The Project Horizon: On the Temporality of Making

Bojana Kunst

The present text is a shorter version of the longer essay that was first published in the issue No. 149–150, vol. XXVII (Autumn 2012) of Maska, Performing Arts Journal.


I

In recent decades, probably one of the most commonly used words among artists, producers and other cultural workers is the word “project”. Artists, scientists, politicians, producers and all others who work in the so-called creative sector all are united through the one word with which they / we often use to name what they / we do: “projects”. This word seems to be not only endlessly extensible (it can describe anything and everything), but also overwhelmingly pervasive: everyone is involved in projects; probably several of them at the same time, and in different places. All of us are finishing off old projects and starting up new ones; continuously taking part in the relentless projective movement of production (and creation).

However, as Foucault once said, the sheer frequency of the use of a particular notion or word can also be a reason for anxiety: the anxiety that springs precisely from the (sometimes unbearable) lightness with which the word “project” takes over the denomination of different activities and occupations.1 Of course, the plain banality and everydayness of the use of the term “project” speaks to the fact that the term is often used as an empty signifier; a concept that neglects to imply anything in particular, denominating nothing, and adding nothing to what we actually do. Perhaps the term is being used pragmatically for a myriad of makings and doings. Am I not inclined, then, to squeeze too much out of a sheer pragmatic application of this particular word to artistic work? It is hard to say. An abstraction of language is at work in the use of the word “project” because its sheer signification is never brought to task. It is directly related to the peculiar temporality implied by its use. “Project” always denominates, not only as a specific term, but also a temporal attitude or temporal mode, where the completion is already implied in the projected future.

A significant amount of what artists and cultural workers do today seems to be caught up in this unaddressed and never-approached “projective time”. Over the course of this “projective time”, artists are expected to successfully negotiate both realized and unrealized projects in addition to projecting new imaginaries upon the future. However, such acts of imagination always depend on a successful calculation between the present and the future; the project can only be finished (or rather, the projection can only be completed) if there is a successful financial implementation that enables the promise to be realized in the end. The main paradox here is that artists are constantly challenged to imagine and to form proposals for the future. To do this, they perpetually rehearse ways of imagining that which has yet to come or that which has yet to happen. Paradoxically, despite that so many creative people are preoccupied with imagining and creating proposals for the future, we are living in a time that is deeply characterised by the impotence and impossibility of imagining and creating modes of political and economic life different from the ones that we already know.
In their discussion Fate Work, Stephano Harney and Valentina Desideri talk about how our current relation to the future has impacted our notion of work.
Under capitalism, the future is an open field ahead of us that we can shape and construct through our work. Since we’re condemned to have a future, we’re condemned to work, and at the same time, if you are condemned to work, you are condemned to have a future. So if you want to realize your dreams you have to work (always assuming that those dreams are something that belong to a future scenario and not the present one). If you want to avoid work, you have to work just as hard because you have to find a way; you have to have a plan, a strategy. Whatever you choose, you will be working and you will be acting strategically towards a goal, and therefore you’ll be productive.
In order to change this dominant fate that wants to control the future, and therefore stays in the realm of the known, you have to sabotage this double machine of work and future, so that it stops functioning for a while and so that a space is opened up (a present), and later, the future will come.2

II.

The intriguing relation between work and the future underlines the overwhelming use of the word “project” in artistic work as well as in other creative work in general. This overwhelming denomination, which is used for all kinds of cultural products and artistic works, namely contains a peculiar temporal dimension that has never been stressed or questioned as such. With this in mind, I would like to reflect upon how this peculiar temporality is framing contemporary artistic processes of making, collaborating and creating. “Projects” have turned out to be the ultimate horizon of creation today. “Project” is also a name for a multitude of singular works, ones that come into existence as a continuity of endless additions (supplements); however, the ultimate horizon of the project can never be reached or exceeded.
In this peculiar continuity, it is always important to start again. After each completion, there is always a breakthrough in which something different has to appear. Something very perplexing is at work here: regardless of the myriad possibilities it presents, it nevertheless projects its own completion as the ultimate horizon of work. Yet even while this “projective temporality” as I’ve described in the first part of the paper somehow opens many possibilities, it does not produce the differences among them: at the end what always arises is a completion of already projected possibilities.3 This is, of course, a paradox— in the continuity, one always has to begin again; however, the new start is not about differences but about another promise for the future; another indebted engagement to that which has yet to come. In such a temporal dimension, a link is forged between the work of artists and other creative forces on one hand, and the productive processes of capitalism on the other.

