Dear Members of the Bundestag, dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to warmly welcome you to the kick-off to 100 Years of Now, the new four-year program at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. In particular, I would like to welcome all the participants, the artists and scientists who have traveled from different countries and several continents in order to explore the issues of 100 Years of Now in lectures, performances and concerts over the coming days.

The basic thesis of the project is already contained in the title: In order to understand the transformatory processes of our current age, one needs to loosen one’s fixed gaze and free oneself from the compulsory logic of the moment, understanding the last hundred years as part of today’s present. What is the connection between the themes of the following days – war, technology and time?

I would like to begin with a picture and a story. The picture: Not long ago the writer Marcel Beyer pointed out that the quickest way to represent the 20th century is to employ the roman number for twenty, formed by two Xs.
In the age of the typewriter these characters were also used to write over text passages that one wanted to render illegible or erase.

We will return to the double X, a simple symbol with a clear syntax, once again at the end. The story is somewhat longer. It took place 100 years ago. It is the story of the suicide of a woman scientist. It is the Spring of 1915. The First World War is in full swing. On April 22 the Germans employed a new chemical weapon for the first time in the battle of Ypres, to devastating effect: chlorine gas.

It is the night of the 2nd of May. Clara Immerwahr has obtained her husband’s service weapon. She shoots herself that same night. Clara Immerwahr was a doctor of chemistry, married to Fritz Haber, who in 1911 was appointed Director of the newly founded Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry.

The suicide was preceded by a conflict between the married couple on a question of principle: Clara Immerwahr expressed her abhorrence at the misuse of her science for the war. She accused her husband of betraying science due to his active involvement in the development of the poison gas for military use. Conversely, Haber vehemently criticized his wife for what he saw as her disloyal attitude towards the fatherland.

With the gas warfare Germany’s military command consciously violated existing military code in order to terrorize the enemy. It initially had success with this. All that the French general Mordacq first perceived on the battlefield was an “unbearable stench of chlorine” followed by the site of people “fleeing like madmen into the unknown, screaming for water and spitting blood.”

This transgression was no longer about the battle and the killing of one or more opponents. Science and technology were employed in order to poison a whole swathe of land so that it was no longer inhabitable. A gas such as mustard gas can even be absorbed through the skin, thus attacking the human body from within. The basis of life is destroyed. War becomes total war.

Alongside the battlefield, this total war, conducted with chemical weapons, also found its victim in the person of the traumatized Clara Immerwahr. The aggression of a development based on scientific-technical progress became inscribed in her body and soul and resulted in the act of violence she committed against herself. However, her husband Fritz Haber not only participated in the successful development of poison gas.

He achieved world fame with another discovery. He succeeded in developing a catalytic process for the synthesis of ammonia from its elements, nitrogen and hydrogen. He received the Nobel Prize for this in 1918. Prior to this, together with Carl Bosch, he perfected the process for industrial use, winning BASF as an industrial partner, who registered a patent on the Haber-Bosch process in 1910.

On the one side, ammonia in combination with nitric acid can be used to manufacture explosives. For a long period the German army’s munitions production appeared to be endangered by the English blockade on the import of saltpeter from Chile. The German Reich was faced with a disastrous situation which only a completely futile naval war with England could have resolved. The Haber-Bosch process averted the collapse of munitions production and thus paved the way for a long war, which, contrary to expectations, was not over in a few months but continued for years with millions of dead.

However, the Haber-Bosch process was not just destructive, for decades it provided the basis for the world’s food, enabling artificial fertilizer to be manufactured for the first time. It laid the basis for the explosive population growth of the 20th century, and thus the previously unknown “takeover” of planet earth by mankind.

Modern technologies such as the Haber-Bosch process are fundamentally different to pre-modern technologies: They originate in the laboratory. In laboratories the complexity of the external world is reduced to a few parameters. They are artificially created places. Thought models materialize within them. They don’t just make dealing with reality more effective, they create a new reality.

The artificial fertilizers manufactured by man act as accelerators of natural growth processes. They are based on a technological process that was to become the accelerator par excellence of the 20th century, namely catalysis. In catalysis, a procedure known since the 1880s, natural processes are vastly accelerated through the systematic addition of other substances. Processes which normally take weeks and months in nature can thus be reduced to minutes.

Catalysis is embedded in the heart chamber of the 20th century, the refinery. In the refinery the planet’s fossil raw materials, which have formed over millions of years in biochemical processes, are so transformed that they become the motive power of our mobility, in the form of cars and planes, but also industrial plants. Planetary time is thus translated into human time.

