Hans Ulrich Obrist: But then, I think it was Erwin Panofsky, the great art historian, who said in the twentieth century that we can invent the future out of fragments of the past.
Adam Curtis: Yes. But I actually see that most people are not doing that. They’re using the past to reinforce the present. It’s as if they’re shoring it up. I recently read an interview with a twenty-year-old musician who was saying how much he admired Roxy Music. Well, Roxy Music had their heyday in the early 1970s and it was one of the earlier examples in pop culture of reworking the past and re-cataloging it in a new way. But now Roxy Music themselves are being reworked and recataloged forty years later—so you see, you’re going round and round in these continual circles. Its a bit odd, but maybe that’s the only option available at the moment. Now, if I was going to be really ruthless, I would say that just as in the early 1980s, in the Soviet Union, not only was their politics trapped, but their culture was trapped. Russians called these last years of Brezhnev the years of stagnation. And I sort of wonder whether we are at the same stage now—our own years of stagnation, with an elite desperately trying to shore up a technocratic, economic system with an increasing number of contradictions, while no one can imagine an alternative. In response to that inability to see anything else, everything, including a lot of modern culture—music, TV, and avant-garde art—is being used to shore up the present, reconfigure the past to somehow give a foundation to the present that can’t imagine another kind of future. No one can see their way past the sort of financial version of the free market, and the culture reflects that. I do think we’re in the years of stagnation.
Retromania again! It’s the burning question of our cultural moment. I think the best part of this interview is the middle, where Curtis is talking about how individualism is burnt out and we need to look for new means of expressing the story of how we exist collectively and how people participate in things bigger than themselves. We are still afraid of this, he argues, because of the horror of the 30s: totalitarianism and fascism. And he foresees new forms of populism emerging, some of which are bound to be scary and some very hopeful (it’s strange that, after saying that, neither him nor HUO say anything about Occupy or the Tea Party).
But it’s more strange that he’s still so stuck on the hinge of uniqueness in aesthetics, and he comes down hard on the archaeological turn that makes us all collaborators in the curation of the past. If a new collective form is emerging, I think that is exactly what it looks like. Nevertheless, he’s right to say that we live in a moment of stagnation: we aren’t using the resources at our disposal to construct or imagine the future. We’re shoring up the present as if we were trying to plug holes in a leaky ship when we should really be using our tools to build a life raft.