Is Science Fiction a catalyst for radically re-imagining institutions?

Issue no4
Aug - Sep 2021
Onbeperkt toegankelijk & Eindexamens 2021

Can sci-fi function as a political toolbox for imagining the future roles of cultural institutions? This question is the starting point for a two-part SCI FI conference at De Appel and (tomorrow) at Netwerk Aalst. As a way of preparation or introduction to the second session in Aalst we present a review of the first session which took place at De Appel.

Science fiction has become one of the most popular narrative genres of all time. In popular culture, it encompasses classic novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as well as cult series and movies like Star Trek (1966-)Blade Runner (1982, 2017),The Matrix (1999,2003), Star Wars (1977-) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-) to name but a few. Science fiction differentiates itself from reality by exploring technology that does not exist yet but could exist in the near future and it imagines in a philosophical sense the socio-political, ecological and economic impacts that these technological advances could have on the world. It is an interweave of utopian optimism and apocalyptic pessimism. In recent years sci-fi-writers have been consulted on high political levels because of their visionary take on the technological developments in the world. As a collective experimental social dreaming, it has created a colossal archive of alternative worlds and possible future histories.

SCI FI SESSIONS, a two-part symposium series, explores the potential of disaster as a productive force and is part of the ongoing collaboration between De Appel and Netwerk Aalst. It is situated around the exhibition SCI FI AGIT PROP by Hungarian artist Tamás Kaszás, that simultaneously takes place at De Appel, in Amsterdam, and in Netwerk Aalst, in Belgium. The exhibition challenges us to think through future scenarios following political, economic, and/or technological collapse. Both institutes invited artists and scholars to collectively think through and speculate on new ways of living in a post-collapse society. The symposia explore the critical role science fiction plays in imagining alternative systems. To quote Mark Fisher’s reflection on Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” In this case, it is easier to image the end of the world than to radically re-imagine the future of instituting.

Moments before the start of SCIFI SESSIONS at De Appel conference room

The first SCI FI SESSION took place on the 31st of March at De Appel with as invited speakers Dr. Barnita Bagchi, curator Jacob Lillemose and artist Tamás Kaszás. Transacademic Barnita Bagchi has been invited to bring her own research - mostly on female, transnational and utopian literature - in resonance with Tamás Kaszás’ work. Dr. Bagchi currently researches and teaches Comparative Literature at Utrecht University. She also directs the Utrecht Utopia Network which hosts international events such as Urban Utopias: Memory, Rights, and Speculation and The Utopia Workshop: Utopia Across Cultures. Dr. Bagchi starts off by emphasizing the urgency of thinking about post-collapse societies as different parts of the world are on the brink of collapse or already in post-collapse states. In a wordplay reminiscent of utopia, she emphasizes how “post-collapse is now, here and nowhere”. Utopia, a term coined by Thomas Mo-ore in 1516, is a play on two Greek words and means, simultaneously, in a discomforting comparison, both “good place”, the real, and “no place”, the ideal.

This division in reality and fiction functions well to categorize Tamás Kaszás’ work. On the one hand, his personal life is visible in his documentary works, which revolve around the question what to do when you have to make do. Dr. Bagchi here points out that home economics was originally seen as women's work. On the other hand, his work, created through his theoretical pieces, is an appropriation of the historical avant-garde. She concludes by saying that, “[Kaszás] uses the present as the past of an imagined future,” a form of cognitive mapping.

Dr. Bagchi discusses similar questions to those posed in the exhibition by exploring female science-fiction writers to discuss several potentials in post-disaster societies. She draws most notably on Octavia E. Butler, whose novel Parable of the Sower (1993), set in 2024 in a society on the brink of collapse, is told through the diary entries of the fifteen-year-old black female protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina. Lauren, a hyperempath, meaning she is able to feel the pain of everything she witnesses, understands that her society is about to collapse. She creates her own belief system Earthseed as an acceptance of change and goes off on her own, gathering a group of followers, to start a community called Acorn. Surviving and self-reliance become the foundations of Earthseed religion. The second book Parable of the Talents (1998), set in 2032, not long after Lauren’s death, is told through excerpts of her journal entries framed through commentaries on them by her estranged daughter, Larkin. Parable of the Talents takes place after Acorn has been taken over by right-wing religious fanatics and is turned into a re-education camp where women are extremely oppressed. The novels are grim and powerfully disturbing as they explore the potential of what could happen if a society gives in to demagogues.

Other works named by Dr. Bagchi, that resonate with the survival and self-reliance themes of the exhibition, are the collection of short stories by the physicist and science-fiction writer Vandana Singen, The woman that thought she was a planet and other stories (2008), Ishi in Two Worlds (1961) by Theodora Kroeber, Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome (1995) and The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016). Lastly, Dr. Bagchi mentions the world Wakanda in the recent film Black Panther (2018). Speculative fiction involving utopian/dystopian worlds is a social and imaginative experiment, dreaming of a better world. Imagining an alternative to the here and now involves speculation, social transformation and transcendence, looking to the future to potentially change the present.

