Time capsule art raises obvious, Large Questions about the nature of creativity: when you’re not working under the promise of visible audience and critical reception, how does that affect your product? (The clincher: you and I won’t ever know!) And, more perplexingly, is writing/recording/filmmaking towards the future meant to be an expression of hope for the survival of the human race and its artistic legacies, or a display of art and by proxy life as a futile self-erasing act? In the past, the question would have been, “How will art from the past be received in the future?”; now, in an era of global warming and hopelessness, that question comes accompanied with, “Am I making art for the future or surrendering art to an abyss?” (It seems a valid question, with the Atlantic reporting you’re more likely to die from human extinction than in a car crash.)
It makes you think. But across a series of high-profile time capsule projects (John Malkovich’s 100 Years, Wu Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, and to a lesser degree, Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell’s contributions to the Future Library), there’s another conceptual through-line that evokes less of a stoner-profund “woooah” and a bit more of a drunk-cynical “bleh”: art as exclusive capital.
“My name was John,” says John Malkovich with ridiculous, contrived gravity at the end of the featurette for the film 100 Years — The Movie You’ll Never See, which it’s just been announced will “debut” at Cannes. The word “debut” cannot be used accurately sans scare quotes, however, because while 100 Years (a collaboration between the veteran actor, director Robert Rodriguez, and a very expensive bottle of Cognac which, wouldn’t you know, also takes a hundred years to age) will be “showcased” Cannes, it’ll be doing so from behind a vault. Those in attendance will not be able to watch it — much like the rest of the public who don’t plan on being alive on November 18, 2115, when it’s set to be released for actual viewing.
Until then, after touring a bit within the vault, the vault itself will settle into its resting place in then Rémy Martin Louis XXI cellars, and will automatically open on the given date — on which the brand hopes the progeny of 1000 “influential” people who’ve received indestructible-ish metal invitations will attend a screening. Thiérry Fremaux, general delegate at Cannes, said of the film, in a manner that only perpetuates the question — but does not answer the question — of whether this is real life, satire, or both, “I hope that our descendants will consider the movie 100 Years for the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival in 2116.” And seeing the date officialized on the film’s IMDB is especially amusing:
For this and similar projects, the goal seems not to be to make a connection or to fail to make a connection with future generations, but rather to create something in an environment where both hope and futility are equal parts possible. With every new day, another scientist seems to note a new form of irrevocable damage we’ve done, a new point-of-no-return we’ve entered (it was, after all, the 11th Hour back in 2007). The existence-on-the-precipice rhetoric we’re internalizing makes time capsule art all the more fraught, an elaborate coin toss into the abysses of potentiality in a world that will soon drastically change for the worse if it doesn’t first drastically change for the better. The film, as was reported when it was first announced, takes place in the present — though some campy teasers envision the vault being discovered in three separate types of futures. Whatever the purportedly “emotionally charged” — one of the only adjectives used to describe it — film actually is, few who are alive today will ever know. Malkovich spoke of envisioning the future (as the production team did in teasers for the project):
There were several options when the project was first presented of what [the future] would be. An incredibly high tech, beyond computerized version of the world, a post-Chernoybl, back to nature, semi-collapsed civilization and then there was a retro future which was how the future was imagined in science fiction of the 1940s or 50s.
Indeed, any of these three futures (or whatever the actual future is) may get a sensitive or interesting or subtle John Malkovich movie (that is, if the whole thing doesn’t turn out to be some elaborate joke). But all the present gets is an oddly complex, campily self-serious ad for expensive cognac that flatters 1000 presumably rich contemporary “influencers” by assuring them that their grandchildren will be the first to see a 100-year-obsolete John Malkovich movie evocative of a bottle of geriatric cognac.
This project, the Wu-Tang album, and even the well-intentioned and otherwise awesome-seeming Future Library project bear uncomfortable parallels to the increasingly unjust conditions the future threatens to bring: it is the world’s poor that will of course suffer the most from what the future will make of it. And similarly, some of the highest profile “time capsule” art projects in recent memory have borne not just the necessary element of temporal exclusivity, but also seem to use that prerequisite of the form for class exclusivity to determine those who’ll eventually have access to them. (Perhaps they’re predicting a world in which the poor have already died off!)
