Blog / Texts

Mapping Different Futures in Pandemic Times

by Alberto Duman

POSTED: 16 August 2021

Artist Alberto Duman takes us on a speculative journey via Angela Davis and Octavia Butler to reflect on the third major theme from our online artists' course: future.

In a time of chronic uncertainty, how can we remain future oriented? As the first year of PILOT - Autograph's online course for artists - draws to a close, course leader Alberto Duman reflects on the collective's conversations and the artwork the participants created in response to the theme of 'future'.

At this time last year, as we set out the themes for PILOT, our online course for artists, we spelled out the word ‘FUTURE’ with hope and anticipation for the work ahead. Imagining ourselves in the space of that word and entertaining conversations on future scenarios, whilst riding the inevitable epidemic waves of COVID-19 to come.

By the time PILOT actually started we were in another lockdown and headed for further restrictions in early 2021. The chronic uncertainty spawned by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has done its best to remind us of the existential dimension of our lives as speculative fiction.

How can we remain future-oriented in the chronic uncertainty of pandemic times?

At the outset of PILOT, when we said ‘if not now, when?’ we alluded to the way Stuart Hall thought of ‘conjunctures’, intended as: ‘a fusion of contradictory forces that nevertheless cohere enough to constitute a definite configuration.'¹ As we revisit the work of our participants in July 2021, the stretching of that conjuncture into an extended pattern of ‘living with COVID’ has continued to define - as much as scramble - the contours of those contradictory forces shaping our lives.

How else, if not with some serious degree of imagination, are we going to think our way across fabricated boundaries – organisers vs. artists, academics vs. community, real world vs. utopia, doing vs. envisioning – and remain future-oriented in our lives?

Angela Davis, in her unique mix of revolutionary activism and scholarly work that crosses over philosophy, art and politics, has often talked about the need for ‘imagination’ to negate, confront, or – in a radical way – criticise and reshape the existing conditions of subordination in our lives. Often, in the same talks, Davis also speaks of the work of science fiction author Octavia Butler, when referring to Lauren Olumina, the hyper-empathetic young black woman that feels and senses the pain and pleasures of others around her in Parable of the Sower.

For Davis, as well as many other readers captivated by Butler's astonishing capacity for imagination, it is clear that: 'Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prison, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction.'²

How else, if not with some serious degree of imagination, are we going to think our way across fabricated boundaries – organisers vs. artists, academics vs. community, real world vs. utopia, doing vs. envisioning – and remain future-oriented in our lives?

To prompt those speculative questions into the space of PILOT’s FUTURE session, we invited our guest speakers, Greg Sholette and Jemma Desai to bring their own experiences to bear and to offer them to the course participants in an open conversation. Greg Sholette took us through several examples of urban interventions and activist campaigns as recovery and reprocessing of silenced and obliterated histories that can shift the present and open new possible futures. Jemma Desai reported on the development of her work of embodied ethnography opening up to scrutiny the institutionalised racism of cultural institutions and conceive of alternative policies that truly concede power and restore equity. In both cases we got the chance to cut through the intersectional agency of ‘making space’ for other futures in art and culture, and the price we often have to pay as practitioners to enact that agency.

For artists, the boundaries of what is personal and professional can become blurred or redundant in the face of troublesome encounters with the power of cultural institutions: in between the upfront posturing of virtue signalling and the ‘ghostings’ of workers in the background, a blunt reality-check suddenly becomes manifested: 'I, in all my reality, cannot fully exist'.³

In the sullen – if not painful – sobriety of those moments within a multi-temporal present, when 'knowledge exists only in lightning flashes',⁴ things also begin to turn and make sense…

As it turns out, each one of our PILOT participants found their ways to move, enact, embody, deflate, or defiantly declare their sense of time and space, posing the key questions that truly matter, collectively gathered and courageously shared amongst us.

Let’s conclude with PILOT artist Nadia Rossi’s thoughts on how the collective experience of creating work on the course was like an 'Overview Effect'. She says: "The Overview Effect doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Rather, it makes us feel a set of truths in a new and more intense way. It pushes us to embrace a view that is both global and practical; one that pays attention to human lives as they are lived".

Right on, PILOTs, the future is still, regardless, unwritten.
¹ Hall, S. (2005), 'Assembling the 80s - The Deluge and After', in Bailey, D. Baucom, I. Boyce, S. ‘Shades of Black’, Duke University Press, p.4
² Imarisha, W. Brown Maree, A. (2015) 'Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction stories from Social Justice movements', AK Press, Introduction.
³ Desai, J. (2020) 'This Work Isn’t for Us', ‘Collective Critique’ chapter.
⁴ Benjamin, W. (2002) 'The Arcades Project', translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Harvard University Press, p.456

about the author


Alberto Duman

is a tutor on the PILOT course, alongside Ali Eisa. Duman is an artist, university lecturer and independent researcher whose work is situated between art, urbanism and social practice. He is a Lecturer at Middlesex University and runs the BA/MA Fine Art and Social Practice with Loraine Leeson. He has published papers, articles and artworks in books and journals, as well as publishing his own photographic books.

In 2016 he was the Leverhulme Trust artist in residence at University of East London UEL with the project Music for Masterplanning in Anna Minton’s MRes Course 'Reading the Neoliberal City'. Most recently, he has delivered Talking Ghosts: a collaborative hoarding novella, a workshop in which participants write together whole scripts for new development hoardings in London.


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Banner image: Hanou Amendah, Future - Etsɔ [still], video, 2021

Other images on page: 2) Alberto Duman 3) Anna Jane McIntyre, Afropresentism is the Space, photograph of the artist by Kinga Michalska, 2021 4) Alberto Duman, Tottenham, London, 2021 5) Anna Jane McIntyre, Digital Collage Featuring Portraits by Chris Miller [detail], 2021 6) Lauriem, Done Begging, Audio work artwork by photographer Clara Lorenzo, 2020.