We were beset by influencers, grifters, and triggers. We worried about the Anthropocene, gentrification, the blockchain, and free speech. We occupied and decolonized. We canceled. There are many ways to take stock of the decade, and before this one slips away, we look back at the terminology that defined the era. This glossary includes new words that came into common usage over the past ten years (like “precariat”) as well as old ones that took on new meanings during that time (like “curate”).
The keywords of the 2010s offer insights about what mattered to artists, critics, curators, and scholars. Or at least future historians might be able to shift through the contradictory impulses embedded in this vocabulary to take stock of a decade in which we felt ourselves lurching from crisis to crisis even as we erected luxurious vessels to house our art and immersed ourselves in 3D entertainment.
Very few of the words compiled here relate to a particular medium or style of an art. This may point to a blind spot: perhaps formal trends will be apparent only years from now. More likely, it speaks to art’s status as a symbolic arena for grappling with high-stakes issues: inequality, climate change, racist violence. The rhetoric we used is indicative of how paintings, sculptures, and installations became flashpoints in debates whose social implications extend beyond the gallery or studio. —Art in America
Scanned, mapped, virtualized, simulated, filled with extruded plastic: the third dimension assumed a new level of cultural importance in the 2010s. Previously regarded as a novelty, 3D cinema went mainstream. Turn-of-the-decade masterpieces Avatar (2009) and Jackass 3D (2010) heralded the proliferation of spectacles that require spectacles. While commercial filmmakers captivated moviegoers with the appearance of a seamless expanse, visual artists brought us back to reality by emphasizing glitches. Trisha Baga’s low-fi 3D video diaries kept viewers grounded in real space; she typically placed her projectors on the floor where their beams could be interrupted by an array of assemblage objects. Likewise, the VR headsets that started appearing in museums were often there to deliver a claustrophobic jolt. Jordan Wolfson’s VR work in the 2017 Whitney Biennial was stomach-churning, both for its clumsy depiction of violence and the constraints it imposed on the viewer’s range of vision.
New mapping technologies enabled artists to create detailed scans of spaces and objects, yet many used this rich information not to better orient viewers in the world but to make us feel more alienated from it than ever before. Aaron Flint Jamison mapped Artists Space’s galleries with a 3D scanner for a 2013 exhibition there. But Jamison kept the data locked on a server: visitors were out of the closed loop he established between machines. For his contribution to the 2015 New Museum Triennial, Daniel Steegmann Mangrané scanned a teeming jungle clearing. When viewers donned a VR headset to experience the work, however, they were transported to a spectral black-and-white shadow of the place.
The more hyperbolic proponents of “maker culture” in the 2010s lauded the 3D printer, envisioning a world free from scarcity: just fire up the machine and create any object at home, from guns to medicine. Many artists in the 2010s quickly pushed this fantasy to its limit by replicating the human form. Rather than liberated, however, Josh Kline’s printed people always seem hemmed in—sometimes literally, as with the figures in Unemployed (2016), who are curled up in the fetal position and enclosed in plastic bags—but always metaphorically, subject to the crushing weight of capitalism.
3D printing did prove to be liberating in other ways, in particular by allowing artists to establish new relationships to objects housed in museums. Matthew Angelo Harrison scans African sculptures and reproduces them with a homemade printer. In 2011, Duane Linklater scanned and printed Indigenous objects in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, reclaiming a kind of ownership and enlisting the 3D printer in a project of decolonization. –William S. Smith
A list of affects might include disgust, boredom, or bliss. Though often used interchangeably with “emotion” or “sensation,” “affect” refers to something a little more specific: the subjective, personal experience of a given feeling, sometimes described as pre-cognitive or pre-linguistic. Goosebumps illustrate the concept: you might find them on your body before becoming cognizant that you are cold, frightened, moved, or aroused.
