Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK
For The Future from Memory (2001) Emma Kay projected paragraphs of blue text onto a screen. The words moved, as in the opening credits of Star Wars (1977), towards a vanishing point, speeding up and then resolving themselves into neat rectangles before they disappeared. Their colour echoed the faded navy of copies made on an old copy machine, while the words were half-remembered fragments of futurology. Occasionally, their tone was challenged by poetic phrases that zoomed like shuttles across the bow of a mother ship, above the receding loop of type.
As the only source of light in the chilly oblong of the gallery, the projection hummed with quiet authority, like the read-out of some vast computerized oracle, hidden from view. Untroubled by our presence, this digital Cassandra calmly gave her predictions, her even syntax and clean typeface lending each prophesy equal weight.
Emma Kay is interested in individual memory and how it processes maps, literature, religion and the past: the stuff of shared understanding. Her book Worldview (2000) is precisely that, an idiosyncratic global history drawn exclusively from half-remembered exams, costume dramas and articles from colour supplements. It’s Kay’s crooked facts and massive omissions that are fascinating. Is her worldview unbalanced by Britain’s residual empire-fetish or a school life preoccupied with dreamily doodling on her pencil case? It’s hard to tell, but banging out the dents and filling the gaps requires more books, and more essays in subjectivity. Kay squeezed posterity through a similar methodological device while making The Future from Memory (2001). Head down, sci-fi novels and back issues of Wired cleared from her shelves, she tried to remember everything she had absorbed about the future. By articulating these predictions in assured, stripped-down language, swapping the warmth of the page for the cool serenity of the screen, she exchanged the intimacy of Worldview for a HAL-like sheen of logic. Kay’s snatches of futurology flit back and forth across the temporal spectrum. Like Walter Benjamin’s vast, unfinished Passagen Werk (begun 1927), The Future from Memory is an non-chronological anthology of cultural flotsam and jetsam. We learn about the reforestation programmes of 2170, full employment by 2300, and the reintroduction via cloning of the dodo and woolly mammoth. Humanity goes manimal with the advent of the Doolittle one-way transfer, allowing people to get under the skins of tigers, monkeys and koala bears. Referencing both Benjamin’s elegiac description of the Parisian arcades and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1991), the screen tells of the slow decline of the dinosaur sanctuaries, briefly popular before the advent of holo-entertainment. Suddenly, we’re nostalgic for an imagined future, and get to thinking about the obsolescence of Victorian spectroscopes, Betamax and the Sony Play Station.
Half the fun of The Future from Memory is identifying the likely sources of Kay’s recollections. The louche sexuality and money-free economy of space faring man owes something to Iain M. Banks ‘Culture’ novels, while the numbing impact of tissue regeneration on death-defying feats of bravery is lifted from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979). After a while, though, you begin to wonder what Kay’s been reading. The words scroll on and - gasping a little - we’re told that ‘the 20th-century struggle to find a secular meaning for human life has not succeeded’. Even worse, the screen blithely opines that ‘eternal life is not feasible for the conscience’, the sentence gliding across the white expanse until it blinks out at the terminal point. It’s not so much the juxtaposition of metaphysical doubt with the promise of utopian technology that alarms, but rather the deadening realization that for someone, somewhere, these issues have already been decided. The tiny sound-bites that fly at double-speed above the main text participate in this erosion of a perfect future. ‘Roses cease to bloom’, ‘disturbance of the gene pool’, ‘there is no defence against a dying planet’: each is an error message beamed back through time.
There is an ambiguity in Kay’s authorial voice. She’s both a lightning rod for contemporary concerns and an alien scholar at the end of the universe, halfway through completing the nth edition of Worldview. Written in the past tense, The Future from Memory records the death of the sun in 38900 and the extinction of humanity. This ought to settle things, but the fallible workings of personal memory (however blanded-out and mechanized they may be) hold out the possibility of alternatives and counter-factuals. Rather than describing the end of the world as we know it, Kay’s partial recall provides room for doubt. The cold room with the white screen is an oddly comforting place to be.