Adam Curtis: The Desperate Edge of Now

Adam Curtis: The Desperate Edge of Now

Image courtesy of Adam Curtis.

Adam Curtis: The Desperate Edge of Now
February 11, 2012

Adam Curtis is not an artist, but a television journalist. Over the last decade, many artists have become interested in his work. Because of this, e-flux and Hans Ulrich Obrist have decided to create a solo show of Adam Curtis’ films—February 11–April 14, 2012―that will include most of his work from 1989 to the present day.

In our current age of uncertainty, both art and journalism are struggling in their different ways to make sense of the present time. This exhibition of Adam Curtis’ works aims to try and break down the divide between art and modern political reportage, to open up a dialogue between the two.

Since the early 1990s Adam Curtis has made a number of serial documentaries and films for the BBC. They are linked through their interest in using the fragments of the past—recorded on film and video―and reassembling them to try and make sense of the chaotic events of the present.

The last twenty years has seen the collapse of many of the grand narratives that drove the world since the Second World War. TV journalism has changed as well, with reporting on events around the world now arriving to us as avalanches of recorded moments, yet carrying little comprehension of what the events mean. Reality slips in and out of focus, much as a fever grips the human mind.

In response to that, Adam Curtis’ films go back into the recent past to tell dramatic stories that lead the viewer to look again at the present day, to help make sense of it. The films are playful with images from the past, mixing journalism with a wide range of avant-garde filmmaking techniques. They also borrow from trash pop and are sometimes silly―but they are also deadly serious in their desire to break through some of the dangerous myths that today’s “avalanche journalism” has created in the modern sensibility. These are myths that those in power attempt to exploit in order to maintain their status at a time when their influence is in decline.

The old idea was that the heart of power was primarily located in the realm of politics. Adam Curtis’ films challenge that notion head-on by demonstrating how power really works in today’s complex society, how it also flows through all sorts of other areas: through science, public relations and advertising, psychology, computer networks, and finance and business.

The show will include these films:

An imaginative and playful film which tells the story of two revolutions nearly two hundred years apart―the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the French Revolution of 1789―and how and why they went in their different ways down the road to terror.

Six one-hour films that together tell the story of how the dream of science possessed politics in the twentieth century. From the RAND Corporation in America in the Cold War―which believed that scientific rationality could manage nuclear apocalypse, to the rise of modern economics―which believed that the rational management of the flows of money in the system could produce heaven on earth. The series shows how science was distorted and corrupted by those in power who asked it to do something it was incapable of doing―making the exercise of power rational.

This series tells three different stories that together examine how the powerful stories modern societies tell about themselves are constructed—and what is left out and why. The first film is very relevant to today because it tells how the myth of the Second World War that still possesses America and Europe was created—the belief that because it was a Good War it means we are good people. This is the simplistic vision of the world as divided between Goodies and Baddies, a vision that has been used to justify the interventions in Iraq and Libya. But we have forgotten the more complicated bits that had been left out of the story.

A documentary made in 1997 about the extraordinary story of Henrietta Lacks and the discovery of her cancerous, yet “immortal” cells. It is told with the help of her family.

Four one-hour films that tell the story of a group of men who met in a gambling club in London’s Mayfair in the 1950s, and how they ruthlessly set out to smash through the cozy partnership of the old British political establishment. In the process, they reawakened the markets, destroyed the traditional management of corporations in America and Britain, and helped create the modern global financial world.

Four films about how Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the human mind were taken and used to manage the world through advertising, public relations, and politics―in turn bringing us the modern world of hyper-consumerism. Out of this came the idea that would dominate politics in the age of the masses―that the dangerous desires and irrational impulses of individuals could be managed on a large scale by objects that reflected and fulfilled those desires: consumer goods.

Three films about the rise of the politics of fear. The films tell the parallel stories of two conservative but revolutionary movements―neoconservatism and modern Islamism. How over the past 50 years they grew up separately, but together, they have unwittingly created today’s climate of apocalyptic fear of the future. The films challenge the dark conspiracy theories of our time and show how politicians simply stumbled on that mood of fear, and then tried to use it to restore their declining power and influence. In the process they inflated that apocalyptic mood even further―and allowed it to run out of control.

