Unthinkable: Leap of Faith

March 20, 2017
Author Monika Lipšic
Published in Detour

Unthinkable Nomos Conference. November 5th, 2016, National Gallery of Art, Vilnius. Photo: Karolina Janulevičiūtė

Unthinkable is a project of many forms, it is an interdisciplinary research platform that connects a constellation of artists, curators, editors, thinkers and theorists. In its current form it has convened reading groups throughout 2016 and gathered research upon subjects of socio-political, decolonial, feminist, deconstructive line of thought. Planetary computation, data governance, social injustice, notion of Eastern Europe, spatial production – are among the subjects that collective has engaged in their discussions.

The reason behind this interview is the aspiration to trace conscious forms of self-initiatives and temporary communities. Without becoming real institutions, initiatives like this often wrench and sink away in the ocean of information surrounding us, but what can it give, this momentary constellation of minds and ideas, how the knowledge produced and information shared generates further events and activism?

Most of the readers probably haven‘t heard of the Unthinkable, while it created a bustle among a big group of people (both online and physically) and last November Vilnius witnessed the gathering of the Unthinkable Nomos – an event of public lectures, workshops, discussions and club night with concerts and performances. This is a record of a conversation with several minds behind the Unthinkable project, namely Gediminas Žygus (J. G. Biberkopf), Monika Janulevičiūtė, Katrina Burch and Donatas Tubutis. An interview with Monika Lipšic and Unthinkable.

Monika Lipšic: In the beginning I saw Unthinkable as a community run, self-initiated para-education platform for colleagues, friends and friends of friends, but you never name the education aspect as one of possible goals, is this right? Could you explain why Unthinkable is called a platform?

Donatas Tubutis: Unthinkable is a platform in the sense that it’s supposed to be a medium on which ‘something runs’, an open-ended cultural vehicle open to ideas initiated by the community. Minimally, it aims to be a knowledge-sharing space, a framework for organization of collective research and events. In 2016 we initiated a few online research groups on chosen topics with a commitment to keep group dynamics bottom-up – where the workflow is organized by the group members themselves (without imposing student/teacher/institution roles). Up to now, the groups usually consisted of friends and friends of friends, but we are keen on seeing similar templates being replicated in other circles – a number of public Unthinkable readings rooms happened in Vilnius, Berlin, and Tallinn.

Monika Janulevičiūtė: I’m quite hesitant about the ‘educational’ put in the context of describing the activity, yet it mostly involved academic theories/texts reading. In symbiotic terms, of course, there are ways we merge all these labels or spaces in one. Throughout the year we bumped in so many other platforms for communication, knowledge sharing and support that I couldn’t personally lose a feeling that as a platform we still run on other ad-run or sensitive data requiring platforms. The primary idea was to really carefully structure think-flows with a constant interplay of excitement and infection, but at times our knowledge was purely performative.

Unthinkable Nomos Conference November 5th, 2016, National Gallery of Art. Speakers Daniel vand der Velden (METAHAVEN), Inigo Wilkins and Tanja Ostojić. Photo: Miša Skalskis

Unthinkable Nomos Conference. November 5th, 2016, National Gallery of Art. Speakers Daniel vand der Velden (METAHAVEN), Inigo Wilkins and Tanja Ostojić. Photo: Karolina Janulevičiūtė

ML: So how did it all start, what inspired the Unthinkable? How does the project name correspond to the subjects that you work with?

Gediminas Žygus JGB: Unthinkable had appropriately eerie beginnings. While working as a promoter in a cultural event space/club in Berlin I had a night to fill in. Tuan Anh Nguyen Duc joined in organizing it and it ended up as a strange night; we planned for three performances to be done via Skype, live from the US, and we had a couple of DJ’s. v1984 and Guy Fridge backed out of the Skype performance and Alex aka Sentinel did pretty much the most magical thing, which we forgot to film, of course, creating this magical xeno-world in his bedroom, actually burning his stuff there, etc.   

So after that, there was a radio show Unthinkable on London’s NTS Radio, which later AQNB co-hosted when Stefan Wharton joined with his exploratory music writing. The show was focused on guest contributions, the idea was to use the format of the mix, to encourage the birth of new ‘artistic statements’ in music scene that had little media or institutional support. The same year in early 2015 with another group of people, some of whom are part of the Unthinkable crew now as well, we organized Newman Festival.  The current collective incarnation of Unthinkable was defined by our conversation with Donatas afterwards. Initially, the idea was to set up a social network in the spirit of Cybernetic Culture Research Unit and anonymous 90’s internet cultures, in order to create a new public space where one could freely experiment with her/his identity and use that space for political, cultural conversations. After the obvious realization of the impossibility of such, we thought of creating a small community instead, speculating it would have a contaminating effect on our (heavily disengaged and politically unconscious at that point in our view) cultural environment. We aimed to create a space for critical thinking about ourselves and our future in relation to the global power structures and dominant histories, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

To contrast all of the ensuing theory talks, I will say that the name of the project comes from Alicia Keys‘ song ‘Unthinkable’. Not to dismiss the choice as trivial, but the depth and possible applications of the word struck us only later.

