This essay on art and the future appeared recently in Art Review.
‘I utterly spurn and reject so-called “science fiction”. I have looked into it, and found it as boring as the mystery-story magazines – the same sort of dismally pedestrian writing with oodles of dialogue and loads of commutational humour.’ Thus speaks the narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1952 short story ‘Lance’. The writer seems to have shared his creature’s scorn for the genre – though, predictably, ‘Lance’ is also Nabokov’s sole ‘amateur’ stab at sci-fi. The tale is notable too as the source for a statement later quoted by Robert Smithson (who knew a thing or two about timescales) and which seems perfectly to describe the attitude to the future, and to futurisms, in much recent art. ‘The future’, writes Nabokov, ‘is but the obsolete in reverse.’
Isn’t that essentially the would-be paradox that animates a good deal of the future-oriented art of the last decade or two? To the extent, in truth, that it has become a cliché on a par with the popular claim that science-fiction futures are only ever versions of the present in which they are imagined. Contemporary art seems to go further – further back, that is – and assert that the only futures we can conjure today are in fact those that belong to the past: a past in which technology, ideology and avant-garde brio meant that things to come were palpable, vivid, almost present, for much or most of the last century. To speak in terms of tense, the only future that seems to have mattered in the recent past has been the future anterior: what will have been, or more accurately what might have been. The future has belonged to others: possibly including – if we’re old enough to recall, say, the digital thrills of the 1990s – our own past selves.
This is not to disparage any of the art made under a temporal regime of the backward look, only to say that until very (very) recently these lost futures seemed to manifest everywhere, in art that variously returned to the buried dreams of Modernism, the hubris of late-capitalist production and the fading lures of the big (really big) ideas. Consider, for instance, Gerard Byrne’s video installation 1984 and Beyond (2005), based on a 1963 Playboy magazine roundtable, in which assembled sci-fi writers attempt to picture existence in the year of Orwell’s dystopic fiction. Whatever the risible lineaments of the efficient, eroticised pod-life they predict, at least they are imagining some future. Or the brace of works by Duncan Campbell and Sean Lynch concerning the doomed DeLorean DMC-12 car: a futuristic sliver manufactured in Belfast in the early 1980s and by 1985 fit only to be sniggered at in Back to the Future, where the 1950s seemed more modern. Campbell’s Make It New John was made in 2009, Lynch’s DeLorean Progress Report shown in 2010 at Simon Starling’s Camden Arts Centre show Never the Same River: an exhibition whose subtitle probably sums up best this entire recent adventure with temporal paradox and nostalgic divining: Possible Futures, Probable Pasts.
The former, at least, were short-lived. Or so one reading would have it, in light of the economic crisis in the wake of which it became de rigueur to quote Fredric Jameson, writing in his Archaeologies of the Future in 2005: ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ If in the precrash era Jameson’s statement skewered a collective imagination quite prepared to contemplate environmental catastrophe (or its sci-fi stand-ins of meteor strike and alien invasion) but unable to believe in alternative futures except as antique remnants of an ideologically or aesthetically gulled twentieth century, then postslump the aphorism could be wielded, a little too hastily, as a moral admonition of the recent past and our own place in it.
One could plausibly argue that once the unthinkable future actually arrived it became paradoxically possible to start imagining other futures again: the crisis functions oddly as the end of one big (neoliberal) narrative, with all the glamorous catastrophisms and premature pronouncements of revolution that that entails, and as year zero for other, maybe more modest futures. And contemporary art, having spent time contemplating obsolete futures from the past century, has in a way simply carried on reflecting on the same histories and the same possibilities, but with the nostalgia stripped away: invoking the future seems bizarrely less quaint now that it has diminished on many fronts. Think for example of Ben Rivers’s remarkable film Slow Action (2010), in which island utopias centuries hence are worked up from footage of such places as Lanzarote and Gunkanjima, the postindustrial ‘battleship island’ off the coast of Nagasaki. For sure, Rivers’s film makes reference to some coming (or maybe present; I mean our present) catastrophe, but its utopias come from some genuinely fictive elsewhere, schooled on such texts as Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1624) and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man(1826) rather than the familiar futurisms of the past century.
In short, the future has hardly gone away. A number of exhibitions this summer have courted its allure in more or less measured ways. In Limerick, Ireland, Eva International, a biennial curated this time by Annie Fletcher of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, is this year titled After the Future. Fletcher invokes the irony that after the end of the grand futures of the recent past – and Ireland’s dreams grew very grand indeed – it is both easier and more imperative to imagine modest and workable futures, futures conjured by theorist and activist Franco Berardi in his 2011 book After the Future: ‘If we come to terms with this post-futuristic condition, we can renounce accumulation and growth and be happy sharing the wealth that comes from past industrial labor and present collective intelligence.’ Which is a restricted vision that actually sounds, of course, exorbitantly optimistic. Utopianism does not necessarily fade away in an era of postcrisis scaling down: at Firstsite in Colchester, the group show News from Nowhere (taking its title from William Morris’s novel of 1890) mixes recent work by Mark Titchner and Mungo Thomson with frankly futuristic inventions of the past by Naum Gabo and László Moholy-Nagy.
Perhaps the most flagrantly nonnostalgic of futurisms canvassed this summer, though, is the Arnolfini’s ambitious Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction, curated by Nav Haq and Al Cameron. This despite the title of one of the standout works: Omer Fast’s three-part film installation Nostalgia (2009), which juxtaposes the fate of a contemporary child soldier from Nigeria, seeking asylum in Britain, with a future in which the geopolitical roles are reversed and a British migrant seeks refuge in ‘Fortress Africa’. Haq and Cameron certainly acknowledge the familiar explanation for our visions of the future in the realities of the now – ‘SF may not really [be] giving us “images” of the future so much as a projection of the present’, they write in their curatorial essay. And it’s true that there are remnants of familiar lost modernist futures in work such as Kiluanji Kia Henda’s installation Icarus 13 (2008), which situates its absurdist sci-fi among the ruins of Soviet architecture in Angola.
But the shift, if there is one, might have to do precisely with fiction itself, which courts the unprecedented rather than merely reminding us of future dreams recently abandoned. That’s to say, the archaeology of actually existing past visions of the future gives way to acts ofex nihilo invention or divination, because suddenly it looks necessary to invent a future again, however unlikely. In 2009, Haq and colleagues edited an issue of Arnolfini’s biannual journal, Concept Store, devoted to ‘Possible, Probable and Preferable Futures’. That contains, among essays on past and present artistic futurisms, a work by Graham Gussin, Various Futures, that excerpts blurbs from sci-fi paperback novels, their adventures condensed in précis (sample sentence: ‘At point zero the rigour of time would be like a mistaken memory’), dense, abstract fragments that are hard to explain using the familiar framework of science fiction as projection of past or present urges or anxieties. Imagined futures are perhaps not, after all, mere ghosts of what has come before, which is one reason Nabokov found the genre so maddening to read and write, involving as it does (or ought) the purest of leaps into invention. As he put it in Ada(1969), a novel seeded with wry bits of counterfactual history, ‘The present is only the top of the past, and the future does not exist.’