(I would like to start with my application essay to the Design Criticism MFA program at S.V.A. It worked, and I was accepted.)
In 1908, F. T. Marinetti, a young Italian and lover of fast driving, wrote a manifesto published in the French newspaper Le Figaro. His manifesto advocated the superiority of the future, of technology, the car, the airplane, youth, violence, speed, and of swiftly rejecting the past for everything that lay ahead. The future would by definition be fast. He had fallen in love with all of it, especially speed, while crashing his car in an evasive maneuver to avoid a bicyclist.
That’s the founding myth of the Futurist Movement, and it’s as true as a founding myth can reasonably be – although pure factuality doesn’t change the end effect. He crashed his car, and he was seduced by the future at approximately the same time. With the Futurist Manifesto, speed became, perhaps for the first major time anywhere, very sexy.
An exhibition celebrating the centenary of Futurism, the Futurist Manifesto’s publication in 1909, and the modern cult of speed, “Speed Limits” was at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach when I saw it about a year ago. I wrote an earlier form of this piece as a blog entry for the Miami New Times. I was happy with it, but conflicted for a reason which I don’t entirely remember, and I decided not to give it to my editor. It was never published.
“Speed Limits” was coproduced by the Wolfsonian and the Canadian Center for Architecture, where it opened first. Curated by Jeffrey T. Schnapp, the content of the show was drawn mainly from the two institutions’ collections.
Within the Wolfsonian’s galleries was created a dark temple to speed by architect Rene Gonzalez – steel gray vaulted galleries, with narrow apertures slicing space and light at sharp, geometric lines. Although, like speed itself, the spaces were without exuberant eccentricity, it was not a straightforward presentation in a straightforward museum space. The exhibit was spread over the Wolfsonian’s top two floors, which link in a double height gallery with catwalks. The ethos of futurism creates an environmental experience.
Artifacts of futurism and speed are manipulated, as interactive elements in the space more so than trinkets in a vitrine. Although there were more than 200 objects, “Speed Limits” was selective and representational. It was divided into five topics: circulation and transit, efficiency, the representation and measurement of rapid motion, and the mind/body relationship – each a case-study in the modern era’s cult of speed. “Speed Limits” was not a commemoration of Futurism. It was a critical portrayal of speed, as well as a retrospective of speed’s role in the last century.
Consumerism provides excessive artifacts. Highways traffic studies, prefabricated kitchens, Maytag commercials, fast food, clocks, signage, time-lapse photography, office filing systems, large scale card catalogues, spark plugs, and IBM punch cards are speed’s heavy material presence.
The Mind/Body Relationship space, the last room entered, where the force of speed is seen within the human body. Athleticism, physical and mental enhancement, chemical stimulants, the diet industry, steroids, cocaine, amphetamines, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers all regulate the body’s performance and speed.
The inaugural manifesto of futurism – the one by Marinetti in Le Figaro – proclaims “the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” “Speed Limits,” beginning with futurism, is about the cult of speed: the magnificent thrusting force that made the 20th century so rapaciously modern. Mechanization, prosperity, financial leverage, pressure, war, technology, medicine, invention, desire, communication, efficiency, automation, optimism, and exaggerated passions are all simultaneously results of the cult of speed, and causes of its acceleration.
The popular optimism with speed and its possibilities has ended. Speed is not the bright and gleaming solution to society’s ills and is now approached much more cautiously. The utopian – and fast – idea of Tomorrowland is outdated. By now we’ve seen too many ill effects, and limits to our desires to go faster, to always equate faster speeds with humanity’s progress. The Concord was decommissioned almost a decade ago, miles of highway are seen as blights on the landscape, traditional slow farming methods are being preserved, and in the Great Recession the unemployed are becoming contemplative sages.
Following the extravagant legacy of the Futurist dream in the 20th century, the Great Recession could be the end of the era of the cult of speed – the End of Speed. The faster, more optimistic future is an overly simplistic dream easily fragmented by a world that is now slower, more melancholic, and self analytical. Maybe the modern world has reached its speed limit, its critical juncture, its fulcromatic point where blindly whizzing ahead no longer works, and this time the collision was fatal.