Three films that tell the story of the rising belief over the past thirty years that the free market could be applied to all areas of human and social life―and how out of that would be born a new utopia of freedom. The films were made just before the present economic crisis, and argued that this vision of freedom is not only limiting, but had become a terrible trap.

An experimental film―all cut to music―that was at the center of an immersive theatre show made in collaboration with the theatre group Punchdrunk. It is about the years 1958 to 1967, the period of America’s rise to global power. It shows how the seeds of today’s uncertainty and lack of confidence about the future can be found hidden in the fragments of film from that period. The very thing that made America unique and powerful―the belief in free individualism―can, in an age of uncertainty, make you feel weak and powerless.

Three films that challenge the present utopian dreams about computers, and the prevalent belief that they can create an alternative networked world where all hierarchies and systems of power will die away. The films show through three different stories how that belief is an illusion―one that, in reality, helps create the very opposite. It reinforces the growing power of today’s unelected elites in the spheres of business, science, and finance.

Adam Curtis is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. He works for BBC television in London. His films have won many awards―including six BAFTAs. His series The Power of Nightmares was invited to the Cannes Film Festival in 2005. Curtis also writes multi-media political and cultural essays on a BBC website using longer sections of film from the archives―,

Special thanks to Adam Curtis, Liam Gillick, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Julieta Aranda, Laura Barlow, Brian Kuan-Wood, Joe Pflieger, Alex Poots, Lorraine Two, Anton Vidokle, and Mila Zacharias.

For further information please contact mila [​at​]

Screening Schedule

April 14 – PROGRAMME 3




3pm: NOTE: Screenings end to prepare for the closing event.

5pm: Closing Event: Adam Curtis presents a talk interspersed with film footage. A conversation between Hans Ulrich Obrist and the filmmaker will follow.



“The Avant-Documentary Films of Adam Curtis Feel Right at Home in the Gallery Setting of e-flux”, Capital • Lecia Bushak

Images move rapidly across the screen, seemingly random clips from old and silent films, news broadcasts, all set to a choppy soundtrack ranging from Ennio Morricone to Nine Inch Nails, with a domineering voiceover. The voice is that of forward-thinking documentary journalist Adam Curtis , and the work, titled All Watched Over By Machines of...

Images move rapidly across the screen, seemingly random clips from old and silent films, news broadcasts, all set to a choppy soundtrack ranging from Ennio Morricone to Nine Inch Nails, with a domineering voiceover.

The voice is that of forward-thinking documentary journalist Adam Curtis, and the work, titled All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (2011), is among ten of Curtis’ films (made from 1989 to 2011) on view now at e-flux in their show The Desperate Edge of Now. As he narrates tales of failed financial markets, cybernetic utopias, or Randian heroes, the rapid-fire imagery somehow comes to make sense as a complicated, chaotic whole.

What differentiates Curtis from most filmmakers whose work shows in galleries is that he’s not an artist, but a BBC television journalist—one whose work is so artful, so out of the ordinary, that it’s presented as a bridge between the two worlds.

Instead of clawing to get scoops and those fleeting 30 seconds of air time, Curtis digs into the trenches of history, philosophy, and science; he weaves together the events of the past century to create one long, confusing narrative, in which everything is interrelated, though in complex networks, through backdoors. His work, in brief, attempts to make sense of the chaos of the modern world; so his films, in turn, themselves become chaotic.

All watched over by machines of loving grace from mayo11 on Vimeo.

His films often center on the themes of power and the sinister forces at play behind society. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace—particularly the second film in the series of three, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts,” explores how political leaders have used scientific theories—like the idea of self-regulating ecosystems—to justify various senses of order in society (in particular, the British empire’s attempt to maintain power in South Africa with Apartheid).

