The Imaginary 20th Century

by: Norman M. Klein, Margo Bistis

About The Imaginary 20th Century

The Imaginary 20th Century is a historical comic novel and media narrative, written by Norman M. Klein and Margo Bistis, and published by the media art museum ZKM.  With a team of artists, the authors have invented a unique narrative engine where facts and fiction split off and return to each other.  The viewer accompanies the characters across three continents.

In 1901, a woman named Carrie, while traveling in Europe, selects four men to seduce her, each with a version of the coming century. At least this is how the legend comes down to us. Inevitably, the future spills off course. We navigate through the suitors’ worlds; follow Carrie on her misadventures; discover what she and her lovers forgot to notice. Gradually we find out that Carrie’s life is implicated in her uncle’s world of business and political espionage. For over forty years, Harry Brown was hired by oligarchs to erase crimes that might prove embarrassing. Thus, as he often explains, espionage is a form of seduction. In 1917, Harry sets up a massive archive of his niece’s world. In 2004, Carrie’s archive is unearthed and assembled in Los Angeles.

The media narrative of 2,200 archival images and the novel with essays are each complete works, alive on their own.  They work together in this way: many facts that lay concealed in ‘Carrie’s archive’ are brought to light in the novel.  Once you have the story in your mind’s eye, the insider ironies enrich the journey through the imagery.  The essays provide a coupling mechanism for the ‘wunder-roman.’  

At once a comic picaresque and a treatise on the last century, The Imaginary 20th Century is a playful and yet deadly serious meditation on one sentence: “the future can only be told in reverse.”

Preview the Imaginary 20th Century

Norman M. Klein

The author of the award-winning media novel Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986 (2003).   A novelist, media and urban historian, his other works include The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory; 7 Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon; The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects; Freud in Coney Island and Other Tales; Tales of the Floating Class: Writings, 1982-2017: Essays and Fictions on Globalization and Neo-Feudalism; and the forthcoming book Archaeologies of the Present: The Dismantling of the American Psyche.  He teaches at California Institute of the Arts.

Margo Bistis

A cultural historian and curator. She has published essays on philosophical  modernism, caricature and urban culture, and is the author of a forthcoming book, Fanfare for Bergson’s Ideas: Popular Enlightenment Culture in the Age of Mass Literacy.  She teaches at Art Center College of Design.

Images from the Media Narrative

Many facts that lay concealed in the archive are brought to light in the novel. Drag the
images around; double-click to open.

What must be one of the main amusements for Martians.<br>
'The Call of Another World' by Charles Torquet, ills. by Henri Lanos. <i>Je sais tout</i>, February-July 1908. Ice in a coal mine.<br>
American Photographic Postcard Collection, circa 1900-20. Research Library, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. More on Carrie's preciptous uncle.  His beginnings, early criminal erasures. Watching the world about to explode. In the caves of the Peloponnesus, a first warning sign goes unnoticed.  Carrie meets her first suitor.  Geniuses bake in the sun at the International Science and Crafts movement. Steelmill Poldihutte, circa 1915.<br> Netherlands Filmmuseum. <i>Röntgen Rays and Electro-Therapeutics</i> by Mihran Krikor Kassabian, 1910. A transportable security tower enabling heads of state to assist in the operations of war without running any risk.<br> <i>Caras y Caretas</i>, 1915. Parade of unemployed, May 31, 1909.<br> George Grantham Bain Collection. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-22194. <i>Roadtown</i> by Edgar Chambless, 1910.<br>  A scientific prophecy of the dwellings of tomorrow. <i>Flying Machines Today</i> by William Duane Ennis, 1911. Star Theater, New York, 1902.<br> American Mutoscope and Bioscope, 1902. Archival Film and Video Materials from the Collections of the Library of Congress. <i>Simplicissimus</i>, November 13, 1911. James Montgomery Flagg, <i>Life</i>, 1905. Joseph Keppler, <i>World's Fair Puck</i>, September 11, 1893. <i>A Journey In Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future</i> by John Jacob Astor, 1894. Nitka Collection of Fantastic Fiction, The Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, UCLA. Hand-painted sound.<br>
American Photographic Postcard Collection, circa 1900-20. Research Library, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.


