a think piece on ctrl+alt: a culture lab on imagined futures


On the afternoon of 8 November 2016, I boarded a ten-hour flight from Honolulu to New York City while wearing a t-shirt that loudly asserted, “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE.” Originally produced in the 1970s by Labyris Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York City, the shirt has regained popularity in recent years. I wore that shirt, that message, out of a hunch that Hillary Clinton would easily be elected the forty-fifth president of the United States.

The plane took off and landed in a new world. The flight didn’t offer wifi access, so no one heard of Donald Trump’s stunning victory until everyone turned on their cell phones at the same time. The air in the cabin grew heavy. Many passengers hadn’t been able to sleep and now it seemed like no one would. I disembarked, convened with Solomon Enos, Naiʻa Lewis, and Josh Tengan (fellow CTRL+ALTers from Hawaiʻi), and steeped in the vast silence of disbelief.

Trump’s verbal assaults on Muslims, blacks, Latinxes, women, decorated veterans, the disabled, refugees, immigrants—just about anyone who wasn’t white, male, and raging—are well-known aspects of a bellicose campaign that also included dark omens for the life of the planet and its many species. Trump denies the scientific consensus on climate change, insists upon completing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines, and threatens to roll back the important but woefully insufficient Paris Agreement. His transition team initiated a disquieting hunt for Department of Energy employees who have worked on climate change. One may see Trump’s commitment to ecologically destructive policies and a pumped-up ethos of “Drill, baby, drill!” in his cabinet picks: Scott Pruitt for the Environmental Protection Agency; Ryan Zinke for the Department of the Interior; Rick Perry for the Department of Energy; and former chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson. Trump’s personal opinions on climate change threaten not only those who were targeted by his campaign but also his most diehard supporters and even all life on this planet.

The importance of CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures was heightened in this dismal if not doomsday context. It is true that the forces of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, ableism, and settler colonialism have been enduring and that the environment has long been imperiled by unfettered capitalist greed and expansion. In many ways, this is not a new world but the latest twisted episode in a long history of injustice. What may make this moment distinctive is that any reservations over asserting the claims of whiteness seem to have been lifted—claims on the bodies of people of color, the bodies of women, the body of the earth. CTRL+ALT responded to this moment by refusing capture within the clutches of whiteness and slipping away into other spaces and other times. It undertook the labor of imagining other worlds in which people of color may thrive.

It is difficult to precisely describe the culture lab, which is part-museum, part-pop-up-exhibition. With over forty contributors and a variety of media, artifacts, performances, lectures, and workshops, CTRL+ALT was a crowd, a critical mass, a teeming swarm of potentiality. Its strength derived from resonances and undirected movements rather than the iron cage of a single backbone. This format turned visitors from mere attendees into participants. CTRL+ALT kept the future open as a broad, unbound horizon rather than a narrow direction.

One could follow many thematic journeys through CTRL+ALT’s pressing, important, and imaginative projects, including science fiction, activism, and Hawaiʻi. My own path emerged by heeding a call from engagements with climate change, environmental justice, and the so-called “Anthropocene.” An epoch in which the human species has acted as a geological force, the Anthropocene is a prominent hinge for discussions about ecological and planetary fragilities. There is much debate over what inaugurated the Anthropocene (primary culprits include the advent of agriculture, the industrial revolution, the invention of nuclear weaponry, and the extermination of Native Americans by European settlers) and whether its nomenclature elides the fact that humans are not equally implicated by cause or consequence in the unfolding of ecological catastrophes. Some scholars have been sensitive to social, political, and economic differences, but many have not adequately engaged writers and artists of color. A number of CTRL+ALT projects corrected these oversights from Asian, Pacific Islander, and black perspectives. Music, artifacts, food, and meditation formed a multisensory response to issues surrounding climate change.

Antarctica provided the inspiration for Paul D. Miller’s multimedia corner of the “Portals of Possibility” exhibition, curated by Alexandra Chang. Adorning the walls was Miller’s Manifesto for a People’s Republic of Antarctica, a series of posters loosely inspired by the constructivist style of 1920s Soviet propaganda. This riff gestured to an Antarctica beyond the ownership of nation-states. The continent is not private property but an emblem of a dire shared condition: the melting commons. Were the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is roughly the size of Mexico, to melt, global sea levels would rise by about twelve feet, swallowing the homes of people in low-lying island-states and coastal regions.

What does music sound like at the end of the world? Composers increasingly have been engaging with issues of climate change. John Luther Adams won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his chilling “Become Ocean,” which evokes our oceanic history and future as the rising seas absorb vast land masses. In the summer of 2016, Ludovico Einaudi performed his piano piece “Elegy for the Arctic” atop a platform floating amongst bits of ice in the waters off Norway. Crucial to Einaudi’s performance were the haunting sounds of the Wahlenbergbreen glacier snapping apart.

