Germany's Art Festival Quadriennale Envisions the World Beyond Tomorrow

Known for its Kunstakademie (Academy of the arts), the city of Dusseldorf in the North-West of Germany has a long-standing tradition for artistic avant-garde. Currently the beautiful city on the river Rhine is opening its gates for international art connoisseurs indulging in various media describing future concepts of world perception, with a sense of radical liberation only the arts can communicate in that fashion. The third Quadriennale will be held from April 5th till August 10th. With its theme Über das Morgen hinaus (Beyond Tomorrow), artists are given the chance to conceptualize the future through various media, while inspiring the public with new and sometimes well-known perspectives about common global prospects.

Studies of how the past has imagined the future make up a rich and established field in the arts, as well as in science and literature. The Utopian science fiction novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by lawyer and writer Edward Bellamy from Massachusetts was published in 1888. The book is, "A fictional account of a Boston man, Julian West, who falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000 to find that America has become a socialist utopia."

At the time, it impacted a large number of intellectuals and created a political mass movement. Over 162 "Bellamy Clubs" were formed in the United States alone, discussing and propagating the book's ideas.

In the early 20th century, the artistic and social movement futurismo (futurism) shaped an entire generation of young, modern artists, as well as Italian society. Eager to free Italy from its past by glorifying the future in the present, futurism embraced the visual and performing arts, politics, and even advertising.

A current exhibition in New York's Guggenheim museum, Italian Futurism, 1909-1944, Reconstructing the Universe is displaying an impressive collection of work by painters such as Giacomo Balla, Mario Chiattone, and Luigi Russolo. The Guggenheim's website reads, "Inspired by the markers of modernity--the industrial city, machines, speed, and flight--Futurism's adherents exalted the new and the disruptive."

Meanwhile from Dusseldorf, a total of thirteen museums, art venues, and partner institutions are working with the following questions: How do artists today imagine the future? What visions did earlier artists express? And what role is played by the material used?

One of them is New York City's electronic media artist Alexander Hahn. The Swiss native and Lower East Side resident is part of the exhibition, The Invisible Force Behind. Materiality in Media Art. His one channel video piece Getting Nowhere from 1981 depicts a very unique Cold War time conversation engaging a computer, named ELIZA. Discussed are the threats of a nuclear strike and its consequences to both humans and computers. The rather one-sided, nevertheless enlightening talk is re-scanned live from an Apple II computer monitor. ELIZA was a 1960's computer program written at MIT by Joseph Weizenbaum -- a parody of "the responses of a non-directional psychotherapist in an initial psychiatric interview," according to Hahn.

The artists Bielicky and Richter, also participants in The Invisible Force Behind, are combining in Why don't we Twitter messages with social topics, such as surveillance, whistleblowing or Information Warfare and project the results on a large surface.

A rather critical view on contemporary lifestyle and culture has Wolfgang Ullrich, professor of art history and media theory at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, the university for composition, in Karlsruhe. He developed the theme, as well as the dramaturgy for this year's Quadriennale. Titled, Neurotics of Sustainability and Prisoners of the Present, Ullrich points out through his work that, "It's not enough to reduce debates on the future to the issue of sustainability, because that would mean understanding the future merely as a continuation of the present, holding up today's status as the standard." Taking a balanced look at the future, Ullrich says, means seeing it as "possessing neither visionary nor utopian power."

Furthermore according to Ullrich, media and the huge selection of "leisure activities" are keeping humans in a constant "mood of suspense" with an almost exclusive focus on the "current moment." Additionally, according to the Quadriennale website, the Swiss philosopher Dieter Thomä names it the "obsession with the present" and blames among other things the "curse of property" for making humanity "cling to the status quo" and lose sight of more forward-looking goals and perspectives.

Thomä has also observed an "addiction to synchronicity" as real-time media gives people a way to be involved in multiple activities simultaneously, filling their lives supposedly with "instant gratification", a very popular contemporary viewpoint. According to Thomä, this leaves neither time nor energy to go beyond the current moment and think about what is to come. The German writer Moritz Rinke even terms the people of today as "fanatics of the moment."

Needless to say, these views reflect matters that often or almost exclusively occur in societies that have the means to provide certain gadgets, internet access and the new way of life that is resulting from circumstances. Meanwhile, the concept of sustainable development is meant to include those, who so far often do not have the privilege to a "synchronistic lifestyle," including the vast options of "leisure activities" that provide "instant gratification".

Picture: © Quadriennale GmbH; Trailer zur Quadriennale Düsseldorf 2014,
GfG/Gruppe für Gestaltung