Possible Futures: Science Fiction in Contemporary Art


An email arrived from the online journal e-flux promoting The 9th Futurological Congress, a one-day event in Warsaw, Poland in September 2016. “For the past month […] we have witnessed the present making a clown out of itself […] The present is being dismal, so instead of keeping a temporality where the present and the past influence the future, we want to switch things around and have the future influence the present. Maybe that way things shape up a bit. With this intention in mind, will gather in Warsaw […] to write the first chapter of a possible common future…”

The event was but the latest example of a multitude of exhibitions that have been staged over the last decade that connect contemporary art with science fiction. Just this year New Romance: art and the Posthuman at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney was a major exhibition of work by Australian and South Korean artists that surveyed “…what it means to be human today, and what it might mean in the future” drawing its inspiration “…from science fiction, robotics, biotechnology, consumer products and social media.” Earlier in the year The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed, the 20th Biennale of Sydney opened and was a sprawling exhibition that took its title from an oft-quoted aphorism by American-Canadian science fiction writer William Gibson, and which threaded together a variety of themes loosely connected to the future – new technologies, climate change and a variety of crises related to the nation state including borders, racism, national identity and refugees.

In Australia too there have been major group exhibitions of SF-related art, including the pioneering Awfully Wonderful at Performance Space in Sydney in mid-2011, an exhibition that brought together many of the key Australian artists working in a speculative and imaginative mode. In late 2011 ACMI’s Star Voyager combined science fiction cinema with contemporary video art, and 2112: Imagining The Future at RMIT, Melbourne in 2012 invited an “…array of local and international artists [to] ruminate on what the future may look like through a range of works that show telling points of overlap nested within an overarching presentiment of dystopia.”

My own contribution as curator to this trend, Conquest of Space: Science Fiction & Contemporary Art, at UNSW Galleries staged in mid 2014, traced the connections between art engaged with science fictional manifestations of the uncanny, the sublime and the infinite, and historical examples of modernist and contemporary works from the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW. Smaller scale shows such as Future War at Firstdraft in 2013, Danger Will Robinson! At Airspace Projects in 2014 and The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of at Verge Gallery in 2015 are just three examples of SF-related exhibitions popping up in galleries around the country.

Internationally, the pattern has been much the same. Just a few of the exhibitions that have crossed my radar include: Psycho Buildings at the Hayward Gallery in London in 2008, an exhibition that anticipated these sorts of crossovers between SF and contemporary [and whose curator Stephanie Rosenthal also curated BOS20]; a tribute exhibition to the late science fiction author JG Ballard held at the Gagosian Gallery in London in 2010; Who More Sci-Fi Than Us, contemporary art from the Caribbean, at the Kuntsthal Kade in the Netherlands in 2012; a major arts project The Ballard Art Festival in Lincoln was a series of six themed exhibitions related to Ballard’s novels, a festival that happened to coincide with both Space Is The Place in Copenhagen and Approximately Infinite Universe, in San Diego, each taking place in 2013. Exhibitions such as Into The Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction that will open at the Barbican Centre in London in 2017 and another currently untitled exhibition to be held at the Victoria and Albert Museum before travelling to Denmark in 2018, suggest that these kinds of exhibitions will continue well into the actual future.

Of course the way that these exhibitions – and indeed the hundreds of individual art works within them – have engaged with science fiction has not been the same. This is because the genre is not one thing: ‘science fiction’ is itself the subject of a slippery game of definitions: among the many cultural manifestations of the genre, there is a long history of literary fantasises and speculations that appeared in print well before the birth of the genre in the early 19th century. By the turn of the 20th century science fiction had become one of the popular genres of mass publishing and, from the 1920s through to the 1970s, a split grew between two factions, on the one hand pulp sci-fi and its populist manifestations in magazines, comics and movies, and on the other, a more highbrow literary fiction in novels, and occasionally in the ‘cinema’. The release of Star Wars in 1977 ushered in an era of genre movie making that, in the 40 years since, has all but taken over pop screen media, from movies to TV to games and seemingly everywhere else as well.

Threaded through this genre history was the real world development and deployment of space technologies, the decades long ‘Space Race’ between the United States and Soviet Russia that kicked off in the immediate post war period in the 1940s and which lasted until the end of the Cold War in 1991. In the West, many saw connections between science fiction films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] and the first season of TV’s Star Trek [1966-69], and pro-Western space race propaganda, even if their makers hadn’t indented it that way. [Certainly, the Soviets did, answering with their own communist and utopian screen parables]. In another significant sense, the inspiration that science fiction has had on scientists and policy makers has been well established and the romantic linkage of the genre with the actual space programs of various nation states still exists today.

This is of course a radically simplified thumbnail sketch of the genre’s history but it serves to illustrate how artists engaging with ‘science fiction’ could in fact be drawing their inspiration from any part of the genre’s long history and indeed, any of its manifestations in popular culture, and not simply a celebration of its imagery and themes, but also a critical reflection of those things. However, the various approaches that artists take usually accord to one of a number of broad categories.

