Return to Future

Hassan Mahamdallie

Article

From Critical Muslim 24 (Hurst, London, 2017).

A bank of seventeen small video screens mounted on pegs grow out of the
gallery wall like mushroom spores. Each screen projects a talking head:
man, woman, young, old, black, brown, white, all musing on the future.
Their future, their family’s future, their nation’s future, the future of the
planet, my future, your future, our future.

The kaleidoscopic installation is named Conversation Piece and is made
from 300 interviews conducted at the turn of the millennium across five
continents, by futurist Dr Maya Van Leemput and photographer Bram
Goots, who work together under their organisation Agence Future. Each
participant, turned into a talking head, was asked about their ideas, images
and feelings about personal, local and global futures. Some are very
academic and erudite, some are passionate, some reflective.

One older man references sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury and how he lifted
‘the veil’ on future possibilities. A black woman states ‘a man who doesn’t
think of the future is already dead’. Another interviewee warns, ‘If we’re not
thinking about the future we’re going to get a future we don’t want.’ An
elderly white-haired guy says we need to use foresight in the same way as we
use hindsight. A Navajo elder talks of how his ancestors communed with the
spirits; conjuring up visions of futures. A young Australian man interviewed
on the street hopes that twenty years hence ‘the best thing that happens to
me isn’t limited by my mindset now’, while a woman wearing glasses muses
that maybe humankind needs ‘a catastrophe to bring us closer to nature’.

But the one I relate to most is the woman sitting on a sofa somewhere,
who, in the moment, struggles to articulate any kind of future, and ends up
saying ‘I’m going to pass on that’. That would be me, I reckon.

I have to admit to being somewhat obsessed by the past. One of my
favourite quotes from Marx is: ‘Men make their own history, but they do
not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected
circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and
transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like
a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ I know Marx is also talking about
the future, but ‘learning from the past’, or hindsight, as a way of shaping the
future is something that has been drummed into me. It is only recently that
I realised that there was even such a thing as Future Studies, so my trip to
‘A Temporary Futures Institute’ occupying a floor of the Museum of
Contemporary Art (M HKA), Antwerp, Belgium, acted as a crash-course
in this stream of thought and academic enquiry. The ‘futures institute’ –
which one might also describe as a multi-media arts exhibition+ was a
curated imaginative play on the concept that future possibilities are infinite,
but that not all are possible, and most are probably not even desirable.

The work of a dozen or so contributors were grouped under four
categories first articulated by the father of Futures Studies, Jim Dator, who
in 1971 founded the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies at the
University of Hawaii at Manoa. Dator recently wrote:

Many people consider ‘the future’ to be a time and place lying somewhere
‘ahead’ of us towards which we are tending. Some people even seem to assume
that ‘the future’ somehow pre-exists, and that we are able, or should be able, to
‘predict’ what it will be like. Our long experience in the futures field has convinced
us that it is not possible to predict the future. Rather, it is possible, and
necessary, to ‘forecast’ and ‘experience’ logical, theory-based, images of ‘alternative
futures’, and to use our analysis of them to envision, invent, and move
towards the creation of ‘preferred futures’, continually re-examining our preferences
on the basis of experiences with new and old images of alternative futures.

Many years ago, we concluded that all of the millions, indeed billions, of
images of the futures that are in people’s minds and actions are specific versions
of four generic images of the futures. We eventually labelled them Grow,
Collapse/New Beginnings, Discipline and Transform.

A Temporary Futures Institute. Museum of Contemporary Art (M
HKA), Antwerp, Belgium. Curated by Anders Kreugar and Maya Van
Leemput.

So the M KHA ‘futures institute’ is organised into Dator’s established
categories of Continued Growth, Collapse, Discipline and
Transformation. Continued Growth is the future most often sold to us by
politicians and the powerful, Collapse is perhaps its antithesis – the hope
of the powerless that it will all ‘go west’, but that something good may
sprout in its ruins. Discipline is the desire for curbs and rules, articulated
from the top down or the bottom up, by which we might avoid
catastrophe and collapse, such as financial regulation or ecological
preservation. Lastly, Transformation contains both utopias and dystopias
– both the dream that a better world is possible and the nightmare of the
future domination of technology over humans.