In The Power of Nightmares (2004), three films follow the parallel stories of neoconservatism and modern Islamism, and how these movements created today’s climate of fear in politics. The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007) argues that the vision of freedom (and of the free market) ingrained in Western culture is limited—and also, of course, a “trap.”

The narratives are stimulating and engrossing, like walks through a history book or an image-packed museum exhibition on the disasters and successes of the 20th century. Yet Curtis grazes the sphere of the conspiracy theory at points, leaping to loosely-connected conclusions. From the journalistic sphere, conservatives in particular have attacked Curtis’ work for just this sort of tendency toward selectivity and simplification. The emphasis on style over argument makes him something of an easy target for such charges. When Curtis wrote an article in The Guardian on the self-regulating ‘ecosystem’ myth explored in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, the comments exploded with debate over his argument’s accuracy, noting that the argument was “elegant … but not conceptual[ly] elegant, with much inductive logic and far too little references to arguments beyond the narrow confines [Curtis] choose[s].” This could be applied to most of Curtis’ narratives. Such charges, Curtis told The Guardian, “sort of pissed me off…. There’s an affectionate tone in that series. I’m kind of taking the piss out of conspiracy theories.”

But this is precisely what makes Curtis’ work so compelling, that he finds the line between objective reporting and the looser space of interpretation and speculation. Yet Curtis’ work requires a tremendous amount of research, and he conducts in-depth interviews with politicians, experts, and academics like any other journalist. What distinguishes him, above all, is his desire, clear in his work, to inform as well as affect his audience, to layer them with the facts at hand as well as with his visual artistry. If Curtis’ films were reduced to the script alone, would they appear in an art gallery? Probably not. It’s the avant-garde film and sound techniques, chaotic and repeated jump-cuts, that earn Curtis his art-world accolades and coalesce medium and message.

Curtis recalls, in many ways, literary journalist Ryszard Kapuściński—who was also often criticized for his “personal” take on journalism. Kapuściński, a Polish journalist who was a foreign correspondent in the 1950s and ‘60s, wrote long-form, stream-of-consciousness narratives that were based on voluminous research and indisputable facts, but also, because of their looseness and fluidity, lingered on the brink of fiction. For this reason, Kapuściński’s work (including Empire and Shah of Shahs)—like Curtis’ films—transcends the temporally limited sphere of most journalistic output.

Whether Curtis’ arguments about the “trap” of freedom or self-regulated ecosystems are the same sorts of truths as the who-what-when-where-how-why of traditional journalism, is very much open to debate. Yet given that his central project is challenging the idea of power in modern society, Curtis most likely would encourage his audience’s questioning of even his authority—as an artist and as a journalist—through these dizzy, stylish films.

—March 8, 2012

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“They Do Not Know It, But They Are Doing It”, Idiom • Erin Nixon

“Adam Curtis is not an artist, but a television journalist,” notes Hans Ulrich Obrist in his press release for the Adam Curtis retrospective at e-flux through April 14th. Obrist’s decision to show the work of Curtis serves a timely and important function: to break down what divides art and political reportage as both disciplines struggle to make sense of...

“Adam Curtis is not an artist, but a television journalist,” notes Hans Ulrich Obrist in his press release for the Adam Curtis retrospective at e-flux through April 14th. Obrist’s decision to show the work of Curtis serves a timely and important function: to break down what divides art and political reportage as both disciplines struggle to make sense of our current political and economic uncertainty. As Obrist notes, many artists have become interested in Curtis’ work, which combines avant-garde filmmaking and journalistic investigation, offering a radical critique of the contemporary world that not only analyzes the ideologies that shape our world but counters them formally. Similar to the way that early 20th century artists opposed to traditional art made “anti-art,” Curtis makes anti-propaganda films by subverting the political documentary.

While appearing at first to be traditional “compilation films,” using archival and stock footage primarily from the BBC library, Curtis’ cinema deploys these fragments in unexpected ways, juxtaposing imagery from the past to give voice to the present.

