How the Laboratory of the Future, the permanent discussion platform aimed at involving intellectuals in the redefinition of the coordinates of our civilisation, came into being, and how it intends to develop
Organising a series of meetings and discussions among intellectuals to redefine the coordinates of our civilisation might seem an ingenuous, idealistic, even utopian idea in its excessive ambition. But even utopias have a value when they arise from a deep need, and they can suggest a direction. It is not true that ideas do not count, that only organisational and economic structures can shape society. Words too can transform the world.
The Marxist ideology, which claimed that ideas are superstructures dependent on the economy and on production relationships, paradoxically has radically modified that very economy and those very production relationships. And I say this without any pretence of associating this project with the huge revolution produced by Marxism.
The idea I am about to tell you about is not actually mine. It arose during a meeting at the headquarters of the Laterza publishing house in Rome almost two years ago. There were about 30 of us, invited to the presentation of a short book by Zygmunt Bauman, the Last Lecture, a transcription of alas the last conference held by the great Polish thinker at the Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci, of which I was the director.
There was Aleksandra Kania, Bauman’s wife, a longtime sociologist and a reference figure in Poland. There was Włodek Goldkorn, an exceptional writer and journalist with whom I collaborated at various times in my directorship of the Centro Pecci. Also present were Lucio Villari, Paolo Flores d’Arcais, the director of the Fondazione Sant’Egidio, the director of the Festival of Philosophy of Modena, the journalist and curator Adriana Polveroni, and many others.
There was also of course our host, Giuseppe Laterza who, at a certain point, when we touched on the heights of Bauman’s thinking, said: “It would be wonderful if politicians could make use of such deep thinkers, if there were a system whereby these ideas could filter into the actions of the governing classes”. I had a sudden brainwave, and replied in a practical tone: “In that case, why don’t we just do it? We just need to create an organisation which promotes the thinking of intellectuals and helps it to pass into political action”.
For that day, the idea remained just a pebble thrown into a pool. But, ruminator that I am, in the following weeks I continued to turn it over in my mind. I also called Laterza, who was perhaps however taken up with thousands of other editorial problems and did not get back to me. It really would be good, and I would say also useful, if intellectuals, who are the cultural professionals, could be involved in the discussion of the contradictions of the present, in order to help us find our way around the momentous changes the world is exposed to. For years, politicians have shown they are no longer able to give long-term answers. They are driven by electoral considerations and end up thinking only of the immediate future, responding to their voters’ gut demands.
The ideologies that for better or worse have guided us for over a century are over; they fell with the Berlin wall, or perhaps got lost among the boxes and tins of the global supermarket. Religions, which in some cases can unite groups and determine the politics of some states, are unable to build world trends, because they are incapable of defining a dominant ethical system even among their own adepts. The social networks and many of the contemporary media, while encouraging participation, contribute to superficiality by creating a system of empty values and fake news which diminishes any authoritativeness.
So in this reference-less ocean we wander without any direction, without any port to dock in. We are like Stendhal’s Fabrice: immersed in the battle, we have difficulty in understanding which side is winning. So why do we not listen as we once did to those who dedicate time and work to research, to the experts in the respective disciplines? Why do we resign ourselves to superficiality when we have the possibility of seeing more deeply into the problems which afflict us? Why do we not ask intellectuals to take on their public and social responsibilities?
