Questioning present

“Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”[1]

― Daniel Kahneman,

When I read Think Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, I was presented with the practical difficulty of talking about the present. Not only every minute we live becomes, in that very instant, its own past, but because we are mainly remembering selves. To prove this theory, he had two individuals experience a relatively similar painful event. One of them had a longer and more painful experience, but the end was shorter and pleasant. On the contrary, the second individual had a shorter and agreeable experience troubled by a painful end. When both individuals were questioned about the event, the second one remembered the whole experience to be more painful, proving that we are guided more by our remembering self than by our living self. In a sense, we live an unconscious life controlled by our altered memories.

This assumption led me to question the possibility of finding a meaning of the contemporary, particularly in the quest of discovering its “Zeitgeist” for the theory and practice of visual culture. As I read a selection of ‘contemporary’ art history books and catalogues, they seem to talk more about what led to the present than the present itself. The authors, reading philosophers such as Jameson, Derrida, Lyotard and Deleuze, among others, failed to capture the absolute present, as although ‘contemporary’, their approach was not entirely up to date. Whether we want it or not, the accelerated state of affairs we live in, make even three years ago seem almost centuries behind.

"Centuries ago human knowledge increased slowly, so politics and economics changed at a leisurely pace too. Today our knowledge is increasing at breakneck speed, and theoretically, we should understand the world better and better. But the very opposite is happening. Our new-found knowledge leads to faster economic, social and political changes; in an attempt to understand what is happening, we accelerate the accumulation of knowledge, which leads only to faster and greater upheavals."[2]

As Kahneman's experiment led me to believe, speaking about the present is always talking about the past.

If the previous statements are true, how can artists refer or talk about their present? Are all ‘present-day’ artists contemporary? And if so, if I suppose that being contemporary is addressing our present, wherein lies their contemporaneity? In their emotional memories of the present-past, as Kahneman would suggest? Or in their ability to address the future? Furthermore, how is it possible to talk about this contemporaneity without creating what Lyotard called ‘meta-narrative’?

These questions have no simple answer, especially when I consider the possibility that what the actors in the theory and practice of visual culture do or can do, might not only be to talk about the present, but be that particular element that transforms our memory of a given experience from one way to another. In other words, are artists and art theorists limited to visualize a particular time in history or are they a key factor of how we remember it?

To guide me in the understanding of these questions (more than just the answer) I studied the book of Terry Smith about contemporary art. In it, he divides in three the main concerns of contemporary art practice. In the first division he analyses the contemporary boom that occurred in what he calls Euroamerica where, after describing what led to what he thinks is the contemporary (pop art, situationism, conceptualism, body and sexuality, among others), he highlights the main shifts that distinguish that new ‘art boom’.

cover contemporary art world currents

He uses four frameworks for this new movement in Euroamerica. (i) The ‘postmodern’ return to figuration, where he describes a return to painting and subjectivity by certain artists in the '80s. (ii) Retro-sensationalist art, that included artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and the Young British Artists. (iii) Re-modernism in sculpture and photography, describing monumental artworks from Richard Serra, Maya Lin amongst others. (iv) Spectacle architecture, highlighting what he calls re-modernism in architecture to incorporate the design of the Centre Pompidou by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, the Guggenheim building, etc.

In the second part of the book, Smith suggests a shift towards transnationalism to include different artistic movements in other areas of the world such as Russia, Latin America and Asia, highlighting the consequences of the post-colonialist era. He then proceeds to finish the book, with what he calls contemporary concerns that transverse all the sovereign borders and focuses on subjects like today’s economic and political questions, climate change, social media, among others.

Despite the fact that his analysis seemed a really complete and thorough understanding of contemporary art, I cannot help but wonder what his intention was when he decided to write it. How was he understanding concepts like postmodernity, re-modernism, transnationality? Was his gesture just to describe our present, question it, or was he trying to create unity and coherence in it?

