Artists envision 'Dissident Futures'

Jan 31, 2014, 4:24 AM EST
Connie Samara's "Terminal Hanger Facility, Facing Mission Control from the Spaceport America series," 2010.
(Courtesy the artist via Facebook)

When it comes to envisioning and creating the future, the techno-centric innovation of Silicon Valley is widely considered ground zero for futurist thought. As our culture turns to techies and serial start-upers for a glimpse at what the future may look like, curator Betti-Sue Hertz proposes a different set of goggles through which to glimpse the years ahead. “Dissident Futures,” a 19-artist show up through February 2 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, challenges the at times hegemonic and oppressive presence of Silicon Valley in both the Bay Area and contemporary futurist discourse. In place of technocratic visions of years to come, the exhibition presents artistic propositions for alternative futures and what the world might look like decades from now.

For the organizational structure of the nearly 90 works in the show, Hertz used three conceptual categories for ideas about the future: the speculative, the utopian, and the pragmatic. In an introductory essay in the forthcoming exhibition catalogue, Hertz defines the speculative as “highly imaginary” ideas that push “beyond the known, and beyond reason”; says that the utopian, “at its best, shapes ideas toward the best possible future for the greatest number of people”; and notes that the pragmatic “works within a scope of probability” and is “what the future will look like in the real world.” Despite the exhibition’s theoretical backdrop, it is in part successful (and enjoyable) because visitors could easily think through the artworks against Hertz’s proposed categories as easily as they could not give them consideration at all.

Conceived in the era of both widespread and invasive NSA surveillance and the dystopian mega-hit “The Hunger Games,” this show pushes viewers to think beyond widely distributed images of what our future world might resemble. Whether fictional (Afro-Futurist David Huffman’s “traumanauts”) or entirely real (Trevor Paglen’s images of surveillance satellites), the best future-thinking work in the show encourages us to consider the present as the cornerstone of building the decades ahead. This show is crucial and original because it foregrounds artistic discourse about the future and brings together myriad artists’ practices that challenge us to upend how we might conceive of it entirely.

In the video piece “Kempinski” (2007) by Paris-based “ethnological sci-fi” documentarian Neïl Beloufa, the artist asked people living outside of Mali’s capital, Bamako, to describe how they envision the future, but to speak of it in the present tense as if it were already reality. Filmed in a rural, tropical setting and lit with a sort of glaring night vision, the unexpected answers of the interviewees take on a surreal quality — responses included talking cars and the ability to converse with animals. The animistic nature of the interviewees’ ideas challenge the Western assumption that the future will be ever more technological.

In another project that traverses the space between fiction and documentary, Connie Samaras photographed the first commercial space shuttle airport in New Mexico, abandoned structures in the Antarctic tundra, and artificial lakes in Dubai. Samaras captures the unfinished spaceport while it is still under construction, creating images that could either be a building being erected or one in decay. Her work invites the viewer to imagine herself in the contemporary moment looking ahead to space travel, but also as a person in the future, looking back at a structure that was once at the forefront of transportation technology.

Several other works in the show also take on the cosmos as their subject. Berlin-based artistKatie Patterson presents four works that visualize unorthodox modes of human interaction with outer space. For her project “Second Moon” (September 2013-September 2014), Patterson has arranged for a fragment of moon rock to “orbit” the earth via airfreight courier for one year. Visitors can track the rock via an app that is on an iPad in the gallery — it will be briefly displayed in a small glass vitrine when its travels bring it to the museum. Another Patterson piece, “History of Darkness” (2010), displays 2,200 hand-labeled slides of images of the darkness of deep space. While telescopes are usually aimed at stars and other notable cosmic occurrences, Patterson’s catalogue of darkness reminds us that the great unknown might not be all that knowable. By reconfiguring our expectations about what images of space look like, she points out the futility of attempting to catalogue the universe.

The garb of outer space is an apt symbol for Oakland-based Afro-Futurist artist David Huffman, who populates his expressionistic, narrative paintings with spacesuit-wearing characters he calls traumanauts. The adventures of these figures take them to a “Black Hole,” the “Promiseland,” and a “Sideshow,” and along the way they interrogate the ways in which African-Americans have, and more likely have not, been included in America’s cultural history.

Another space-oriented work is New York-based artist Peter Coffin’s “Untitled (Flying Fruits)” (2012), a wall-sized projection that immerses the viewer in a cosmic space where pineapples, melons, bananas, and more float toward him. Recalling both the premise of the once popular iPhone game Fruit Ninja and commonplace digital reproductions of outer space, Coffin’s work adds an air of levity and quirkiness to the way we might usually imagine the farthest reaches of the universe.

Playfulness is also a defining component of London-based duo Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s video piece “75 Watt” (2013). Staged in an actual factory in China, the film reimagines what a human body working on an assembly line looks like by choreographing a range of fluid, dance-like movements that make workers automatons no more. Examples of the useless, stereo-like products that are created in the video are also displayed in the gallery. While the proposition of bringing dance-like choreography into a factory seems absurd, Cohen and Van Balen push the viewer to imagine a future where it might be so.

New York-based artist and geography PhD Trevor Paglen, who in 2012 launched an archival disk micro-etched with 100 images into outer space, has a distinctly darker view of the world to come than many of the other artists. Paglen’s essay “Turnkey Tyranny: Surveillance and the Terror State” (originally written for Creative Time Reports) is included in the exhibition catalogue. “Within the context of current economic, political and environmental trends, the existence of a surveillance state doesn’t just create a theoretical possibility of tyranny with the turn of a key — it virtually guarantees it,” he writes. Paglen’s signature photos of reconnaissance and intelligence satellites then function as small subversions of this surveillance state. By making the invisible observable, Paglen defies tyranny through his own images of counter-surveillance.

If Paglen imagines the chilling future of a totalitarian state, other artists have a more optimistic view. Future Cities Lab, Jason Kelly
Johnson and Nataly Gattegno’s experimental design and architecture firm in San Francisco, contributed revisionary concepts for the San Francisco waterfront and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge that imagine the two sites as “a system of aquatic parks, community gardens, and aquaponic farms” and “a habitable space,” respectively. Their vision points to urban redevelopment schemes that deprivilege commercial interest in favor of creative solutions that benefit the public. While this project is decidedly utopian, the architectural models and mock-ups that Future Cities Lab utilizes to display their proposal makes it look more like a work in progress rather than a lofty, never-to-be-achieved idea.

Of the 19 artists in the show, half of them have a connection to California, something that Hertz believes is no coincidence. In her opinion, there is something about the pioneer mentality of the state that fosters a “delinking with the past.” This futurist mindset defines places like Silicon Valley, but visualizing the future is not only the task of a few techie tastemakers. Artistic future-thinking is an important component of creating the world ahead. The most resonant pieces in the show, such as Paglen’s photographs and Beloufa’s video, upend a Western technologically-focused worldview and challenge us to address the shortcomings of the present at the same time that we look to the years ahead.

-- Ashton Cooper