Since he began his career in the early 1990s, Curtis’ ambition has been to trace the shifting ideologies that have created contemporary politics. What he challenges first and foremost is the idea that the center of real power lies in the realm of electoral politics. His films illustrate how power is dispersed in the technocratic realms of science, technology, business, psychology, advertising, and public relations. Curtis dissects the workings of modern political power by piecing together jokes, referential clips, storytelling, and displays of emotion with camp television techniques. In this unhinging of the traditional documentary style, he reveals to the viewer what is hidden behind the standard narratives of Western culture.

In his series The Trap, Curtis takes on the ultimate ideal at the heart of our age: individual freedom. The series tells how economists adapted John Nash’s paradigm for human behavior during the Cold War and generated economic models based on the idea that various self-interests would balance each other, a progression of Nash’s idea that a society based on individualism wouldn’t degenerate into chaos. This theory has had serious implications in the structure of liberal democracy because, for all intents and purposes, it also applies to those in political power. These ‘public servants’ act as self-interested agents and the idea of public duty becomes an illusion used to build their empires. The myth of serving by the will of the people is an abstract concept shaped by the turn to market-based gauges of public sentiment. Politicians claim markets interpret the will of the people, but markets are used, in reality, as an instrument of social control. This ideology, neo-liberalism, employs a narrative in which the market is said to be synonymous with democracy and attempts to control it are seen as grave threats to freedom. As David Harvey put it, neo-liberalism functions as “a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites.”

If neoliberals view society as a set of atomized, self-interested individuals, Curtis’ Century of the Self looks into what has shaped this idea of the individual. In an interview with Ulrich Obrist, Curtis said that individual experience is the “great dialectic of our time” and his work is pursuing an “interest in the relationship between the dreams of individuals and what the great currents of society and history do to those dreams.” Century of the Self traces how the desire of the individual came to rest at the center of our society. It begins with early psychoanalysts who were driven by the belief that humans were irrational beings, a premise that was adopted by corporations that set out to sell products by linking them to unconscious desires. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays invented the discipline of public relations and was the pivotal figure for this propaganda of commerce. The idea was to create emotional connections to products or services, transforming irrelevant objects into powerful personal symbols. Using the tenets of psychoanalysis, America was transformed from a ‘needs’ to a ‘desires’ culture, and trained in just what those desires would be. While stoking our lust for material goods, individualism was also a very conscious political project designed to push people away from collectivity.

The weakening of collective will was, perversely, exacerbated by the cynicism of leftist intellectuals. Figures like Herbert Marcuse wrote that the alluring images and sounds of consumer culture could crawl into your brain and shape the way you saw the world while disguising and distracting from your exploitation. Such writing conditioned a liberal pessimism that produced a distrust of all dreams of the future. It made capitalism seem insurmountable in the minds of the revolutionaries, becoming for them a fiendish force that could take any authentic part of human experience and turn it into a tool of psychological manipulation.

In The Power of Nightmares, perhaps his most popular film, Curtis traces two other enemies of collectivity. Nightmares documents the simultaneous rise of the neo-conservative movement and the radical Islamist movement to show how those in power create the phantasms from which they must protect people, and hence restore their authority in the name of protection. The movie shows how the political status quo now uses fear as a mobilizing principle, manipulating the shorthand of good and evil to provide the public with moral certainties.

If Curtis makes us feel that we are enlightened it is by revealing the tectonic forces that have shaped contemporary life. Curtis discards and distorts the spectacles of ideology, crafting complex political reportage in which trash television techniques are the tools that both mimic and expose the absurdity of power. Curtis wades through the past collaging fragments in order to posit a plausible form of alternative politics.

—March 19, 2012

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“Archival Trouble: The Fiction-Free Science Fiction of Adam Curtis”, Moving Image Source • Michael Atkinson

One would imagine that a documentary filmmaker working within the auspices of the BBC would have a difficult time establishing a personal voice, rewriting recent history, pursuing his or her own darkest fears, and/or limning a worldview at hair-raising odds with the established media posture. But this is the troubling stealth phenomenon that is Adam...