  • The Future Can Only Be Told In Reverse, works by thirteen artists responding to The Imaginary 20th Century, co-curated by Margo Bistis, Norman Klein & Jane Mulfinger. The College of Creative Studies Gallery at the University of Santa Barbara, 14 February- 9 March 2018.
  • The Digital Body: The 3rd International Exhibition on New Media Art, CICA Museum, Gimpo, 12 May- 18 June 2017.
  • The Future of the Future, curated by Jaroslav Andel. DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague, 28 July- 24 October 2010.
  • Uncharted: User Frames in Media Arts, co-curated by Peter Weibel, Bernhard Serexhe & Ahmet Atif Akin. Santralistanbul, Istanbul, 21 March- 16 August 2009.
  • The Future Imaginary, co-curated by Tom Leeser & Meg Linton.  Sound installation and works by eleven artists responding to The Imaginary 20th Century. Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Design, Los Angeles, 24 January- 30 March 2009.
  • The Imaginary 20th Century, ShowKonstfack, Stockholm, 6-26 October 2008.
  • The Imaginary 20th Century, curated by Karen Moss. Orange Lounge, Orange County Museum of Art, Costa Mesa, 17 January- 27 May 2008.
  • YOU_ser: The Century of the Consumercurated by Peter Weibel.  ZKM/Center for Art & Media, Karlsruhe, 21 October 2007- 31 December 2008.


The Imaginary 20th Century could be approached as a contemporary version of the classic ‘great American novel’, seen from a more global perspective and including a large number of paratextual and metatextual material.  Klein is a great storyteller and the achievement of his work does not only depend on the reader’s amazement (hence the idea of ‘Wunder’, that Renaissance mix of astonishment and admiration we find at the heart of the Wunderkammer aesthetics of this novel) but also on his capacity of striking the right balance between surprise and suspense.

Klein has been a pioneering voice in the progressive disclosure of the mutual shaping and reshaping of storytelling in print and the narrative possibilities of the internet. …The Imaginary 20th Century, a work [co-directed] with cultural historian and curator Margo Bistis, is both a deepening of previous experiments and the result of new reflections on forms and formats of storytelling in the digital age.  The novel told in The Imaginary 20th Century resembles more an encyclopedia or if one prepares a creatively treated archive: not just one storyline but four storylines, not just fiction but enhanced fiction, that is fiction completed with substantial visual counterparts as well as faction, often of a very self-reflective type (Klein and Bistis play ball with the reader and viewers, explaining to her the ambition, the context and the procedures of the novel). The images do not ‘illustrate’ the text, they extend it with other means.  In a similar vein, the texts do not add narrative or nonnarrative captions to the images, they offer possible interpretations via specific combinations and recombinations of the often astonishing visual material.

Jan Baetens Image & Narrative

Not a work of hypertext, The Imaginary 20th Century reveals a more humanistic approach to database aesthetics than many other projects…. At its heart, it is a story of seduction. The past is as seductive to the contemporary viewer as the four suitors’ visions of the future are to the heroine.

Kim Beil Artweek

…Carrie’s archival tale (filled with evasions and contraditions) functions as a psychogeographical diagnostic that for us, operates as a kind of short-circuit — a comic tale potentially snapping many millenials out of their wi-fi induced social media malaise.  We must get beyond our fantasmatic, unambiguous visions of the future … And this project moves as fast as you want, or excavates as far as you choose to go.  Indeed, without a well-researched sourcebook like this, our premonitions and prognostications will be clouded by too much nostalgia, or false imaginaries.

Maxi Kim Entropy Magazine

The Imaginary 20th Century not only negotiates the question of where the lines should be drawn between fact and memory, but the book doubles as a puzzle.  Its central sentence reads: ‘The future can only be told in reverse’.  This aphorism is as paradoxical as it is true.  Because after all, it is — among other things– about four visions of the future, but a future that lies in the past; getting reconstructed from the fragments of the archive.

Hans Ulrich Obrist Das Magazin

Selected for Books of the Year, 2016.

Süddeutsche Zeitung
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