Observable here is that through the new modes of working, art is losing its constitutive role in society. The role of art is closely related to both the inventive and imaginative temporal dimensions of being, and the perceptive complexity that accompanies them, which are difficult to maintain through these projective modes of working. Projective temporality also influences the acceleration of imaginative and creative work, and, in the race to reach the horizon, demands continuous transformation toward a new, even more radical individualisation of the subject. 
As Maurizio Lazzarato has said, creativity plays a central role in society today, but at the same time, it has never before been so standardised. Related to this is the fact that the production of subjectivity is at the core of contemporary capitalism. “Moreover, in the current economy, the production of subjectivity reveals itself to be the primary and most important form of production, the ‘commodity’ that goes into the production of all other commodities.”4 With this production of subjectivity, Lazzarato is describing the standardisation of social, affective and communal sides of the contemporary human being, which belong to the production of value under capitalism today. The consequence of the standardisation of those forces (or of human potentialities, which Agamben has reflected upon) is the radical individualisation and homogenisation of subjectivity. This is, of course, closely connected with contemporary post-Fordist modes of working, whereby language and creativity (but also movement and lifelong learning) are the primary means of the production of value.

These findings may be directly related to some of the characteristics of contemporary performance production. Interest in young performance work has significantly increased in the last decade, with the development of numerous forms of support (networks, residencies, educational formats, etc.) as a corollary. There are numerous reasons why this is so. However, if we try to analyse this through the dynamics of contemporary production and the perspective of artistic labour, insights emerge. What is interesting about the status of young artists on the market is that they are not necessarily in the spotlight because of the projects they have already finished, but because of the “promise” they embody as regards their “young practice”: their work has actually to materialize. It thus comes as no surprise that much art today is produced through numerous residencies, open processes, showings, and works-in-progress; where unfinished, still-incomplete work—noting that it does, however, have to be promising work—is shown and exchanged, its value circulated, and, through this exchange, subsequently affirmed.

This phenomenon indicates first and foremost the instability of contemporary artistic value that has to be mediated and tested continuously; and secondly, it tells us a lot about the work that young artists produce today. Artists participate in the production of subjectivity (a promising one, an experimental one, a challenging one, a daring one), which at the same time is, with all its imaginative and creative force, constantly in a state of “experimental precariousness”: a work force that is only illusorily well-paid, and which constantly has to be on the move in terms of travelling from residency to residency. It must share the process of aesthetic transformation with its audience in addition to being prepared for lifelong learning. The “openness of the work” here is not necessarily connected to complexity and duration but is subjected to a rigid relation between work and the future. It is subjected to both the administration of the future and the recognition of the values that have yet to come.
In this regard, a fruitful venue for formal analysis that would draw upon the example of young performance artists is the way in which “experimental openness” is administrated through projective temporality, and of the surreptitious imposition of radicalism upon their experimentation and research processes. To that, one might also add the temporal acceleration of productive subjects that is evidenced in the position of artists in society today: they are highly individualized and self- administrated autonomous productive monads who all compete on the market with their enumeration of projects.
Indeed, this situation is not without its consequences. When it comes to understanding the value of artists’s work, the market is not actually interested in the pieces themselves, but rather in artistic life, or even better: in the life of the artist.
Here, the ideal intertwining of life and work is achieved through the project-work. There is a lot of speculation in the current economy about the value of the artistic life as it becomes a perfect model of contemporary living, and it is tightly fused with different economic processes (such as gentrification). It is not the fact that artistic life is fascinating per se, but exactly this fusion of art, life and work is at the core of urban land speculation in addition to the popularity of specific modes of working through radical individualisation and project-oriented sociability. The problem, however, lies in the fact that the the lives of those who are involved in the continuous creation of projects in the cultural and artistic field are deeply affected by the projective temporality of work. In many cases, the abstract omnipresence of such a state of affairs literally absorbs the experience of artistic work and work-making, and at the same time forms the peculiar temporality of subjectivity that is involved in its completion. The enumeration of projects is therefore connected to the notion of time acceleration.
Projective temporality is closely intertwined with the subjective experience of time. For many, contemporary subjectivities are increasingly experienced as the simultaneity of many projects, be they private, public, social, intimate, or otherwise. It seems as if the time frame of each individual project also influences the rhythm of the transformation of subjectivity, which must be flexible, yet at the same time move toward an accomplishment; a materialization; an implementation. Such a changing and flexible work force must always aim itself toward finalization, toward the accomplishment of that which was promised in the present, toward the realization of possibilities.
On that point, one last comparison with another current problematic social dimension is perhaps useful. The dynamic of projective temporality may concur with the role of debt in today’s economic, social and political relationships. Debt is, as we know, a strategy for managing the temporality of subjectivity—and the project itself very often functions in exactly the same way that debt does (though sometimes the word “promise” is preferred in the cultural and artistic sectors because it evokes a sense of generosity). The projective temporality of both work and activity is also intertwined with the acceleration of that same activity, where the unexpected happens only because of the outburst of crisis, exhaustion and withdrawal; the difference between the two may only make itself known in the moment of break and total exhaustion. The main problem of such continuous movement toward completion and consummation is in the fact that we are not referring to chronological temporality here, where something is following something else from before. Nor is it a narrative line. A project is also not a progression; we are constantly projecting, but we don’t actually move anywhere, because with projective temporality, no difference is produced.
In a project, an equilibrium between the present and future is set up, in the sense that whatever has yet to come is already projected in the present.
The possibility of the future only emerges in the balance with the current power structures: projective temporality is never related to the time out of joint; to the now without a future. It is precisely current power structures that also give us the belief that it is possible to foresee what is actually unforeseen.5 This balance (or lack thereof) is precisely the reason why many people feel that present time is somehow disappearing. Thus, we not only have less and less time for work because we are so preoccupied with a foreseen but as-yet-unrealised future, but also, with projective time, artists and other cultural workers have actually become more and more abstracted from the current context of work. In such a situation, all work contexts seem to be the same (especially as they are increasingly managed in the same way); the differences between communities and collaborative complexities have become invisible; and, with that, they have also been disempowered of their political power. Furthermore, with the projective mode of working, subjectivity is abstracted from the present social, cultural and political contexts of work; from their antagonistic and multiple forms of complexity. At the same time, contemporary modes of working suffer from a real deprivation of time—an actual one, not only a theoretical one: we never actually have time.
What we lack is the actual time of the present, because we have sold off the present in return for a project outline. A constant dispossession of duration is likewise at work in our society. Such a resistance to duration underpins the current discussions about crisis and austerity measures. Austerity measures purify the present, shortening the duration of life lived “in the present”: it is as if we believe that only through such acts will the future arrive, and that we will emerge from our crisis. The present is thus a debt that we owe to the future: in order to live better we should not live in the present. However, the problem is that the future is never truly imagined anew, but remains even more tightly bound to the constellations of power in the present. Only when we are able to simply be “alive” in the present will radical alternatives begin to bloom once again.

