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Notes on Metamodernism – a critique

2015
30th June

The term metamodernism started surfacing at some point in 2009, and has steadily gained popularity as a term to describe contemporary practices that stand paradoxical between the old and the new. It is not an artistic movement –  rather, metamodernism is a form of cultural analysis or a way of understanding culture, be it music, cinema, art or fashion. The term was invented by the two Dutch researchers Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, who have since founded and edited Metamodernism.com, a research platform that attempts to map these changes in culture, with contributions from scholars, professors, artists, designers, students and professionals. The object of study is cultural production post-2000 and contemporary working artists “under the age of 30” (super-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine Gallery similarly attempted to grasp this ‘generation with his 89+ project a few years back) – and culture that “re-interprets traditional narratives and techniques through the lens of modern-day society”. Vermeulen was invited to talk about this new condition at CSM by the graduating class of CSM’s BA Culture, Curation, Criticism, along with artist trio Nastja Säde Rönkkö, Luke Turner and the all-present Shia LaBeouf. We took some critical notes — what follows are 5 things that we learnt from their conversation.

Luke Turner: Annunciations, 2010/2011

1. Metamodernism strongly emphasises its contemporaneity or present-ness, and its rooting in the post-millennium. It is an attempt to periodicise the 2000s, not just as a decade, but a defining ‘period’ in cultural history – a period that is characterised by a new political engagement, storytelling, post-irony, affect. Luke Turner wrote a manifesto-like piece earlier this year, which introduces the term:

[…] rather than simply signalling a return to naïve modernist ideological positions, metamodernism considers that our era is characterised by an oscillation between aspects of both modernism and postmodernism. We see this manifest as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp. The metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.”

In other words, metamodernism is the attempt to gather what we have learnt from modernism’s construction and postmodernism’s deconstruction (although these two things are arguably very different) of culture – and try to look forward in a new way. In this new ‘cultural toolbox’ we bring the naïve sincerity (and belief in grand narratives) of the modern and mix it with the unravelling irony of the postmodernism – to once again engage with the historical while looking toward the future with a certain optimism.

2. As such, metamodernism is also a counter-act or critique of the form of cynical, ironic and pastiche-ridden form of culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s – and insists on a strong emphasis on optimism in this new cultural mode. Gone are the emo’s and Nirvarna’s melancholic scepticism of life, replaced by the happy-go-lucky, neo-hippie free-folk movement of Mumford & Sons, for example, which “suggests other possibilities after the original hippie movement and grunge.”  In cinema, the same tendency is visible in the ‘quirky’ work of the immensely popular Wes Anderson: instead of the disengaged and cold dramaturgy and cinematography so typical of the ‘90s, Anderson makes film that “engages in a sincere way with its fictional universe.” This can equally be extended to fashion, where a new wave of neo-romantic designers like CSM graduate Ed Marler re-engage historical silhouettes in an idiosyncratic and celebratory manner.

Luke Turner: The Damoclean Frame, 2011

3. While all this re-engagement with history sounds like all fun and games, metamodernism raises serious issues within historicity and representation. When we pick up history again, do we pick up the suppressive hegemonies that it contains?  Ironically, metamodernism tends to forget as it re-engages history. Are these ‘new engagements with history’ actually new, or are they re-implementing an ideological and suppressive historicity in contemporary culture?  Although postmodernism might be dead, it taught us (via feminist, queer and postcolonial deconstruction) that ‘history’ is a white, straight, masculine project. The ‘End of History’ that it advocated is just as much an ending with that violent history that unjustly misrepresented (or not represented at all) minorities. To draw on some of Vermeulen’s own examples, the work of Wes Anderson has a tendency to romanticise historical gender roles (Moonrise Kingdom) and colonialism (Darjeeling Limited) – but in a contemporary setting, which might be even more dangerous.

4. The optimism of metamodernism presents itself most visibly in the engagement with technology. Previously, the technocentric future was portrayed as Other through dystopian and scary science fiction. But as past fantasies and technological reality increasingly meet, “the future is becoming more and more a part of our lives”. Our ‘new’ engagement (by some categorised as The New Aesthetic), comes much more from the fields of design, New Media and the net.art movement – an engagement that sees cyberspace as a hybrid space in which we feel and are affectionate or engaged with the inanimate (robots). Across design music, people are flirting with technology – the music of Arca and his artist-partner Jesse Kanda’s visuals, for example – but is this necessarily new? Was Björk and Chris Cunningham’s famous 1997 romanticisation of robotic intercourse in All is Full of Love a pre-metamodern moment?

Luke Turner: Hairbath, 2010

5. Metamodernism is visible in all aspects of culture, but as Vermeulen argues, “art can be particularly useful, because it can act as an entry point to our understanding of it.” Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner are two artists who, working collaboratively, see their practice as very rooted in metamodernism. Their claim to fame is their ongoing collaboration with Hollywood character Shia LaBeouf, whom they installed in a LA gallery for 4 days as a way to explore the poetic potential in human interaction. Speaking at the Metamodernism conference, the trio explained their attempt “to be both ironic and sincere at the same time,” as from a metamodern point of view, the celebrity figure is both an object (of fetishisation) but also a human being potentially available for a genuine interaction. After having unfairly appropriated the work of cartoonist Daniel Clowes, LaBeouf resorted to Twitter to apologise for his celebrity misdoings – which ended up as a performative examination of the quintessential ‘celebrity apology’, as he began re-tweeting other celebrities’ apologetic tweets.

“No matter the sincerity, the gesture of the celebrity is always also insincere,” they argued, as they exist in a web of media and mediation, impossible to escape. Since their first installment, Rönkko, Turner and LaBeouf have continued to explore the poetic potential and deeply personal connection within the way media works today – most recently with their collaboration with the graduating BA Fine Art class of CSM, where Shia would perform short pieces of writing from each student. This speaks somewhat against their previous emphasis on humanising the celebrity, as celebrityhood is used here as a legitimiser of non-celeb people – with an ironic stance, or? While their engagement with young and unestablished students is admirable, they waver between ironic critique of Hollywood and uncritical celebration of the celebrity as estranged object: perfectly metamodern.

In conclusion, it seems that metamodernism can be useful to describe a kind of culture we are seeing today – neo-romantic, nostalgic, forward-looking. That doesn’t mean that we should approve of them, or forget being critical: in the metamodern, it might be even more necessary to constantly reflect on the issues of modernity.

Words Jeppe Ugelvig

Featured images The Ontic Order, 2013

Images and video courtesy of Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö, Luke Turner