One would imagine that a documentary filmmaker working within the auspices of the BBC would have a difficult time establishing a personal voice, rewriting recent history, pursuing his or her own darkest fears, and/or limning a worldview at hair-raising odds with the established media posture. But this is the troubling stealth phenomenon that is Adam Curtis, the 21st century’s calm, reasonable, insidious Cassandra, whose accumulating film corpus passes itself off in the mainstream as a set of mere history lessons slouching leftwardly, all about the State of Things and How We Got Here. As the filmography builds, however—with his new three-part film, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2010), what could be characterized as pure-grade Curtis totals over 24 hours of thick archival trouble—it’s clear that Curtis is hardly just a television pedagogue. He is, rather, a modern apocalyptist, a “deep politics” practitioner focused on outlining the vectors of force behind recent history that all of us have conscientiously forgotten, and which are largely responsible for the terminally compromised world we live in.

Curtis’s brand of deep politics isn’t theorist Peter Dale Scott’s—he’s concerned less with deliberate conspiracy than with the cascade of sociopolitical dominoes, beginning somewhere mysteriously decades ago, tumbling in a semi-secret dialectical train of disaster since, and culminating in flat-out catastrophe, be it 9/11 or the world economic meltdown or merely the Reagan-era state of rampaging consumerist narcissism. Formally, Curtis manufactures his flowcharts with the simplest means available: archival footage, talking heads, calm but ominous narration, associative montage, a pervasive sense of doomsday. All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is paradigmatic: Curtis begins, as his Richard Brautigan-quoting title suggests, with the familiar suspicion that the mechanization of our lives is winding inexorably toward a dystopian nightmare in which the matrix of microprocessors and A.I.’s will end up commanding us, not vice versa.

But right away it’s clear that Curtis isn’t hypothesizing about a terrifying future, but unearthing the hidden patterns that have created the present moment. The villains are not machines. Curtis trips backward, as is his wont, to the ’50s and the rise of Ayn Rand, whose Objectivist creed in turn gave fitful birth to a spate of influential ideologies, all of which decided that both nature and human society were essentially self-sustaining, equilibrium-seeking logical mechanisms, and could be managed thus. “This is the story,” Curtis intones, “of the rise of the dream of the self-organizing system, and the strange machine fantasy of nature that underpins it.” The tales he tells to illustrate this harrowing and almost completely overlooked social saga all intertwine, and run from the “spaceship Earth” ideas of Buckminster Fuller, the communes that followed, the pessimistic forecasts of the Club of Rome, the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, the genesis of the wholly fabricated Tutsi-Hutu dichotomy that turned Rwanda into a killing field more than once, the career of Dian Fossey, the late-century rollercoaster of economic feast and famine, and the work of theorist/geneticist George Price, who believed that humans were ultimately the slaves of their own genetic imperatives, and who demonstrated mathematically that both altruism and genocide were therefore rational acts, from “a gene’s eye view” of things.

There’s more, all of it reflecting back upon now; Curtis is nothing if not a staunch proselytizer for the idea of the past never being quite past. All Watched Over is more than a counter-story. Like all of Curtis’s work it is approximately half well-circulated history and half “deep” background—that is, storylines and historical angles that have been pervasively and deliberately neglected by the gatekeepers of knowledge and information. The film feels something like a Craig Baldwin delusion-farce turned chillingly, menacingly factual, and the facts accrete into an interrogation of psychotic hubris. The Frankenstein monster constructed by the scientists and demagogues and politicians in All Watched Over is the last half-century or so of life on Earth, which in its ultimate tally amounts to a scoresheet of unimaginable injustice, mountains of bodies, and untold environmental ruin.

