Is it possible to make a documentary about the future? Following a widely-praised festival run that included screenings at Locarno, TIFF, and NYFF, Isiah Medina’s debut feature 88:88 was recently made available on YouTube. Since then, I’ve encountered questions asking whether or not 88:88 is a collapse or amalgamation of modern technology, and the seemingly contradictory nature of such inquiries emphasizes only a portion of the blurring of distinctions Medina’s cinema orchestrates.
The Head of Programming at Locarno, Mark Peranson, called Medina the “most adventurous and contemporary practitioner of the avant-garde of his generation.” Perhaps the most contemporary avant-garde filmmaker is the most suited to draw the cinematic contours of our collective future. Medina is now in the process of adapting Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future, a manifesto that insists on the emancipatory role of technology as we push towards the full automation of labor. They detail a world without work, and the work we must do to get there.
Medina founded his production company, Quantity Cinema (QTY), with producer Matthias Mushinski in Toronto prior to taking on the film (we need to work to ensure post-work), and if the project’s crowdfunding video is of any indication—it uses long takes and strobing effects akin to the lower-frame rates of the silent era: individual shots as individual frames—then we can certainly count on significant developments in Medina’s filmmaking practice. Of course, like the future so much remains unpredictable, but the decisions Medina makes in the act of montage can perhaps help guide us through.
While the film’s crowdfunding campaign continues, I spoke with Medina and Mushinski about their project and the ideas that drive it.
NOTEBOOK: Isiah, I know this is supposed to be a documentary, but knowing your work I can’t imagine what that would be like.
ISIAH MEDINA: To call Inventing the Future documentary is to simply say that the possibility of a universal future is real. There have been changes in what is considered a 'realistic' acting style, narrative, or what passes as documentary, et cetera, in the history of cinematic forms. There have been different permutations of what is real or what is not, what is possible or impossible. Today, I’m convinced that humanist social realism has no relation to the real. One might even call it folk-political. To say Inventing the Future is a documentary is to say the fiction of a future entailing full automation, universal basic income, a shortened work week, and the elimination of work ethic has real effects now, and we can document its transformation from impossibility to possibility.
MATTHIAS MUSHINSKI: Exactly, and there shouldn’t be anything provocative about saying this, since stating that Inventing the Future will be fiction aligns with the terms of progress identified by Nick [Srnicek] and Alex [Williams] in the book. Namely, that “progress must be understood as hyperstitional: as a kind of fiction, but one that aims to transform itself into truth.” Fiction creates new conditions for truths, much like scripts create conditions for an actress to forget her lines and reveal her “real personality” only to have this personality re-fictionalized and accommodated by montage or other formal means. The real in cinema is excavated by a process of negation, a sort of back-and-forth that concludes with the impossibility of fiction rather than the presentation of truth via some predetermined, folk-political aesthetic paradigm.
As both a shooting and editing process, cinema transforms transformations into new truths. I’m reminded of how André Bazin wrote that reality “confesses its meaning” like a criminal suspect under interrogation. Reality is revealed when the details don’t add up, when the story breaks down.
MEDINA: Documentary is confessing your crime to the police, whereas fiction is confessing your love to another person. But as Hollis Frampton would note, being able to tell fiction from documentary itself cannot be automated.
NOTEBOOK: With this cinematic adaptation of a political text, how does art relate to politics?
MUSHINSKI: To believe in cinema’s potential for political emancipation is to locate virtue in the demand for full automation. This proposition works in two ways. First off, cinema is the automation of art, as in an automated process that benefits, in part, from the absence of human subjectivity. Of course, the trace of human influence is always unveiled in retrospect, but it’d be hard to argue that human beings cannot border on invisibility in the filmmaking process. That humans become invisible in this example shows that our conception of humanity itself also changes. Secondly, much like cinema liberated the other arts (namely painting) from the task of representing reality, full automation would liberate human beings from performing certain forms of menial labor. This isn’t to say that, since photography, painting has not re-attempted faithful reproductions of reality, since human beings in a fully automated world would undoubtedly continue to sew, and write, and think and build. Rather, humanity’s path towards abstraction might reveal new truths that were previously obscured, kind of like how Impressionism discovered new realities of light and movement.
MEDINA:Every Godardian knows that the true passage towards cinema was painting, not photography. Cinema’s automation liberates painting from reproducing the sense-experience of reality, and at the same time cinema reproduces painting’s conditions of freedom so it can be just as free, outside of its immediate automation. Cinema’s automation allows painting to break with figure and pursue a path of abstraction, and the full automation of work would allow humanity to break with its own immediate bodily figure and navigate its newfound abstractions as a species. It’s like how Malevich moved from the abstraction of Black Square on White Background, and White on White, to his later paintings when the figures themselves were now abstract: made up of circles, squares, triangles, etc. There is a return to the figure of the human through abstraction. We must go through abstraction to think the human figure, as we must industrialize art to think how we name ourselves as directors of this process.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve demonstrated an interest in fashion. What are some of the ideas driving this interest?
MUSHINSKI: There are many definitions of cinema, but the best one—that “Cinema is the art of the fight between art and non-art”—can easily be repurposed as a definition of fashion.
MEDINA: Speaking on his fashion label OFF-WHITE, designer Virgil Abloh says that when wondering if a design is finished he sees not the absolute of two things, but the in-between of making that definition. But he also adds that gray does not define the middle of black or white. So what is a finished de-sign? It’s not black in opposition to white, or white in opposition to black, or even gray as a middle term. The true difference is gray on gray, the difference within the same that makes it identical to itself.