Miller’s own rendition came from his 2013 album, Of Water and Ice. While foreboding ruin and somber lamentation characterize “Become Ocean“ and “Elegy for the Arctic,” Of Water and Ice expressed Miller’s fascination with the complexity of ice. Miller captured the elemental shifts of a rapidly-changing Antarctic landscape through electronic sounds, recordings of ice and penguin cries, and string instruments. Songs from Of Water and Ice were the soundtrack for two short films that played in the installation. The videos spanned close-up shots of melting ice to sprawling views of Antarctica from outer space. One film played global warming in reverse: water dripped upwards to become icicles; glaciers reconnected in a healing landmass; Antarctica’s reach expanded across the sea.

This vision testified to the awesome capacity of nature to restore itself without human intervention. One may sense in Miller’s account of the Antarctic what philosopher Eugene Thacker has called a “world-without-us,” though its predominant tone is not horror but wonder. Through music and film, Miller registered the vitality of a seemingly barren world. Perhaps the most pressing environmental issue for humans is not whether and how we might save the planet, which will continue on without us. It is the question of what we might leave behind should we ever go extinct.

Wiena Lin attuned visitors to humanity’s legacy in her work on metals and plastics, or what ecocritic Timothy Morton has named “hyperobjects” (phenomena that cannot quite be considered objects because they far exceed human scales of space and time). Disassembly Line and Altar/Retail Kiosk addressed climate change through the relationship between consumption, e-wastes, and the Anthropocene. Planned obsolescence and the cultivated desire for the latest gadgets have intensified a culture of rapid consumption to the point that most cell phones enjoy the lifespan of a pet hamster. The brief life of electronics is haunted by increasingly deadly conditions: the dangerous mining of rare metals on the one hand and the mass dumping of disused, toxic materials on the other. Media theorist Jussi Parikka has imagined that future archaeologists will excavate a geological strata entirely composed of e-wastes. Not much digging will be required to find plastics, which may outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050.

It is against what Parikka has called a “geology of media” that Lin’s work acquired its power. In Disassembly Line, attendees wore Hazmat suits, sat around a disassembly carousel, and picked apart keyboards, cell phones, and circuit boards. This exercise compelled reflection on our relationship to electronics that are in everyone’s hands yet unfamiliar beyond their immediate use. Disassembly Line had several effects: it opened a relationship to things beyond utility; it closed the gap, so wide in the Global North, between human and trash; it depicted a geography of consumption that intimately tethers the United States to recipients of its e-wastes, such as China, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Clearly, Disassembly Line was also an exercise in re-assembly.

“Assemblage” is a term that has recently gained currency in the environmental humanities. Political theorist Jane Bennett has described “assemblage” as an eclectic composite of “vibrant matter” that cannot quite be categorized as lively or inert. Each artifact of Altar/Retail Kiosk was at once trash and relic, dead object and vital resource. Some items were blends of technology and spirituality, as one charm made of wood, microchips, resin, cowry shells, rope, and cables. “Sparkle Chicken” was a Kentucky-Fried-Chicken-like bucket of drumsticks, whose meat were balls of CD shards and resin fused to real chicken bones. By gesturing to factory farming, short-lived electronics, and long-lasting materials, Sparkle Chicken embodied the destructiveness of rapid consumption practices and the seeming immortality of human material culture, whose toxic presence will have to be reckoned with by nonhuman species. Each of Lin’s assemblages solicited reflection on how humans, animals, and synthetics are interwoven in an earthy fate.

While Lin engaged the Anthropocene through repurposed wastes, Erin O’Brien did so from the vantage point of disappearing food sources. Sugar Rebels imagined a future in which sugar is the only source of nutrition. Women, people of color, and queers are enslaved as sugar plantation workers. A group of rebels seek to reclaim the past by spinning sugar in a variety of lost flavors, such as Peking duck, corn, and pork belly. Taste is the lifeline of worlds long gone. The palettes of the oppressed are the road to revolution.

At CTRL+ALT, Sugar Rebels was tucked away in a dark, cramped nook under the stairs to the basement—a place of secret meetings and collusions. O’Brien spun sugar and invited attendees to write messages that reflected their commitment to revolutionary activity. Unfortunately, on the second day of the CTRL+ALT, the cotton candy machine broke. Incorporating this breakdown into the installation by claiming that the fascist state confiscated the motor, O’Brien highlighted the fragility of efforts to pursue alternative futures. Although the show was over in some sense, it also continued. The wall of resistance pledges continued to grow as visitors took in the scents of flavored sugars. An inhibition to one sense meant a turn to another, as though efforts to resist would always find detours around all barriers.

