The Design Observer Group

Posted 09.09.11

Christian Widmer & Aaron Rothman

Non Zero Sum

In 2000, in an interview with Wired, Bill Clinton expressed his optimism for the new century: "The more complex societies get and the more complex the networks of interdependence within and beyond community and national borders get, the more people are forced in their own interests to find non-zero sum solutions. That is, win-win solutions instead of win-lose solutions." Clinton's sentiment mirrors the idealism of the mid-20th century — of a "Family of Man" based on the fusion of humanism, technology and mass production. It wasn’t long, though, before the presence, if not the precise nature, of new threats became clear. Photographer Christian Widmer's series, Non Zero Sum, examines the residue of the earlier dreams by focusing on the promises, anxieties and ambiguities of the first decade of the new century, during which, as Widmer puts it, "the future became a ruin of the past."


The clear-eyed ambitions and stark terrors of what Henry Luce termed the American Century have transmuted into consumerist impulses and an engrained sense of vague unease. The echoes of the modernist project seem drained of the humanist impulse that animated earlier works. The technology that promised an interconnected future of expanded wisdom has created feedback loops of instant information — a tyranny of the now that disregards both precedent and consequence. Increasing complexity is too often met with what seems an almost instinctual Manicheanism — us versus them, this or that. Widmer's photographs combine acute observations of our time with allusions to an historical context of decades and millennia, revealing the accidental sublime of failed intentions. A series of seemingly unrelated observations, intimate and tenderly pathetic, underscore the specificity of real life and remind us that the sweep of history is made up of discrete moments and personal experiences. Small but allusive coincidences take us out of time, articulating a sense of an incidental infinite existing within the provisional muddle of day-to-day life. We struggle to find a future constrained by the world we have made.

— Aaron Rothman