Skip to main content

Diverse Earthquakes in the Age of You

Chief Editor Christina J. Chua reflects on the historical warping of time and space, Marshall McLuhan, and apocalyptic prophecies.



Crumpled poster on the ground

Satoshi Fujiwara, Crowd Landscape, 2021. Courtesy Jameel Arts Centre. Photograph by Daniela Baptista

“And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows."

- Matthew 24:6-7

“Why does my heart go on beating? Why do these eyes of mine cry? Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?”

- Skeeter Davis


Jenna Sutela, I Magma, 2019. Courtesy Jameel Arts Centre. Photograph by Daniela Baptista

The prophetic — that sense of the unforeseen yet inevitable — has always enamoured me, growing up in a rather hardline Pentecostal and Evangelical household. One of great, red-lined prophetic passages I’d hear in terrifying, apocalyptic sermons is Matthew 24. No matter what your religious or teleological inclinations, its words still resound uncannily true as the 21st Century becomes increasingly burdened by sporadic conflicts from Burma to Venezuela, unprecedented forest fires and flooding, a surge of surveillance capitalism — all worsened by a global pandemic. Whether in the temple or in the secular arena, we look for lights to steer us ever forward in this blinding era. 

The birth and life of the man who spoke those words — Jesus Christ — marked the trajectory of Western chronological time. However, concurrently, there were many other ancient civilisations with their own discrete cosmologies that measured time expansively through the passing of celestial bodies and the seasons. Heaven would mingle with earth at sacred centres called Axis Mundi, natural sites (usually mountains) which ordered their respective worlds and civilisations according to concentric, cosmic circles. But as Christianity and with it, humanism, became the dominant ideologies of the Western world, these Axis Mundi shifted from mountaintops or ziggurats to reside in the human body. Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man best illustrates this anthropocentrism. No longer would mankind use the stars or the mountains to make sense of themselves. Thus, time constricted as it wrapped itself around the body, and the age of man was born — the age of you

Whether in the temple or in the secular arena, we look for lights to steer us ever forward in this blinding era.

Humanistic futurity is predicated on time moving in a single direction. Indeed, that sense of impending apocalypse which resonates from Matthew 24 into Skeeter Davis’ desolate song is contingent on chronological and anthropocentric time, as well as our creation of systems, technologies and ideologies that advance it. 

Five years after Davis’ The End of the World topped the charts during an era of Cold War brinksmanship, other prophets would emerge out of the desert of postmodern theory. Amongst them, Marshall McLuhan would make a compelling case for how leaps in mathematics and technologies like the mechanical clock would segment time into uniform units and gradually separate it from the rhythms of life[01]. In his seminal text Understanding Media: The extensions of man , McLuhan traced the shift from the communal bell-tower which enabled the “energies of small communities”, to the pocket-watch which would cohere larger cities through its control of industry and transport[02]. In the The Medium is the Massage by McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, McLuhan interprets Nietzsche’s nihilistic declaration: the “Newtonian God — the God who made the clock-like universe, wound it, and withdrew — died a long time ago.”[03] Although the majority of the Western world would no longer gather in churches, it would still cling to the old, Newtonian, chronological trajectory. 

‘Age of You’

‘Age of You’, Courtesy Jameel Arts Centre. Photograph by Daniela Baptista

“Why does my heart go on beating?”

Then, at some point in the middle of the 20th Century, McLuhan foretold how the mechanical would be swallowed by “the electric age of decentralised power and information”. Under these superstructures that we now know all too well, “we begin to chafe under the uniformity of clock-time”. We built “persona-driven” platforms (according to so-far’s Co-Editor Yin Aiwen) , as if to consolidate our now distributed virtual identities, but they have only rebounded upon us, ricocheting with an unprecedented momentum. Within the infinite minutiae and globalised multiplicity of the timestamp and the live feed, our technologies are ticking too fast — surpassing our rhythmic sense of chronological time, compressing it into an unbearable degree. Indeed, the dense, technological conditions of the Anthropocene are the systemic earthquakes that threaten to implode anthropocentric time and ontology. 

Within the infinite minutiae and globalised multiplicity of the timestamp and the live feed, our technologies are ticking too fast — surpassing our rhythmic sense of chronological time, compressing it to an unbearable degree.

The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present  by writer Douglas Coupland and curators Shumon Basar and Hans Ulrich Obrist, and its more recent sister publication The Extreme Self: Age of You  respond to and fulfill McLuhan’s prophecies, notably lifting from the form and tone of voice of The Medium is the Massage . The artwork images, design and typography combine to preach a bleak commentary of a generation shut in by its own virtual mirrors, enmeshed by vitriolic comments sections, wherein democracy is rendered obsolete. The Age of Earthquakes  is punctuated by wry, invented definitions that describe how the Internet has made us more dysfunctional and impatient than ever before, yet at the same time horrified at our narcissism, and how much time has sped by as we lose it to glittering face filters: 

Time shrink  (n.) 

