Variable Future

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & Sascha Pohflepp, Félix Luque and Àlex Nogué

Curator: Rosa Pera

 

Opening: 30 June

1  july to 18 september, 2011

Bòlit-LaRambla, Dadespai and Bòlit-SantNicolau

 
 

Where is the future before it is ensnared by the present?

 

Throughout history people have striven to imagine what the future would be like and have created a wealth of visions in the fields of architecture, film and literature that reveal different ways of seeing and living: from Piranesi and Bouleé's 18th-century utopian ideals and Méliès' Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) to stories like Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Arthur C Clarke's The Sentinel (1948) and their film adaptations,[1] Archigram's Plug-in City (1964) and Buckminster Fuller's Tetrahedral City (1965), we can clearly see the icons of the future dreamt of at the time. It certainly wouldn't be easy to piece them all together, and working out where there's friction or overlap would surely be just as fascinating as letting yourself be carried away by each and every one of the stories that make up the world of science fiction. To do so means undertaking a journey to some of the inveterate obsessions of the human condition, such as fear of the unknown and, therefore, its very paradigm: the future.

 

Journeys to the future, forays into the past, interstellar strolls or flights of fancy - one of the features that fantastical visions of the future all have in common is the experience of time. Perhaps analysing how this experience has evolved and noting the changes in its cadence might give us the key to facing a near future, a future that has been sketched out time and time again to the point that these outlines start to look disturbingly more and more like reality. In fact the slightest confirmation can be more shocking than all the tales of the future of the past put together.

 

Recent years have seen several premonitions of the future based mainly on the evolution of technology and catastrophes, such as the Wachowski brothers' Matrix series (1999-2003) and other films such as Winterbottom's Code 46 (2003) and Alfonso Cuarón's dystopian Children of Men (2006), which explore age-old existential concerns about survival. Here more than ever, these visions stress their connection to philosophy, and make repeated allusions to myths (Oedipus in Code 46 and Prometheus in Blade Runner) or to philosophical works linked to these tales, as argued by William Irwin,[2] to use the same examples. This trend reaches its peak in Lost, the internationally successful television series designed and subsequently extensively analysed under the spotlight of philosophy and myths.[3]

 

In the present, we sometimes hear reflections that echo futurities of the recent past. On the one hand, nostalgic tales that recall fantasy utopias that, who knows, might still be within reach. On the other hand, in the realm of dystopia, proof of the failed futurist models of the past, those that foresaw societies founded and organised by an alternative power, either from politics or mysticism, but seldom from a free, emancipated society.

 

But time seems to be running out. This calm fascination is being replaced by pressing needs. If in the past the construction of futurist hypotheses was linked to the nonchalant temptation of the yearned-for future, today it is a question of survival. Thinking about the future means rethinking the present. And if we do so from a scientific perspective, we might well reach conclusions previously only foreshadowed by the fantasy of science fiction. According to astrophysicist Martin Rees, there is a 50:50 chance that this could be humanity's last century. If the universe is pictured as a snake eating its own tail, in an infinite cycle between the biggest and the smallest, in which human beings are a complex turning point, Rees gives two possible outcomes: on the one hand, the destruction of the planet by fatal use of technology, either through misuse of the means (energy or natural raw materials) or a massive terrorist attack; on the other hand, the colonisation of other planets. Following his argument, humans have always started from the belief that we belong to a sole universe, when it could well be - as Rees firmly believes is the case - that our universe is merely an island in an archipelago of infinite universes.[4]

 
 

These conclusions cannot help but bring to mind Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which a hapless man is evicted from his house one Thursday and forced to travel through space with an old friend, who turns out to be an alien who was just passing by the Earth following the recommendations of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". Science's vision of reality comes pretty close to science fiction's: according to Rees, Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy could be read as a key manual to be taken somewhat less lightly. This guide was described in 1979 by its author as "a device that looks rather like a largish electronic calculator. It has about a hundred tiny flat press buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million ‘pages' could be summoned at a moment's notice. [...] If it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in".[1] A smartphone avant la lettre.

 

In addition to Rees, many anxious scientists and intellectuals are calling for attention to be focused on a future that is looking less and less uncertain and far off than it used to. They argue that we urgently need to slow down and work intelligently towards more sustainable attitudes if we want to keep alive the idea of the future as something distant and unreachable. Otherwise, they warn, the present could be devoured by the future in a definitive attack. It is time for survival, time to design a world that can accommodate the future. And it is in the fields of thought, design and creation where we need to work hardest to right our course towards the coordinates where this is possible.

