We were/are the Future

The third edition of the Exercising Modernity Academy, a Polish-German-Israeli cooperation fostering intellectual and artistic exchange, was devoted to the ways in which modernities across the world have envisioned the future – with its new man and woman, its society, new ways of life and a new everyday order.

By rejecting the burden of the past, modernity has often emphasized an openness to the future. The “new” was imagined to bring peace to society, and the idea of historical progress fueled the hope for the ever greater prosperity of ever greater parts of humanity. The ways in which societies might be organized and in which everyday life might be regulated were a subject of interest for many modernization strategies as well as for modernist projects across the globe. The crucial issues included physical health and hygiene, the upbringing of children, pedagogy and education, the division of labour and economy, and nation-building. These visions were translated within the scope of various ideological frameworks (e.g. the Zionist movement with its kibbutzim in Israel or Communism in East Central Europe) into specific strategies of organizing collective life with distinct spatial politics but also forms of social engineering. The struggles for new forms were closely linked with an idea to bridge the gap between technological progress and private life, as well as with a faith in the new political and social order. Housing and city planning played a key role in this process. The belief in their emancipatory potential and their role in changing the rhythms of every-day life created a growing interest in how objects became tools for building a state identity and how the constructed and designed environment became an expression of certain biopolitics.

This process can be seen though as taking place in an ambivalent way. The strive for something radically new could make way for hitherto unseen terror and decay. Engines of social and technical progress such as standardization, normalization and typization turned out to be a basis for totalitarian building plans and radical spatial segregation – apparent in the Stalinist terror and in the horrors of National Socialism, the darkest chapter in the history of modernity.

The critical experience of the First World War is often called the actual beginning of the 20th century and it has already been stated that 2020 might turn out to be the analogous beginning of the 21st century. Therefore, organized in the midst of a pandemic and in the context of the climate crisis, when questions of possible scenarios for the future were at the center of public debate, the third edition of the Exercising Modernity Academy proposed to look back on some of the ideas that fueled the belief in the future a century ago. Exploring the intersections of humanities, architecture, design, art history, social and political sciences, we invite our lecturers and participants to look at what modernisms and 20th century modernization practices have to offer us today. It will be reflected on contemporary life as a field which requires new action. What kind of a new world can art, design and architecture promise us today and help us to achieve? What can we learn from the 20th century experiments today? Can a critical revision of their ideas serve as an inspiration for the solutions we now urgently need? Is it possible to learn from their mistakes and further develop what they have left unfinished?

In these discussions we were guided by experts representing different perspectives and disciplines, including Zvi Efrat, Sharon Golan, Shira Levy-Binyamini, Marci Shore and Robert Jan van Pelt.

During the Academy, we encouraged reflection through lectures, seminars, workshops and, in the second part, traveling.

The first part in January and February 2021 comprised three main thematic sections.


Section I: New Ideas and Visions

In a first thematic section, New Ideas and Visions, we explored the philosophical and historiographical concept of modernity in its relation to the “new” and to the idea of progress towards a better future. Crucial to modernity is a revision of tradition, regarding several spheres of life such as technology and economics (the rise of capitalism), religion (secularization), and politics (development of nation-states). In the East and West, this process manifested itself in strikingly different arrangements, its temporality diverged in each concrete expression. The notions of future, past and their historical relationship to one another differed in respective cases.

Another sphere touched by modernity was the arts, bringing about modernism as an artistic style. This leads to the question of how modern futuristic ideas found a cultural materialization that we explored in a second thematic section.


Section II: New Art for a New Life

The early 20th century trans-national attempts to create a new (wo)man and to shape a new society also reached art, design, and architecture. From housing and kitchen reform, through urban planning and design, modernist visions explored the agency and potential of objects that could serve as a tool for identity-building, at the same time redefining the role of artists and architects in new communities. Modern art and architectural strategies embodied and mirrored many contradictions inherent in modernity, showing the ambivalent potential of modernist projects. The section New Art for a New Life focused on art, design and architecture as important fields of shaping daily life and as vehicles for implementing new ideas, but also as means for regulation, control and political propaganda.


Section III: New State and Society

New visions of social structure and social order were accompanied by new institutions and new forms of collective life. The section New State and Society explored manifestations of modernist ideas in different parts of the world, focusing on their ideological and political backgrounds and their consequences for social life. During the Academy, we explored both the historical and socio-political contexts of modernisms as well as their legacy in our contemporary life and culture. Furthermore, we focused on the ambivalence of this legacy and ways in which it affected 20th century Europe. Through a critical examination of these issues, we also invited our lecturers and participants to reflect on those aspects of the modernist vision of society that can still inspire those looking for solutions to present-day challenges.


The Exercising Modernity Academy 2021 was divided into two stages: phase I, online, and phase II, taking place in stationary form in Gdynia, Poland (depend on the current restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic).



PDF of the program available here.



Pilecki Institute Berlin

Adam Mickiewicz Institute
Liebling Haus – The White City Center



Agata Abramowicz
Alicja Bielawska
CENTRALA (Małgorzata Kuciewicz and Simone De Iacobis)
Anna Cymer
David Crowley
Zvi Efrat
Jacek Friedrich
Ralf Fücks
Sharon Golan-Yaron

Lucian Hölscher
Aleksandra Janus
Małgorzata Jędrzejczyk
Kacper Kępiński
Martin Kohlrausch
Joanna Kordjak

Wojciech Kotecki
Dorota Leśniak-Rychlak

Shira Levy-Benyemini
Michał Łuczewski
Łukasz Pancewicz
Robert Jan van Pelt
Marci Shore
Weronika Szerle
Ines Weizman
Karolina Wigura



Pilecki-Institut Berlin


Instytut Adama Mickiewicza

The Liebling Haus – White City Center