It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.¹ (Donna J. Haraway)
As a species, we tell stories to make sense of the realities we inhabit. The formal role of “curator” is a historically recent convention, one often troubled by multi- and interdisciplinary practitioners. But in the abstract, it’s the curator’s job to identify, connect, and clarify the thoughts that “think thoughts” in a given reality and weave them into broader narrative coherence. This has never been a simple endeavor, but there are unique challenges, as well as opportunities, in a reality saturated with digital capabilities. What follows is an attempt to frame the contemporary reality paradigm, to examine how the curatorial act remains integral to cultural production, and to highlight artistic efforts that embody this contemporary condition.
What is Postreality?
The most common misconceptions about Postreality are that it refers to the breakdown of fact as a result of “fake news”; the proliferation of mis- and disinformation on social media; or the rise of AI-doctored “synthetic media” like deepfakes. These are all symptomatic of Postreality, but not actually how I mean it. I use Postreality as a historical marker and framework to make sense of our contemporary reality paradigm. In my view, this reality paradigm began to take shape in the mid-1900s, and is now coming into clearer view. The word “reality” can mean different things depending on the speaker and context, so I’ll take a moment to clarify my assumptions:
Reality is often presumed to be the objective structure of the universe, but this is incorrect. There is an ongoing debate in the sciences about whether an objective universe exists at all, but even if it does, our experience of it is heavily filtered by the limitations of our minds and senses. Even those who believe we experience anything resembling an “objective” reality must concede that it is a vanishingly thin slice. Cognitive psychologist Donald D. Hoffman has used simulations-based research to demonstrate that human beings have evolved specifically not to perceive objective reality, but rather to project mental models onto it in ways that are conducive to our survival as a species.
Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann established in The Social Construction of Reality (1966) that reality is a complex negotiation based on a mix of what we experience individually, what is socially acceptable, and what becomes accepted as consensus in groups. Ultimately, reality is the sum of our social understandings of the world, which may or may not overlap with what is empirically or physically true.
Reality is not a fixed entity, but rather a medium whose evolution is correlated to our own. As we develop new technologies and systems of symbols (literacy, numeracy, code, etc.), we alter our individual and collective realities. By identifying historical periods in which our reality-making and reality-breaking capabilities expand at a rapid pace — whether through cataclysm, cascades of innovation, or happenstance — we can isolate discrete reality paradigms that deepen our understanding of the pasts, presents, and futures.
Every epoch has its own operating systems.
I see Postreality as a new iteration of reality, emerging out of modernity, whose principal development was the model of reality as universal. Inscribed within this paradigm were globally consistent notions of reason, value, truth, efficiency, and indeed humanity. Of course, this model of (white, principally male) Humanity was a product of Western power structures that, via the insidious “rationalism” of colonial ideology — iterated in Europe and then by the United States — instituted knowledge as a regime to be administered by force. I’ve taken to calling this paradigm “Reality” (with a capital “R”) owing to its monolithic nature at a time when the word “reality” meant something fundamentally different. To this end, I wish to build on posthumanist, and often non-Western, principles that regard intelligence and consciousness as not limited to the Human.
That notion of the Human has been consistently and comprehensively refuted throughout the 20th and 21st centuries across many schools of thought — from physics to philosophy to psychology. Over the same period, the rise of new communication technologies and media channels, not to mention consumer goods, computers, and, ultimately, the Internet, has placed the manufacture of reality in the hands of many.
Postreality is marked by this multiplicity, and by a broader distribution and decentralization of whom (and what) is able to create, manipulate, and destroy realities and how they choose to do so. It is therefore defined, like modernity before it, by systemic power.
This has been painfully evident in the reversal of the early web’s open, egalitarian ideals toward consolidation in Web2. This phase, in which major technology platforms turned to advertising, personalization, and recommendation models to provide convenience in exchange for reams of user data, has resulted in asymmetric accountabilities between those platforms and their users. The current enthusiasm surrounding Web3 strongly suggests that a non-trivial proportion of the public believes current internet protocols are broken and ripe for change. But as we reach the second quarter of the 21st century, digital expression remains the most viral vector for reality’s manufacture — the context in which the scope and scale of Postreality come into focus.
Curating in Postreality
What matters is in the connections. It isn’t the letters. It’s the way they’re strung together into words. It isn’t the words, it’s the way they’re strung together into phrases. It isn’t the phrases, it’s the way they’re strung together in the document … In an extreme view the world can be seen as only connections, nothing else.² (Tim Berners-Lee)
Curating should be a sensemaking exercise that renders ideas more legible for audiences and participants. I am often dismayed to see peers disregard this, focused instead on the insular pursuit of impressing colleagues. The job of the curator is to bring ideas, histories, and bodies of work into focus through context creation and narrative, which finally is an act of ferocious editing. This process of configuring, interconnecting, and pruning is where curatorial complexity should reside. Curation is not only an act of rigorous research and thoughtful selection, but of expressing oneself clearly to an audience. A project — including its emergent properties — should resonate as music rather than monograph.