ML: That‘s a lot of history! So the accumulation of ideas and events really marked the need of such space for self- and global-reflection practice. It‘s very substantive because you also had to define the very organization and model of your activities. From there – do you see Unthinkable as relating to contemporary forms of activism?

DT: From what we’ve seen now, our focus has been more on getting a sense of context of the socio-political problems that exist, understanding how things unfold in inter-twined time-scales rather than engaging in activism. But the topics that we’ve been discussing – such as cyber-capitalist geopolitics, social injustice, refugee crisis, ecological crisis – are immediate social problems.

GŽ:  As Donatas said – it was more about trying to develop political criticism and global empathy in a neoliberal environment in the first place. And I wish we had focused even more on local realities. We had quite a few conversations about the failures and the impossibility of Leftist Marxism in ‘post-soviet’ countries, who carry the burden of past left-wing utopian experiments, which I think informed what Unthinkable is not quite a bit. We engaged with thinkers who criticize the local ways of activism, protest to introduce systemic change in a world where power is globally dispersed. Initially, we thought of a kind of activism through hyperstitional speculation and contamination, but I think we failed in that we did not engage actively with the idea.  

MJ: I saw this project as an infection of people with a woke disobedience. Unthinkable as a platform ideally should be a socially designed think tank of which numerous activism could stem and pop-out whenever they mature or need to be activated. And there are always some precautions about the fact that if it fails, the project will be instantaneously and ungratefully brushed off to ‘art project’ chopping off the responsibilities to global and local contexts.

Unthinkable Nomos Workshop November 6th, 2016, Rupert. Photo: Monika Janulevičiūtė

Unthinkable Nomos Workshop. November 6th, 2016, Rupert. Photo: Monika Janulevičiūtė

ML: So was questioning the notion of Eastern Europe one of the responsibilities to local and global contexts then? Why and how regionality and particularly Eastern European geopolitics appears in the realm of unthinkable subjects?  

MJ: The practice was more like an intervention – did we believe in change? There were no sustained long-term intentional changes. Nevertheless, we had a plan. By engaging with the decolonial, deconstructive, intersectional feminist line of thought, we were giving an agency to our shared past, practicing and searching for more connection points in the region which we thought was more known or accessible to us. We believed or made a leap of faith that we had our means in unearthing its possibilities of the interpretation outside the simplistic ideological vision, showing its meaning only as a hegemonic demarcation of the particular zone of influence. Now I see it even more as Geographies of affect, where we tried to build a series of occasions or occurrences to intervene with our surroundings as much as they intervene with us. We sincerely wanted to witness talking about regionality neither with a sense of nostalgia nor sense of dread.

ML: You mentioned before and in many aspects one could say that the concern about the future is a driving force. This is why it seems relative to discuss the Unthinkable project from the distance of time. Could you expand more on your relationship with the forces such as the past and the future, the history and the fiction?

The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in. (Ursula K. Le Guin)
The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. (William Gibson)
The future is certain. It‘s the past which is unpredictable. (Russian saying popular in Soviet times)
The past is a force, it’s a potent force in the sense that it doesn’t just go away naturally. Some work has to be done: cultural, social, political work. If that work is not done, the past as a force tends to reassert itself in the present and the
. (Achille Mbamba, African theorist, postcolonial thinker)

MJ: I think that most of us share, at least me and Gediminas have discussed it quite a few times when stuck in traffic, that our relation to future is pretty much Ballardian. As a semi-open collective, we have a mixture of different characters – someone will turn out, balance others’ deep-ecologic qualms, equalize or propel. I would actually wager to say that we are so much more focused on the future. Each day of research or discussions would leave me stupefied by the reverberations of the unforeseeable present, the whole misrepresentation of the now where a belief happens in unified, high morale coordination of fiction.

GŽ: The ease at which the society chooses to believe one historical phantasm over another, and how when a hegemonic power needs a historical reality it invents one; and the weight it has, in a society striving for the stability of meaning, as a referent, this is something that strikes me deeply every time. I started to believe that history as discipline did not evolve a lot from myth-making; history itself is the battlefield.

