The Project Horizon: On the Temporality of Making
by Bojana Kunst
In the last few decades, one of the most commonly used words among artists, producers and other cultural workers has been the word project. We are all involved in projects, most likely several of them, we are implemented in the finalisation of old projects and are constantly starting new ones, continuously part of relentless projective movements of production. With every project we are moving towards the end of something; from invention to completion, from the start of the process to its end, we are - in a very specific way - progressing to a final projection. The word project is so often uttered in contemporary culture and art that the sheer frequency of its use is already cause for alarm. This overwhelming denomination, which is used for all kinds of cultural products and artistic works, contains a peculiar temporal dimension which has never been stressed and questioned as such. In this short essay I would therefore like to reflect upon how this peculiar temporality is framing the contemporary artistic processes of making, collaborating and creating: project turns out to be the ultimate horizon of making in the present day. There is something very perplexing at work in the projective temporality of the project: regardless of the myriad possibilities it opens up, it nevertheless projects its own completion as the ultimate horizon of work. The problem therefore lies in the fact that, regardless of the openings and transformations inside the projective temporality, the future is still projected as chronological continuity with the past, and the meaning rises from progressive continuation.
It cannot be overlooked that the plain banality and everydayness of the use of the term project speaks to the fact that this term is often used as an empty signifier, a concept which doesn't imply anything in particular. It denominates nothing, adding nothing to what we actually do. It could be said that this term is used pragmatically for myriads of makings and doings. Am I then not inclined to squeeze too much out of the sheer pragmatic application of this particular word to the artistic work? I am not so sure about that. I remember Myriam van Imschoot writing about another similarly "empty" word we utter when we would like to describe artistic work in everyday communication. She writes about the word "interesting", which is nowadays often used as a descriptive adjective without any reference to the thing or work which one is referencing. Similar abstraction of language is at work in the word project, where the reference to the temporality of the work is never questioned. Project always denominates not only a specific term, but also a temporal attitude or a temporal mode in which completion is already implied in the projection of the future. A lot of what artists do today seems to be caught up in this unaddressed and never-approached projective time. What we ironically get at the end is an ultimate abstraction, an "interesting project", which can even work as an undefined speculative value among the community of cultural producers and artists. Something immediately appears in the project when it is being described as an interesting one.
The treacherous abstraction of the word project is one of the reasons why it is necessary to tackle and dismantle this term: it has to be put on the anvil because of its dangerous independence and implementation of everything in its temporal dynamics. The second reason lies in the fact that the projective temporality of work has multiple baffling consequences on the lives of those involved in the continuous creation of projects, especially in cultural and artistic fields. It seems that its abstract omnipresence is literally absorbing the experience of artistic work and work making, and at the same time forming the peculiar temporality of the subjectivity that is involved in its completion. Projective temporality is tightly intertwined with the subjective experience of time; it can be argued that contemporary subjectivities are increasingly experienced as the simultaneity of many projects, be they private, public, social, intimate ones, etc. It seems as if the temporality of the project also influences the rhythm of the transformation of subjectivity, which has to be flexible while at the same time moving towards an accomplishment, a realisation, an implementation. The projective temporality of work and activity is intertwined with the acceleration of that same activity, where the unexpected happens only because of the outburst of crisis, exhaustion and withdrawal. Such continuous movement to completion and consummation is also a rigid and destructive movement of progression. Its flexibility is actually destructive to subjectivity and its collaborative surrounding. Subjectivity is abstracted from the contexts of work, making them more and more the same, erasing the differences between the communities of work and thus disempowering the work’s political strength.
The reason for this is the constant lack of time, a kind of time deprivation - which of course is a paradox - concerning the possibilities the project holds for the future. It seems that the more there is to project in the future and the more possibilities there are to be completed, the less time is at our disposal to maintain and endure, and enable social, discursive, political or intimate relations. The project becomes an ultimate horizon of our experience. Ironically, one of the most commonly used words in cultural production to designate project completion (especially in the academic sphere, but also more and more in the arts) is deadline. A mortal limit seems to stand at the end of the project, a moment of pure completion, the consummation of creative life, with no follow-up experience. At the same time, an illusionary feeling that everything continues on to eternity lightens this tension a bit, because there are so many projects to complete. The project is the ultimate horizon of making because, as is the case with the real horizon, it is always receding as we attempt to pursue it. However that doesn’t mean that consummation is not part of the process. What’s more, in this projective endlessness there are many mortal limits to be crossed and there is a lot to consume: the future seems radically closed-down while offering all its numerous possibilities. Time deprivation obstructs the imagination and the creation of radical gestures, and disables any experimentation with enduring present.