Describes the way in which your perceived life shrinks when it becomes over-efficient from multi-tasking, and not enough down-gaps are left between specific experiences.”[04]

Time snack  (v.)

Often annoying moments of pseudo-leisure created by computers when they stop to save a file or to search for software updates or merely to mess with your mind.”[05]

Proceleration  (n.)

The acceleration of acceleration.”[06]

Behold These Glorious Times!, 2017

Trevor Paglen, Behold These Glorious Times!, 2017. Courtesy Jameel Arts Centre. Photograph by Daniela Baptista

“But the end is not yet…”

Now, when I listen to these fire-and-brimstone sermons, I sometimes picture Walter Benjamin’s reading of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus,  the Angel of History whose face is fixed on the accumulating midden heap of the past. He wrote, “Where  we  see the appearance of a chain of events,  he sees one single catastrophe…”[07] But Benjamin published at the beginning of World War II, perhaps, just at the moment when the Newtonian God left the European scene. 

Later, Marshall McLuhan argued that “the hydrogen bomb 08 during a period of Cold War brinksmanship. Now, within the maximal compression of our much more technological time-scale, and with the ultimate fragmentation of Instagram Stories feeding us Black Lives Matter protests, shell-shocked Palestinians, and cats getting stuck in corners, we no longer experience history with the pleasure of apostrophes or punctuations. In fact, the sense of sequence itself is altogether collapsing. It’s almost impossible to differentiate the tragic events of 2020 and 2021, to recollect things in any gradated order at all. 

So, without the comforting presence of a Newtonian God guiding a more seasonal and historical time-scale, we’ve become mired in the visceral extremity of the present, unable to relinquish our dependence on the clock He wound up — and we sped up . Basar et al. call this the condition of the “89plus generation — born after the Berlin Wall came down and the Tiananmen Square protests erupted… 09 The droughts, typhoons and COVID-19 variants are too many to count; the media cycle too dense and slow to resolve them into any clear, singular catharsis. Our generation was born into a time of ceaseless calamity, without any markers by which progress can be perceived, and the technologies we created simply won’t afford us a breather — a pause — by which to consolidate, reconcile, or heal. 

We no longer experience history with the pleasure of apostrophes or punctuations.

Thus, we have arrived at an extended, interminable apocalypse that is marked by dread and — to use that word that has seeped into this year’s pandemic parlance — languishing[10]. “Today’s wars don’t seem to ever end… They evolve into something permanent,” say Basar et al.[11] Benjamin’s Angel “would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed” 12. Perhaps we have evolved beyond the end of History[13], to commune verily with her Angel. Indeed, we are the damned angels caught in this relentless storm, unable to breathe, to close our wings, or our eyes. 

Lawrence-Abu-Hamdan-‘Age of You’

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, ‘Age of You', Courtesy Jameel Arts Centre. Photograph by Dina Khatib.

“Why do these eyes of mine cry?”

Benjamin described this maelstrom as the force of progress, as he looked into the beyond for a civilisation that would, perhaps, eradicate fascism. He surveyed his nation, his own people, who through consensus had elected a mad tyrant. McLuhan traced this consensus back to the proto-humanistic Greeks, who “had the notion… or a faculty of ‘common sense’ that translated into each other sense, and conferred consciousness on man.” Of course, common sense went all sideways and the same crowds that clamoured around Hitler resurfaced in MAGA and QAnon[14].  

The self-centred platforms we devised have exceeded what we could imagine, with our manifold differences more heightened than unified.

Recall once more that Benjamin wrote in the early days of reproducible media and propaganda films. But McLuhan’s circuited world of electric media surpassed that of Benjamin, and anticipated how we would “15 But to what degree would this anthropomorphic extension reach? Today, this hyper-compression and platformisation is dissociating our bodies from our very selves[16], and more tellingly, from each other. In The Extreme Self , Basar et al provoke that individuality — that classical notion of one’s unique consciousness and with its coherence, the ability to share ‘common sense’ — has changed so profoundly[17]. The self-centred platforms we devised have exceeded what we could imagine, with our manifold differences more heightened than unified. Their interfaces and algorithms have erected opacity, rather than translucency. 

One of the most nauseating things about this day and age is watching the slow demise of democracy, and with it, the fading of Benjamin’s utopian dream[18]. Does his Angel see further than we can, now, in the post-Trumpian 2020’s? Basar et al . warn that “the majority can no longer be trusted”[19]. It’s all just, terribly desolate from here on… 

Yuri-Pattison-Untitled-(iOS emoji content aware fill)-2021

Yuri Pattison, Untitled (iOS emoji content aware fill), 2021. Courtesy Jameel Arts Centre. Photograph by Daniela Baptista

“See that ye be not troubled…”

And yet, when I return to the church on Sunday to hear the man repeat those painful, but steady words of Christ, I still hang on to hope. During my visit to Age of You at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, the literally eye-popping exhibition that featured over 70 visual contributors and corresponded to The Extreme Self , my heart was quite simply heavy. Even as I went up an elevator covered in emoji eyes that were supposed to sensitise me to all-pervasive surveillance, and followed the winding trail marked by the 13 chapters of the book, it was the idealistic, but broken Millennial in me that needed a resolution, a way out… I asked Shumon, “How can we possibly go on?” He simply shrugged, and neither the exhibition nor the book provided an adequate response. But they weren’t at all meant to. These contemporary curator-prophets are much too aware of the follies of technological solutionism.