Smith’s book gave me the pretext to question all of these assumptions. As well as to question how visual culture theorists might approach our present. Intuitively, by reading his book and seeing some state of affairs of today’s world, I sensed a kind of multiverse, a collision of different presents and ‘presentness’ that interact together and are in constant tension with each other.

When I thought that the debate between Lyotard and Habermas had become irrelevant, both theories of accelerationism and localism proved me wrong. We live in an era where talking about microgravity and the modern problem of loss of being, orientation and balance[3], make as much sense as those who argue for the need of direction, morals, and correction; Where the concepts of speed, data, and the need for sensationalism to catch my numbed attention as Virilio, Zizek and Jameson stated, go hand in hand with concepts such as slow food and nationalism; Where the global and universal talk with the same security as the subatomic and the particular.

Nevertheless, despite this multiverse approach of our past-present reality, Smith’s book, made me think of a certain conceptual pattern in some contemporary art theorists. When I studied law, I came across what Hans Kelsen distinguished as descriptive and normative statements. Descriptive statements elucidate the existence of things, what or how they are, “the door is closed”. Whereas normative statements are what things ought to be, like Kelsen’s example, “the door should be closed”[4]. I find this distinction very helpful to elucidate this pattern. How many theorists study the present in order to improve it, and thus create a new future, and how others analyse it to be able to apprehend and describe it. It is in this tension that I consider many theorists situate themselves now. This tension, its assumptions and consequences, is what I will discuss in this essay.

What is our past?

Before analysing Terry Smith’s gesture, as well as other European philosophers that have also intended to decode our present or contemporaneity, it is important to situate their knowledge. After all, it is very difficult to forget our mother tongue. His studies of art history in both Melbourne and New York, made his whole intellectual process fall into a European philosophical tradition. A tradition that generally considers modernity to be our (and by our, I mean the ones that come from that tradition)[5] immediate past. Although some of them, like Jürgen Habermas, Zygmunt Bauman, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam have argued that this modernity is still part of our present (or past-present), I believe that there are some new tensions and nuances today that need to be explored; understanding also the narratives that this idea of modernity created.

One of the nuances is the differentiation between the concept of the modern and modernity. Many theorists have debated over this particular point extensively. A good example is how Jean-François Lyotard frames both concepts. Although he uses different names to signify them, the former relates to a gesture that can happen at any age, intending to question the current state of affairs (what he calls the postmodern), whilst the latter entails a narrative process that exists as a consequence of that particular desire (modern) and legitimizes itself through its meta-narrative[6]. Many others like Fredric Jameson have situated modernity in a particular period in time and a particular economical era[7].

Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer by Caspar David Friedrich.

What I consider intriguing about their arguments is that they highlight certain gestures that were actually created in Europe in the period between the 16th and 20th century, and that many of them have been circumscribed under that concept of modernity. One of the narratives that I believe was created was developed as a consequence of the division between the secular and the religious (that happened in Europe in that period of time) and gave rise to a new kind of divine within the secular. A divine that transverses both science and art and considered tomorrow better than today[8]. This idea goes hand in hand with concepts like progress and evolution that have usually been associated with modernity. In other words, modernity’s narrative can be assimilated with what I referred to before as normative statements. [9]

This normative point of view has evolved from the Cartesian devotion to human thought and the paradox it created. In order to abstain oneself from self-ratification of one’s own existence (I think thus I exist, ergo my thoughts ratify my own existence) one needs something bigger, greater and perfect: God. God is one’s assurance from the evil demon that might restrain oneself from knowing the truth. Descartes created, thus, a clear distinction between être (being/self) and devoir être (ought to be/God) that reassured existence.

This derived into the Kantian, a priori, and the need to classify and categorize. Oddly enough our own thought is what allows us to apprehend what he called categories. “The classification [of the a priori categories] is systematical, and founded on a common principle, namely, the faculty of judging (which is the same as the faculty of thinking). It is not the result of a search after pure concepts undertaken at haphazard, the completeness of which, as based on induction only, could never be guaranteed.”[10] Kant himself assigned these categorical concepts the same provenance as the question of right (quid iuris) or norms. Categories like questions of right could only be apprehended with a deductive process, privileging again our devour être.

