Soothing the Soothsayers

20 August 2019Alserkal
Soothing the Soothsayers

Since late July, Alserkal Avenue has been hosting its summer programme under the theme Foretold Now. Curated by arts writer Kevin Jones, who describes himself as someone who is obsessed with studying the human desire to speculate, Foretold Now comprises talks, reading groups, and performances that explore the insatiable human appetite for the future — and peoples attempts to predict it. In this episode of the FOLIO podcast, we investigate the obsessive need to soothsay. 

Hosted by Vinita Bharadwaj. Produced by Chirag Desai. 


Transcript: Soothing the Soothsayers

[NARRATOR] The future fascinates, it doesn’t matter if you’re a glass half full or a glass half empty person. We have never been more consumed with trying to know what the future holds. We are no longer sated by merely predicting Oscar winners or professional sport outcomes. From climate change to food trends, financial forecasting to election results, it seems as if we need to know it all before it happens.

Welcome to another episode of the Folio podcast by Alserkal. I’m Vinita Bharadwaj. Since late July, Alserkal Avenue has been hosting its summer programme curated by Kevin Jones under the theme Foretold Now, which concludes on 14th of September. The programme comprises talks, reading groups, and performances that explore the insatiable human appetite for the future and people’s attempts to predict it.

Kevin is an arts writer who also runs Juniper Now, a consultancy that looks to merge creative thinking from the art world with strategic storytelling from the branding world. He describes himself as someone who is obsessed with studying the human desire to speculate. To predict. To maybe control what comes next.

KEVIN JONES: So we started with really simple things like trends—fashion trends, food trends—every year you’ll have a report on what the next year holds across every industry & sector. And that seems kind of harmless and we’ve integrated that into our life. And then, above that you’ve got this kind of speculation in terms of financial forecasting, retail forecasting, also the algorithms that kind of point you towards your next purchase seemingly helpfully but also, kind of, you know, nefariously in a way. And the dangers of financial speculation which we’ve sort of, had our fingers burnt with not so long ago. And all the way into things like prophecy ... people who prophecise things like, the death of the white male or things, things that are, are much more, fundamental and almost, again, prophetic in that way. And the end of the story arc is looking at apocalypse and what the end times; actually how we predict that and how we visualise it almost. So that's kind of like the crescendo of prediction is, as apocalypse and the end of the world. So it's quite, it's kind of a dark programme [laughs] admittedly, but, but I think there are moments of enlightenment.

VINITA: Before the deep dive on studying the obsession, it was important to touch upon the fundamentals of future forecasting. In everyday speak, speculation and prediction are sometimes used interchangeably, although they couldn't be more different as many of you probably already know. The art of speculating is primarily indulging in conjecture, whilst the science of predicting relies on foretelling with precision of calculation, knowledge and informed inferences from facts and experience.

KEVIN: “Speculation comes with a great degree of anxiety, right? I mean I think we're worried in a speculative space all the time. You lose sort of a bit of moorings and directions. Whereas and again, prediction is as, as you're at the say like kind of step by that where you're still quite grounded in the space itself, in the present itself.”

KEVIN: “It's always hinged to today, prediction. You always have a foot in the present to look at the future. And one of the kind of, um, examples that I use about this prediction and the anxiety that comes from it as well is the FaceApp, which is, you know, like you peer at yourself. So I did have a FaceApp of myself as you know, say like a 75 year old or something. And, and again, it's this idea of you're grounded, you're looking at a present configuration of physical, you know, facial configuration that's then projected through the science of, you know, predictive algorithms and male baldness patterns and wrinkling hierarchies and stuff, into this... you peer at this future, which is conjectural but as probably as accurate as can get. And then you come back to the present with the stress of, you know, Botox, the clinics make a fortune out of, you know, out of the anxiety like that that comes from something like FaceApp.

KEVIN: Ultimately, I would argue that all of this is really overhyped, that the idea of actually kind of unpacking the future or trying to predict in and of itself is, is quite, you know, it's quite futile because the future is probably not worth actually predicting [laughs]. And so it could go very wrong. Prediction is only as good as the tools that you use, right? So when you go back in time with FaceApp, because you can become younger with FaceApp as well, that's when it starts to fall apart, right? So that's only when you actually have empirical evidence to say, but I did not look like that as a 15-year-old, you know, so, so that's when, when this idea, that's the kind of anti-prediction, but, but it also kind of, looks at how the kind of the real prediction as you said, kind of dodgy sometimes.