Maybe it would be meaningful to paraphrase the Ballard’s famous ‘Sex times technology equals the future’ to ‘Sex times technology equals the past, the present and the future.’ And now it feels a bit like Silicon Valley wet dream gone berserk and there’s a lot of boring, in the worst sense, self-indulgent, sex.  

ML: So you in a way relate to post-apocalyptic dystopian image of the future?

MJ: I think we are already somewhere near to that dystopian or merely functional future. Nevertheless, we cannot recognize it, because it’s not executed or present in those terms we have been expecting. We can’t discuss the longest incorrigible habit of documenting humanity in a simplifying manner neither regarding history nor future, without keeping the constant erasure and rewriting. Now, everything comes full circle – I don’t think we know how people dealt with the futurity.

DT: In most of the meetings with Unthinkable research groups online we were speculating more on the future of the Baltic region. We saw that some paths, such as searching for a national identity or restorative solutions of pre-capitalist world, are inadequate for the socio-technical complexity of 21st century. One of the books we’ve been working with was “The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty” (Benjamin Bratton, 2016) that makes a conjecture on how emerging planetary-scale computation is transfiguring concepts of sovereignty, governance, and politics as such. Nick Srnicek’s and Alex Williams’ book “Inventing the Future” (2015) contains a valuable and accessible overview of the politics of futurity and progress.

Significant political advances were achieved in the 20th century – towards gender equality, rights of racial minorities, queer political movements, increasing ecological awareness. At the same time, class became dissociated from gender, sex and race. It’s important to see how the integration of these public demands has been instrumental in forming a particular political hegemony.

Contemporary dominant political ideology is hinged on a methodological individualism where we are encouraged to cultivate private freedoms (something that J.G. Ballard was brilliant at anatomizing in his writings), while sensitivity to collectivity, larger inter-generational constructs, historical progression (a ‘dangerous expression’ now), even civilizational heritage as such, is sometimes seen as obsolete ideological remnants of either romantic intellectuals or oppressive hegemonies. We live in a kind of lacuna of the present, a locale uprooted by modern developments but façaded by immediacy of what Mark Fisher has called capitalist realism *

Unthinkable Nomos Workshop. November 6th, 2016, Rupert. Photo: Monika Janulevičiūtė

Unthinkable Nomos Workshop. November 6th, 2016, Rupert. Photo: Monika Janulevičiūtė

ML: The notion of the community as a voluntary association of enlightened citizens has died for ever. We realize how suffocatingly humane we’ve become, dedicated to moderation and the middle way. The suburbanization of the soul has overrun our planet like the plague. (Jean Gaston Ballard, Super-Cannes)

Katrina Burch: I would like to answer your question on time here, since opposing binaries of dystopian-utopian futures presuppose rather basic metaphysics of time. Pragmatically-speaking, it is definitely necessary to imagine the worst possible outcomes–it helps to anastrophically approach many present trajectories (or nightmares). Indeed dystopias exist already in the multitudes. Climate change disasters (coupled with the US/Aus/Eu’s alt-right snowball politics) are maybe the most important near-future global scenarios we should really try to re-present in preparing for apocalypse. We need to know how to act and build in extreme circumstances–to safeguard displaced people who will experience the worst. There is already an interconnected global scientific community engaged in mining data on the dystopian futures. For scientists, understanding that time is not a unified fixed field is necessary for reading these patterns of data, revealing how we are caught in midst of interconnected processes and changing temporalities. In face of muzzling the rights to sharing this research, scientists, activists and alternative platforms should get connected.

Our scientific data needs to be modelled with more rational political praxis, especially without reactionaries co-opting our futures through terror-tactics. In these winds, sailing the utopic extreme is dangerous, even though sometimes this venture is a risk we need to take for a stronger reorientation. A general fixation of the ‘compass-eye’ upon a singular, imaginary Utopian future is a romantic hegemony and won’t be taken seriously. It is naive to affix to utopias without doing the dirty work and ungrounding the present. Future landscapes cannot be homogenized–even the most beautiful visions contain multifaceted temporalities and discontinuities. The future, as a global or universal concept, is a very sticky, abstract and partial object of inquiry. Therefore it is important for us to become precise in our present movements, with enough attentiveness to know precisely what we do not want for the future (such are the present’s commitments) whilst making concrete proposals for tuning (into) utopias.