The debate between David Hume and Immanuel Kant (experience vs reason) was clearly won by the latter. Rationality and critical judgement, things that still characterise modernity’s narratives, imply a privilege of the normative over the descriptive.[11] It laid down the foundation of our idea that what we ought to be is better than what we are. The same privilege happened under the aesthetic realm, as beauty became an aspiration of something greater. As Steven Shaviro argued referring to Kant’s aesthetics, “beauty in itself is inefficacious. But this also means that beauty is in and of itself utopian. For beauty presupposes a liberation from need; it offers us a way out from the artificial scarcity imposed by the capitalist mode of production.”[12]

Habermas ratified this privilege, in his concept of modernity. In Modernity an Incomplete Project, modernity’s present is elucidated as an ephemeral instant that denies the immediate past in order to bring forward the idea of the new, of the future. The present itself is almost non-existent because as soon as it is thought off, it immediately becomes the past it wanted to deny. Thus, modernity is presented as something that refers to change, revolution and transition, but not just for the sake of changing but in the quest of a better future.

Consequently, according to Habermas, the avant-gardes intention was not limited to questioning the past, for the sake of critique. It was meant to be able to imagine or create a new alternative and better future. The manifestos, much like the idea of evolution envisioned the possibility of a better tomorrow that we needed to create and conquer.

However, what are the consequences of this adoration of the future? Understanding modernity as a legitimation of the devoir être (of utopia or a better tomorrow) implied a particular aesthetical process. A process that had to designate and narrate which was the future that we were meant to live. What was supposed to be our ideal self? An ideal self that would be born from the imagination of specific individuals of modern Europe.

Thus, this normative understanding of the present represents a problem that goes beyond the negation of the present. It represents a paradox, where to be able to achieve utopia, our ideal-self needed to be legitimized as a norm/normal. For Michel Foucault, “Napoleon did not discover this world; but we know that he set out to organize it; and he wished to arrange around him a mechanism of power that would enable him to see the smallest event that occurred in the state he governed; he intended, by means of the rigorous discipline that he imposed, ‘to embrace the whole of this vast machine without the slightest detail escaping his attention.” (accents of text)[13] Modernity, therefore, achieved in creating the present in its pursuit of the future. As the French structuralists critiqued, modernity, through its disciplinary process, created a series of language games and meta-narratives that have legitimized what a few thinkers believed to be our ideal self into our concept of normal.

Coming back to Terry Smith, it is possible for me to point out that, despite his acknowledgement of this critique in his book, he could not escape modernity’s meta-narrative. As he starts his analysis asking, “what is “contemporary” about art today?” he departed from a set idea of the contemporary that necessarily included and excluded certain aspects of it. He, therefore, proceeded to define what was the contemporary in the discipline of art as what it was assumed to be normal. In other words, his intention to resume and categorize cannot help to execute modernity’s gesture of normalization.

Nevertheless, I still wonder if there was another gesture in his analysis. The fact that this book was written in 2011 after several critiques of the effects of modernity’s narrative process had occurred, might have created something else on his exploration. An intention that may lay beyond the ideal and that might rely in a new need. A need to understand what is actually occurring in the present time. Therefore, I believe that unlike Baudelaire, Breton, Mondrian or Marinetti, his intention cannot just be limited to the design of the ideal in the discipline of art, but to comprehend (apprehend?) what was actually occurring in the present time; and this subtlety presented a new question to the idea of the present and of the future.

The problem with the future

Where does the need to talk about the present come from? If the present is ungraspable as Habermas suggested, why talk about it? When I started to analyse the critiques of modernity I realized that they did not only crumble only our idea of the norm, normal, or our normative structure (disciplines) but our understanding of the future. Those critiques were not entirely decontextualized; modernity did not crumble because it failed to provide utopia, but because it achieved it.