Curtis is in reality telling just one story, again and again in various threads and tangents and in dazzling three- or four-hour chunks, reaching back to the immediate postwar years and then forward to the present over and over, limning an infinitely complex genogram of our present existence. Ironically, for a history-rewriting filmmaker/producer boxing so much information into evenings of television, Curtis is fierce about the disastrous effects brought about by the artificial and intellectualized imposition of order. He began in his present mode with 1992′s Pandora’s Box, a massive autopsy on the worldwide cataclysms that unrolled as a result of every kind of postwar effort to systematize, organize, compel, and codify humanity, from Soviet over-industrialization to game-theory Cold War strategies to Keynesian economics to nuclear-power utopianism. Politically, this is a rocket targeted not at the Right per se, but upward, at the power elite, whose perpetual folly in trying to maximize profit and control leads ceaselessly to societal breakdown—a condition very often beside the point for the elite in question, once they’ve stood to benefit. The Century of the Self (2002) goes all attack-ad on this dynamic, specifically homing in on propagandist/marketing mahatma Edward Bernays, and how he used Freudian psychoanalytic insights to initiate the gold rush of institutionalized thought control—advertising, propaganda, public relations—that could be said to absolutely dominate 20th-century public discourse.

Curtis’s vision seemed wholly formed at first, despite the fact that he’s obviously digging up unknown connections with each new project. But it took the spiral mindquake of 9/11 for Curtis’s reverse-engineered prophecies to gain a global profile. The Power of Nightmares (2004) follows the gunpowder trails from the mid-century (uniting Muslim Brotherhood messiah Sayyid Qutb and neocon pope-king Leo Strauss as complementary agents of desolation) to the attacks of 2001, and then maintains that, just as the farcical depiction of the USSR as a global spider kingdom of evil influence is destroyed by direct testimony from CIA agents and a lying Donald Rumsfeld in old news footage, the sudden postulation of Al Qaeda as a terrifying, organized worldwide threat was a manufactured myth used by Western governments and agencies to broaden and tighten their grip on international power systems and the profit to be gained therein.

It’s a chastening, horrifying notion, but even if Curtis pulls out the agitprop stops himself (his way with menacing dramatic music complements Michael Moore’s comic use of pop song montages), you’d be foolish to dismiss him. If Al Qaeda eventually appeared to be less of a myth than he’d maintained, the reason why scans like another Adam Curtis scenario: Bush II’s efforts to instill fear, demonize Muslims and take over Iraq simply created the blowback of massive Al Qaeda recruitment and the creation of ad hoc Al Qaeda affiliates, a cold fact explicated since by piles of research-filthy books, Pentagon reports, and declassified State Department releases. Power exerts pressure on the masses, due to heedless institutional gluttony or blind intellectual vanity or both, and shit comes out the other end. The power, meanwhile, persists.

Critic J. Hoberman pegged Curtis in a sense when he suggested that his worldview was closer to DeLillo than Chomsky—if we can first take another moment to reflect on the oddity of those choices, that spectrum, in an office at the BBC. True enough, Curtis’s corpus has the seething, portentous air of science fiction, without being fictional, and the disconnect there suggests a new kind of culture that may well be a natural byproduct of the postwar era’s steamrolling power structures, capitalistic need for growth, ecological devastation, and extra-human technology. Why should the old categories of history, science fiction, journalistic truth, conspiracism and apocalyptic vision retain their mutual exclusivity, as the conceptual barriers between news and entertainment, reality and virtuality, government and corporation, national and global, all vanish like stray broadcast signals? For many of us, a lot of Curtis’s historical weaves are a fiction-free science fiction, a massive grid of Orwellian-Dickian-Casolaroesque intimations and eruptions that reveals a nascent totalitarianism spreading like a mushroom colony beneath the surface of everything we see and hear—all of which, of course, is devised and programmed by corporations and governments. If you don’t think things have gotten radically different and substantially worse, then you don’t, like most people, remember anything significant about the way life was before. As it is, observers who know firsthand about how society chugged, climbed, and conceived of itself before World War II, before Bernays, before the invention of the computer, before the International Monetary Fund, are becoming fewer every year. Attrition will guarantee the absence of informed and memoried resistance soon enough, an inevitability that may well haunt Curtis at night. As it should us.

—February 16, 2012

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