VINITA: Ancient astronomy and astrology are early evidence of our fascination with prediction. In the absence of modern data analytics & algorithms, how did ancient civilizations foretell outcomes?

KEVIN: “There’s this ancient kind of Roman or the, I imagine they took it from the Etruscans or the Greeks even. It's this kind of staff that has, uh, a square at the end of it, which is called the Templem, which would take out and look, it would kind of freeze frame birds flying across the sky. And you'd have an augur, who's kind of priest, who would then interpret what the positions of those birds meant within that frame—how, how high they were flying in, what clusters they were flying—that would predict if a battle would be successful or if an election would be some way or if a temple could be built in a different place. But, but this idea of that tool that we use, they keep today it's FaceApp then it was, it was this, but again, prediction is only as, you know as trustworthy perhaps as the tools that we use. And maybe the tools are things that are wrong.

VINITA: So humans have been obsessed with predicting outcomes for centuries. The concept of the Foretold Now programme and its events seeks to explore and understand why the obsession exists to begin with. Is it about anticipation, preparation, control or is it about something else altogether?

KEVIN: “I think it's a control over your destiny. I mean, ultimately that's the thing, when you are shown something in the future that that will happen, let's say with the all certitude is or likelihood will happen, then you reorient your behaviour in the present, right? So, this idea that you've now controlled a destiny, which was somehow out of your scope is the sort of taste of power and again, an alignment of your own fate. Ultimately, I think that's at the basis of it.

KEVIN: I mean, I keep thinking about, well, now that we're having this conversation, I keep thinking of that there was a moment in Game of Thrones where Cersei goes to see a witch, which I don't know if there are Game of Thrones fans amongst the listeners, but when she got to see a witch who then predicts that, you know, she will have a certain number of kids and she’ll have three kids, but her husband will have, um, you know, 25 because the king was a great womaniser. Um, and that they would all die or something like that. And so, she takes actions to, you know, kinda prevent that and divert it. But ultimately, you know, that prediction happened to be one of the ones that was right.

KEVIN: Um, so again, I mean, it's this idea of control over a fate that somehow still escapes us. And we haven't really done enough of this whole programme and we haven't done enough yet to, um, really start unpacking it, but I think we will, I think this idea of apocalypse who we're doing a debate at one point, which we're calling The Invisible End and it looks at the apocalypse or apocalypse as, um, as something that is almost, it's so insidious as you may not even know that it's gone. And control again I think ... the lowest common denominator of the whole thing is control. How we ... kid ourselves, coerce ourselves into believing that we control things.”

VINITA: Since it started on 27th of July, the Foretold Now programme has featured debate, music and dialogue every Saturday. The experience has been programmed with the future at the core, with weekly reading groups and events that are designed to help us understand and situate us in the present in order to set up the foundations to predict better.

Consider the dialogue A New Architectural Utopia that was held on the 3rd of August by a group of students from the American University of Sharjah’s College of Architecture, Art & Design. The students submitted a proposal to an open call by French architect Dominique Perrault.

KEVIN: “He was commissioned to kind of curate a show around the 500th anniversary of a château in the Loire valley, which is Chambord. And Chambord has a little bit of a myth of Da Vinci having designed the component of it, which is this kind of double helix spiral staircase. But Chambord above anything else was conceived in this kind of worldview of utopia. And Da Vinci himself kind of was always after, the ideal city, like putting together a city where mathematical rigour sort of intersects with this mindfulness about economic activities and human & animal activities in it. So Chambord is kind of born in this this world of trying to ideal, uh, imagine the ideal city. And the, the brief to all of these architecture schools—so there's something like 45 architecture schools from around the world, very prestigious ones, MIT and Princeton, and SAIC rom the art institute of Chicago. The brief was to reimagine this utopian view through the prism of what's going on today. So, everything that implies with, you know, our ecological mayhem and financial maybe as well perhaps. ”

“And the students from Sharjah came back—who were shortlisted among the 18, um, finalist schools—came back with a proposal which was called Ectopos which essentially imagines Chambord flooded. Um, and again, so this is not without precedent because the rivers around Chambord are always flooded. Through centuries, the French have been kind of riddled with, with, with flooding waters, uh, inundating châteaus and, and the like. But the emblem of Chambord is its spires. It's a kind of constantly over the forests of different types of spires and towers that come out of that, bristling with these really intricate renaissance designed, um, spires. And what they've done is they've submerged the Château and the Château is kind of almost three quarters under underwater. And the spires, or the inspiration of the spires manifested itself in these different, how is that they built on the site. And each tower is very, has a very specific function.