The future, as an idea, is basically empty–a seeping, empty idea. Yet (paradoxically) plugged between this emptiness and these dynamic, decaying processes–exactly where the incomputable subject emerges–political desubjectification seeps in! If you look at this archaeologically, you can see that post-apocalyptic dystopian images of the future were typically fuelled by basic human impulses, fantasies or simulations of a given cultural landscape, still corrupted by the most brutal or suffocating hegemonies. Dystopic-lensing rarely became an effective means for generating egalitarian hegemonies! But it does reveal a looping of temporalities, in upon themselves. From a more contemporary perspective, there are many relevant thinkers whose works (influential for so-called left-accelerationist theories) have called dystopian time-spirals, the ‘archaeologies of the present’: once you ‘dig into the present, the future leaks out’. As already mentioned by Donatas, Mark Fisher’s writings very importantly uncover this release from the present.

Perhaps the most important question to ask is: whose dystopian future are we referring to exactly? The answers ought to bring us closer to the grounds of the future: with those in urgent need of support (to think more collectively with) on issues prevalent to the complexities of changing political, social and ecological currents.

ML: Could we expand more on local activism vs systemic change please – one could think that in order to achieve results the systemic change has to be powered by local activism. Are you saying that local activism is inefficient? Or should we define what is ‘local’?

KB: The local subject is affirmed and incomputable; systemic change is structural according to “natural” dynamics (when carefully reverse-engineered). As complex gestures of transformation, both are context sensitive and thus difficult to reduce. Systemic change is largely individuated by changing modes of power, production, functions, or policies, and discursive shifts and discontinuities erupting within political consciousness that transcend the limitations of the political. Rather than define what the ‘local’ is, juxtaposed within the obvious anonymous ‘we’ that we are (in face of the evolution of genus Homo), let’s ask: for any ‘given’ i.e., exceptional or conditional circumstance that requires a dramatic political change, what is it that we want to achieve or change and how we can bring the brightest combination of factors together in order to accomplish something far different from what we already know? There is this necessary synthesis between ‘knowing-that’ and ‘knowing-how’ transforming the ontological positioning of the local in relation to the open question of the future and our present conditioning–a proactively synthetic ingredient for local activism’s efficiency that requires an advanced level of cooperation, far beyond territorial binaries or divisions in either exclusively top-down or bottom-up procedures.

Since there can be rules in the system, there must also be play–not only for learning what our bodies can do (through experimentation) but for deepening sensitivities towards concrete local struggles. Intimacy is something to develop; to develop robustness, we need intimacy for surviving unseen thresholds of change. Intimacy is an important part of the local process/experience and can be instrumentalized as an important transit(ion) function in the soft mechanics of non-violent movements. Yet, while here, in the presence of intimacy, local activism does not remain locked within its own (re)making of experience. Local activism rids its own self-fixations by becoming more attentive to the global fluxes, especially of the global financial roulette that undermine its universal commitments.

Take civil rights movements as exemplary for the kind of transmodernist (‘local to global’) activisms we ought to learn from: while largely beginning as communal decisions for demanding universal rights, i.e. better global commitments, they also require a willed and embodied participation without ‘self’. However unwise the reduction of any civil rights movement to a general representation of either its local or global phenomena, civil rights movements still naturally transit between domains of the local and the global–as is necessary to do so–in the remaking of society. In complex situations that erupt in such movements (think of the goddess Athena erupting from the head of Zeus), forming the kinds of non-subjective means of cooperation that are necessary for scripting new programs and languages of corruption requires a mobilization of vast amounts of creative thinking power, and an unrelenting patience in the many practices this power invokes: cyberactivism, counter-lobbying, alt-memetic political projects, online and offline manifestos, human and nonhuman rights films, decolonial scripts, investigative journalisms, sharp-tongued cultural fictions, or social-media auto-narratives–all common-place methods and contemporary non-subjective means for rebooting political consciousness beyond simple intellectual dichotomies of left and right politics.

We are not only willing to become radical, non-lazy people (energized from the inside-out) as an efficient local activism, we have to scale up in cooperation and out in activism, to levels where financial opportunism has spawned memetic parasites, whilst holding off from reforming reactionary metahistorical narratives. Political consciousness is corrupted by intellectual laziness in the dark spells of historical nestedness: in the globalized context, still stuck on binaries like ‘East’, ‘West’, ‘Middle East’, even the idea of a ‘global’ itself; and political rhetoric that espouse either deeply mystified notions of chaos, or decontextualized and pathologized notions of morality. These twisted, disharmonious intellectual pursuits only further advance the totalitarian regimes of so-called individualistic Neoliberal hegemonies (‘individualism’ as the false ideology of Neoliberalism), since people are living within the delusion and fear enough not to recognize or unthink the traps. Self-activism means debunking the internal theatrics.