With the technology of catalysis it proved possible to penetrate the planet’s deep time and harness previously unknown energies. Over the last decades these energies have made humans into the main shapers of planet earth. There is no natural force that has transformed the earth to the extent of humans. That is the heart of the anthropocene thesis which we have explored over the last years.

This intervention into earth time was only possible thanks to a very specific economic model that enables the future to be placed at the disposal of the present. While we dig deep into the past with the extraction of fossil fuels, the capitalist credit industry allows us to exploit the future for the present. Only by such means is it possible to finance the technological infrastructures of the 20th century.

Up to now, time has functioned as a fundamental category in our understanding of both capitalism and the role of fossil energies. In fact the technology of time has proven itself to be a decisive factor in contemporary developments. As Helga Nowotny will address the issue of our current understanding of time in her speech I will only touch on a few aspects of its prehistory.

The history of our contemporary concept of time is intimately connected with military strategies, and concretely, with the First World War. Many things were deployed for the first time during the First World War, including a new time regime. If up until that time wrist watches had adorned the arms of women as decorative accessories, when worn by soldiers during the First World War they now enabled coordinated mass attacks. The coordination of arms transport was also facilitated by the quantified and standardized time regime of the watch.

Alongside its role in war, the standardization of time also revolutionized transportation and the working world; with far-reaching consequences for the people affected. The alteration in the daily, weekly and annual rhythms became effectively inscribed into the bodies of the working population.

In the 20th century Fordism developed an even tighter time corset: The fine tuning of work on the production line resulted in an acceleration in the frequency of work processes. The phrase “Time is Money” became the dogma of the capitalist economy. The more that can be produced within a given time period, the greater the profit.

Now all the processes which drive forward the acceleration in the 20th century are now laid out before us:

–     Technologies that enable the energies of planetary time to be harnessed
–     A capitalism that enables the future to be exploited as a resource for the present
–     A time regime that promotes the coordination and standardization of social processes and thus accelerates the cycles of capitalist production
–     Major technologies developed by science and technology and financed by credit which are produced in ever shorter cycles and which generate their own realities

This acceleration, generated by the technologies in our environments, not only results in new objects but entire object worlds. The relatively stable object worlds of pre- and early modernity have been replaced by the dynamized material worlds of the anthropocene.

Its innovative pressure continually produces new worlds, leaving behind older, dysfunctional technologies as fossils. As a consequence the inventory of knowledge and experience created in the context of these worlds also becomes fossilized. The present uncouples itself from the past.

At the same time – a dual process that Helga Nowotny drew attention to in Eigenzeit – the consumption of resources and the manufacture of ever larger and all-embracing infrastructures obstructs the future. Time shrinks to the fleeting instant of the present.

However, the past and the future constitute important resources for society’s production of meaning. Experiences shared with others in the past become condensed in the signs that provide the horizon of meaning and thus the standard for action in the present. This ensures that social processes do not become rigid or frozen. It is openness to the future that harbors the potential for the production of meaning.

If – as a result of the processes of acceleration and the concentration on the present – the signs are divorced from their pragmatic/semantic connections to the past, as well as their future potential for meaning, the signifier is left behind as a pure object. Whereby the syntax of the signs is devoid of all meaning.

This is equivalent to the continual motion in a hamster wheel: Great effort is required to remain on the spot. A world in which action was based on the contexts of meaning is replaced by practical compulsion.

Against this background it is not surprising that the dominant control mechanism of this world created over the last hundred years is the algorithm, forming the foundation of our digital age: the binary code, 1 and 0. It is based on a formal syntax devoid of any meaning. This syntax, free of meaning, corresponds to a time that has become pure present.

The algorithms control the consumer society of today’s hypercapitalism, and thus the “dreaming collective” whose formation Walter Benjamin witnessed back in the thirties of the previous century. Through the algorithms of digital culture, they are connected to the world of objects. In the world of hypercapitalism, as many areas of life as possible are commodified, and thus purchasable. Objects mean status, they represent a person’s value, their cosmos. I buy, therefore I am.

Through their purchasing behavior consumers create networks of relationships in the syntax, and thus meanings, which the companies that collect and analyze this data can utilize.

If, up until the middle of the 20th century, we encountered a relatively stable material world composed of a variety of cultural representations; in short there was one world with many cultures, today we are confronted with the opposite: There is only one culture, defined by the algorithm, and many natures.

With the development of digital technologies, we have returned, at the end of the 20th century, to the ambivalent interplay of science, technology and war characterized by the Haber-Bosch process and other inventions developed in the context of the First World War.

In the 1960s and 1970s, in the context of the Cold War, the technology of the digital world of the Internet and the algorithms at its core were developed in the USA in close collaboration between military interests and scientific research – which incidentally was financed by the Department of Defense. In 1989, with the fall of the wall and the provisional end to the Cold War, the World Wide Web began its global advance, seeming to promise the perfect medium for the realization of the idea of democratic societies around the world. The Internet opened up the possibility of global communication and free access to the inventories of human knowledge.