The so-called affective turn of the early aughts—a movement spearheaded by thinkers like Lauren Berlant, Sara Ahmed, and Eve Sedgwick—trickled its way into the art world over the past decade. Affect theory directly opposes the Cartesian mind-body split that has long informed so much academic output, highlighting the impossibility of any purely objective, disengaged study. Artist Jill Magid cast her relationship with architect Luis Barragán’s archive not as a dispassionate historical study, but a love story. Artist Alejandro Cesarco highlighted the subjectivity inherent in reading: for his Index (2000–ongoing), he fabricated an index for a book he will probably never write, filing and framing entries for affects like “mourning” and “regret” and recasting the traditionally utilitarian form as poetry.
Those who’ve been systemically wronged set out to reclaim the validity and political efficacy of “bad” affects like anger, which had been written off as weakness or irrationality. Ahmed rehabilitated the notion of the feminist killjoy. Artists recognized a widespread need to process trauma and provide space for collective mourning, as in Steve Locke’s text-based installation A Partial List of Unarmed African-Americans who were Killed By Police or Who Died in Police Custody During My Sabbatical from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 2014–2015 (2016).
We all learned to navigate newly hyper-mediated versions of old feelings amid a skyrocketing presence of screens and machines: in 2017, Marlies Wirth curated a show on the subject at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna called “Artificial Tears” that included artists like Cécile B. Evans and Sean Raspet. The affect of the decade is probably “stuplimity”—Sianne Ngai’s neologism for describing the feeling of being both hyper-stimulated and bored, a sensation captured by the frenetic video installations of Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch.
The word “affect” is here to stay, but the pull of affect theory waned sharply after the 2016 US election amid concerns that overemphasizing subjective experience had inadvertently paved the way for the rise of post-truth. —Emily Watlington
Afropessimism describes the work of a disparate group of black academics. Boiled down to its most essential elements, the term refers to the theory that black people are ontologically unique in our experiences as human-but-not, person-but-capital, and so on. As Jared Sexton writes, “black life is lived in social death.” Thinkers who have been labeled “Afropessimist” regularly eschew the category, and there are well-documented conceptual and methodological disputes among them. Though Fred Moten is often thought of as a key figure in the Afropessmimist canon, he characterizes his thought as “black optimism,” as he locates a kind of freedom in the negation of black being (blackness, he says in A Poetics of the Undercommons, is a “good cool lucky thing”). Frank Wilderson, on the other hand, has resigned himself to the ultimate nothingness of black unpersonhood.
In 2014, Moten began collaborating with video artist Wu Tsang, and their work was one of the vehicles by which Afropessimism—once a niche conversation among black academics—entered the art world. Writers and artists became attracted to Afropessimism as a way of articulating a position outside the politics of representation and other cosmetic diversity initiatives at cultural institutions. Its growing popularity surely had something to do with the fact that anti-black violence was front of mind for many, as the Black Lives Matter movement came to prominence in American politics. At the end of decade, it’s clear that Afropessmist ideas have suffused a broad variety of conversations around black life and death—from e-flux’s most recent issue edited by Rizvana Bradley, which features a number of black women theorists associated with Afropessimism, to movies like the thriller Get Out (2017) and the unfortunately poorly fashioned, ideologically flimsy romantic drama Queen and Slim (2019). —Aria Dean
The Anthropocene is the geological epoch defined by the impact of human activity on Earth’s atmosphere and ecosystems. Industrialization, urbanization, overpopulation, deforestation, and pollution have accelerated fundamental changes in the environment. The preceding Holocene epoch began 11,650 years ago and ended sometime in the twentieth century (or if you are a climate change skeptic, is still going on). Though not yet approved by the International Union of Geological Sciences, the Anthropocene has become common in calls for changes to policy from environmentalists, activists, and scientists. Artists have taken it up as well, to imagine a future of droughts, extreme temperatures, and species extinction, and to find ways of coping with change. Mel Chin’s augmented reality work Unmoored (2018) showed visitors to Times Square a vision of New York City under water. For decades Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison have developed plans to reclaim watersheds, drawing on input from engineers, farmers, city planners, and local citizens to deal with issues of runoff and pollution; their current project The Force Majeure (2009–) modifies these plans to account for storm surges and shrinking coastlines. Mary Mattingly envisions houses, garments, and sustainable gardens that could survive the effects of diminishing natural resources. —Eleanor Heartney