The first is an engagement with the iconography of the genre, those familiar signifiers of the future, technology and tomorrow – spaceships, robots, aliens, et al. There are dozens of artists who work in this mode, combining a sincere love of the genre with a distanced and somewhat ironic position. Philjames combines genre iconography with a self-aware street art sensibility, adding spaceships and spacemen, robot wiring and alien weaponry to reproposed thrift store paintings, as well as creating sculptures such as Ape Planet [2015] which, like his paintings, knowingly quotes a pop culture reference point [the Planet of the Apes movies] while mocking classical forms. Another artist working with sci-fi fandom is Nick Stathopoulos, whose ongoing Toy Porn series of paintings takes the stuff of nostalgic fandom and creates the kind of narratives kids create when playing with toys, or the play that adults memorialise in their ‘collectables’.

A second approach is one that’s representative of an engagement with the narratives, themes and concepts of science fiction rather than a reproduction of its iconography. This group of artists would include the collaborative duos Soda_Jerk, who explicitly position their video and other multimedia works as a kind of science fiction [and who are the subject of an essay in this issue by Adrian Marti], and Nova Milne, whose long fascination with the conceptual tropes of time travel led them to make a trans-temporal video portrait of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, and his surviving partner Tessa Dick, conjoining the present of the making of the video with the past found in archive footage of the author delivering a notorious speech at science fiction convention in 1974.

Many of Hayden Fowler’s installations, performances and videos take their inspiration from dystopic 1970s science fiction movies such as Silent Running [1972] and Robert C. O’Brien’s novel Z is for Zacharia [1974], stories where the future of life on Earth is at the brink of extinction – or evolution. Fowler’s Dark Ecology [2015] included in New Romance at the MCA, was a signature work of this kind, a self-contained ecosystem encountered within a Fuller-dome, the life as it was inside [eggs in nests] monitored remotely via a multi-cam system fed into another part of the gallery.

Kieron Broadhurst’s recent exhibitions, The Island at Moana Project Space in Perth, and the collaborative An Event at Success in Fremantle [both 2016], explored science fictional narratives produced from highly referential cues. The Island, for example, presented the viewer with a makeshift sculpture of an island made from sand, coloured rocks and lights, and a video of a generic, low-resolution, computer-generated island with fragmented scrolling text that seemed to suggest, with perhaps some reference to the TV series Lost [2004-10] or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris [1972], that the island was self-aware. An Event – made in collaboration with artists Oliver Hull and Giles Bunch – recreated a [fictional] meteorite strike in the manner of an exhibition in a natural history museum. Both projects engaged with the ways in which the viewer is already primed to recognise SF narratives with only the slightest suggestion required to conjure up the fantastic in little more than coloured rocks or sculpted Styrofoam.

A third approach are those artists who recreate elements or aspects of the space race. Peter Hennessey and Adam Norton are key artists in this area in Australia. Hennessey, has, since the early 2000s, been creating what he calls ‘re-enactments’ of key pieces of space technology such as the Voyager I space probe, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Lunar Rover used in the Apollo Missions, in exact 1:1 scale models crafted in marine ply. Hennessey’s approach is to valorise these iconic pieces of technology while applying humorous personal perspectives to them. Norton by contrast, has a practice that is guided equally by nostalgia for the physical stuff of the space race, as it is by the visualizations of future space technologies and space exploration.

Norton’s Mars Gravity Simulator, a performance staged for Awfully Wonderful in 2011, recreated Apollo-era space training technology that readied astronauts for walks on the Moon, to simulate the gravity on Mars. His more recent exhibition My Trip to Mars at UTS Gallery, Sydney in 2015, included a yurt-like habitat, images and video from Norton’s performance of a Mars walk, and a variety of objects described as    “…seemingly souvenired from [a trip to Mars], their modesty defying the major technological and economic barriers befalling real manned Mars missions”. This conflation of the actual with the speculative is a hallmark of Norton’s practice.

The fourth and final approach is found in the work of artists that reflects an interest in what could be considered two of the genre’s foundational themes, the sublime and the uncanny. Tony Lloyd is representative of a group of painters who reboot the language of the sublime for a contemporary context. His paintings of solitary mountains – such as Black Mountain [2016] – evoke the classical sublime subject, but the lighting and the position of the mountain in the composition suggests something virtual. Eclipse [2016] – a telegraph pole seen eclipsing the sun and a surrounding ring halo of atmospheric ice – and Lloyd’s series of paintings of roads and highways at night seen as if driving on the wrong side of the road with high beam on – represent transcendent, science fictional moments when the quotidian becomes universal. A number of other artists share elements of Lloyd’s fascinations – painters such as Joanna Lamb, Giles Alexander, Kate Shaw, Victoria Reichelt and Sam Leach among them. If one was prone to give groups of artists and their works a name we could call them Speculative Realists, but sadly that name is already taken.