In Postreality this is truer than ever. We are all drowning in content, faced with more creative stimuli in a day than one could realistically process in a lifetime and that’s before we get to generative AI. The louder the noise, the more urgent the need for signal detection.
To this end, the curator’s first objective in Postreality is to engage critically with domains of knowledge beyond the arts, to develop interdisciplinary expertise by which to evaluate the qualities of a given work or object through multiple lenses.
This also demands a collaborative and participatory approach to curation — building trust networks that allow for omnidirectional knowledge sharing among economists, technologists, service workers, scientists, athletes, ethicists, entrepreneurs, and beyond. For the moment, these networks will likely comprise human stakeholders, but over time they will come to include machines and nonhuman agents.
Under platform capitalism, tech companies are locked in an arms race to commodify, exploit, and extract our attention. In addition to undermining individual sovereignty, this incentivizes thoughtless output rather than careful consideration, further swamping us with content. It also atomizes our human capacity to direct our attention. Yet this is the very infrastructure with which we will access new dimensions of virtuality, sovereignty, and collaboration with other humans and machines.
The rise of NFTs as a possible solution for creative labor under capitalism should not blind us to the essential dilemma of Postreality — of whether the “master’s tools” can really generate equitable ecosystems. My belief is that they can and must. In the curator’s note for “Simulation Sketchbook,” an exhibition that examined the different forms a “sketch” might take in the hands of new media artists, I wrote:
It is of course the bias of new media curators that new media artists undertake some of the most important creative labors of our time. The argument is simple: these materials are more explicitly related to the general person’s existence than most others. We encounter screens, software, hardware, algorithms, and other such technologies as a matter of routine. To engage these as artistic material is to invoke the core dilemma of the contemporary condition: how does one live a sovereign life when more and more of it is surveilled, constrained, and monetized through the instruments of asymmetrical power structures? The notion of ‘disruption’ has been abused beyond parody in Silicon Valley, but these artists actually are disruptors — subverting and inverting tools to provoke questions rather than return answers. In this way, their sketches create a cascade of insight: regarding the art, the artist, and the new ways we might understand the relationship among ourselves and the tools of our daily lives.
Is this deluded grandeur? Certainly the path for these artists is extremely difficult regardless of whether they embrace the contemporary art market or reach for a crypto alternative. As economist Magnus Resch establishes in How To Become A Successful Artist (2021), there are only ten institutions (all in the United States, nine in New York) and a few thousand tastemakers who collectively decide the market value — and therefore success — of all working artists around the world.
The cold hard truth is that contemporary art is a speculative commodity whose primary stakeholders are principally concerned with increasing the value of their holdings. Exclusivity is the logic of its circuitry. But to preserve itself, it cloaks that exclusivity in the universal language of meritocracy, quality, and the scholarly to render its adherents hostile to new entrants. To acknowledge the viability of an inclusive alternative, especially one whose guiding technology is transparently monetary, would be to acknowledge the reality of contemporary art’s fabrication.
Art must escape the logic of its market in order to achieve an equitable future, but it takes sustained collective action to build over such entrenched foundations. In particular, it demands that curators look outside of typical channels, and employ a broader aperture for what constitutes “art,” “artist,” and “exhibition.” Curating in Postreality involves, above all, curiosity and humility in the face of questions, provocations, and languages with which one might be unfamiliar.
Art is a technology. It’s time we rewired its circuitry.
Art in Expanding Fields
The new is made comfortable by being made familiar, since it is seen as having gradually evolved from the forms of the past. Historicism works on the new and different to diminish newness and mitigate difference.³ (Rosalind Krauss)
In Rosalind Krauss’s landmark 1979 essay, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” the art critic and historian traced the evolution of sculpture’s cultural conception. For Krauss, it was Rodin’s Gates of Hell (1880-1917) that had been responsible for setting sculpture on a nomadic course, shorn of the site-specificity that had once defined it. This precipitated sculpture’s postmodern turn, whereby its definitions were stretched so far beyond its conventional bounds that “sculpture” ceased to adequately express its contemporary understanding. As a basis for her new framework, Krauss applied the Klein group mathematical model (see above) to evaluate sculpture’s newly expanded field. This model has since been applied to other creative domains — from architecture to installation art to music. I’m not going to attempt to give new media art the same treatment because, as a category, it has already metabolized expansion. Indeed, it is its very tethering to the digital and to emerging technologies more broadly that is the root of its adaptability to new futures.
And in an era of acceleration, new futures materialize faster than ever.
One holdover from Reality in Postreality is the ideal of “progress” that sustains the socioeconomic primacy of innovation. The problem, as Luke Hespanhol reminds us, is that innovation often depends on narratives that strongly resemble those of colonial missions, whereby “new technologies are sold as tools of emancipation, if only people can accept them.” With this essay and this week’s accompanying articles, I wish to set out a vision of expansion that resists the logic of progress by which new systems reiterate old hegemonic formulae.
