Imagination Dead Imagine

Stormy sunset over the Atlantic Ocean [photo: Andrew Parlette; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

Without a Future, We Can Be Forever

In 2017, Miami residents voted for a $400 million general obligation bond, pithily named “Miami Forever Bond.” It authorizes the city government to borrow money, which will be repaid by property taxes, to enact strategies to mitigate existing risks posed by climate instability, as well as strategies to allay future risks—the unknown unknowns that saturate so much of the state’s resilience discourse. Projects that the bond purports to facilitate are hard to argue against—sea level rise adaptation and flood prevention infrastructure, including stormwater pumps and seawalls; low-income housing; new parks; raised roads. It’s obvious that climate and housing activists found a way to take part in the planning of this instrument. A citizen oversight board has been established to ensure that the funds are employed properly, an essential gesture in a city infamous for its corruption, dirty cops, and dirtier politicians. All the Ts, then, have been crossed.

A sunset in the distance of Miami reflects off calm waters with text in the foreground reading,

Miami Forever Climate Ready Promotional Material [courtesy of the City of Miami]

By baking in the possibility to access funds for future, still-unknown risks, we did ourselves a favor. This, we hear, is the consensus. Mounting another campaign, for another bond, when things change—and things, as resilience officers, that new species of bureaucrat, constantly reiterate, will only change for the worse, and sooner than we think—would be both costly and energy-consuming. And, of course, there is no guarantee that another bond could get the votes needed to pass, and sea level rise is not waiting for votes to proceed. Instead of succumbing to the sluggishness and wastes of time that come with the way government does things, why not be efficient for a change and prepare now for what we know, even in the absence of specifics, that climate crisis will inevitably deliver? As we are constantly told, the crisis is not going away. We’ve seen the graphs and the visualizations. We desperately need the tools to quickly address an endless parade of new challenges that will meet us at every turn, that are waiting for us like semaphore signals in a fog we can’t quite see into yet. We need to be ready for the unknown unknowns.

The new hegemony, if that is what this bond signals, seems, on the face of it, intended to safeguard the citizenry’s survival by preserving the city’s habitability. Perhaps “Miami Forever” really means that Miamians will be around forever. It could also mean, however, the production of Forever Miamians, subjects modulated by planetary visualizations and impending crises—always ready for, and committed to, the next solution, the newest update in climate mitigation strategies. Or maybe “Miami Forever” means endless cycles of mitigating strategies, endless adaptation before increasingly unpredictable conditions, endless ways for the state to shuffle responsibility around. After all, the state is now beholden to the job of keeping us alive and keeping the city afloat, the loftier task of safeguarding the geographic platform upon which anything akin to a social field—that active mesh of relations and dueling forces—can unfold.

In an unpredictable world, it seems that we can count on these endless cycles of adaptation. To face novel conditions of instability, to face all the thresholds and points-of-no-return that will be crossed, cities must now be subjected to modes of governability that allow for constant modulation in relation to unpredictable risks. Or so we are told. However, these are the same cities that—before the phase-shift to climate instability and the omni-crisis that it invokes—were recently touted as “smart.” Ostensibly, such cities prepare us for forms of labor that demand constant adjustment—the compulsive de-realization of ourselves in a performance without end.

We TikTok ourselves—as life is now nothing but work—into ever thinner versions of who we are, into data streams, and little else. Now, we are mere witnesses to, and fodder for, a process of perpetual self-aestheticization, of nonstop disclosure and posting, that is indistinguishable from a good gutting—a new kind of out-of-body experience. What is extracted from us in such situations is then incorporated into new computational apparatus, and machinic agencies establish new forms of algorithmic governance to control all futures for the self—or what used to be the self, and is now just a profile in a feedback loop. Augmented intelligences are a kind of corporate pseudo-singularity, or egregore, that syphons our inventiveness even as they reduce the spaces in which we can develop it and the resources we need for it. They emerged from the computational and logistical enveloping of the entire globe to regulate social behavior on mass scales. They organize life so that their despotic arrangements are opaque to those whom they guide, day in and day out.