Before, I always thought both World Wars represented the failure of modernity. Then Steven Shaviro and Benjamin Noys, among others, unveiled to me how it was its success. A very disturbing and perturbing success, but a success all the same. Despite the fact that both authors were referring to a different moment in time, accelerationism is a theory that I believed was put into practice before it was actually conceived. As Noys pointed out, accelerationism “can be thought of as the attempt to recapture the energy of the classical avant-garde in the slackened time of postmodernity”[14]

What happens if we take the idea of progress, industrialization, rationality, evolution and the aim to construct an ideal of what it is to be a human being, to its ultimate consequences? I don’t think it was a coincidence that Filippo Marinetti, turned out to be one of the biggest supporters of fascism. What better way to achieve the ideal that to evaporate everything that was not?

Both World Wars changed our understanding of the future. The idea that we had of our future, of utopia, shattered. European philosophical tradition saw what it was capable of creating. Modernity showed the consequences of its narratives. This understanding did not happen abruptly, as the vestiges of modernity continued after both wars, in the brief period of reconstruction. The realization of the shattered utopia came through in the nuclear era, the Cold War, and the constant state of fear, which developed this ‘accelerationist shift’, towards new aesthetics. In my opinion, following Jameson’s perspective, this aesthetic was a response and a result of the neoliberalism economical movement that came after.

In this new aesthetic the future was moved from utopia to a dystopia. Shaviro compared it with Lee Konstantiou Pop Apocalypse where an apocalyptic future had a new value. It allowed us to see possibilities of what would happen if such a course was taken into an actual political or economic direction, taking the status quo to its ultimate consequences. As Shapiro argued, “accelerationism may just as well result in the horrific intensification of “actually existing” capitalist relations (Land), as in the radical displacement and transmutations of these relations (Williams and Srnicek). This is why accelerationism needs to be an aesthetic program first before it can be a political one. Speculative fiction can explore the abyss of accelerationist ambivalence, without prematurely pretending to solve it.”[15] A future that represented both desire and fear.

As accelerationist aesthetic was aware of Lyotard’s critique of modernity (any idea of a better future might create another meta-narrative), it allowed, therefore, an unveiling of another possibility of the way we apprehended the future. To visualise it not only as an aspiration but as an actual end. A future that reflected, the tension of the state of numbness and stagnation that Jameson assigned to multinational capitalism, as well as the accelerationist dream to overcome it.

The shattering and terrifying idea of the future (and the fear of creating a worse meta-narrative) led, in my perspective, to the need to talk about the present. In a similar note to the famous quote “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”; to talk about the present became more relevant when our ideas of the future included a fatalist visualization of our doom.

The ungraspable present

What happened then to our present-past? What have our remembering selves created so far for the contemporary visual culture art theory and practice? In my perspective, an inclusion of the paradox of fracture. Much like today's physics, our time dwells in the constant tension between quantum mechanics and relativity. Particle hazard and universal laws. Thus, questioning and reconsidering modernity’s narratives whilst making an effort to preserve them.

As Terry Smith stated at the beginning of his book, the concept of the globe and the globalitarian perspective it has created (as Virillo would say), has added new directions in our understanding of the present. The illusion of speed, telecommunication and global data have fractioned the present and merged it with the past and the future. The present in Europe is already past in the Americas and the future in Asia as we start to understand and communicate in a new time difference. The fact that it is 3 am in Colombia, 9 am in London and 4 pm in Hong Kong created a new nuance in our behaviour. We can actually imagine trying out a transaction first in Hong Kong, value its effectiveness throughout the day, and communicate it to New York in the same ‘present’ as it started in Hong Kong 12 hours before.

Likewise, the inclusion of the world within the concept of the global has challenged our boundaries, making them include the universal within the nano. Earth, as world, has relinquished its magnitude to include within itself the concept of locality; residing within the ideas of State sovereignty, interplanetary colonization as well as the virtual unity, the concept of “our planet” proposes. As Terry Smith suggested in his book, ‘contemporary artists’ are trying to understand how to express themselves between the tension of their own inner-localities/nationalities, and global concerns such as climate change, data, social media, among others.