KEVIN: So it's kind of a science fiction world when you look at it. And yet it's grounded in something very, that, that's on everyone's minds today. And it also has to do with something that's 500 years old. So, so this kind of, um, mashup of past, present and future is, is really kind of, that's the heart of, I think what we were trying to look at as well, that people walk away with the sense of not just the sort of in their presentation was stunning. Just from a rendering point of view. Uh, and, and there's a short video in it. So, it's not just to walk away with this fascination of the world of science fiction, but to also understand that it's coming from a space of kind of deep concern and, and worry today.”

VINITA: Intended to remain accessible to anyone with a curiosity for new discovery, Foretold Now’s broader programme is to maintain universal appeal and avoid the esoteric label.

KEVIN: “There will be some things that I think will, will instantly appeal to a crowd of what we'll call the art world. But I would also say within that, we're trying to make the talks as accessible and broadly interesting as possible so that we, um, we appeal to this demographic that we're calling the culturally curious. And again, I think this was initially Antonia Carver who spoke about this idea of the curious who are out there. But the people who are culturally curious who actively seek stimulation, especially during the summer months if they're into Dubai, where it's not really a lot to do. This is a, a space where you can come for that, that kind of intellectual, I don't want, I don't mean intellectually and it's inaccessible way. I just mean in, so that kind of cerebral stimulation rather than, you know, AquaVenture or something.

And I think that it is a, there is that demographic which, which varies in terms of age, in terms of occupation, in terms of ethnicity, that, that, that is out there in Dubai. And, and I did something recently with Alserkal called slow art tours where we tried to, instead of doing on the opening night of the art galleries trying to, to go from every single gallery and look at every single thing get a sense of everything, we slowed it down and looked at three galleries only and three works with like a work in each gallery under, like it was kind of linked curatorially, there was at least an idea that that unified the three. And I think that's, that's the public that I would expect to see in some of these talks and debates. And it's the same with the reading groups. I mean, I find people, you know, spectacularly well read here. You come across people who, who have a lot of, of divergent interests and who are broadly read.

VINITA: On the 24th of August, The Invisible End – Artists and the Apocalypse will explore the creative community’s fascination with the ‘end times’. Where we once explored potential post-apocalyptic future realms in literature, visual arts and film, it seems now to be more likely portrayed by scientists and data analysts. Kevin will moderate what promises to be a compelling discussion on alternative perspectives. The debate kicks off at 4 p.m. at Concrete in Alserkal Avenue.

The following weekend of the 30th and 31st of August will feature a series of workshops led by Rohit Goel, Professor of Critical Analysis, Art & Design with the Centre of Arts & Architecture at the Ballard Estate in Mumbai. We spoke to Rohit, who’s a philosopher, historian and astute observer of contemporary art to get a preview of his lecture and workshop.

ROHIT GOEL: “In large part, I hope that participants of this workshop, uh, walk away with, uh, at least, if not a final, final answer on the question, what is the ‘contemporary’ of contemporary art, um, at least with a desire to constantly clear the fog when they use or hear that term. We’ll definitely be appealing to genres such as modern art and traditional art in order to get at what, uh, what the contemporary of contemporary art means.

VINITA: Some would say that recently contemporary philosophy and elements of history have become quite fashionable within the contemporary art world.

ROHIT: “This is a wonderful thing as a philosopher, as a historian, um, it's tremendously exciting. It's given me an opportunity to explore that world more. Um, yet I think that a lot of fog has been created around notions of, for instance, contemporary time, modern time, traditional time. And so the goal of the workshop is really to read quite carefully, um, to discuss collaboratively, and, and for me to lecture a bit, not too much, but a bit, um, in a structural way on, uh, what precisely, um, is contemporaneity. Um, how has it appeared in a common sensical world and in everyday language. And, uh, what might be, what might contemporaneity, uh, be if we thought about it a bit differently. And we'll make these explorations in conversation with, again, close short readings of philosophers and historians as well as some contemporary art work.