I put these ideas to some friends. I find interest and agreement, both in Italy and abroad. Little by little a group of people is formed. The artist Stefano W. Pasquini, with whom I shared long years of collaboration for the journal of the Galleria Civica of Trento; Gian Marco Montesano, an artist but also a refined thinker, once intellectually as well as physically close to the French philosophers Derrida, Baudrillard, Guattari; Giovanna Bernardini, the former dynamic councillor for culture of Carrara with whom I organised a magnificent edition of the International Sculpture Biennale; Giovanni Sighele, digital entrepreneur, producer of the most important art sites in Italy; Andrea Cavallari, musician and artist, director of a fantastic Florentine festival combining these two arts; Virginia Zanetti, also an artist, with a relational approach and interested in the collaborative, open aspects of her work; Lorenzo Bruni, the clever contemporary art curator with whom I have shared experiences and collaborations for over 20 years. Then the more recent friends, Tiziana Casapietra, director of the Ceramics Museum of Savona, but also supervisor of a site of interviews with international figures of culture and art; Alexandra Bolgova, Russian artist and musician in Italy; and Huiming Hu, a young Chinese artist also in Italy, with whom I am collaborating for the Shenzhen Architecture and Town-planning Biennale. Finally Andrea Cusumano, a versatile figure: artist, former collaborator of the great Hermann Nitsch, but also musician, theatre director and performer,
whose work as councillor for culture for Palermo led the town to become the Italian capital of culture and to organise Manifesta, the European contemporary art biennale. It was Cusumano who decided to host us within the context of the Bam Festival of which he is the artistic director, thus transforming our project into reality.
Let us think how it might work: a series of public events, debates, meetings, conferences in which intellectuals are called upon to discuss topical themes, those themes which seem to be emerging most urgently out of our blurred but explosive contemporaneity. And then obviously a site which can register, broaden and relaunch this debate. A name has arrived too, Laboratory of the Future, the title of a project I started when I was director of the Contemporary Art Centrein Warsaw.
So the newborn cultural movement, small but potentially expanding, is beginning to take its first steps. Nothing more than what many festivals and local departments of culture are already doing, I hear someone say. Or nothing different from what in fact took place in that meeting at the Laterza publishing house, where the first embryo of the idea was formed. And in a certain sense it is true. But there is an important difference from the salon-type gatherings. One of the mistakes cultural tradition has made has been the fact that intellectuals have often preferred to stay in their ivory towers, sufficient unto themselves and closed inside their groups. Now is no longer the time to be taking decisions (or even indicating directions) in an élite environment shut up inside a room. One lesson can be learnt from the movements which have grown up with the digital network: the processes of selection and decision must be wide-reaching and open, transparent, somehow democratic. Whether we like it or not we must accept the revolution brought about by the social networks. Certainly we are sick of the superficiality of the “likes”, of those who judge without even reading the content, of the stupid haters and the vacuous influencers. However, we cannot ignore this revolutionary change in communication and selection processes, also in the cultural field.
But though digital democracy is obligatory, it does not mean that the trend must necessary be a downward one. In my personal experience, I can say that in recent years I have noticed that at least in the worlds revolving around art, after an indigestion of openings and events, after an excess of chiccera (who was there) and VIP previews, we have begun to see an (expanding) minority which is fed up with superficiality, which wants to go into issues more deeply. Again I remember at Centro Pecci the 700 people (far exceeding the legal capacity of the museum) for the last lecture of Zygmunt Bauman; or the over 800 at the Politeama theatre for David Grossmann. Without counting the wide diffusion and the success of the various festivals of philosophy, economics, literature. The desire for deep knowledge is not dead and interests not only the older generations but also the younger ones.
Which gives us cause for hope. It is true that Instagram is still the rage and silly influencers reach millions of followers. It is true that new apps such as Tik Tok are being developed which win a billion followers just by showing short videos inviting them to act daft. But there is also a growing opposite minority which wishes to see things more deeply, to know, to understand. Here then is the Laboratory of the future, a project which does not mean to be exclusive but on the contrary intends to associate itself with others in the hope of seeing soon a proliferation of conferences and meetings, debates and lectures. But the laboratory does differ in one respect from the festivals, wishing to add to them a more concrete element. Its intention is not only to have one-off discussions of themes, discussion for the sake of discussion, a contest between two opposing visions which is attractive for the public; it also wishes to set up processes of negotiation which may gradually lead to some kind of common consensus.
This is the high point of the utopia, the aspiration to achieve a definition of the cultural and ethical bases of contemporary civilization, analysing its themes in depth and gradually identifying some common directions. An aim which can only be defined through subsequent confirmations of the answers to the main themes obtained by democratic consensus.
