On Suntopia

Earlier this year, during two freezing February weeks in Madrid, I had the amazing opportunity to take part in a group workshop run by Medialab Matadero. Forming part of their second lab, The Metabolic Sublime, the workshop consisted of eight separate but thematically related projects that ranged from conceptual performance pieces through to material engineering projects, under a curatorial thrust that was roughly this:

To radically re-imagine current energy regimes on a planetary scale.

I always love when practitioners from diverse fields are brought together as peers. By cutting across industries and atomised fields of research, practitioners are forced out of their comfortable niches, and must engage with the preconceptions of their field against the backdrop of the wider context. Engineers are invited to engage in ethical quandaries that offer more questions than solutions; performers are brought face-to-face with temporalities outside and beyond the performance; writers are asked to consider physical materiality in conversation with thought and language. It opens up space for the unexpected.

The project I participated in during the lab, co-ordinated by Yujin Joung, was a work of speculative fiction depicting a future world in which global economic relations are inverted due to the growth of solar technology and a transition away from fossil fuels. Originally pitched as a film, by the end of the two week workshop the project had morphed into Suntopia, an ongoing act of collective world-building intending to tell many parallel stories through many voices, in the hope that the collection of these together can tell a wider, richer, polyphonic, decolonised, yet unified narrative.

We wanted to create a fiction that could critically examine what may result from a green energy transition without bulldozing over the multiple experiences that such a global overhaul will entail; without collapsing the multiplicity of potential realities into a single reductive story. When we sat down to discuss how this could be done in a single film we came up against the limitations of how films are traditionally made. We wanted the project to avoid the usual top-down direct authority or single author. On-top of this, within this (and below), we wanted the project to capture the richness of a multifaceted world through the very methodology that creates it. Turning the project toward broader world-building came from a belief that multi-vocal stories must come from many voices, that this polyphony could provide a real depth to the fiction. Partiality requires parts. So in direct dialogue with the story that is developing, the project develops an un-authoritative approach to authorship by prioritising collectivity. We hope the outcomes of this process may be diverse and many.

human self-organization as always, also, ways of collectively relating to the natural world — Alyssa Battistoni

The production of linear stories by individual authors is a historical recent activity. Compared to the historical lineage of human storytelling, the art object and the novel are each very young occurrences. The dominant canonical histories of art and literature grew alongside capitalism in the early modern era, and the canon itself traces the rise and rupture of colonial-imperial endeavour. As rationalist projects that started in the enlightenment, they position individuals a primary actors; great men driving change and progress; the intellectual metabolism of history. But this notion of the individual subject was always coded as white, male and wealthy, in opposition to a racialised Other stripped of a divergent subjectivity.

The enlightenment, capitalism, the novel, contemporary art: these modernist projects are, to quote the philosopher Timothy Morton, ontologically small. To understand any of them you do not need to dig very deep into their past, their philosophical roots don't run very deep. Many argue the first modern novel was Don Quixote, published in 1605 - just 400 years ago, during the rise of the Spanish empire. Despite a prevalence across global cultural markets, to understand the rise of contemporary art you only need to look back about 200 years. By contrast, to understand storytelling, to really get why the human mind likes everything to have a narrative, you would need to delve back further than writing itself to oral storytelling traditions that preceded it. Storytelling is a collective practice, always has been.

The form and method by which we write and tell stories embodies the relations through which the story can operate. Narratives underpin political agency, and the stories we tell about ourselves and others shape our relations to them. Interrogating the methodology by which we can imagine a story about energy regimes on a planetary scale may at first seem removed from the topic of reorganising economic relations in the time of the Anthropocene. I would argue imagining alternate strategies is vital work, made necessary in response to the phenomena Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism, where-in life under capitalism is depicted an unavoidable reality, with alternatives unimaginable, while bourgeois capitalism is mythologised as human nature.

In her review of Affluence and Freedom by Pierre Charbonnier, Alyssa Battistoni discusses modernity as it intersects with the nature/culture dichotomy. Modernist ethics allowed for the twin prongs of material abundance and technological progress during this period, producing political and personal autonomy for a select group of people at the expense of the natural world, which is itself positioned as external, as a site for domination:

Although we tend to think of ‘modernity’ as a single phenomenon, Charbonnier argues, it is in fact two: first, a project of advancing a set of political rights and values; and second, a technological project of remaking the physical world. The first developed the concept of freedom, which Charbonnier usually discusses in terms of political autonomy—the idea that human societies can make their own laws. The second introduced the expectation of affluence, conceived as material abundance. Retrospectively, they appear inseparable; and indeed, they have tended to ‘walk hand in hand’. Material abundance has made it possible to imagine that social autonomy can be absolute—that human beings can escape the constraints of the natural world, conceived as an exogenous force, altogether. But Charbonnier suggests that this conjunction of autonomy and abundance is in fact a contingent artifact—ominously, one ‘whose final moments we are currently living through’. — Alyssa Battistoni

This paragraph points to a number of crucial ideas that underlie contemporary narratives about how the human world should be organised. Living within a culture built upon "the expectation of affluence, conceived as material abundance" produces the bourgeois mentality that one has the right to accrue wealth for oneself unimpeded, even if that means compromising the basic human rights of others. The same material abundance renders a vision of life that can only exist beyond the physical limits of the natural world - a vision we are seeing fray apart from the centre as the pace of ecological breakdown accelerates.