Although the contribution of Goots and Van Leemput (who co-curated the
temporary institute along with Anders Kreugar) is under the Continued
Growth section, their work acts as an introduction to the whole Futures
concept. Along with the Conversations video installation, which demonstrated
convincingly that the future is a fundamental human preoccupation, they
exhibited a piece titled A Timeline in Four Layers to remind us of the eclectic
history behind Futures Studies. Wooden posts with names and brief
descriptors on the top were placed on the floor, taking us through the
history of human thought from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Oracle
of Delphi, Kong Qiu a.k.a. Confucius (‘study the past if you would divine
the future’), Nostradamus, Ibn Khaldun, through to William Morris, HG
Wells, Mary Shelley, Fritz Lang, then Ridley Scott, CERN and Philip K Dick
(Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and the TV series Black Mirror.

There were also some blank blocks to signify past-future-dreams-thatnever-
were and also a block labelled the RAND Corporation (Research
and Development), which I had previously understood to be the only
entity looking at Futures (and not in a good way) on behalf of the USA
all-powerful Industrial-Military Complex; involved in secret weapons
development, Cold War strategising and War Game Theory. So, I was glad
to see that more benign forces have been and are ‘in the field of play’.

Postnormal Exhibit in Antwerp

Amongst the Continued Growth section was a six-screen video
installation by Lithuanian Darius Ziura, who has, since 2001 returned
every three years to his home village of Gustoniai, making one-minute
silent video portraits of all its inhabitants, of which in 2001 there were
under a hundred souls. So we witness continuity of sorts as we see the
same person get older in front of us, interspersed with blank screens to
signify the departed, the not-yet-born and could-have-beens. It made for
a mesmerising visual compression of time versus mortality.

The ‘Collapse’ section combined a heaviness of subject area and a
lightness of touch. It comprised of Michel Auder, a veteran filmmaker who
was part of the artists’ set around Andy Warhol’s Factory, renowned visual
artist Simryn Gill from Singapore/Malaysia/Australia and the Centre for
Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies, whose Director, Ziauddin Sardar,
edits this journal.

I loved Michel Auder’s work, partly because of his connection to Warhol’s
1960s New York City studio, around which various seminal figures gathered,
including Lou Reed, Nico, the Velvet Underground, Edie Sedgwick, Anita
Pallenberg, Gerard Malanga and various exotic personalities such as Candy
Darling, International Velvet and Viva Superstar (Janet Hoffmann), who
married Auder, some of whom appear in his exhibited silent film 1967.

However, it is his 1993 film Voyage to the Center of the Phone Lines that really
keyed into the futures/collapse theme for me. The film strings together
Agence Futures Timeline and Conversation Piece
grainy boring ‘holiday snaps’ to illustrate a bizarre, scary and hilarious set of
cordless and wireless telephone conversations between unnamed, unknown
people. In one, a separated couple angrily discuss various scenarios about
how to keep their teenage daughter ‘under control’. The estranged couples’
world has collapsed, his business has folded, she can’t earn a living or get any
alimony from him, their only link to each other being their rebellious and
unpredictable daughter and her unsuitable boyfriend. ‘I’ll wave my fuckin’
gun in his face. What do you want me to do!’ shouts the father down the
phone to his ex-wife. ‘I went there [to the boyfriend’s house] with a fuckin’
bat last time.’ ‘So. I’m just forewarning you…I’m going to beat the shit out
of her [the daughter] if she lies to me again.’ Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem
like much hope will spring from this collapse – even the younger daughter,
off phone, is flexing her teen-muscles: ‘Whatever!’ we hear her say in
response to a command from her down-the-phone-line father.