Much like Zygmunt Bauman would have proposed, this fractioning of space and time, happened as well with everything that modernity understood once to be solid. For instance, Napoleon’s quest to organize the world acquired new directions when other communities and idiosyncrasies were included in this process of normalization. As the artist Luis Camnitzer argued, Latin American modernism is a salad that wants to follow the criteria of admired centres, whilst finding understanding, misunderstandings, and local contributions and distortions.[16] This hybridation did not happen just in the visual culture of communities like the Latin American, but in their whole social structure. If I take my memories of Colombian law as an illustration, they are a mixture of French (Napoleon’s civil code), German (Law theory and philosophy) and American Law (precedent law in the constitutional sphere), spiced up by the legal understanding of the indigenous communities still living in Colombia (i.e. indigenous communities have their own penal law).

But the hybridizing process has produced a particular effect in today’s aesthetics, satirizing Lyotard’s desire for experimentation. As our experimental self is always controlled by our remembering self, our intention to let go of the past becomes more and more innocuous, making the artist’s aim for transgression look somehow forced and insincere. In Zizek words “today, more and more, the cultural-economic apparatus itself, in order to reproduce itself in competitive market conditions, has not only to tolerate but directly to provoke stronger and stronger shocking effects and products. Just think of recent trends in the visual arts: gone are the days when we had simple statues or framed paintings – what we get now are exhibitions of frames without paintings, dead cows and their excrement, videos of the insides of the human body (gastroscopy and colonoscopy), the inclusion of olfactory effects, and so on.”[17]

Going along with that paradox of transgression, although the European cultural and philosophical tradition has managed to criticize modernity’s disciplines and institution, it has also managed to incorporate in its categorical system, the inter, extra and transdisciplinary in the now obliged ‘institutional critique’ and include it in the discipline of visual culture.[18] At the same time, it has created new institutions to resolve this new ‘mixture’ of disciplines, like Medialabs, where they evoke its anti-disciplinary character whilst creating a new structure of their own[19]. Unlike Donna Harroway’s proposal, visual culture theory and practice dwell in the paradox of wanting to “stay with the trouble” but never eluding entirely its modern need to organize and categorize.

Nevertheless, it is precisely this constant tension where rests the importance of the paradox of the fractured present, and the nuances of modernity it proposes. It is a gesture that encourages the significance of reclaiming the narrative process, the desire to tell all the stories of the different presents (including the fictional, the alternative facts and the alleged ‘real’) and knit the future as the multiple stories intertwine. Therefore, although we have not abandoned the aspiration of a better future, it has additionally included the need to reclaim different presents, to apprehend them and understand them. To slow down as we speed up. Consequently, although this might not be the contemporary visual culture’s Zeitgeist, it is one of its stories, one of its presents, that still deserves to be told.


  • Bauman, Zygmunt, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (Cambridge: Polity, 2007).

  • Bhabha, Homi, ‘Border Lives: The Art of the Present’, in Art in Theory: 1900-2000, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 1110-1116.

  • Camnitzer, Luis and Alberro, Alexander. Luis Camnitzer in conversation with Alexander Alberro Kindle Edition (New York and Caracas: Fundation Cisneros, 2015)

  • Eshun, Kodwo, ‘On the Use and Abuse of Microgravity for Life’, in Zer0Gravity: A Cultural User’s Guide, eds. Nicola Triscott and Rob La Frenais (London: The Arts Catalyst, 2005)

  • Fisher, M. Capitalist realism: is there no alternative? (Ropley: Zero Books, 2009).

  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. (New York: Random House, 1995)

  • Fraser, Andrea ‘From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique’, Artforum, Vol. 44, No. 1 (September 2005): 278.

  • Habermas, Jürgen (1985), ‘Modernity – An Incomplete Project’, in Art in Theory: 1900-2000, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 1123-1131.

  • Harari, Y.N Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. (London: Harvill Secker, 2016)