Reconfiguring the Present: A 2020 List of Other Futures

The films and books that kept us afloat in a calamitous year

BY Anthony Hawley in Books , Film , Opinion | 03 JAN 21

No neat fixes from 2020, a year ripe with human-induced atrocities. As is every 12-month cycle, of course, but this one was special. Bushfires, wildfires, murder hornets. Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Casey Goodson, Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor – to name only a few of the Black folks killed by police in the US. We trespassed on animal ecologies. Now, contagion reigns, dictating where we wander. Demagogues dominate landmasses on multiple continents. We should stop saying: ‘It’s like a movie.’ At this point, blockbusters are looking to us for inspiration.

Chloé Zhao, Nomadland, film still, 2020
Chloé Zhao, Nomadland, 2020, film still. Courtesy: Searchlight Pictures, Los Angeles

Film: Nomadland (2020) Chloé Zhao

A movie about American poverty? Yes, but also a film about the complex and varied ideas of freedom that come with living in this humongous, politically and economically disparate country. What is monetary, individual and emotional liberation in an American west pocked with Amazon packaging plants? Giant corporations engender a giant gig economy, not stability or growth. Frances McDormand brilliantly plays the resilient protagonist, Fern.

Luis Camnitzer, One Number is Worth One Word, book cover 2020
Luis Camnitzer, One Number Is Worth One Word, 2020, book cover. Courtesy: Sternberg Press, Berlin

Book: One Number Is Worth One Word (2020) Luis Camnitzer

Few write with such succinct eloquence and intent on the potentials of learning and artistic knowledge, or the failures of university art programmes. Here, the artist and teacher addresses, among other topics, the pitfalls of disciplinary study as related to the reorientation of power, in writings penned between 1960 and 2017. ‘If, instead of being concerned primarily with certain particular skills, we would apply ourselves to the general problem that generates those skills, we would be faced with a completely different structure.’

Bettina L. Love, We Want to Do More than Survive, 2020, book cover
Bettina L. Love, We Want to Do more than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, 2020, book cover. Courtesy: Beacon Press, Boston

Book: We Want to Do more than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom (2020) Bettina L. Love

After centuries of systemic racial injustice in the US took centre stage in 2020, it can only be hoped that a shamefully overdue national reconciliation will ensue. So many exceptional anti-racist texts were published (or amplified) this year, but Love’s book is an outstanding guide for how to rethink all our unjust, survivalist constructs, showing too how to be a ‘co-conspirator’ rather than just an ally. 

Christian Petzold, Undine, film still, 2020
Christian Petzold, Undine, 2020, film still. Courtesy: Schramm Film Koerner & Weber, Berlin

Film: Undine (2020), Christian Petzold

Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, the German auteur has been making consistently excellent and provocative films whose chimeric characters drift through (mostly) present-day Europe. Capitalism, post-unification Germany, promises of a new, open continent with the EU – each exerts pressure on average people’s lives in his thrilling tales. A sense of failed utopias hangs over the liminal spaces his characters roam, especially here in Undine’s alchemical underwater worlds.

Pedro Almodóvar, The Human Voice, film still, 2020
Pedro Almodóvar, The Human Voice, 2020, film still. Courtesy: Sony Pictures Classics, New York

Short: The Human Voice (2020) Pedro Almodóvar

A crystalline short full of fuel and fire (literally). The perfect Almodóvar amuse-bouche: colour-drenched, desiring, outraged, melodramatic à la Italian gialli thrillers of the 1960s and ’70s. Tilda Swinton bids adieu to old travails and a former lover who fails to materialize. Reality demands we perform its prescribed routines, but an innovative Swinton shows us how to resist them.

Don Mee Choi, DMZ Colony, book cover, 2020
Don Mee Choi, DMZ Colony, 2020, book cover. Courtesy: Wave Books, Seattle

Book: DMZ Colony (2020) Don Mee Choi

A polyvocal, microtonal, hybridized work of poetry, translation, drawing and photography, this recent National Book Award winner takes us into historical pockets deeply unresolved. Incantatory texts voice violence along the highly militarized DMZ border, between North and South Korea, as a range of graphic acts that ‘compel resistance, disobedience’.

Alexandro Segade, The Context, book cover, 2020
Alexandro Segade, The Context, 2020, book cover. Courtesy: Primary Information, New York

Book: The Context (2020) Alexandro Segade

Like Marvel Comics’ The Avengers (1963–ongoing) for critical-theory geeks, Segade’s graphic novel/comic book/queer utopian philosophical treatise achieves what few, if any, creative works manage to do: put socio-political theory into action. How? By building a world whose very fabric is the outcome of its thinking, and marrying spandex-clad immediacy with heady ideas. Would it were so, and teens could collect and trade their favourite Context characters: Biopower, Cathexis, Barelife.

Paul B. Preciado, An Apartment on Uranus, book cover, 2020
Paul B. Preciado, An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossing, 2020, book cover. Courtesy: Semiotext(e), Los Angeles

Book: An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossing (2020) Paul B. Preciado 

Infinitely piercing perceptions on transit, the refugee crisis, the European financial crisis, border-crossings, neo-colonialism, the reassignment of gender identity and exile. An urgency besets these short texts afire with the voice of a ‘dissident of the sex-gender system’ who advocates that ‘the entire political space […] must begin to transition’. The world needs a trans-becoming and this is its prologue.

The Otolith Group, Infinity Minus Infinity, film still, 2020
The Otolith Group, Infinity Minus Infinity, 2020, film still. Courtesy: The Otolith Group

Film: Infinity Minus Infinity (2020) The Otolith Group

It makes sense that trans-historical cosmic beings preside over this new film by The Otolith Group. The reckoning here is planetary in scope. Fusing dance, richly textured soundscapes, performance, animation and more, this entrancing amalgam examines the centuries of brutality that the British empire exerted on Black bodies and on the natural environment. What’s left/next? ‘What were we to become in the absence of servitude?’

Tsai Ming-liang, Days, film still, 2020
Tsai Ming-liang, Days, 2020, film still. Courtesy: Homegreen Films, New Taipei City; photograph: Chang Jhong-Yuan


Film: Days (2020) Tsai Ming-liang

I keep coming back to all the exteriors – windows, lettuce, water, fog, bed sheets, nipples, skin –on which the camera lingers. Recuperating, caring, washing, oiling, kneading, all along the somatic terrain. Yet, as human-oriented as Days is, its defiantly long takes assert our delicacy, not our primacy. A face is just another place.

Med Hondo, Soleil Ô, film still, 1970
Med Hondo, Soleil Ô, 19​70, film still. Courtesy: Janus Films, New York

Blast from the Past: Soleil Ô (1970) Med Hondo

Moving-image archives became more accessible in 2020. Previously hard to find, Med Hondo’s newly restored, avant-garde, anti-colonial classic, Soleil Ô, is now streaming in the US on Criterion as part of the company’s third instalment of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project (2007–ongoing). (It also screened at the Berlinale’s 50th anniversary Forum series in February.) A slew of Brechtian manoeuvres and non-linear narrative structures – with one of the most mesmerizing soundscapes in film history – Hondo’s razor-sharp classic explores the racialized disconnects embedded in looking.

Main image: Christian Petzold, Undine, 2020, film still. Courtesy: Schramm Film Koerner & Weber, Berlin

Anthony Hawley is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in New York, USA.