David Cronenburg, Cimes of the Future, 2022, still
1 WEEK / 1 DAY / 1 WORK David Cronenberg – ‘Crimes of the Future’ – Do artists have antennas?
This week we ask one of our authors to reflect on a work that made a deep impression this year. Pablo Larios writes about David Cronenburg’s Crimes of the future (2022), a science fiction body horror drama about a world which no longer feels nor understands pain.
Do artists have antennas? Hans Ulrich Obrist thinks they do. An old commonplace links art to prophecy, with artists playing the role of fortune tellers or early-detection radars. As Ezra Pound put it, questionably, the artist is the “antennae of the race”—a line quoted by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). In 2022, Hans Ulrich Obrist summoned McLuhan when he wrote that “artists have antennae that allow them to anticipate things.” He previously said that “artists have antennae that are extremely sensitive to impending change and can often detect it before anyone else.”
In uncertain times, it seems, we project our anxieties on the future, while pointing to human deficiencies. It’s not exactly antennae featuring in Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg’s latest body-horror film, but something much weirder. The film centers on two performance artists whose number involves a surgical removal of newly-mutated internal organs that are produced spontaneously by the film’s genius-artist figure, Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen). We’re in a near future. Humans have recently evolved, and are now immune to germs and don’t feel pain. This has prompted a rash of public, open-air self-surgeries — a wonderful fantasy in our moment of germophobia. Saul Tenser, the film’s Ageing Celebrity White Male Artist, hangs out in expensive-looking linen robes, struggles to eat, and occasionally becomes inspired enough to self-generate a new organ.
There’s a scene where Tenser watches a performance done by a man covered in dozens of grafted-on human ears, who’s just had his eyes and mouth sewn shut (“It is time to stop seeing”, the audio goes, hilariously for an art piece). We’re in a bunker-like, windowless performance space, with Ricardo Villalobos-esque techno blasting. But, from the would-be gallerist character Adrienne Berceau (Ephie Kantz), we are told that the ears are third-rate: “he’s better with the dancing than he is with the conceptual art.”
What happens when we construct a world to orient itself around the expression of a pain we can no longer understand
The screenplay to Cronenberg’s film was written in 1988, so why did it feel so timely to me this year? On first glance, their body-art antics, and the milieu of spectatorship and profit they are in, would seem to conjure today’s art world. In a future in which humans have become immune (to bodily pain, to germs, to viruses), a vanguard (artists, but also maniacal conspiracy theorists) have turned to cutting each other open, edging on a kind of spectacle, not exactly of pain, but of the display of pain. Crimes of the Future contains a great deal of allegory pointing to outward realities: the emotional implications of artists as prognosticating trend-setters; the operatic deterioration of the Great Male Artist; the collusion of mega-corporations with human biology; the bureaucratic and human responses to environmental catastrophe; and, perhaps most interestingly, what happens when we construct a world to orient itself around the expression of a pain we can no longer understand.
Something rang true in Cronenberg’s intuition that aesthetic experience, instead of granting pleasure, has in recent years edged closer and closer to the rendering of pain, in a world that seems ever more callous. Putting aside what seems like a humorous inversion and extension of Marina Abramović’s art-as-intimacy (to name just one artist), Cronenberg’s mass-market film is not really about the art world, but about our world: one in which a mass spectatorship (in the movie, seen only as a small elite vanguard) gets off not on torture (as in normal sadism), but a strange ritual of intimacy between an extractive muse, and a decaying (yet virile) male body that transmogrifies pain as expression. The point of these two artists’ performance of intercourse – we are made to think their art is also sex – is not the subsumption of pain into pleasure, but something in between, a pleasure-pain that is both queasily fetishistic, like body alterations, yet also goes viral: it begins to be copied and quoted, sampled, first by a vanguard, and later by bureaucrats.
It’s this in-between, neither pleasure nor pain, that struck me as true in this film about much art I see today. Artists in recent years have become paradigmatic for heroes, politicians, strongmen, pundits and celebrities. We also see a lot of art today that stands as proxy for pain. For a film that takes place, ostensibly, in a world without pain, it is at the same time all about pain: the painful search for recognition, or the emotional pain – of jealousy, loneliness, disappointment – as well as a new kind of cosmo-existential pain, involving the threat of and to our world, as represented here by a vanguard of plastic eaters who have set out to eat the world’s plastic.
Nowadays we’ve also seen the return of a kind of epistemology of the body, in which the notion of “feelings are facts”, as Yvonne Rainer once wrote, suggests that the last undeniable or inalienable mark of individuation is the truth of bodily feeling
Nowadays we’ve also seen the return of a kind of epistemology of the body, in which the notion of “feelings are facts”, as Yvonne Rainer once wrote, suggests that the last undeniable or inalienable mark of individuation is the truth of bodily feeling. (This history can be traced in the Museum Brandhorst’s sweeping exhibition Future Bodies this year, which focuses on the interrelation between bodies and technology, a vast and ambitious effort with works from Nairy Baghramian to Bruce Nauman to Genpei Akasegawa and Tishan Hsu onward.)
I don’t believe that feelings are facts, at least because (as psychoanalysis tells us) feelings are complex and imply hermeneutical as well as affective effort, far away from self-evidence. Perhaps that’s why the works that remained closest to me this year dealt not with human agency but with what we inherit, as mutation, as history, or as complex, inter-generational pain. Kirsty Bell’s excellent The Undercurrents (2022) I read as a story of a haunting, in this case the way a haunting of history as it seeps, like water, uncomfortably into the present story of Berlin. I also, for the first time, found myself enjoying AI works — Keiichiro Shibuya’s film performances, or the ‘deepfake autofiction’ of K Allado-Mcdowell — while I was gripped by melancholy atmospheres of Fujiko Nakaya at Haus der Kunst in Munich, which profitably fell back on the pathos we associate with ecology. As Cronenberg’s film, which was written over three decades ago, suggests, crimes of the future always bear on the crimes of the past. So how can we ever move forward?