If the gluttony of machine intelligence determines one facet of current reality, then projections and visualizations of climate instability, and declarations of the need for constant and particular forms of adaptation—determine the rest. If algorithms organize material reality at one end, then the imaginaries we’ve produced around sea level rise, precipitated coastline erosion, super storms, future heat spikes, and the like do so at the other end by authorizing the state—and nearly every institution adjacent to it—to position resilience as its central logic. What may be guided by a desire extraneous to the state, perhaps even against the state—our survival—is absorbed into its orbit, scripted as its new fundamental operation, with the consequence of interdicting our imaginations in their task to generate other spaces and times—other imaginaries and other attitudes, toward the world and the future. We and the state, once perennial enemies, are now supposedly on the same side—safeguarding our survival and that of our cities. The shackling of human imagination that this alliance entails is further cemented where crisis visualizations and the imperative to adapt intersect with algorithmic life, where being becomes a permanent cycle of imbibing the same imaginaries and visualizations one already believes to be unquestionable, where a thought or reality from outside this frame comes to be seen as the true risk and danger—in need of public condemnation, or at least ridicule. Imagining otherwise, as people used to say—and we don’t mean doing so in thrall to stupid right wing unthinking—is thoroughly discouraged, even punished at times.

It seems as if we’re in a forever-unfolding present of scalloped crises, a perpetual and boundless end times. There is no horizon to imagine beyond these crises, as they will never come to an end. Paradoxically, once forbidden a future without crisis, we become the Forever Miamians, hopping from one immediate, short-term solution to the next, forever going in circles, hand in hand with our resilience officers and “progressive” mayors and congresspeople. And what’s worse—no other ways of living are on offer within these end times. Hegemonic strategies and counterhegemonic ones, so-called, meet in agreement.

Several video artworks on climate feel like Forever Miami’s manifold poetic double, though infinitely more sophisticated in their formal decisions, of course—but not in their message, which echoes that of many promotional resilience videos that spew out of government environmental offices. As political theorists Brad Evans and Julian Reid put it in their essay “Dangerously Exposed: The Life and Death of the Resilient Subject:”

The conflation of resistance with resilience is not incidental but indicative of the nihilism of the underlying ontology of vulnerability at work in contemporary policies concerned with climate change and other supposedly catastrophic processes. What is nihilism, after all, if it is not a will to nothingness drawn from a willing reactive enslavement to forces deemed to be beyond our control as one merely lives out the catastrophic moment? It also alerts us to the fundamentally liberal nature of such policies and framings of the phenomenon of climate change defined, as liberalism has been since its origins, by a fundamental mistrust in the abilities of the human subject to secure itself in the world.1

Without a Crisis, We Would Need a Future

Over the past decade, many discourses in the arts and academia have shifted to “the planetary” as a privileged mode of seeing and conceptualizing varied social and environmental processes. This shift is mostly tied to newly embraced themes of climate change, environmental destruction, and precarity, as well as attendant imperatives of resilience and adaptation. There has been a massive and ongoing cascade of artworks and publications devoted to the crisis. In frequently referred to as climate-change-ground-zero Miami alone, immersive exhibitions, performances, videos, and other artworks regularly call viewers to consider the precarity of human and nonhuman life in a time of ongoing disaster, highlight risks faced by aquatic organisms and ecologies, or invite participants to calm their climate anxiety via therapeutic art interventions. There are sculptures made from trash that are intended to raise awareness around oceanic pollution. There are signs placed far inland that index future sea level rise: Your suburban house, they instruct, regardless of actual impediments of topography, will be this much underwater with a three-feet higher ocean. There are photographs presented as snapshots from a post-apocalyptic future—a frequently used trope designed to reveal the absurdity of political inaction in the face of rising seas, pandemics, and geopolitical strife. Or, conversely (somehow marking a difference that makes no difference), the same type of image is used to evoke a promise of resiliency despite these destabilizing elements. In this vein, and maybe scraping the bottom of the barrel, Beeple’s S.2122 sculpture—shown at the 2023 Miami Art Week at Faena and sold to Deji Art Museum in China for $9 million—envisions a future wherein sea level rise has driven people to live in massive vertical ocean cities, drones deliver products door to door, and ghostly remnants of 21st-century society (Pikachu, etc.) litter the landscape. Linked to an NFT (remember those?), the sculpture’s attendant video will be altered every five years for twenty years—its own “adaptation” strategy—to digitally show increasing sea level rise and the eventual total submergence of the city. Nevertheless, the resilient urban dwellers of this world, Beeple assures us, will find a way amid climate catastrophe. It’s cultural production as feel-good cartoons, but also another buttress securing the imaginaries of vulnerable life to resilience ideology.

Other artworks merge directly with municipal resilience building efforts. The ReefLine is an “artificial reef construction [that] will provide a critical habitat for endangered organisms, promoting biodiversity and enhancing coastal resilience in the face of climate change, rising sea levels and warming ocean waters—and will serve as an educational initiative for visitors and local Miami residents alike.” As Ximena Caminos, promoter behind this “underwater Highline,” puts it, “this series of artist-designed and scientist-informed purpose-built reefs will demonstrate to the world how tourism, artistic expression, and the creation of critical habitat can be aligned. The Reef Line is a singular investment in civic infrastructure, public art, and environmental protection that will pay dividends over the coming decades and attract ecologically minded tourists and art lovers.” A more fitting monument to resilience-policy-as-liberal-governance might be hard to find. And here we were, thinking that a near half-century of critical thinking around site-specificity and ideology-penetrating critique would spare us from having to, again, live with sculptures and architecture that give domination a palatable—if not spuriously triumphant—plastic form.