That so many people consistently lack time is paradoxical, especially when the act of considering the possibilities of a project implies the future. It seems that the more there is to a project and the more possibilities there are to be completed in the future, the less time there is at our disposal to endure in the present (or in many different presents) and, with that, also less time to enable social, collaborative, political or intimate relations. The only way in which we maintain a relation to our present is through its administrative and managerial regulation, which is combined with the constant evaluation and re-evaluation of what we have done. The goal is always to reach something within the horizon of the project. In that sense, the project becomes the ultimate horizon of our experience.
Ironically, one of the words most used in cultural production to complete a project (especially in the academic sphere, but also in the arts) is “deadline”. At the end of any given project stands a mortal limit; a pure completion; a consummation of creative life, with no after-experience. At the same time, an illusory feeling that everything continues on into eternity somewhat lightens up this tension, because there are so many projects to complete. In this “projective endlessness”, there are many mortal limits to be crossed, and at the same time the future is radically closed-off. Time-deprivation is therefore cancelling the imagination and the creation of radical gestures in addition to disabling all experimentation with an enduring present. In that sense, it is directly related to artistic and aesthetic practice, because it is diminishing complexity, perceptual manifoldness, availability and the sustainability of antagonisms.
Closely related to the role of time as one of the primary objects of capitalist production of value and privatisation is a project’s projected time frame. Temporality is at the core of the production of difference. It is the material of social and aesthetic change. It is precisely this potentiality that is diminished in many societies today, due to the administrative accomplishment of possibilities and as projective speculation of a planned but not-yet-lived future. Art production and creation must therefore rethink the relation between temporality and its production, and find new ways in which to push the time “out of joint”; out of the speculative balance between that which is and that which has yet to come. 

  • 1. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (Oxford: Routledge, 2001).
  • 2. Stefano Harney and Valentina Desideri, Fate Work: A Conversation, as yet unpublished, private notes.
  • 3. The use of the word, “project” may also be brought to light with the help of Gilles Deleuze and his conceptualisation of the difference between virtual and possible: the project can only disclose the possible; it does not belong to the virtual. The possibility is already implemented in it. In that sense, it does not belong to the realm of change.
  • 4. Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 16.
  • 5. We can again make the comparison with debt—debt namely is calculated future. It is no coincidence that debt is understood as the theft of time. Debt has to neutralize time, since every possible deviation of the debtor has to be put aside. From this, it can be said that debt changes a society into a society without time. In Lazzarato’s The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition (Boston: MIT Press, 2012).