And what then are these themes? Some of them go without saying. Ecology, above all. We are going through one of the most severe climate crises which humanity has ever encountered, what’s more a crisis created by humanity itself. It is clear that substantial interventions are needed, which must be made by the states and the large multinationals, but a new ecological ethic is required and this can only come from the rethinking of daily habits which are no longer sustainable.
It is not only a question of practical behavior, but of a change in mentality, which can only start from the critical examination of the ideas of progress, indefinite growth, galopping capitalism.
Another fundamental theme for current debate is the new technologies. A mostly transversal theme which requires deep discussion, because we are looking at a revolution comparable to only two others in the history of humanity: the cognitive revolution, which gave Homo Sapiens the capacity for language and abstract thought about 70,000 years ago; and the agrarian one, which made humans into sedentary beings about 10/12,000 years ago, leading to the construction of houses, infrastructures, towns.
Technologies are about to arrive which will do the activities we are used to doing ourselves. The advent of robotics, of the Internet of Things, of driverless vehicles, of AI, for the first time in history is about to create a system which functions without human beings. So, apart from the discussion about the various devices, on the impact they produce on single individuals and on social organisation, the big question we have to ask ourselves is: “what will be the function of human beings, their place in this new world which no longer needs them?”
Linked to these arguments is another theme which has been the battlefield of philosophical and political thought of the last two centuries: work. Except that it is no longer a question of discussing the exploitation of proletarian or intellectual work, but rather of their very purpose. The new technologies are in fact substituting human activities with artificial instruments, to the extent that human beings will soon no longer be necessary. This is not a futuristic prediction. Just to give an example, in the USA it is calculated that at least 30% of the people are currently employed in transport and logistics. Well, all the systems for making these activities automatic, without any need for human presence, have already been invented and are already in an advanced stage of testing: driverless cars, drones for delivering parcels, which are already flying around the countryside of Virginia and Wisconsin.
When they have been perfected, authorised and guaranteed, from one day to the next 30% of American workers will be out of work. And here we are facing fundamental questions: from the need to find new ways of redistributing income, to the need to understand what will define the value of human beings, since for centuries we have been used to giving a meaning to our lives through the work we do.
And what about the economy, that sector which has become totalising to the extent that it has destroyed all other concept of value, to the extent that all types of human activity have been reduced to mere numbers? Will capitalism still be the main motor of development for society, or will it be necessary to find other methods?
Will the measurement of the importance of everything still always be an economic one or will we be able to find other indications of value, perhaps linked to content instead of to numbers?
Then there is the great theme of democracy, the ancient tool of government, considered the best one, the one which best guarantees individual freedom and the development of human potential. Although it has not yet been achieved in every state, it already sometimes seems to falter, almost because of an excess of its own underlying principle, since contemporary communication media favour and almost urge the passage from representative to direct democracy, from perspective to immediate vision, often based on the feeling of the moment, with the result that the system becomes an easy prey to distortions and populisms.
But there are many other topics the Laboratory wishes to address: demography, with the intention of broadening the focus and moving beyond the restricted theme of migrations, which risks giving only a partial view of the problem; gender relations, when women in western countries have not yet achieved full equality, at least as regards positions of power and salaries, while many discriminations based on sexual identities and tendencies still occur. In a certain sense there is no wide-reaching, potentially global theme which it is not useful to discuss.
Clearly, since it has been created in Italy, the Laboratory of the future must necessarily start from a European, western angle. But it cannot help but bear in mind diversity, because the world evolves through differences. Its focus cannot help but be global, because the problems are now global and moreover almost always connected.
Will the Laboratory of the future achieve the ambitious objective it has set itself? No-one can say for now. But one objective it has certainly already achieved: to shift some attention onto the value of knowledge and deep analysis. In times when the performance of an influencer seems to be worth more than the hard work of a Nobel prizewinner, a return to emphasis on the value of culture, to however small a degree, must already be considered an achievement which cannot fail to influence others.