In an increasingly digital, posthuman civilization, one of the artist’s principal roles is to engage in border thinking — exploring ideas, objects, and media in ways that reconfigure digital geography, which is itself an epistemology. Multivariate expansions are ever underway across genres, materials, locations, communities, institutions, and markets. Right now, every field of art-making and creative production is in a state of expansion, and all are overlaid on a reality context that is itself rapidly expanding.
In this context, we experience the Postreal condition as the pliable material of reality.
While canon is in question, historicism is vital in establishing new media genealogies that restore overlooked practices and therefore possible futures. Central to this is simulation — the language of reality creation. Simulation is not tethered to a single technology, though new technologies do facilitate new simulation literacies. Some materials, forms, and practices that comprise simulation might include:
In my practice as a curator, I’ve encountered artists whose practices exemplify art in Postreality. As a brief case study, I’m including examples from “Posthuman Vernacular,” an ongoing exhibition series that began in 2022. In it, I seek to foreground the artists who operate as translators for post- and nonhuman others through digital expression, artists whose practices reveal the ways that humans and machines perceive and communicate with each other.
I was fortunate to work with VERSA, an AI poet created by Ana Maria Caballero, Kalen Iwamoto, Sasha Stiles of theVERSEverse alongside Ross Goodwin, to develop a bespoke generative poem based on ten keyword prompts drawn from my curatorial statement. Another machine artist, Sophia the Robot, took part in the exhibition through a collaboration with Nancy Baker Cahill called STONE SPEAKS (2022). In their site-specific, narrative AR piece, the artists formally and conceptually examine the role of human-machine collaboration in addressing climate crisis. In turn, Minne Atairu, Aya (Faith Umoh), and Nate Mohler lean into generative modes to reveal latent patterns in data sets, machine aesthetics, and novel storytelling modes. In Atairu’s “Hair Study” series, the artist works deductively, prompting Midjourney to see how popular, publicly available models interpret and represent Black hairstyles — and how this implicitly reflects aspects of contemporary visual culture, especially in the West.
For her “Eye See U” series, Atairu scrapes images of make-up editorials to produce AI-generated portraits, thereby revealing the formal conventions that perpetuate normative standards of beauty.
Meanwhile, Aya uses natural language processing and generative rendering to manifest visions of “restorative afrofuturism” via science-fiction characters and narratives. Nate Mohler uses Neural Style Transfer to imagine new forms of “painted video.” For “Posthuman Vernacular,” he presented Drawn Milan (2022), part of his “Painted Cities” series, in which the artist transfers key aesthetic styles and textures to drone videography captured in situ.
The reality of virtual material and space is a key aspect of Postreality. Breanna Browning, Sammie Veeler, and Peter Wu+ navigate these affordances in their practices. In her “Skin Suits” series, Browning creates a series of self-portraits by “misusing” technologies intended to digitize visual information from the physical world. In presenting flattened UV maps of her own body, Browning gives human audiences a brief glimpse of how machines “see” us and other three-dimensional content.
In A Time Capsule Or A Grave (2021), Sammie Veeler simultaneously embraces hybrid space while revealing the unique capabilities of virtual experience. The work brings photorealistic reproductions of objects from different moments in the artist’s life, imbuing space with lyrical voice meditations triggered by proximity. A work of asynchronous virtual performance, A Time Capsule Or A Grave troubles fixed notions of biography, gender, temporality, and live experience.
Through the groundbreaking EPOCH Gallery, Peter Wu+ builds virtual public art exhibitions by interpolating recognizable spaces — from the US Supreme Court Building to Biosphere 2 — with digital art. Each exhibition is a worlding effort by Wu+, whose own artistic practice is witnessed in their careful composition. EPOCH engages blockchain’s potential to facilitate radical equity, with exhibitions selling in full, including automated, contractual splits among artists, curators, and the gallery.
The aforementioned projects represent only a fraction of the art, artists, and artistic modes that typify creative production under Postreality. New media artists engage reality itself as a medium, generating novel realities and modes of reality creation. As vital collaborators, curators in Postreality embrace the liquid motion of expansion to empower these expressions and the new futures they promise.
With thanks to Alex Estorick.
Jesse Damiani is a curator, writer, and advisor in new media art and emerging technologies. He is the founder of Postreality Labs, a strategic sensemaking studio based in Los Angeles, CA. He is Curator & Director of Simulation Literacies at Nxt Museum and Arts & Culture Advisor for Protocol Labs, and is an Affiliate of the metaLAB at Harvard and Institute for the Future. His writing appears in Billboard, Forbes, NBC News, The Verge, and WIRED. Recent curated exhibitions include “PROOF OF ART” at Francisco Carolinum Linz, the first museum retrospective on the history of NFTs; “Synthetic Wilderness” at Honor Fraser Gallery; and “Brief Histories of Simulated Lifeforms” at Vellum LA. Other ongoing curation includes the XR For Change Summit at the Games For Change Festival. Damiani formerly served as Director of Emerging Technology & Insight at Southern New Hampshire University, where he led the Future of Work initiative.
¹ DJ Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016. 12.
² T Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web, New York: HarperCollins, 2000. 13.
³ R Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October, Vol. 8, Spring, 1979. 30.