It is important to consider artistic production that clings so tightly to climate crisis resilience as a mode of contemporary liberal government, in addition to being the dominant imaginary of our time. Beyond its role as a buzzword that has saturated policy, planning, and the grant-giving landscapes, resilience is first and foremost a way of seeing the world, and an attendant way of orienting oneself to that world, thus imagined. Rooted in ecology and biology, resilience rests on the fundamental premise that the world we inhabit is one of crisis and perpetual precarity, in which subjects and systems are always vulnerable: exposed to turbulence, at risk of being undone, forever beleaguered. Tied to this claim, resilience equally imposes an imperative that humans and nonhumans, cities and systems, must develop security and safety measures for adapting to such a world. Resilience mentality always conveniently forgets that such a world was imagined in the first place—and in so doing, conjured into presence.

Now expanded far beyond the bounds of ecology, or even of climate change adaptation, the resilience imaginary has broadly reshaped human modes of understanding, intervention, and behavior, and has produced resilient subjects whose perspective on life—as being inherently precarious and endlessly exposed to all manner of risks and vulnerabilities—does not contradict dominant imaginaries but, instead, reinforces them. Such subjects, whose manner of being in the world follows from this ontological perspective, instantiate it as real, and spread it to become ubiquitous. Imaginaries cast new worlds in their semblance.

Imaginaries are, after all, not just imposed upon individuals. Individuals settle into them, strengthen them, and perpetuate them like a contagion. We catch them, and they overtake us, and we pass them along. From one mind to another, from one institution to another, and along the way the reality they represent becomes a thing we live in.

This new mentality is not only to be accepted but also embraced; and where the reality it describes does not actually exist, it is to be cultivated—perhaps by learning to “stay with the trouble.” At stake here is far more than the co-opting of critical thought or cultural production by governmental discourse. Rather, theory and the arts have been called upon to enact the resilience imaginary, thereby granting it credibility and texture.

By adopting this worldview and concretely enacting it, the resilient subject becomes a component of the infrastructure needed to guarantee the status quo of liberal society. It becomes a material part of the system that it simultaneously generates and upholds. Resilience, as a technology of governance, produces subjects—let’s call them Forever Miamians, even if they happen to be everywhere. Not only must these Forever Miamians learn to live with existential risk, they must also themselves become part of the social infrastructure—functional tributaries that mitigate environmental impacts. They enact a set of practices that, while perceived to ensure their personal survival, guarantee the status quo—not for themselves, but for existing socioeconomic processes. The state, in the guise of empowerment, of adding to the arsenal needed to survive in uncertain times, turns the public into part of its machinery—a supplementary infrastructure that relieves some of the pressure that comes from staying the course, and keeps the investment flowing and capital put.

One of the external forces that resilience, as a mode of governance, taps or conscripts, is the subject. The Forever Miamian is an active agent, leveraged to perpetuate the status quo under novel and unpredictable conditions. What is different about resilience governance is the relation it establishes with its subjects, wherever they are, the use it makes of them as vehicles of emergent powers as a means to maintain the one thing it shares with any other technology of governance beholden to the capitalist mode of production: the perpetuation of that mode. Perpetuation—even if, with the necessary upgrades to withstand a world of multiplying contingencies and dissolving patterns; even in an age of vectors, brain-drain, and unprecedented levels of beach erosion. Such is the urgency underlying all other urgencies that this logic communicates to secure citizen buy-in. Resilience signals its latent reasoning: We should accept major changes at the infrastructural level to avoid disruption at the socioeconomic level.

With Friends Like These, We Keep Our Backs to the Wall

In a world overrun with resilient subjects, artworks that visualize the crisis become vehicles through which climate urgencies are articulated, and of the call to wake up. Artworks are material agents within communication networks, through which thought acquires social form and participates in the production of certain kinds of life. This quality is why producers of crisis visualization should be wary of the nearly intractable ways that ideas can be stealthily overhauled—as if twisted within but left intact on the outside—into something other than what they purport to be. They become determined not by the politics that they aim to represent, but by the covert connection that they establish, unwittingly, with structures of domination. They work for the other side, because the other side allows them—perhaps even encourages them, through state grants, state-sponsored exhibitions, and the like—to parade ineffectual representations while co-opting the work at a structural level.