From family collapse to economic collapse – and onto the work of visual
artist Simryn Gill. Most striking were her large black and white photo
prints entitled My Own Private Anghor 2007–2009. Gill is of Indian descent,
was born in Singapore, raised in Malaysia, and is now based in Sydney. My
Own Private Anghor collection depicts a housing estate in Port Dickson,
Malaysia that financially collapsed in the 1980s and then began slowly to
collapse back into the landscape from which it arose. Gill concentrates on
how the process of decay was accelerated by local thieves, or strippers,
who stole the aluminium frames from the windows, leaving glass panes
resting on bare walls, in which we see reflected the inside and outside
environment. As one art reviewer wrote:

The complex was built in the 1980s, but never occupied. Over time looters
have stripped the site of saleable metals. Surfaces have eroded. Dried leaves
pile up on the floors and vines creep through the window openings.

Gill’s pictures, largely of abandoned domestic interiors, speak of both promise
and ruin, of palpable economic collapse. They are documents, but resonate like
meditations, deep drives into form, light, presence and absence.
Bare windowpanes propped against the walls serve as a compositional throughline.
One or more appear in every image, a tinted, shadowing or reflective
frame within each frame. The panes serve as architectural foils or rhymes,
202 Hassan Mahamdallie
effectively flattening the space and echoing, for instance, the dark void of a
nearby doorway.

The installation by the Centre for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies
represents a kind of dissident intervention in the exhibition. Although it
clearly draws on Futures Studies (the co-curator being John A Sweeny, who
was a researcher at Jim Dator’s Center for Future Studies), it has, for
instance, its own categories of Contradiction, Complexity and Chaos. The
Postnormal concept is key. It is more explicit and perhaps less discursive
than many of the exhibits that make up this Futures collection. As the
curators write:

Observers of the Postnormal Exhibit in Antwerp

Postnormal Times is a call to arms. An invitation to challenge our assumptions
and biases about the contemporary world and possibilities for the future. It
demands that we interrogate our sense of what is and is not ‘normal’…In
Simryn Gil potato prints and photographs in the ‘Collapse’ scenario
normal times, we have confidence in our facts and values, and we can take our
time in making correct and appropriate decisions. In PNT, there is a sense of
urgency, and the future feels like a runaway train barrelling into the unknown.

This is all a bit of a rude awakening to be confronted with halfway
through the exhibition. The installation embodies the contradiction of
wanting to express an impatient urgency with the necessity to patiently
explain. The exhibit comprises screens that explain key concepts of
Postnormal Times, including the ‘menagerie of Postnormal Potentialities’:
Black Elephants (widely predicted events that are downplayed), Black
Swans (‘outliers’ that appear ‘out of the blue’) and Black Jellyfish (normal
interconnected phenomena that escalate into systematic instability or
chaos). At the centre of the exhibit is a board game by which one is invited
to trace a future narrative using choices of future phenomena and human
collective values. You are then invited to input your journey onto a
template. Comments included:
• I like strange and unusual behaviour when it is executed with
integrity. Automatic systems should urgently take this into
account.
• Let’s see how creative and weird things can get. Why not?
Of course, things could go horribly wrong, but...such is life
in postnormal times!
• I didn’t even know that augmented body hacking was
possible. For me, this is a total black swan. I can only guess
that we will need to use the value of acceptance to navigate
this complex issue.
• There will be no future. With love.

The ‘Discipline’ grouping of exhibits provided some wry humour, based
on the present-day notion that someone else, whether it be a government,
a corporation, a lobby group or an individual knows better than me, what
is best for me. This seems to me to be the strange outcome of consumer
choice and individualism, combined with the attempts to regulate the
chaos of the globalised free-market economy. I think it’s what right-wing
economists call ‘nudge theory’ – defined on Wikipedia (probably an
example in itself) as ‘a concept in behavioural science, political theory and
economics which proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions
to try to achieve non-forced compliance to influence the motives,
incentives and decision making of groups and individuals’.

