BY Jonathan Griffin in Opinion | 05 MAY 09
Featured in
Issue 123

Future Conditional

In a culture swamped with dystopic images, perhaps it’s time to resurrect the lost art of looking forward

BY Jonathan Griffin in Opinion | 05 MAY 09

On my shelf at home sits The Usbourne Book of the Future: A Trip in Time to the Year 2000 and Beyond. Published in 1979, the illustrated children’s book forecast the changes that I, then an infant, could look forward to in years to come. By 1990, for example, laser warfare would be waged in space, while on earth slave robots would serve us in our homes; by the year 2000, electric cars would be in general use. While many of the book’s prophecies have failed to materialise, (saddest of all, dolphins working as aquatic sheepdogs in undersea fish farms), it is surprising to recognise much of our present in the book’s breathlessly excited pages. Electronic mail, the ‘video disc player’, the flat screen television, genetically modified crops and portable ‘radio telephones’ (although not, as is suggested, worn like a watch on our wrists) were all rightly predicted to be ubiquitous in the then-future, our current today.

Despite having been written 30 years ago, the book’s first sentence warns ominously of ‘the energy crisis and global pollution’. Its primary purpose was to temper the vision of the future forged two decades earlier, an era in which the developed world never doubted that space age technology would continue to obediently deliver whatever its imagination might conjure. By 1979, we were already thinking about solutions to impending problems rather than the realisation of dreams; in today’s futurology, focusing on what we won’t have, rather than what we will, is the rule of thumb.

Consequently, we are awash with images of dystopia and apocalypse, but starkly lacking in convincing alternatives. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s recent Turbine Hall commission at Tate Modern, TH.2058 (2008) was not only a fantasy of ecological catastrophe but, in its incorporation of existing film and literature, a primer in disaster science-fiction. The most significant recent addition to that fecund genre, Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road (2006), is a blisteringly vivid evocation of the end of civilisation as we know it. Cinema, also powerful in conjuring new worlds, has recently called on the most advanced digital technology to depict rust and decay in WALL.E (2008) and to rid New York entirely of people in I Am Legend (2007). In the fields of architecture and design, futurism is conversely often shaped by its antitheses – either by a ‘retro-futurism’ (think of Norman Foster’s 1950s’ rocket-shaped 30 St Mary Axe building in London, better known as ‘the Gherkin’) or by the anachronistic use of classic forms, such as Jonathan Ive’s designs for Apple (a company that seems to epitomise forward thinking) which take inspiration from Dieter Rams’ Braun products from the 1960s. It seems that our conception of the future has reached an impasse. The only contemporary equivalent of The Usbourne Book of the Future is an illustrated guide published by Dorling Kindersley, which, I just discovered, is now out of print, presumably because the future is no longer fashionable reading material
for children.

A shared image of what is to come is not only healthy but is also a form of prophecy; the fulfilment of the only future we can imagine, whether utopian or apocalyptic, is, on some deep level, satisfying – as revealed by the perverse relish with which we currently absorb media reports of financial breakdown. If a new future is to be developed, is it reasonable to ask art to contribute to its construction? In recent years artists, from David Maljkovic to Goshka Macuga or Carol Bove, have tended to focus on time’s eddies and undertows, quoting and referencing historical dead-ends and discarded, unrealized futures. In a sense, such artists share with the doom-mongers a preoccupation with loss and absence, even if their engagement often aims to be resuscitative rather than elegiac. Perhaps, instead, deficit, whether ecological, economical or aspirational, might be used to drive social and aesthetic progress. The very concept of ‘progress’ now seems old-fashioned, the preserve of movements such as Futurism or Constructivism that aimed explicitly to forge new languages and paradigms. Maybe, however, the word can be reclaimed. Maybe it’s already happening. Nicolas Bourriaud, for instance, announced the succession of Postmodernism by the ‘Altermodern’, although his exhibition of the same name at Tate Britain revealed that a concern for recent history is an abiding aspect of his new modernism.

At the opening of his poem 'Burnt Norton' (1935), T.S. Eliot reflects on the nature of temporal cross-fertilisation: ‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.’ His response is fatalistic resignation – ‘If all time is eternally present’, he reasons, ‘All time is unredeemable’ – implying that, in this world, we are all bound to trudge through prescribed futures, burdened by inescapable pasts. There is another possibility, however: that we create the future as we imagine it; that, as Walter Benjamin wrote (also in 1935), ‘Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow, but in dreaming, precipitates its awakening.’

Our future doesn’t have to be a fantastical world in which all wishes are granted and problems magically solved, but neither does it have to be fatalistic dystopia. It probably won’t even look like the future; at this juncture, the zappy biomorphic designs of Ron Arad or Zaha Hadid look less advanced than the inventive pragmatism of artists and activists such as Marjetica Potrc, N55 or Fritz Haeg. Crucially, these artists agree that thinking about what might come next, rather than reflecting on what can’t or hasn’t, is the more productive and urgent enterprise.

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.