 

Now, when the liquid 21st century has thinned out many past limits, science fiction is no longer a separate fantasy world, philosophy no longer a hermetic field for speculation, and design no longer a practice centred solely on materials, the artists presenting their work in "Variable Future" aren't concerned with imagining possible or impossible futures. Their pieces simply hint, and subtly focus attention on prolonged reflection on the future condition, with oblique references to science fiction, philosophy or synthetic biology and artificial intelligence. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sascha Pohflepp (Cologne, 1978), Félix Luque (Oviedo, Spain, 1976) and Àlex Nogué (Hostalets d'en Bas, Spain, 1953) are creators with different backgrounds from different generations who work with sometimes diametrically opposed languages: minimal technology (lead pencils and water), sophisticated computer programs that lead to complex interactive systems, nineteenth-century illustration and cutting-edge industrial design. All in all, thought-provoking pieces on uncertainty and immutability.

 

How can we deal with the threat of a real-life ouroboros? The most sensible options suggest finding a new way to organise the present. According to some, the first step is to raise awareness of time by slowing it down. This is the position held by the Long Now Foundation, set up by the likes of, amongst others, Kevin Kelly, founder and executive editor of Wired magazine, musician Brian Eno and activist Stewart Brand, the man behind initiatives such as the counterculture Whole Earth Catalog, The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) and Global Business Network. The Long Now Foundation was founded in 1996 with the aim of promoting long-term thinking. It coordinates different forums for debate and projects on issues that will affect humans over the course of the next 10,000 years. These projects include the Rosetta Project, a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to build a publicly accessible digital library of human languages, and the 10,000-year Clock, conceived by computer scientist Danny Hillis, which involves building a mechanical clock that will keep time for 10,000 years, an icon to the long-term thinking championed by the foundation. Several prototypes have been built and the finished clock will be stored in Great Basin National Park, in Nevada in the United States.

 
 

In a similar iconic arena, Asturian artist Félix Luque defines Chapter I: The Discovery (2010) as "a science-fiction story". This interactive installation offers users the chance to immerse themselves in a whole range of aspects related to the future. A somewhat baffling object at first glance, it connects the present with the murmur of a mythical, immemorial past. Guided by uncertainty, users are invited to explore the very nature of digital art by making existential connections to the perception of the unknown yet perhaps also strangely familiar. Images of a geometric object in different natural and synthetic settings stir strange feelings tinged with familiarity. Like a feeling of déjà vu, users' relationship with this movement-driven dodecahedron hints at an already-learnt future, recorded in the depths of symbolic perception. The twofold image is amplified by a repetitive soundscape and the space is ultimately created by the steps of users who, with echoes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, find themselves irresistibly drawn by the unknown.

 

One of the founders of the cyberpunk movement, writer Bruce Sterling is one of the keenest minds currently awakening consciences. In 1999 he set up the pioneering Viridian Design Movement, a pioneer in issues of design. With a 2012 cut-off date (since he believes that "any design movement - social movements of any kind, really - should be designed with an explicit expiration date"[1]), this movement takes a critical approach to design to work towards a more sustainable world. "What is ‘sustainability'?"[2], asks Sterling on a wiki that is now one of the key references for sustainable design. "Sustainable practices navigate successfully through time and space, while others crack up and vanish. So basically, the sustainable is about time - time and space. You need to rethink your relationship to material possessions in terms of things that occupy your time. The things that are physically closest to you. Time and space."[3]

 

Leaving behind 20th-century dynamics, Sterling believes we should replace meaningless objects in everyday life with multifunctional tools that make life easier or more fun. His movement invites people to get involved and collectively create "Viridian ‘imaginary products', the realm of imaginary products. Conceptual designs; imaginary designs; critical designs; fantastic and impossible designs".

 
 

Also linked to this fantastical dimension, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sascha Pohflepp's Growth Assembly (2009) looks at creating impossible new-generation objects for a future that demands new ways of relating to the environment and production systems. The series of seven drawings and demo video hint at a future where industrial production is transferred to nature. Given that plants are the original solar technology, they are turned into living industrial robots. Biotechnology is used to grow product parts within the supporting system of the plant's structure, thus radically transforming 20th-century industrial production and distribution chains. Science fiction? State-of-the-art technology? Neither one nor the other and yet also both, because in this case we also have to look for its origin in mythical places. The illustrations, created in collaboration with Sion Ap Tomos, are inspired by botanical drawings from the times of 19th-century scientific expeditions, and also owe something to the theories and illustrations of German biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel, an evolutionist who coined the term and concept of ecology and based a large part of his research on heterotopy, the displacement of one or more development processes.