Artists whose work is engaged with the uncanny, the grotesque and the abject, but updated into a contemporary, almost futuristic vision, represent another stream of activity. While science fiction’s evocation of aliens and monsters has always edged between the rational and irrational, the deployment of these themes in contemporary art has tended to centre on the monstrous alter ego, such as the clown or various other grotesqueries. John A. Douglas’s early video and photographic works centred on the recreation of conspicuous moments of masculinity in classic films as varied as Walkabout [1971] and Dr. Strangelove [1964]. His more recent works, including The Visceral Garden – Landscape and Specimen and Incursion [both 2014] have explored Douglas’s experience of chronic illness and his identity as an “…artist & patient that intersects with biomedical science, clinical treatment and his own human and emotional experience as a renal patient.” In practice, this exploration has resulted in strange and exotic imagery where tissue samples become the stuff of landscapes and Douglas – in gold and silver body suits – explores these weird, metaphorical realms.

One of the curiosities of the art world’s infatuation with science fiction is that it does so on terms familiar to the art world. It’s rare for contemporary art to actually acknowledge a deep understanding of the genre’s history, its conceptual approaches or perceptual effects, or indeed, the vast field of critical theory that has engaged with SF for more than 50 years. It’s very common for contemporary artists to treat science fiction like a pop culture found object, thinking of it as a naïve form akin to folk art that can be retrofitted to address – albeit in a relatively novel way – any one of contemporary art’s rote themes such as identity, memory, race.

The 2016 Biennale of Sydney was a prime example of a curatorial approach that flirts with science fiction but rarely engages with its substance. While ‘the future’ was its ostensible theme, it was not evenly distributed across all the venues. Major pieces such as Lee Bul’s gargantuan, deflated steam-punk circus Willing to Be Vulnerable [2015] was a somewhat atypical work for the South Korean artist better known for her sculptures and installations that reproduced and elaborated on the forms of anime and manga robots and cyborgs. Other major international artists whose work variously connects with the preceding quartet of approaches, a list that includes Glenn Brown, John Powers, Superflex, The Otolith Group and Yonobi Kenji among them, were notably absent in a sprawling and unfocused series of exhibitions that tended to feature artists with a glancing interest in the stated themes but with very little connection to the way these ideas have already been so firmly cemented in the popular imagination via the science fiction genre.

The inclusion of the immersive VR work A Walk In Fukushima [2016] by the artist group Don’t Follow The Wind [2016], Ming Wong’s Windows on the World (Part 2), [2014] – which traced the connection between Chinese science fiction and the country’s ambitious space program – and Gerald Machona’s Afronaut works – spacesuits and other space age detritus that link the re-performing of iconic space race iconography with a re-contextualisation of Western imperialism – were suggestions of a show that could have been: a definitive account of how the future manifests itself in the cultural imaginary of the present.

Much more thoughtful combinations of science fiction and contemporary art can be found in more modest exhibitions. Sydney artist/writer/curator Tracey Clement’s Mapping The Drowned World at Sydney College of the Arts in October 2015 was a thoughtfully curated show charted meaningful connections between the work of artists including Clement, Roy Ananda, Jon Cattapan, Kate Mitchell and Gosia Wlodarczak, and the speculative worlds of the fiction of J.G. Ballard. Rather than shoehorning disparate works into a theme, Clement had carefully connected the already-existing interests of the artist’s work with the themes of Ballard’s writing.

Science fiction and contemporary art are meaningfully related, and it goes deeper than the connected interest of both. While science fiction is understood as a genre, contemporary art resists such categorisation despite all the evidence to the contrary: contemporary art has a set of familiar subjects and forms and is, generally speaking, a conflation of technologies, many of them advanced, but many more actually much older. Just as genre scholar and theorist Vivien Sobchack said of science fiction – that it is ‘a way of being in the world’ – so too contemporary art dramatises the condition of the world.

As contemporary art as a world wide cultural practice shifts its concerns from one theme or subject to another, the coincidence between these two genres of cultural production is remarkable: I’m convinced that contemporary art is a genre but I’m willing to entertain the thought that it isn’t – all this art and all these exhibitions about science fiction might simply be a manifestation of a culture focused on the future, not only as a speculative practice, but as a generic frame for talking about the what ifs of the human condition.

But as an old song so wisely put it, the future is overrated. The sixteen years since 2000 has been as dramatic as the first 16 years of the 20th century: war, disaster, famine, and disease, and while the 21st century death toll isn’t anything like the era of Spanish Flu and the First World War, the threats are just as pressing and the opportunities just as tantalising. The conflation of science fiction and contemporary art has, I would suggest, been a salvation for contemporary art: no longer doomed to spend its time regarding its reflection in a hall of mirrors, it has given it a purpose that it has lacked since the dawn of postmodernity: to take on the future as a subject and not only dramatise the conflicts but also imagine the alternatives. The paradox of being concerned with “the future” is that it often denies the fact that the future never arrives – it’s how we think of the possibilities of the future in the present moment that makes all the difference.

Artlink, December, 2016.

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