Our contemporary energy regimes, based so heavily on the consumption of fossil fuels, cannot be understood outside the lens of modernism. The use of fossil fuels allowed western bourgeois nations to pollute themselves to the top, as noted by historian Dipesh Chakrabarty and others. This over-exploitation of the natural world could only be seen as tragically flawed or utter madness, were it not justified through an ethical framework that can reduce the natural world into an inert expendable resource. Under capitalism the logic of capital accumulation seems imperative. But viewing this through the perspective any other world-view reveals only barbarism - deeply unsustainable and brutally short-sighted.

To understand how a green transition might play out under the contemporary late-modern project of late-capitalism, we can look at the economic effects of the last shift in energy relations, during the early-modern project of early-capitalism. In A Billion Black Anthropocenes Or None, Kathryn Yusoff outlines how the development of fossil fuels rose largely out of an economic desire to replace the profitability of slavery following abolition:

The new modes of material accumulation and production in the Industrial Revolution are relational to and dependent on their preproductive forms in slavery and its organization of human property as extractable energy properties. — Kathryn Yusoff

Yusoff argues that the abolition of slavery drove the industrial revolution, by redirecting funds acquired from the exploited physical labour of black bodies toward investment in coal powered machinery that could achieve the same pace of production. This is exemplified clearly in the British context, the often-sited birthplace of the coal-fired industrial revolution:

In 1833, Parliament finally abolished slavery in the British Caribbean, and the taxpayer payout of £20 million in “compensation” built the material, geophysical (railways, mines, factories), and imperial infrastructures of Britain and its colonial enterprises and empire. As the project empirically demonstrates, these legacies of colonial slavery continue to shape contemporary Britain. A significant proportion of funds were invested in the railway system connecting London and Birmingham (home of cotton production and gun manufacturing for plantations), Cambridge and Oxford, and Wales and the Midlands (for coal). — Kathryn Yusoff

That private slave-owning entities were compensated for abolition by the British state can be understood as a financial slight-of-hand that promoted investment in new avenues of extraction and accumulation, without any repercussions that might have disrupted the status quo, and without any great upheaval in the power structures that had administered the British slave trade. We can see perhaps a parallel here with the transition toward lithium based green-energy technologies, that are finally being spear-headed by oil companies now that the US Inflation Reduction Act has earmarked 783 billion USD for clean energy. These new technologies, and the funding structures that underpin them, will not upset the political narrative of extractive capitalism, even while they attempt a systemic change in the source and distribution of energy.

The narratives that surround new green technologies will drive how they are applied and adopted. Technologies tend to embed the political structures that create them. The narratives we tell about how technologies can or should be used help maintain those embedded structures. Without grappling with the colonial legacy of capitalism, we will probably keep telling the same bourgeois stories again and again. While developing the initial prototype for Suntopia, we hoped adopting a world-building framework over a traditional film-narrative would allow space for voices beyond our own, in order to preserve the plethora of tensions, contractions and nuances that arise from working collectively on a project that aims to address global concerns. The openness of the project makes it slower and more unwieldy, but it leaves space for a sort of narrative abundance that makes it all worthwhile. The small film clips, written excerpts, and scattering of images, that make up the corpus of the project itself, work together in counterpoint: in collage, as montage.

Within the bourgeois expectation of affluence, the question of abundance and scarcity is somewhat ironic. Classical economics is predicated on scarcity taken as a matter of fact (and with this, many of the theoretical outlines for capitalism). The historical view of classical economics starts out from a subsistence economy that is transformed to a market economy through methodologies that improve efficiency. In both subsistent and market economies, the raw environment is transfigured into useful products through metabolic processes - be these human labour or technological levers. The focus of classical economic theory becomes how best to facilitate and improve supply, seeking to produce more useful products in less time and with less waste. When attempts to improve quality fail, the other option is to just produce much more in general. In short, it seeks to intensify the metabolic process at whatever scale it operates, to catalyse greater production that can reduce scarcity.

George Bataille's theory of General Economics, the central focus of his work The Accursed Share, outlines a radical inversion of classical economic theory. For Bataille, this original core tenant is a complete fiction. There is, and never was, and never will be, a problem of scarcity. For Bataille, the philosophical problem of human economics is in-fact the opposite: over-abundance. Seen like this, in reverse, economic control shifts from facilitating supply to limiting it, revealing the true purpose of economic policy that was present all along: to structure power relations. Within an economic model centred on scarcity, products are only as valuable as the demand that is made for them, be that the demand for food to eat and clean water to drink, or the demand for status and social standing. Demand is chaotic and hard to predict, and attempts to control it descend into a deep moral quagmire. But by making certain products more or less desirable, you can control their value, but manipulating demand requires manufacturing desire.