VINITA: Rohit’s work has led him through the Middle East, where he did his archival research in Damascus and Beirut, which drew him to continental psychoanalysis, and yet his debut at Foretold Now will mark his first visit to Dubai.

ROHIT: “All of this time spent in the Middle East. I've actually never made it to Dubai, so this will very much be, um, my first, my first trip to Dubai, and, uh, my first trip to the Gulf for an extended period of time. And I'm really looking forward to it, not just because a lot of, you know, friends and family members have participated quite actively in the contemporary art scene that's emerging in extraordinarily interesting ways, uh, in places like the Emirates, but to also because it's a fascinating side of contemporary capitalism. Particularly exciting for me to do this programme, When is Contemporary, the workshop as well as the public lecture Contemporary Art—A Topology of Fear under the rubric, uh, or umbrella, that's Kevin Jones has come up with quite brilliantly.

KEVIN: “It's very sound scholarship based on a broad selection of texts. But this will be a space where people can actually sort of peel away the layers of what ... again this idea of time and contemporaneity. What does that mean today, this moment that we're in, what does it, what does it mean to feel, um, to feel contemporary as opposed to being modern, let's say.”

VINITA: As we continue to consider our ability to predict, whether we have the right tools and whether we can really factor all the parameters we need to make the right predictions, we realise how our forecasting abilities can be turned over by the smallest unexpected shift. Climate change, for example, requires us to almost throw our current algorithms out altogether, not to mention the ‘unpredictability’ of influential personalities who can make a decision that could completely throw any prediction off its axis.

KEVIN: I also think there's a certain degree of, of a cultivation on predictability, right, within the, within the leader himself or herself. I mean, I think that there's a knowing, um, platform of unpredictability. I think Nixon at one point was also played on this, a kind of scaring off people as being someone who would make a very rash decision. I think there's a great reason to believe in, in, in the kind of creation of the personality. But I also think that the in predictability can also be used as a kind of political tool.

KEVIN: “I think by, by saying that prediction is sort of futile and that you can't really rely on it, it almost says that our sense of control is futile as well. Like if we can't, you know, and I, I'm putting those two things in parallel. Like maybe we really don't control as much as we, as we think we do. And, and I'm, I'm fascinated about things like scenario planning and crisis communications and, um, you know, disaster planning and stuff like that. Because I find that as you say, those things like in a breath could crumble, you know, the most, you know, exquisitely planned scenarios for anything from corporate governance to [laughs] to disaster relief. They could like vanish and, and, and, and again, I think that the precariousness of all of that is what, what's really kind of, you know, brewing underneath a lot of the thinking in here.”

Vinita: And if predicting is as futile as it sounds, would it be fair to speculate that the future of forecasting itself might be short lived or will we continue to try?

KEVIN: “It’s funny, I wonder how much it’s not ... yeah, I wonder if one time we won't get tired of it. We won't feel that it's, it's, it's, you know, it's not worth it anymore to do this, that all the algorithms that point us in this direction and that direction are perhaps not even, they're really not helping [laughs]...

Foretold Now also includes a screening of Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky, on the 7th of September the 7th at Cinema Akil. A vibrant public performance by celebrated flautist Haider Rahman from Lahore will kick off at 4 p.m. at the Fridge. Haider is a student of the Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia. The programme wraps up on 14 September with a PechaKucha night at INKED.

For a complete listing of events visit Alserkalavenue.ae, that’s a-l-s-e-r-k-a-l-a-v-e-n-u-e dot a-e, or follow Alserkal Avenue on Facebook.

Thank you for joining us on this edition of the Folio podcast with me, Vinita Bharadwaj. We were produced by Chirag Desai. You can subscribe to the show in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and in streaming apps like Anghami & Spotify. This episode of Folio was brought to you by Alserkal.


“Speculation comes with a great degree of anxiety, right? We're worried in a speculative space all the time. […] Whereas with prediction […] you're still quite grounded in the space itself, in the present itself.” — Kevin Jones