The Imaginary 20th Century

by: Norman M. Klein, Margo Bistis

About The Imaginary 20th Century

The Imaginary 20th Century is a historical comic novel, 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 was unearthed and assembled in Los Angeles.

Featuring an exploratory interface of 2,200 rare images, the unfolding engine of archive and novel works as a single ‘wunder-roman’, with its reveals and contradictions.  The Imaginary 20th Century is at once a comic picaresque and a treatise on the last century.  It 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; and the forthcoming book A History 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 Narrated Media Archive

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 of the Future, curated by Jaroslav Andel, DOX Center for Contemporary Art, Prague, 28 July- 24 October 2010.
  • The Future Imaginary, 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, 19 January- 27 April 2008.
  • YOU_ser: The Century of the Consumer, curated by Peter Weibel. ZKM/Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, 21 October 2007- 31 December 2008.


…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

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

This is the definitive exploration of the successive layers of erection and erasure that have been laid down over LA in the past 130 years, and of the narrative fantasies, political fables, morality tales and personal histories that were made manifest in clapboard and cantilevered steel, and then demolished.

Manchester Guardian Review of The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory

Bleeding Through is one of those transformative works– Klein has described it as a “data-cinematic novel”–in which the form is as innovative as the content.

David Ulin Los Angeles Times Review of Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1965

This is an extraordinary book in many respects … Its scope is breathtaking: Klein has undertaken nothing less than a history of what we moderns sweepingly call ‘special effects’ but which include an astonishing array, dating back many centuries…

Stephen Behrendt Quarterly Review of Film and Video Review of The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects
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