What can images from today tell us about the future?
A documentary filmmaker portrays the present as it occurs in front of the filmmaker’s camera, or uses archival material to portray the past. But how can the same type of tool be used to portray the future without falling into fictional re-enactments and sci-fi clichés? This is the central inquiry in the research project The Future Through The Present, conducted by SKH Professor of Doumentary Film Erik Gandini, which is getting a major presentation on 30 September at Den Danske Filmskole.
The artistic research in the project The Future Through The Present is centred around work on the documentary After Work, premiering in 2022, and is a collaboration with, among others, film researcher Jyoti Mistry and sociologist Roland Paulsen. It is an example of what Jyoti Mistry calls “research in and through cinema” – a filmmaker's own form of research, where the artistic process in itself develops theories and ways of thinking about both filmmaking and society.
In the case of After Work, these new ways of thinking are about what will happen when artificial intelligence and automatization takes over most of the labour currently done by humans. For Erik Gandini, this is one of our biggest contemporary existential challenges.
“The amount of human labour required has already decreased by a lot, really,” Erik Gandini explains. “So why haven’t we taken the opportunity to work less, now that we’ve had the chance to do so? It’s as if we’re unable to imagine an existence beyond wage labour. And that despite the fact that a large Gallup poll, conducted in 140 countries, shows that just 15% of the 1000 million employees worldwide find their work engaging.”
In the following decades, even more human labour is going to disappear, which makes the issue all the more important. What will be required from humanity – not technologically, but in terms of imagination – to survive a reality without jobs? One way to approach this question, from the perspective of this artistic research project, is to closely examine place that already are struggling with this excess of working people. In the rich gulf state of Kuwait, for example, all citizens are guaranteed well-paid public sector jobs, and all simple jobs are done by foreign guest workers. All institutions are extremely overstaffed, and people just sit there are pretend to work, day after day.
“It’s an example of the fact that the ideology that you’re supposed to work is so strong,” Erik Gandini says. “You have to pretend to work, even though there is no work. You’re acting out a game of being in an office.”
For Erik Gandini, the opportunities offered by artistic research – to examine this type of artistic narrative without having to compromise with market forces – is a unique chance to find new routes as an artist.
In Denmark, where the presentation is taking place, these opportunities and the associated funding sources are much smaller today, but the question of whether artistic research should take place at all is also considerably more controversial. At Den Danske Filmskole, specifically, students in 2019 conducted large-scale protests against what they perceived to be a “theoretisation” of film craft, ultimately resulting in the resignation of the vice-chancellor of the school. For Erik Gandini, it is a misunderstanding of what artistic research entails to claim that it is against the traditions of the craft of filmmaking.
“It isn’t, at least not at SKH, about ‘giving up’ to fit into an academic framework,” he says. “There are no requirements to write long, academic texts, it’s not the tract that’s meant to be the result.”
“Rather, it’s the kind of developing and self-examining work that artists have always taken part in, often underpaid or even unremunerated. If the academy sees value in that kind of research, if they broaden the view of what research is and gives our artistic research more dignity, that just makes us stronger, I feel.”