The world around us shapeshifts at a phenomenal rate. Everyday there are new objects to buy, new images to look at, new vocabulary we can use as we try to explain all the craziness to ourselves. And yet, despite the seemingly endless stream of novelty, the result is always the same: we look at things, we buy things, we talk about the craziness. It's something Jonathan Crary unpicks, poetically and politically, in his crucial recent book 24-7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, and it's something that artist Kari Altmann has been onto for a while now. The founder of influential net art projects R-U-In?S and Garden Club, Altmann has a keen eye for tracking patterns in the consumption and generation of both corporate and communal aesthetics, uncovering the subconscious fears and desires they betray.
"Flexia is a collection of linguistic survival tropes I've been tracking," she tells The FADER. "Mostly [ones] that exist in the names of new products, lands, tribes, internal organs, social networks, etc." She's talking about her latest work, recently debuted as part of Serpentine Galleries' Extinction Marathon. "I've worked on the series since 2011, including some content from this Twitter account," she says. "The words you see are a mix of real names, content-aware bootlegs, and predicted hybrids." Mysterious and compelling words like Bravia, which evokes an image of a brave village of heroes but is also the name of a Sony LCD TV, and Tiguan, a meshing of the German words for tiger and iguana that car manufacturer Volkswagen came up with, bubble up in Altmann's video presentation of Flexia [below]. These words were designed to sell us something: a product, but also an idea, an image that's at once strange and familiar—and it's those embedded messages of strength and survival that Altmann so deftly reveals. Note in the Flexia video the Terminator-esque metallic liquid that continually forms and reforms into new words and shapes: the same material, recast as new and exotic again and again.
It's just one of Altmann's many and varied projects, all of which are concerned with the speed and mutability of the world today—which chimes with an idea that Altmann discovered via Fatima Al Qadiri (who Altmann had worked with before) and author Sophia Al Maria. The two GCC art collective collaborators came up with the term 'Gulf Futurism' in response to the warp-speed infrastructural changes that have been sweeping the Gulf region of the Middle East over the past couple of decades. "One of the most ancient ways of living came head-on against extreme wealth and capitalism—glass and steel against wool and camels," Al Maria told Dazed in 2012. "There's been a quantum leap and there's a temporal gap. The two things have been stitched together and there's a missing piece of history. (Our idea of) Gulf Futurism began to coagulate with that idea."
Altmann grew up in the Lone Star state, and began to develop a Texan take on Gulf Futurism soon after coming into contact with the idea: "[Texas is] big money, big structures, and big spaces—something that feels very synthetic and imperial but quickly painted, installed on top of lands that feel ancient and xeric," she says. Here she explains how work relates to Gulf Futurism, explores the similarities between the two regions, and shares some of her uncanny art works.
What is Gulf Futurism as you understand it? I leave it to those who have lived it and coined it to define it, and you can read other posts about it here and here. I first heard of the term around the time that "post western" and "post internet" were being tagged on my work a lot, and the time that images from [the Gulf] region were beginning to proliferate more and more into the results on Google Images and Tumblr. There seemed to be two things happening—some kind of new cultural territory being claimed, and its satellite exportation into trends. Arabic fonts and Flickr images from Dubai were popping up on all these Tumblr t-shirts, but that was really just an echo of a renewed burst of cultural technology reaching America and Europe in certain ways. I watched these soft power movements very carefully, tracking them through projects like Garden Club and R-U-In?S. The lens was pointed and the story was actually much deeper.
How do you relate to Gulf Futurism? Before Sophia [Al Maria] and Fatima [Al Qadiri] brought Gulf Futurism to the forefront, I had also started to write about ways that my background had shaped my projects in this interview in 2011. I reference magic hour, brands, soil, etc. Texas is all interstates, oil, and parched palettes with glossy shards of luxury and fantasy daubed on the horizon. It's big money, big structures, and big spaces—something that feels very synthetic and imperial but quickly painted, installed on top of lands that feel ancient and xeric. It's a tax haven and breeding ground for entrepreneurs and world headquarters; the landscape is not always conducive to a wide range of plants and animals, but it's ripe for hypercapitalism. You can't live there and not feel the pull of the fantasy image and the simultaneous weight of its slippage, like the roots aren't going to hold. You feel a constant tension between the huge systemic forces at play, this huge network of trickle-down mirages, and your individual role, which becomes infected with a territorial desperation—a pressure to find anything deeper or bigger to grab on to—but it's difficult to feel truly communal there. I moved away in the mid 2000s to Baltimore, a place that was the opposite environment. It was there that I really began to process everything and distill it down to the raw essentials, there that I really felt like I was participating in something different, and you can see the late aughts DIY B'more influence in my work as well.
What are some similarities you've found between growing up in Texas and the culture evoked by Gulf Futurism? At some point I tweeted about Dallas as an outpost of Gulf Futurism, I think after Sophia [Al Maria] had tweeted about "escaping" and I'd begun to read her book. Texas, too, has a gulf, and is largely involved in global oil and military affairs. Sophia responded with a really good line like "Dallas to Dammam direct, you are correct" then listed out "religion, oil men, etc. etc." She's talking about a flight that connects directly between these two regions, which have been interacting with each other economically for some time. We've had an email chain since that time discussing cultural similarities. Gulf Futurism has a lot higher stakes—more massive structures, older currents, and undoubtedly more brutal conditions. In no way am I saying that the experience has been exactly the same, but there are definite correlations. The Texas version is bleak in a different way, or maybe just more subliminal.
How does Gulf Futurism, and the Texas version, relate to late capitalism? Calling it "late" feels too sure about the future sometimes. I call it hypercapitalism, and I've thought a lot about how much this system in its most feudal iteration seems suited to arid climes and large expanses of flat land. It makes sense economically for a lot of reasons, but I think there is also a psychic link between these landscapes and the behavior of things within them.
How does your latest project Flexia work with the idea of Gulf Futurism? Flexia relates to the overall themes of Gulf Futurism that I address in my other work: aggressive branding that tries so hard to sound "exotic," "bio," or "new" that it comes across as alien; the continuous and rapid morphing of things in order to thrive; the aridness or relation to oil involved in a lot of the art direction for survival enhancement products (#petrosumer); and this feeling of territorial urges, of land being grabbed. I really like things that sound threatening and friendly at the same time. The first time I made a video of [Flexia] was actually for a jumbotron in Dallas a few years ago—I snuck it into a huge group screening as a dedication to Texas. I wanted this version to feel like a mix of epic cinema trailers, demo footage on a TV at an electronics store, and trap promo vids you'd see at a knockoff Foot Locker. I think it will go more in the direction of a music video for the next one.