Notes on We Can’t Be There at Tate Modern


Disclaimer: Unedited notes mostly taken from the event, if I have time I will edit this down into a more coherent post.

We Can’t Be There. Emergency Provisions for Un(Anticipated) Futures

We Can’t be there was a two hour workshop followed up by a seminar at Tate Modern. The mornings workshop, run by Mikhail Karikis and Iván Argote took us on a long journey. First of all, into a introspective looking and feeling of ourselves – all of the members were invited to walk in the space, to slowly become aware of all of the sensations that our bodies were feeling, from cloth against knees to the feel of the concrete against our feet. Gradually we began to shift our attention from ourselves and our bodies to the space, and the others around us, as well as the magnificent skyline and view of the river from the Tate’s sixth floor. A bell rang out. Freeze. The room is divided into three – past, present, future. Where you are now standing is your allocated time zone, those of you in the future are in the year 5000, those in the past are in 1000 BC. Each member had been given a piece of paper that we were now invited to open, these would be prompts for conversations that would take place between the timezones.

This process was repeated two more times, with timezones getting closer together with each iteration – 50 years future and past, then finally tomorrow, today, yesterday.

Conversations varied from the seemingly banal – “How’s the weather?” to highly charged criticism, at some points becoming tense and defensive – “Why don’t you respect us?” a member from the past demands to know from the present, or “Why are you talking about ‘we’ – society doesn’t exist”, explains a representative from the 80’s. Utopian and dystopian futures and pasts were imagined and embodied in these conversations. In some instances the future sounded wonderful, with a newly imagined, post capitalist economic system of free exchange of energy, and roving, nomadic communities spontaneously forming. Interestingly, members rarely expressed a desire to be in different time periods, representatives were defensive and proud of their new communities even if the world they were describing sounded hideous to our present values.

The afternoon continued with a series of talks that took a more focused vision into the future – that of disaster planning. First off Rebecca Coleman showed how she was ‘imagining and materialising the future in an age of austerity’, shifting the emphasis from looking into future to analysis of it as an object of imagination. In the past we have imagined futures positively, in an age of austerity politics however, this is the first time that the modernist view that living standards are always going to rise has shifted so that we now imagine the future as a worse place to be.

Coleman cites  ‘Speculate This!’ as a framework to think about Amazon’s new patent for speculative shipping – where objects shipped in advance to incomplete addresses or areas using data to define what customers are likely to want, with the aim to remove barriers to purchase – worries around delivery time and costs by customers. If they don’t sell, Amazon will offer a discount to people nearby that might be interested. This model that Amazon propose is a good example of Speculate this! definition of ‘firmative speculation’ –a firming or solidifying of the possibilities of the future using data (the past) to construct futures. Coleman’s work proposes an affirmative approach however, whereby futures cannot or should not be foretold. The future is performative, not restricted. The future takes place through action rather than a set of rules or constraints. It bears a striking resemblance to Dunne and Raby’s speculative design, where objects are used to open up a dialogue around what objects will exists and the implications of them on futures. Speculative design aims to use to design to start conversations around the design of objects in the future, rather than firmatively produce products. Interestingly now, we start to see speculative design being used for the opposite – to sell ideas, to firm up the future.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s pssst Leopard 2A7+ takes as it’s material a tank. The Leopard 2A7+ is a tank made by Rheinmetall in Kassell, Germany, it is one of the most advanced tanks in the world.

Natascha start by explaining an interest around loops in time – even though things are from the past, they are sticky and remain with us into the future. The rubble of Kassel for example – Kassel was destroyed in WW2 because there was a large weapons manufacturer there. Rheinmetall still make weapons there. The future is a loop from the past. Labour is also in a loop, the same forced labour camps used in WW2 are used again after the war, and now we have different versions of forced labour. The naming of these objects as animals, begins another loops, the marketing opportunities to give an object animals characterises also then informs how we imagine and think of the animal. What does the leopard look like in the future? The future of war is in the cities and this is defining the characteristics and design of these vehicles (length, turning circle, climate that it is happy in etc.) The design of the tank starts with the postulation that the side effects of global warming and austerity is going to make wars, and these wars will be in the cities. The Leopard is a battle tank for cities, for disasters and post-disasters, this is a vehicle for the end of the world, the ultimate one perhaps.


Once again a loop is formed – once an object has been introduced, it doesn’t go away, objects demand a use, they begin to chase and produce politics. Qatar have bought 200 of them. We don’t know why they have bought them, but now that they exist a use will become clear with time. Qatar has a large migrant work force with extremely troublesome labour rights, it is likely to rise-up. These are all “public secrets” – things that are there that you know about, but what can you do, how can we even talk about them, will people listen or care?

The sound works in their beginning almost have the feel of an advert for the tank. It becomes rhythmic and looping, in the same ways that these objects are constructed from the past and looping into the future. The looping and rhythm evokes the turning of the wheels and cogs on the machine, as the tracks run noisily along the ground. The sound piece uses the object, tank, as a material to pull apart and sculpt with. The components of the soundscapes are taken from the various objects that embody and are ‘it’ – the time, scale, design, speed, turning circle, movement, spaces it will inhabit, the labour markets, the protest, the ruins, shots, factories, the animal it takes it’s name from, the people it will kill and the cities it will destroy. They are meshes of the tank and everything that the tank ‘touches’, the tank is a Hyperobject with the artwork pulling from and assembling all of the things that the tank sticks to, presented in a gut-wrenching soundscape offering us a glimpse of the future this object will simultaneously produce and exist within.

Finally Bernd Kräftner and Michael Guggenheim gave a demonstration of ‘Where do we want to be, if it happens?’ We start with a fable – the fable of Frederick: the dominant narrative in preparing and preppers is, we need foo to survive. In disaster’s we don’t only need food, we need lot’s of other things too. This project goes some way in broadening our understanding of the range of disaster scenarios that we are typically presented with. Using a sandbox and a set of props users are asked to build a world of their own, then imagine a disaster happens to that world, and finally re-design the world and emergency provisions with that disaster in mind. The sandbox becomes another time travelling tool, enabling users to freely move between pre and post disaster situations, using it as a design tool to re-imaging how that world would be structured, the social dynamics, creating new architectures and so on. The exercise could continue indefinitely with new disasters  being imagined and added, building and producing new disasters of their own each time. Any attempt to map these disasters or quantify them becomes futile, this tool is another example of affirmative speculation, where possible futures are explored, imagined and mapped out rather than dictated to us. Disasters as nouns don’t make sense – stories do.

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