We can say that projective temporality is a main mode of production in today’s art and culture in general. It is also influencing how cultural or artistic value is articulated nowadays, and how, for example, contemporary art and culture are articulating their right to be supported, financed and presented in public. Instead of affirming and articulating the value of creation, the (human) right to imagination, creation of new forms and radical misrepresentations. Instead of affirming its value with constant articulation of human potentialities and togetherness, the value is most often reconfirming the evaluative enumeration of projects and hyper-production. The enumeration of projects and their statistical efficiency and success, the hyper-production of inventions, and interventions in social space, all end very often in a justificatory claim that art and culture are important because they are vital to the contemporary economy and its production of value. However, with that kind of production, a fragmentation of interest, political relations and abstraction of contexts occurs because economic importance is measured and applied using a more and more general model of working - based on the number and visibility of projects. Such affirmation actually deprives artistic creation and works of potentiality, and throws the work of an artist into a competitive battle which art can never win. The problem lies in the fact that art can never project the speculative value of the project as the financial speculation of investment because it deeply belongs to the public and is therefore "availability-towards-nothingness", as Giorgio Agamben would say. That means it belongs to the public so that it can be surpassed, appropriated and articulated through many different temporalities. There is something fundamentally different in the practice of creation itself when we relate this practice of work to time. What is at stake in art practice is not speculation about its value - a constant selling and dissemination of what it could become - instead we have to speak about the sheer power of imagination, of creation of forms through which our life together can be perceived and actualised, of the modes of invention which are part of the human potentiality to act.
The reason for tensions and feelings of weakness in contemporary cultural production is a deep incongruity between artistic practice and the projective temporality itself: a deep incongruity between work and its projective horizon (and this does not only apply to artistic work, but also work in general). Time between the invention and completion of work is apprehended as progression (a movement towards something which should be completed, a movement towards finalisation). This progression can be full of experimentation and twists of various creative situations and dynamics. However at the same time a project must from the start project its own consummation, it has to anticipate and evaluate its completion from the beginning and work towards its own closure. It is true that whatever we do is always oriented toward the future, at least in the sense that our activity will last for some time, there is always a temporality of doing. But the question is whether the work is really a straightaway related to its consummation, to the completion of the act. Or is the invention something which actually opens up different articulations of coexistence, a practice of re-articulation of language and displacement of activity, a plane of imagination and human actualisation that is not on the accelerated adventure towards its future finalisation?
Even if the constant creation of projects gives the feeling of flexibility and creative dynamism, actually it is not enabling change, but sameness, or better, exhausting sameness. It is important to mention the specific retrospective future of the project, which always enables a lot of possibilities even though everything has to be planned in advance to reach the already-projected future. A project works as a horizon of expectation, with a lot of possibilities but no actual change. The time of the project is not the time of the event, which would open the window of the unexpected, with the time being out of joint. It can be described more as an administrative time, where some possibilities are being realized and some not in the progressive line between the invention and its completion. What is particularly interesting here is to observe how the administrative time of the project literally results in an increase of administrative work and demands multiple managerial skills from the artist and other workers (skills of evaluation, self-evaluation, presentation and application, presentation, etc.). No wonder artists have become a model of creative job insecurity in the last few decades: she/he is so deeply involved in the projective time. This is also deeply changing the social and public role of the artist: the public dimension of his work is projected, not imagined any more. That means that the public dimension of his/her work is most of the time conceived as the finalization of its ends, and the public becomes an outcome of the fact that art is an important part of the economy. Artistic practice should be understood as public because it is a practice of work, an antagonistic practice of doing and making.
I would like to conclude this essay of introduction to my residency at Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers with the statement that there exists no empty or neutral use of the term project, its utterance already implies a specific temporality of the artistic work: a project is somehow a dangerous and overwhelming form of contemporary work. Of course every work and activity is temporal. Whatever we do is always related to the time yet to come, at least in the sense that our activity will last for some time. However there exists a large difference between understandings of the work which are durational, meaning it lasts through the working activity, and those which are projective, meaning it is moving towards its own completion. This difference can be compared with the difference between adventure and quest: a project is much more similar to an adventure (it has a myriad of open possibilities, however they have to lead to the consuming end if the adventure is to be adventurous) whereas, in a quest, time is consummated in the activity itself, in its endurance. One way to deal with and critically address the problematic projective understanding of the artistic work is through the disclosure of the durable and enduring nature of work, and therefore to address this peculiar relation between work and time. This can be seen in numerous attempts by artists to explore duration in the last few decades as a powerful strategy to overturn the ruling formation of temporality. Another way to address the overwhelming projective temporality could be to intervene directly in the rhythm of production and actually continuously and excessively produce plenty so that every "(non)significant" moment in the project is overproducing myriads of traces, evidences, suggestions, discourses, etc.; somehow the project itself may be overrun with the sheer power of activity. Or it may also be possible to subversively affirm the projective nature of contemporary work in art and culture, and literally take the projection as the only condition in which it is possible to work nowadays. With this approach, the project is taken so utterly seriously that the nature of the free-floating possibility to complete the project is actually disclosed as ultimate and rigid limitation.
Text published in Le Journal des Laboratoires, Sept-Dec. 2011
The Project Horizon: On the Temporality of Making