Floor of Antwerp Exhibit

Thus Mei-Mei Song, a Futures educator from Taipei played with a future
technology pricing system in an interactive exhibit titled Shopping in the
Future. I was welcomed to 2037. In front of me were five ‘products’: a
work permit, a Virtual Reality Travel Package, a third-hand tunic, a bowl
of rice and a water capsule. You waved your hand over the product and an
app immediately computed whether or not you could have access to the
product, depending on your resources and past history. I was informed
that I couldn’t afford the ‘sumptuous water from the Scheldt River
condensed into a capsule’ and was advised instead to ‘consider water
supply from more basic sources’. Such is life in 2037 (2017).

I also liked Song’s posters from 2037 advertising a ‘Wild day or night
with the number one Hologram Band: Beyond Signals’ being
simultaneously streamed across time-zones on 26 July, 2037 along with
the venue listing including Vienna, Italy; Latvia, Northern Russian
Resistance; London, Scotland; Seattle, United States of Liberal and
Houston, District 2 of America.

Although Stuart Candy’s exhibit was tagged under the Transformation
section, it had some kinship with Mei-Mei Song’s work. Candy had
‘invented’ for us a NurturePod, complete with advertising copy, branded
wrapping and a price in Euros (cut-price at €789). The pod had a lifelike
infant snuggled in it, was plastic and womb-shaped and rocked gently as if
suspended in amniotic fluid. On the baby’s face was a VR mask and it was
clutching a VR control in each of its chubby hands. The contraption was
sold to us as ‘Augmented Infancy’ and a ‘Programmable para-parenting
pod’, and the amusing but awful underlying question behind it was ‘can
this be that far away?’ As the commentary accompanying Candy’s exhibit
said: ‘It takes the idea of transformation in a near future to a doubtful
extreme just like so many tech-optimist advocates of transformation do’.
And then I read Stuart Candy’s biography: a professional futurist and
experience designer, Stuart Candy is currently the William Bronson and
Grayce Slovet Mitchell visiting professor at the School of the Art Institute
of Chicago and faculty member of the world’s first foresight and design
program at OCAD University, Toronto. Etc. Etc.

Blimey! It was at that point during my tour of the exhibition that I came
to appreciate that, notwithstanding a cautionary scepticism at academia’s
self-regard, there are a fair few clever and creative people out there
looking into the future(s). But ordinarily we know little of who they are
or what they do.

Stuart Candy's Display for the Antwerp Exhibit

In my view ‘A Temporary Futures Institute’ was an attempt to encourage
the viewer to take a leap not so much into the unknown but dive into a
pool of possibilities. The implicit invitation, or challenge, was then to
track back from this and that future, either desired or dreaded, back into
our present. The Postnormal element was perhaps the bridge; those
analytical stepping-stones that we need to link our present with desirable
and undesirable futures. But somewhere in there, and very much present
in the Antwerp exhibition, is the role of the dream, the vision or the
imagination that is fundamental to humankind. This is something of great
interest to me. In his seminal paper, ‘Welcome to Postnormal Times’,
Ziauddin Sardar has written:

The most important ingredients for coping with postnormal times…are
imagination and creativity. Why? Because we have no other way of dealing with
complexity, contradictions and chaos. Imagination is the main tool, indeed I
would suggest the only tool, which takes us from simple reasoned analysis to
higher synthesis.

I think he is onto something here. A pity we drum it out of our children
at an early age before thrusting them into adulthood and telling them ‘it’s
over to you now’.

Timeline

I think therefore I am
I progress therefore I am
I shop therefore I am
I share therefore I am
Defined
Monolithic
Relative
Contradictory
I am tradition and culture
I am science and technology
I am what I buy
I am online
Simple, Closed
Complicated, Closed
Complex, Open
Open, Interconnected, Chaotic
Conquest, Supremacy, Progress
Progress, Efficiency, Modernization
Relativism, Plurality, Individuality
Complexity, Chaos, Contradictions