However, over recent years the Janus-headed character of these new technologies has become increasingly apparent. We all use them, without really knowing our opposite, namely the institutions that collect and analyze the data and use it for their own ends. The complex algorithms that promised the freedom of unobstructed communication are increasingly becoming the basis of a technology for surveillance states.

Freed from direct parliamentary control, even in democratic states, they have literally become instruments in a new warfare, for example in drone attacks on people, which are considered neither soldiers of war nor subject to prosecution in a legal process. Not to mention the so-called “civil collateral damage” of these attacks.

This raises the question, beyond the current wars and the fear of a third world war, of whether we are not already in a state of latent war. A war that has never been officially declared, but which in the struggle for ever scarcer resources, which the anthropocene devours, is contributing to ever greater eruptions on the one side and the collapse of existing systems of order on the other.

In ever faster rhythms we are approaching a situation like that staged by Reto Pulfer in the HKW foyer: In his dehydrated landscapes, canvases, upon which human signs and colors are dried, create a cave-like situation which throws the rest of the architecture into shadow. We find ourselves in a post-human world in which the human can only be experienced through atmospheres and the remnants of civilization.

In conclusion, we return once again to our starting point. It may only be a knowledge-generating coincidence, or not, that the sign “XX” – which in its use as a Roman numeral represents the twentieth century, and simultaneously, as a symbol of the Roman alphabet, that is, in its pure form, also serves as a means to erase, to overwrite a previously written text – also functions as an image of the algorithm that writes our age.

The algorithm and its logic – which I have just described, the logic of so-called globalization – overwrite as a megatrend the many processes, which take place on the real and apparent periphery. The latter share a further characteristic with the overwritten texts. They have not completely disappeared. They assert themselves, even though they have been forced into the background. The texts overwritten with “X” awaken our curiosity to decipher that which lies beneath them, to make the deeper layers of signs visible once again, to decode their meaning. The direction of the discovery is already given. The “X” eradicates the core area of the underlying messages. The process of decoding must begin at the edges.

There are many developments at the periphery. One, which has started to fundamentally change our society, has been set in train by the refugees who are currently reaching us, primarily from the Near East. In contrast to the dreaming collectives, these people are no longer simply willing to be the affected party, and thus objects of the megatrend which feeds the algorithm. Instead they use the new technologies in order to take their fate into their own hands.

They reorientate themselves, due to the fact that their immediate environment is at the center of the struggle over fossil resources. They keep up to date on developments in Europe and the rest of the world via the Internet, communicate with relatives and friends who already live in other parts of the world, and orientate themselves via Google Maps to discover the latest routes and chart their passage.

Arriving here they encounter a society under the spell of the algorithm megatrend which is not prepared for these protagonists – but which is increasingly coming to recognize that it must reinvent itself, at least partially.
And it is precisely here that 100 Year of Now intervenes. As the example of the refugees shows, it is not about calling for the destruction of the machines or a general skepticism towards science. Instead, it is about regaining agency for individuals and societies. This involves stepping outside the hamster wheel and liberating oneself from the logic of the “now”.

In this sense, 100 Years of Now points to a new time horizon which facilitates the actualization of the potential of past developments in order to acquire new standards and scope for action in the present. It is about reactivating and utilizing the textures, processes and scope for action which have been overwritten by the megatrend. In the process we will work together with civil society players who have not become caught in the fixed gaze of the algorithm, but instead are working on alternatives with its help. In addition to refugees these include:

–     Housing initiatives who are fighting the capitalization of the housing market in order to create social living;
–     Internet activists who are developing strategies for the self-determination of individuals and groups in the Internet;
–     Political groups and artists who are fighting for new forms of political participation.

This project is shaped by the conviction that the aesthetic imagination, conceptual reflexivity and civil engagement must be employed to develop new models of thought and action as an antidote to the hegemony of the existing political logic which sees itself as driven by practical constraints.

Many people have contributed to the realization of the opening program to be held over the coming days. We would like to thank the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media , the Foreign Office, and the entire parliament for the generous support. My special thanks go to the Member of the German Bundestag Rüdiger Kruse, who with his commitment has made the project 100 Years of Now possible.

Here in the background you can see the list of HKW employees who have contributed to the opening. Without them none of this would have been possible. A special mention goes to our curators Katrin Klingan, Anselm Franke and Detlef Diederichsen, as well as Silvia Fehrmann who communicated the project to the outside world, and Annette Bhagwati who was responsible for organization.