A section of Wu Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was played at PS1 for a small audience that included journalists — including Flavorwire’s own Jonathon Sturgeon — invited art collectors, and contest winners, before it was planned to be auctioned off and held from the public for 88 years. (2103 is when it’s meant to become available to the public.) Sturgeon wrote of the conclusion of the event:
As I half-watched a bald white guy bang his head, a sense of gloom came over me. The sampler was coming to an end. And there it was: Shaolin was lost to history.
But soon after, it began making the news again, when it turned out the lucky bidder it was auctioned to was Big Pharma’s self-reflexive super-villain (who Sturgeon notes Donald Trump himself called a “spoiled brat”), Martin Shkreli, who’d only just prior famously raised the price of an AIDS-symptom treating drug from $13.50 to $750 per tablet. Last we heard, Shkreli was considering destroying the album (which doesn’t have a digital backup) or putting it in a remote place where people would have to make a “spiritual quest” to listen. (He’ll have a hard time doing either, though, if he ends up in prison.)
With the album, the intent was to restore a sense of rarity and value to music that’s become the alleged victim of “entitlement” in the Spotify age — it’s, to an extent, an over the top gesture responding to the fact that corporations are banking on new ways to redistribute art that cheapens it for the public by undermining artists. But instead of undercutting the power of the corporations, the project rather ended up being sold to a figurehead of corporate corruption, bolstering the symbol of his power while depriving the public entirely of the work for almost nine decades — if it survives Shkreli’s grasp that long.
Meanwhile, nobody will know anything about Margaret Atwood’s newest book — except that it’s called Scribbler Moon — until 2114. (The Goodreads page for this book isn’t dissimilar to the IMDB for 100 Years). The book is part of artist Katie Paterson’s pensive Future Library project, which has tapped David Mitchell as its next author; his book, Atwood’s, and that of whoever else is asked to participate, will be printed using 1000 trees planted in Norway the summer the project began. Atwood said of the project in The Guardian:
Will any human beings be waiting there to receive it? Will there be a ‘Norway’? Will there be a ‘forest’? Will there be a ‘library’? How strange it is to think of my own voice – silent by then for a long time – suddenly being awakened, after 100 years…I picture this encounter – between my text and the so-far nonexistent reader – as being a little like the red-painted handprint I once saw on the wall of a Mexican cave that had been sealed for over three centuries. Who now can decipher its exact meaning? But its general meaning was universal: any human being could read it. It said: ‘Greetings. I was here.’
Though it’s conceptually similar to the Malkovich film, lacking the silly tie-in to old brandy, it seems a more authentic effort in pondering what time will do to the Earth, and what preserving art through that process will do to art. It does, however, in one (far less extreme or unsettling) way fit into the same murkier trend of both the Malkovich film and the Wu Tang Clan album. Like 100 Years, it requires 100 years of dormancy…followed by distribution to 1000 people descended from those who received one of 1000 certificates; the to-be-printed-in-100-years-if-the-world-exists manuscripts from the contributions of authors through the years, though not quite Wu Tang expensive, are being sold for £625.
Obviously art has its right to being valuable, but the seeming trend of art whose intention is to exclude a few generations (an interesting concept) also excluding a few social classes (less interesting!) makes it fit uncomfortably symbolically into other notions of a future that — if not entirely apocalyptic — will be habitable for the financially endowed. Perhaps these things are being sold to the wealthy because they predict they’re the ones who won’t be too preoccupied with survival to, say, watch a relic featuring an enigmatic soft-spoken actor from 100 years ago.
While reports portend strife and decreased life expectancy in the coming centuries within poor communities, there’s also simultaneously talk of humans melding with machines to avoid mortality altogether. But of course, this talk is accompanied by the notion that transhumanist technologies could only exacerbate the power disparity between the wealthy and the impoverished, by giving the former access to the previously impossible power of immortality. If these time capsule art projects are trying to consider and predict the future, perhaps their most accurate and unsettling achievement is the way that their projected endurance and preservation through time is tied to their heightened value.