There are more unanswerable questions as I continue to gaze on this trembling Angelus Novus . How can we perceive the future without sequentiality? How can we remodel communication, the media, and the platforms towards a rejuvenated time-scale that could allow us the latitude to breathe again ? Could the answers be at the crossroads between the Axis Mundi?[20] Or could they lie in the depths of the Earth within something even older, even pre-human? 

As cynical as his tone was, the media prophet Marshall McLuhan seemed to linger on a better horizon too. He wrote with confidence that “when we have achieved a world-wide fragmentation, it is not unnatural to think about a world-wide integration. Such a universality of conscious being for mankind was dreamt of by Dante, who believed that men would remain mere broken fragments until they should be united in an inclusive consciousness.”[21] Perhaps it will take another few decades for our hopeless generation to get it together, or even another century… but in the meantime, I will try my very best not to be troubled by the earthquakes.

  • 01.

    Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The extensions of man (1964; reis., Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), 158.

  • 02.

    Ibid., 161

  • 03.

    Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage (1967; reis., London: Penguin, 2008), 146.

  • 04.

    Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present (New York: Blue Rider Press/Penguin, 2015), 43.

  • 05.

    Ibid., 45.

  • 06.

    Ibid., 51.

  • 07.

    Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”, Walter Benjamin zum Gedächtnis (Inst. für Sozialforschung, 1942), essay trans. Dennis Redmond, 4, Global Rights Magazine.

  • 08.

    McLuhan and Fiore, The Medium is the Massage, 138.

  • 09.

    Basar, Coupland, and Obrist, The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present, 158.

  • 10.

    Adam Grant, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing”, New York Times, April 19, 2021,

  • 11.

    Ibid., 144-145.

  • 12.

    Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”, 4.

  • 13.

    Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of history” with the rise of Western liberal democracy and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992).

  • 14.

    “MAGA” or “Make America Great Again” was the campaign slogan of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. It quickly became a rally-cry among his supporters, and multiple commenters have discussed how it also functioned as dog-whistle. QAnon, meanwhile, is a disproven far-right conspiracy theory which alleges the existence of a group of Satanic and cannibalistic pedophiles that are supposedly operating a global child sex-trafficking ring. This supposed group was also stated by QAnon believers to have been conspiring against Trump during his term in office.

  • 15.

    McLuhan, Understanding Media, 117.

  • 16.

    In so-far’s Issue 1: Smart Cities, Teow Yue Han choreographs dancers so that their smartphones become extensions of their bodies.

  • 17.

    Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Extreme Self: Age of You (Köln: Verlag Der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, 2021), 39.

  • 18.

    Walter Benjamin wrote in the midst of the Shoah to rescue his society from ruin. He concluded his essay with an addendum that reminded the reader that “the Jews were forbidden to look into the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance. This disenchanted those who fell prey to the future, who sought advice from the soothsayers” or prophets. For “in [the future,] every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.” Unfortunately, Benjamin’s essay was his last major work. He was afraid of Nazi capture and committed suicide in September 1940, before his essay was published and the war was won by the Allies.

  • 19.

    Basar, Coupland, and Obrist, The Extreme Self: Age of You, 215.

  • 20.

    In an interview for the so-far Incubator, Syaheedah Iskander recounts how “with colonisation, the Indigenous perception of time was disrupted and the rationalisation of [Southeast Asian] space became assigned to the Western sense of chronological time.” Through her curation of State of Motion 2021: [Alternate / Opt] Realities she implicitly suggests a return to the ancient, folk cosmologies of Hindu and Buddhist Axis Mundi in the region.

  • 21.

    McLuhan, Understanding Media, 117.

Artists and Contributors

Christina J. Chua portrait picture

Christina J. Chua

Christina J. Chua is Co-Founder and Chief Editor of SO-FAR, a hybrid publication, gallery and artist incubator. Prior to founding SO-FAR, she worked at galleries and art fairs throughout Asia representing and exhibiting a spectrum of emerging to blue-chip contemporary artists from around the world. As a writer, she contributed to various international and Singapore art publications. Today, Christina is committed to bridge-building in the Singapore art scene, while developing a new generation of art patrons through her fine art consultancy and education group, Metis Art. With her interests lying at the interstices of business, technology and contemporary art, Christina is also Strategic Advisor of innovation consultancy ArtBizTech.