The experience of Sugar Rebels was uncanny due to its juxtaposition of oppressive pasts and dystopian futures with the childlike innocence and amusement-park-levity of cotton candy. Sugar Rebels harkened back to the fraught history of sugar. Once a rare good for European elites, sugar became popularized in large part due to the expansion of slave labor in the Americas and the Caribbean. The sugar trade was also pivotal in the history of Hawaiʻi, both for the influx of immigrant labor from Asia and for the lead roles of sugar plantation owners in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi in 1893. Turning to the future, Sugar Rebels called to mind how climate change will impact eating practices due to longer droughts, harsher crop failures, the loss of biodiversity, and the rise of food riots as more people suffer the pangs of hunger. In the future, cultural identities will be changed, perhaps irreversibly, as ingredients become scarce, costly, and even extinct. Haunted by the past while looking forward to the future, Sugar Rebels gave attendees a taste of connection, persistence, and change.

While O’Brien connected the past and the future through flavor, Yumi Sakugawa did so through a guided meditation. Tissue-Thin envisioned a future in which the Earth is no longer habitable due to the ravages of climate change and war. Humans are climate refugees, dispersed throughout outer space and alienated from the burial sites of their ancestors. They gather together in a space station—at CTRL+ALT, Sakugawa’s candlelit chamber, lined with tissue discs and altars—to pay respects to the deceased and to reflect on the Earth that once was but no longer can be. At the heart of Tissue-Thin was the question of what it means to be human when every connection to the only planetary home we have known has been severed.

Sakugawa drew inspiration from Iris Chang’s observation that, “Civilization is tissue thin.” Her installation gestured to the fragility of a society that, by design, has been deadly to us and others. It also indicated that our connections can be preserved only through intentional efforts, performed over and over again. Sakugawa invited attendees to imagine the Earth no longer as a blue marble but as a ball of rust. She welcomed them to view the planet from far away, zooming out until it could be held in one’s hand. “Imagine that with every breath,” Sakugawa intoned with measured pauses, “the red ocean becomes less and less red / until it turns a brilliant blue / and the yellow land masses become less and less yellow / until they are a lush green.” Breath was life, a wind slowly reanimating the planet. In this grand vision, one could feel hope. One could sense recovery. One could breathe easy.

Then came the hit: “This Earth no longer exists.”

While meditation is often an exercise in recentering oneself, Tissue-Thin was deeply unsettling. There is no self, no Earth that can be home. There is only an abyss and a leap forward without knowing what lies ahead or whether one has the strength to get there. The philosopher Judith Butler has described mourning not primarily as an experience or a practice but as an ethical relation by which one accedes to being changed by loss. Sakugawa placed attendees in the position of mourning for a loss that hasn’t happened yet. Any sense of relief provided by Tissue-Thin was found in finitude, transition, and change. Perhaps in the Anthropocene, relief may only be found in those experiences, and efforts to fortify a wasteful, destructive society may bring only further misery.

In his provocative Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization Roy Scranton observes that civilization is not only tissue-thin; its heart was punctured long ago and life support efforts are but feats of desperation that can only fail. We must learn how to die collectively, Scranton urges, so that we may begin adapting to a dying planet. In Tissue-Thin, the Earth could not be saved by recycling, climate engineering, or “going green.” Nevertheless, its memory “will live forever in the river of your blood and guide you during your darkest times.” We carry an earthy legacy within us, as does every tree, cat, and blade of grass. Meditation on this shared fact weakens fantasies of human mastery that hold other beings solely as resources for us than as entities of their own right. By learning to live with rather than merely on the Earth, we may better appreciate connections with other humans and beings, across time and space. By losing the only lives we have ever known, who knows what becomes possible for life?

This sort of openness was evoked in many CTRL+ALT projects and perhaps best captured in Solomon Enos’s adaptation of his Polyfantastica, a graphic novel whose 40,000-year-long tale imagines what the genealogy of Native Hawaiians would be like were they not dispossessed. For CTRL+ALT, Enos adorned a wall with over 1,000 seed packets, flanked by two long scrolls. Each packet bore a unique illustration of a plant-like spaceship carrying a tiny figure. In Enos’s imagination, the dissemination of this vast fleet of seed-ships across space did not represent separation or distancing but the expansion of being and possibility. Enos invited attendees to take a packet—a seed of possibility to be planted in a thousand separate worlds.

Process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote, “The future is merely real, without being actual.” CTRL+ALT bore witness to futures that we have long been making. Those futures are not fully distinguishable from the present, nor are they in a distant time that does not yet exist. They are really here and now as wisps in the air. They offer an array of loose directions whose destination is our responsibility. Things may be dark but we are already on our way elsewhere.

The collective labor of pursuing better futures has not been interrupted. There will always be resistance and there will always be creativity. This insistence does not cave into blind hope or foolish optimism. It admits that what happens next could be painful in ways that no one can anticipate—something people of color have known for so long. Yet it also means that the powers that be have not won and that they never will. Other futures are overcrowding the ones sought out by racism, sexism, imperialism, settler colonialism, and anthropocentrism. Those futures are female, but not only; they are also trans, queer, yellow, brown, black, Native, and earthly. CTRL+ALT channeled their force into powerful visions of paths in the making whose destination is our responsibility.