Another variation is the cut doesn’t define the middle of two shots. Cinema is of the present, hence, without a future. Or, acceleration is not a movement of speed within the constraints of the black/white coordinates of capitalism, but rather a navigational, universal exploration within the alienation gray has with itself. If Inventing the Future is a documentary it must paint its gray on gray. The present appears exhausted, but in its painting, its repetition of gray on gray, it separates the present from itself, de-signs the present. A documentary of the future must say that the de-signs are among us.
MUSHINSKI: I like how Badiou says that “youth is simultaneously both the very question of philosophy and its destination,” kind of like how Abloh proposed the axiom “Youth Always Wins” with his PYREX lookbook. The victory of philosophy is the destination of youth.
MEDINA: Virgil Abloh says, “I’m a black kid, I identify with white kids, am I either?” He constantly emphasizes that the youth is always right, and it’s within the subjective space of “Am I either?” that the question catalyzes a possible rejection of all the given terms of the world. If philosophy must corrupt the youth, it’s because the youth’s newness is directly linked with finding what is eternal in the old. “Am I either?” marks out the space of the subject, where subject is the rejection of false choices in favor of constructing new ones. The subjective rejection of the given is the youth’s continual encounter with what is eternal in the old. And what is eternal in the old is the continual reformulation of the question of subjectivity. Like many times in the history of philosophy we are faced with this reformulation, and full automation allows us to think this question again, for being born in an automated world would confront youth with their subjectivity, their name, as auteur.
MUSHINSKI: In the lecture Abloh spoke repeatedly about “generic cities,” and Toronto readily fits this concept. There’s another correspondence with Badiou here, specifically with his notion of “generic humanity” as evidenced by Charlie Chaplin: “humanity subtracted from its differences.” We could even argue that Abloh’s insistence on starting a “domino effect”—to not be afraid to put out ‘bad art’ as he puts it—links up with Badiou’s insistence on the drive towards anti-specialization.
MEDINA: A tradition of quantity.
MUSHINSKI: Word. The post-work world QTY is pursuing is a world where we’re allowed to be, as Abloh puts it, the “17-year-old version of ourselves” in order to force a short-circuit between the decisions we make and the passion we possess. The domino effect becomes a means without ends that discovers alternative measures of success beyond mere survival.
With all that said, though, the perpetual refugee crisis reiterates that there is no autonomous space for generic humanity in the nation state. So the project of Inventing the Future must strive for universality, a singular, borderless generic universe, even if it feels unattainable.
NOTEBOOK: How would you consider both this project and 88:88 fitting into the contemporary landscape of Canadian films?
MEDINA: It’s difficult to say how 88:88 or Inventing the Future fit into the landscape of contemporary Canadian films. Who do I talk to about cinema, who am I really having these late-night discussions about cinema with? And I don’t mean talking about extant movies, but the ontological questions.
MUSHINSKI: It’s hard to answer this question without feeling like you’re filling out a grant application. Canadian isn’t an ontological category, and I think Isiah beautifully addresses the issue in his interview with our producer Austin: “We are all the same before new forms.”
MEDINA: There are many films being made in Canada, but I don’t know how to approach this discussion if we aren’t all asking the same questions, or rather the question of the same. How can we respond to “What is Canadian cinema?” without asking “What is cinema?” first?
NOTEBOOK: How much do you have planned in terms the actual shoot of the project? And how do you expect this initial plan to translate into the cutting?
MEDINA: In terms of planning, it’s different now because I have a producer whose inspiration to produce is Jean-Louis Comolli.
MUSHINSKI: Ultimately, our goal is to allow cinema-based ideas to travel beyond cinema itself. Over fifty years ago, Comolli wrote in Cahiers du cinémathat modern cinema needs “lighted theaters” (theaters with the lights turned on) in order to bring spectators out of the shadows. And I’m always prepared to defend Comolli’s polemicism, to the point of dogmatism even, yet I don’t entirely agree with him here. However, I do think we must diffuse the lighted versus darkness binary as a means of co-existence rather than conflict. We must allow cinema-based ideas to occupy terrain in areas of “lighted” life. To place cinema in zones of life where is shouldn’t exist, or where it hasn’t existed thus far. To test the ontological limits of takes, frames, cuts, superimpositions, et cetera.
NOTEBOOK: Within a ‘post-work’ society, do you think mass audiences will still watch or be interested in movies?
MEDINA: If cinema is a link between the political categories of mass and art, in a post-work society the category of mass will change, and we already see this happening now. Maybe cinema in post-work will discover new links between the categories of science, or love, and not just art and politics, and redefine itself in the process. Maybe we’ve only seen half of cinema in this regard, and post-work, which entails non-specialization, will lead to a different type of cinema, a different way of using cameras, editing, and the very concepts of découpage and montage. With full automation we must still find a way to be the auteursof our own lives, so it’s not really a question of whether or not ‘the masses‘ will still watch or be interested in movies. Rather I think cinema’s conceptual categories already relate to aspects of post-work life.
So much of being on a film set is having nothing to do. So maybe we can also learn to just enjoy not being asked to do anything.
I don’t think we should immediately think cinema as only art, and I don’t think we should immediately relate art to politics either. In doing so we end up with a superimposition where nothing is clear, or where art becomes our only relation to politics, which is even worse! We risk losing both politics and art with this type of questioning. So instead we should not be afraid to draw the lines more clearly between what is cinema, what is art, and what is politics. Not only did painting change through the automation of cinema, but these ‘post-cinematic’ paintings conditioned later cinematic forms themselves. A cut is a way of drawing a line.