The quickest way to represent the twentieth century is by using the Roman numerals XX. Bernd Scherer, director of HKW, borrows this idea from the writer Marcel Beyer and takes it further. In the age of the typewriter, the “X” character was used to overwrite passages that one wanted to either render illegible or erase. Of course, what’s underneath is still there. The “X” merely awakens our curiosity to decipher it.

HKW is undertaking exactly this in its project series 100 Years of Now: to make things previously redacted in the context of the First World War visible and legible again, for the present and the future. It is, in fact, an X-ray perspective of the events of 1914 to 1918 – and a view that in the year 2015, when the brouhaha around commemorations of the “centenary” has long since faded and we can again, on a broad front, observe the attack of the present on the rest of the time.

HKW’s four-year project opposes this, as Scherer stresses in his opening speech: “In order to understand the transformational processes of our current age, one needs to loosen one’s fixed gaze and free oneself from the compulsory logic of the moment.” After all, we are now experiencing fundamental transformational processes in society: systems of order are collapsing and their categories no longer make sense.

Time, therefore, is one of several keys to understanding. For, as Scherer also explains, the history of our concept of time is intimately connected with the military strategies first tested in the context of the First World War. Where the wristwatch – formerly an accessory worn by women – found its way to being worn under uniformed sleeves. Where time became a regimen that ruled over transportation and work. Where the accelerated rhythms of production, inscribed on the bodies of the workers, paved the way for the capitalist dogma: “Time Is Money.”

In historian Jörn Leonhard’s lecture for 100 Years of Now on a reading of Tatort: Schlachtfeld (Crime Scene: Battlefield), he quotes from the diaries of Harry Graf Kessler: August 22, 1914, from the battlefield, Kessler notes: “Fire control, a captain and a lieutenant sat next to us under cover as if they were in an office, gave orders and numbers by phone to the gun two kilometers away, just like a banker phoning orders for buying and selling on the stock market, a very methodical office activity, a transaction.” A harbinger of the automation and alienation of combat that have become the norm in the age of drone strikes.

The interplay of science, technology and war, which increased unprecedentedly during the First World War, leads straight to the digital present – to the “algorithmic megatrend” (Scherer). Yet, it feels farther away than ever from the heroic hurrah of Georg Heym’s 1910 desire for war, which the actor Burghart Klaußner recited at a joint reading with Ulrich Matthes: “If only barricades were built again, I would be the first to mount them; I would want to feel even with the bullet in my heart, the intoxication of enthusiasm.”

Nonetheless, with their concert Vaterländische Ouvertüre (Rekonstruktion) (Patriarchic Overture (Reconstruction)), the Berlin soloist ensemble zeitkratzer undertakes a similar mobilizing attempt, oscillating between seriousness and irony, to make a present-day audience feverish to march – using rousing music such as that heard in the concert halls of the capital from 1914 onwards. The exciting noise of war sounds everywhere, even in the Berlin Philharmonic. “It’s not an attempt to show how stupid the people were in 1914; they were certainly not stupid,” emphasizes Reinhold Friedl of zeitkratzer.

Instead, the concert creates a nightmarish background noise. Because the longing for self-experience and meaning no longer seems very far away when active war has given way to a permanently latent state of war. It echoes what historian Leonhard describes as a decoupling of the cyclical chronological understanding of experience and expectation in the First World War: “Never have experiences more thoroughly exposed the lie. The military by trench warfare. The economic by inflation. The physical by hunger. The ethical by those in power.”

Without an eye for the breaks, continuities and ellipses of the past, the crises and conflicts of the present cannot be read. Accordingly, the decoding work, linking it and conveying dialogs across epochs, of course, is also appealing to the arts.

This is shown by the collective Slavs and Tatars – a group focusing on the area “east of the Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China,” or Eurasia – with its lecture performance I Utter Other. The collective looks towards the Crimea to ask whether there is a Russian Orientalism. It sheds light on how the Crimea was already marked as colonial territory in the age of Catherine the Great while at the same time looking for a connection to Western civilization. Here, too, the past and the present collide in the most dazzling contradictions.

As Bernd Scherer says, the penetration of historical sediments and layered symbols must begin at the margins. At the social margins, where today refugees are setting new developments in motion. At those of the character “X,” where neither skepticism toward science nor technophobia awaits, but “a new time horizon appears, which allows us to understand history as a space of possibility.”