We must remember that we do have rational means to understand the dynamic currents that levy up fresh vision through the dark spells of capitalism (hence Unthinkable’s emphasis on collective research-making, cosmic ethics, artistic political investigations, and decolonization). Local activism shouldn’t turn off the outside if the aims are anti-xenophobia and intersectional and intergenerational justice. We must advance to the next level of society or concept that is able to generate this activism as food for the system. We know we are simulated, but neither simulations from the positions of the co-opted or the corruptors will do–our engagement is a form of Mesopolitics, meaning that it is beyond the usual, given objectives. In each case or context, we look deeper to where our potentials can become enhanced or hacked, precisely because we want to generate immense perspective and a sound appreciation for what we are, for the future (our ancestors). The ‘local’ of local activism, when so-defined, does not translate to a ‘nostalgic socius, harkening-back to traditionalism,’ even if that activism is intergenerational and traditional–say, indigenous, or involving religious rites. The potential of the ‘local’ as a self-identifying concept for an activism much greater than its identity politics is its very incomputability–incomputable because love and intimacy are internal to its making, i.e. uniting its will to understanding. This is quite opposite from the view that simply sees local activism as stagnating or stunting systemic change.

Unthinkable Nomos Night, November 5th, 2016 at Kvartalas. With: J.G. Biberkopf, Music For Your Plants, Aïsha Devi w. Emile Barret, Dodo Mundo, Encore Photo: Miša Skalskis.

Unthinkable Nomos Night, November 5th, 2016 at Kvartalas. With: J.G. Biberkopf, Music For Your Plants, Aïsha Devi w. Emile Barret, Dodo Mundo, Encore. Photo: Miša Skalskis

ML: You called yourself a semi-open group. What is your politics on openness for the general public and audience, regarding the readability and accessibility of the Unthinkable?

Recent political changes imply us all to unite for a change more than ever. In one of his recent interviews Adam Curtis is blaming our obsession with individualism and self-expression once again and therefore the question rises – “Is art world to blame for Trump?” This may sound self-indulgent and once again self-concerned from the perspective of the art world itself, but most of the members of Unthinkable are closely related to the art world, therefore it is interesting to hear your thoughts.

DT: We aimed to both nurture a space for ‘abstract’, critical thought and make the project accessible to the general public through various means. Unthinkable Nomos festival (with conference, workshop and club-night parts) was an experiment at this – perhaps a failed one. It’s true that we are living in times demanding activism, but solely activism is insufficient. There has to be a historically and contextually-rich understanding too. In the contemporary socio-economic, commercial space, we are under pressure to make ourselves ‘useful’ and can be even shamed when engaging in more difficult, demanding thought that doesn’t have an immediate pragmatic value. It is true that most of our endeavours engaged only a very limited circle people – certain groups of artists, philosophers, cultural critics, musicians. As a project, due to our circle of friends and a paradoxical no-place between disciplines and institutions, we became quickly associated with contemporary art world. We are quite wary of the way the memetic worm of contemporary art operates and would like to dissociate Unthinkable from its vogues and modes of operation.

GŽ: It is a paradox we did not resolve completely – striving both for accessibility, openness and not being compromising at all theoretically. We aimed to make the spaces, the presentation as welcoming and as attractive (also as affordable) as possible, but with the aim of actually challenging people, – if so happens, to the point of feeling lost. Just for example, – with all due respect, – our involvement with art institutions in Vilnius was mostly practical in the end.

Throughout the group, we would not form a homogenous voice about the state of contemporary art world, but there’s some quite radical criticality towards the presumptions that it is working upon, how it legitimizes itself.

ML: Is there an expected continuation and dissemination of the Unthinkable?

MJ: As most of things, the project easily gets in intermediate state – crumbling and knotting together in the same time. What we raise with the gaze of rightfulness and adoration we devour unabashedly.

GŽ: As with a lot of idealistic initiatives of this kind, it is a continuously semi-failing organization. Manoeuvring and keeping in-line with one’s preaching is a constant struggle that takes a lot and too many times it means not doing anything. Finding models how to do something without corrupting the nature of it entirely, is where much-unspoken artistry lies – in discovering the ways for the conditions for a certain work to emerge, in being able to achieve a less-compromised mode of production. I speculate that in quite a few cases, this is exactly where significant shifts happen in art history timelines.

ML: Thanks for your answers.