Artworks, conceived as political statements, that visualize the crisis are thereby beholden to the indefatigable logic of emergency measures. Their apocalyptic undercurrent blocks any moment “beyond” what we are facing. They cast their viewers as forever beleaguered, sitting in implacable expectation of the worst. They carry a certain nihilistic strain, like a stowaway that they can’t detect. They foreclose the invention of something that is not born in conceptual captivity, an outside that a truly different future seems to require. In this way, they confiscate our imagination and, inadvertently, perpetuate existing social and political systems.

As always, the crucial question is not what a thing is about, but how it works. What is developing here is a kind of confusion: Artworks that visualize the crisis are typically viewed as inherently political and critical, while, in function, they often help to craft the imaginary upon which the crisis rests. After all, contemporary notions of the planetary are not realities that we have only now, at last, discovered after millennia in the shroud of Holocenic thought. Rather, they are historically specific imaginaries, produced by a wide range of sociotechnical operations—news media, science, popular discourse, governmental policies, art, film, data visualization, and more—that together, and over time, produce a social context which runs through, and shapes, society.

Philosopher Benjamin Bratton argues that even the idea of global climate change would not exist without computation technologies for simulating, sensing, and projecting planetary futures. Technologies for imagining future impacts of climate change, such as SLR charts, interactive maps, or virtual reality tools, at once sketch out new urban futures and authorize manifold adaptations—“the climate change of your desires” as geographer Kasia Paprocki puts it. Importantly, imaginaries are created and internalized by individuals, but are also larger than individuals, moving beyond them, circulating through society, shaping and limiting possibilities for the individual imaginations of others. They condition our sense of what could be, what should be and, importantly, what will be. Perhaps most importantly, they produce certain forms of human subjectivity while limiting the emergence of others. Inevitably, these roads lead back to resilience.

For geographer Erik Swyngedouw, the imaginary of climate change is “sutured by millennial fears, sustained by an apocalyptic rhetoric and representational tactics, and by a series of performative gestures signaling an overwhelming, mind-boggling danger, one that threatens to undermine the very coordinates of our everyday lives and routines, and may shake up the foundations of all we took and take for granted.” Visualizing the crisis, we suggest, functions as the visual wing of this operation, an imagination infrastructure that, alongside robust power grids, elevated roads, and prepared citizenry, helps condition life to a single future—in which we are always already precarious, and resilience is the highest quality we could hope to develop, the summit of human aspirations.

Artworks that visualize the crisis, in fact, modulate affects in a way quite compatible with the way the state does. Upon scrutiny, it becomes clear that artworks which visualize the crisis hardly ever find an enemy in the state. These works find it, instead, when benevolent, in an ignorant but educable public that needs to be brought into the fold and into the classroom; or, when more ferocious, in an imaginary cabal of Confederate flag-waving, gun-toting climate-deniers. The state’s enemy, therefore, is any subject who is not a resilient subject, or not enough of one—one understood, in the sense described above, as the subject who sees and visualizes her world as riddled with precarity and crises, and herself as incapable of mastery, control, or exercising any other ways of being within it.

Gean Moreno is Director of the Knight Foundation Art + Research Center at ICA Miami, and part of the institution’s curatorial team where he has organized exhibitions dedicated to the work of Hélio Oiticica, Terry Adkins, Shuvanai Ashoona, Ettore Sottsass, and others. He is the founder and current director of [NAME] Publications, a press dedicated to art theory; the “Migrant Archives” initiative, and also serves on the editorial and advisory committees of several publications and foundations including the 2017 Whitney Biennial advisory committee.

Moreno‘s texts have appeared in numerous catalogues and anthologies, and he has written for various publications including e-flux journal, Art in America, Kaleidoscope, and MONU—Magazine for Urbanism.

Stephanie Wakefield is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida Atlantic University and holds a PhD in Geography from the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Wakefield’s work as an urban geographer critically analyzes the technical, political, and philosophical transformations of urban life in the Anthropocene.

Dr. Wakefield is co-editor of Resilience in the Anthropocene: Governance and Politics at the End of the World (Routledge) and author of Anthropocene Back Loop: Experimentation in Unsafe Operating Space (Open Humanities Press), as well as numerous articles in academic journals including Urban Studies, Urban Geography, Political Geography, Geography Compass, ands Geoforum. Her book, Miami in the Anthropocene: Urban Resilience and Rising Seas, is forthcoming this Winter with University of Minnesota Press.


1 Brad Evans and Julian Reid, “Dangerously Exposed: the Life and Death of the Resilient Subject,” Resilience, vol. 1 no. 2 (2013): 85.