Imagining an alternative to the here and now involves speculation, social transformation and transcendence, looking to the future to potentially change the present

Barnita Bagchi 

Jacob Lillemose

The next speaker is Jacob Lillemose, who curates and runs the exhibition space X AND BEYOND, part of the research project Changing Disasters (2013-2017), which is in turn part of the Copenhagen Center for Disaster Research/COPE (2013-). Lillemose stresses the double perspective of how disaster shapes society and how society shapes disasters. The program of X AND BEYOND resulted in multiple physical shapes such as radio recordings, talks, performances, screenings, auctions and exhibitions, and was an open process driven by experiment and collaboration. What started with art’s actual impact, changed the role that fiction plays in meeting the challenge of disaster. Talking about the need for sophisticated language to talk about disaster that encompasses law, economics, and the sciences, Lillemose emphasizes that fiction is the richest resource in terms of knowledge and experience with disaster.

Lillemose presents four smaller scale examples of X AND BEYOND in his talk. The most interesting of these is Society Z (2015), the result of research on the possibilities for legal laws surrounding pandemics. Combining zombie fiction and protocols for actual disasters, Society Z explores what would happen to the infrastructure, political systems, social relations and, most importantly, to human rights as a result of the epidemic. The project has taken many forms: academic texts; an exhibition; a performance; and currently, Lillemose is writing a horror novel that will be available early 2019.

What would art institutions look like in different post-collapse states?

In the breakout session, Lillemose asks the audience to reimagine what art institutions would look like in different post-collapse states. The exercise utilises different scenarios, based on science fiction, as the starting point to re-envision alternative art institutions within them. He introduces three scenarios: The Drowned World (1962), a novel by J. G. Ballard, set in a post-ecological collapsed world; the films of zombie movie specialist George A. Romero, set in a post-collapse world where survival is central, and lastly, the trilogy The Three-Body Problem (2008) by Cixin Liu, which shows a world in which a superior extraterrestrial force will colonize and exterminate Earth.

What started off as seemingly farfetched and humorous scenarios, quickly became taken much more seriously. Global warming, virus epidemics, colonization and genocide are very much part of our reality. Lillemose’s exercise shows how thinking through alternative worlds acts as a creative catalyst, creating the much-needed room to break away from current systems and institutions in order to radically reimagine the various, diverse forms and roles that art institutions can take.

The day concluded with a walk through the exhibition with artist Tamás Kaszás and curator Niels van Tomme. The conversation between the two of them, directed towards the audience, shed light on Kaszás’ artistic practice and on the current exhibition. SCI FI AGIT PROP is set in an imagined future, where all technology has ceased to exist. The exhibition investigates survival techniques, both collectively and solitary driven, and what social and political problems could arise. In his prints, he explores different forms of public communication through decontextualizing political visual languages.

On Friday 27th April, the second symposium in the SCI FI SESSIONS series will take place at Netwerk Aalst, with the nuclear physicist, philosopher, climate activist and artist, Gaston Meskens, as the keynote speaker. A reading group with Evi Swinnen, coordinator of Timelab, and Michel Bauwens, a cyberphilosopher, co-founder of the Peer-to-Peer Foundation and the Commons Strategies Group, followed by a breakout session with Will Stronge, Maria Dada and Julian Siravo from the UK-based thinktank Autonomy. The day ends with the Famine Food research of the Ex-Artist Collective, Tamás Kaszas and Anikó Loránt.

Tamás Kaszás, installatiefoto tentoonstelling SCI FI AGIT PROP, Netwerk, Aalst, foto Tom Callemin

Tamás Kaszás, installatiefoto tentoonstelling SCI FI AGIT PROP, Netwerk, Aalst, foto Tom Callemin

Tamás Kaszás, installatiefoto tentoonstelling SCI FI AGIT PROP, Netwerk, Aalst, foto Tom Callemin

Tamás Kaszás, installatie tentoonstelling SCI FI AGIT PROP, Netwerk, Aalst, foto Tom Callemin

Tamás Kaszás, installatie tentoonstelling SCI FI AGIT PROP, Netwerk, Aalst, foto Tom Callemin

Conference II: SCI FI SESSIONS #2, Netwerk, Aalst, 27.04.2018

Exhibitions SCI FI AGIT PROP – Tamás Kaszás, Netwerk, Aalst, until 01.07.2018; SCI FI SESSIONS #1, De Appel, Amsterdam 31.03.2018

Nicole Sciarone
is intern at Metropolis M

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2021