What is compelling about Bataille's theory is that it critically re-centres desire as the primary economic force. Economics becomes less a naive task of resource management, instead transforming into a cultural process that mobilises the collective unconscious through spiritual, sexual, and psychological compulsions. Much of Bataille's work looks at these cultural drives in detail, within a philosophical world-view that re-mystifies the world through taboos, perversions, and self-destructive tendencies seen as economic actions. In Bataille's view, certain bizarre modern economic activities begin to make total sense. Restricting access to medicine, artificially inflating food-prices, and obliterating populated territories in search of oil, are all actions that enact domination and allow for the production of artificial scarcity.

Addressing the human cost of such activities is the evergreen focus of radical socialist alternatives to capitalism. Many of these alternatives seek to return to an economics of abundance through a collective commons that can be shared and used freely by all members of the community. Commoning projects often come face-to-face with the violent actions of hegemonic capitalism. By redistributing resources against the direction of long-standing political hierarchies, these socialist projects are deemed transgressive, dangerous and down-right offensive to the status quo.

A core part of Suntopia sees the creation of a common archive that contains narrative fragments, which, when viewed together, depict the world the project is building. The meta-project surrounding this sees contributors as custodians of this common story. The project then resonates on multiple registers: as expanded speculative fiction, as decolonised collective storytelling, and as blueprint for a more socialised way of collaborating. The project intends to focus on human voices and human stories, without making demands about who those human subjectivities are permitted to be.

The human issues at the centre of economic decisions become the narrative tensions that feature often in the fragmented parts that make up Suntopia. In the discovery of a mural to the sun made by a cult that has not yet formed, the a half-remembered imagining of a childhood in the future, or a hallucinatory tale of nature in rebellion featuring an army of cacti, the stories orbit around the Sun and the over-abundance of dynamic energy it drenches our planet with. The project imagines a world where sunlight is directly politicised.

In the grand schemes of economic theories and through the grand narratives of history, how can we think at the planetary scale without getting lost in the grandeur? It's difficult to stay focussed. The whole subsumes its parts. When we look at the global operations of capitalism, or at the existential timeline of climate change, they becomes crippling in their all-enveloping totality, with no gaps appear to channel a radical oppositional force into. We find ourselves entirely overwhelmed by the collective actions of systems that are so much larger than ourselves, with logics that reinforce themselves in spite of what we might want on an individual level. The task of altering these seems entirely hopeless, especially when they are viewed in the entirety, from the outside.

In a 2017 essay titled Subscendence, the philosopher Timothy Morton directly address what happens to parts when they form up into wholes. We may look at global food logistics, or the economics of urban development, and feel that each of these systems are, in their singular enormity, wholes that are far more than the sum of their small parts. The specificity of a single breed of tree in a single given forest in northern Spain may be but a minor detail when we are considering the way European forests operate as a commodity within global carbon markets. The ripeness of a single mango being shipped from Singapore does little to affect the market price of mangoes globally.

But Morton argues this is a lazy calculus. Instead he reaches the opposite conclusion: the whole is always less than the sum of its parts. Each part is a rich entity in itself, and that richness cannot be simply negated by the system it sits within. If markets cannot account for all the intricacy of their commodities, then that is their own failure and not a short-coming of the commodity. Systems begin to shrink the more they limit any given element to only those characteristics that re-emphasise its place in the system, with all other qualities redacted away.

"Wholes subscend their parts, which means that parts are not just mechanical components of wholes, and that there can be genuine surprise and novelty in the world, that a different future is always possible." — Timothy Morton, Subscence (2017, via eflux)

For example, when we group a set of people by profession, we need to ignore that one in the group is also a gardener in their spare time. Before we see can clear cut a Romanian forest to make Ikea furniture, we must first wilfully ignore that each individual tree is host to its own vibrant microbiome that would call the tree home, and that this is web of interdependence is ever changing throughout the tree's centuries long lifespan. A tree is more than just wood. You can insert your own joke about seeing the trees for the forest.

Market value is cultural, a signifier, that often ignores any biological, cultural, or historical specificity that came together, just right, to create what is being signified. If markets metabolise resources along vectors of exchange, then they do so by reducing those resources to only their exchange value. They do so by telling incomplete stories. But if a market could be forced to take account of the ontological complexity present in every one of its commodities, by letting those elements re-enforce their own ontology, every individual entity within the market can perhaps slow the market down to grinding halt, through a process of de-commodification.

Maybe this can give us some wiggle room within global superstructures that lets us intervene against them. If we feel crushed by global hyper-objects then we can turn instead to the hyper-specific. By including smaller parts of a larger whole, Suntopia aims at a form of fiction that is different from all the clean and easy narratives about our world. Each individual part is a world in itself, with as much latitude and potential as both author and audience will allow it, but not as an island apart from the rest. A single part has no privilege over any other part of the corpus. We hope to expand this corpus, slowly and methodically, and would invite you to join in. We also want to flesh out ways that audiences can enter the world without a predetermined linearity that other narrative formats would demand.