who we were and how we talked to each other, how we explained the world to our children, how we explained our past, how we defined news and opinions, satire and seriousness, right and wrong, true, false, real, unreal. These vessels have cracked and burst, sending us spinning into disorientating spirals where words lose shared meaning. I hear the same phrases in Odessa, Manila, Mexico City, New Jersey. There was so much information. Mis-information. So much of everything that I don’t know what’s true anymore.
“No matter what lie someone tells, it gets washed away in the maelstrom of information in the media” – Gideon Lichfield
The populous are always coming under the accusation that they are fanning the flames of bigotry, but this tension has been getting worse. It’s been getting worse as technology has improved, as the world has gotten more globalised and connected. Governments are starting to rely more and more on experts to understand this complex world and so, they need more and more of that specialist knowledge. At the same time, people have been getting more empowered, more educated, having a clearer voice, and the pressure of resentment against expert elites has been growing. All of this is happening against the backdrop of increasingly visible global problems. Crises. Refugee crises. Wealth, inequality, and climate change. And these crises are making the expert class look increasingly incompetent. So, this tension between populism and technocracy that was baked in the Republics has been growing in the last 200 years, and a lot of us didn’t really realise that. We didn’t notice it because we thought that the real struggle in politics was between right and left. It was also about populism versus technocracy.
I think one of the things we have the most struggle with as human beings is – and this makes it difficult for us to get at truth – is that we tend to see things as dichotomies, as struggles between one thing and another. Good versus evil. Left versus right. Religious versus secular. It’s hard for us to keep more than one of these dichotomies in our heads all of the time and in reality, the world is a whole bunch of these struggles playing out, overlapped on one top of another but once we get focused on one – left versus right – we tend to stick with that one. That makes it difficult to have arguments about truth.”
Doug Aitken’s New Horizon was presented by The Trustees as part of their Art & the Landscape initiative, and ran from 12 – 28 July 2019 at multiple sites across Massachusetts. For more information, please see here