 

In line with some of the most innovative ideas on how to rethink the present, such as those espoused by researchers like architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, Ginsberg and Pohflepp are championing sustainable environmental design. Although they use evocative symbolic representations, they call for urgent thought on survival strategies based on our relationship with nature using design, science and creation. And it is no surprise that we can find many points in common with ideas such as the "industrial re-evolution" set out in the superb essay Cradle to Cradle: "Natural systems take from their environment, but they also give something back. The cherry tree drops its blossoms and leaves while it cycles water and makes oxygen; the ant community redistributes the nutrients throughout the soil. We can follow their cue to create a more inspiring engagement - a partnership - with nature. We can build factories whose products and by-products nourish the ecosystem with biodegradable material and recirculate technical materials instead of dumping, burning, or burying them. We can design systems that regulate themselves. Instead of using nature as a mere tool for human purposes, we can strive to become tools of nature who serve its agenda too. We can celebrate the fecundity in the world, instead of perpetuating a way of thinking and making that eliminates it."[1]

 

The self-regulating modified plants, in symbiosis with industrial machinery in Growth Assembly, are another voice in favour of sustainably. However, in Ginsberg and Pohflepp's evocative piece, the first reaction (as in Félix Luque's work) is a strange feeling. It is likewise a both attractive and repellent piece that seems approachable since it is expressed in known languages - nineteenth-century illustration and scientific reports - but reveals strange, unfamiliar methodologies. Closer to myth than scientific rigour, Ginsberg and Pohflepp craft a strange atmosphere that stirs a certain unease towards nature and its systems.

 
 

Treating drawing as a methodology, graphite and water are the only materials used by artist Àlex Nogué in his specially created work Codi de subsistència (2010). Made up of a large drawing reflected in the surface of a liquid, this piece aims to pose a question in visual language by exploring codes to overcome contingency, to survive uncertainty, to survive life itself. In the body of a tree, the symbol of life - and therefore also of death - it gives a realist, immutable representation and a symmetrical, virtual, shaky, changing reading. In some way, what Nogué presents with stunning simplicity is a confrontation with the real-life ouroboros hinted at by Rees, the need for something "to unify the biggest with the smallest". Nogué, though, makes a philosophical, existential plea. In silence. Because, if we accept the head-on confrontation on offer, we are invited to witness and take part in the death of the icon of nature in real time on a real-life scale, in an unstoppable process. Art as a transcendental practice, as Nogué reflects in his writing:

 

"We're slowly realising that we've turned a way of being in the world into a profession. Harried by ridiculous challenges for which we have no outlet, we've turned questions into an answer, a desire to understand into a perversion, and art and life into an unsolvable equation. [...] Faced with the most spectacular scientific advances, faced with computerised communication, faced with medical research and practice that relieves so much suffering, faced with the opportunity to see for the first time the tiniest spaces of matter and hear the sounds of the first explosions and see the veils fall from certain mysteries, I draw a lime-tree branch. They did so too."[1]

 

We're left in suspense, with the closing sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey in mind, recalling Alan Kay's famous quip: "the best way to predict the future is to invent it."

 

Rosa Pera

 
 
 

 


[1] Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), respectively.

[2] William Irwin, The Matrix and Philosophy. Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Peru, Open Court Publishing Company, 2002; William Irwin, More Matrix and Philosophy: Revolutions and Reloaded Decoded, Peru, Open Court Publishing Company, 2005.

[3] Anthropologist Manuel Delgado has produced fascinating, in-depth work on the high-order mythological connections interiorised in the series.

[4] Martin Rees, Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century?, UK, Heinemann, 2003.

[5] Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, UK, Pan Books, 1979.

[6]Sterling's own statements on its wiki www.viridiandesign.com

[7]Bruce Sterling, op.cit.

[8]Bruce Sterling, op.cit.

[9] William McDonough & Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle. Remaking the Way We Make Things, New York, North Point Press, 2002, p. 154.

[10] Àlex Nogué, Algunes reflexions sobre ‘Codi de subsistència', 2010.