Transmissions from the Resonant Zone

There is something in the aesthetics of contemporary art that’s familiar to anyone who also happens to be a fan of science fiction. It’s not just that particular artists engage with SF for its metaphors and concepts, it’s that there is something eerily recognisable within contemporary art that suggests a more profound connection. The shared space between SF and art is a dynamic and resonant aesthetic field, a zone where the metaphors of SF are given form, but perhaps more importantly they are also, as Istvan Csieser-Ronay Jr. suggests a shared mode of awareness. “SF names the gap between, belief in the immanent possibility (and perhaps inexorable necessity) of [scientific-technological transformations] and reflection about their possible ethical, social, and spiritual interpretations.” [1] While Csieser-Ronay Jr. is describing the aesthetic function of literary and cinematic SF, he could just as easily be describing contemporary art.

Science fiction is usually conceived of as a fiction of technology that allows metaphors to act as expressions of potential reality [2]. We suspend our disbelief in the movie theatre or as we turn the pages of a paperback believing for a moment that not only are these ideas possible, but they are at some level they are even likely. But if we divorce SF from the distracting idea that it’s merely predictive then what we’re left with is a complicated transaction between metaphor and figuration.

While SF typically tries to convince us of its plausibility through a kind of technological realism, contemporary art embraces its often uncertain metaphors as the core of its experience. The photographic image, the digital video, the fabricated sculpture – these typical, generic forms of contemporary art produce the same sort of reflexive relationship that an audience experiences in SF. As an audience we interpret the space between the medium and the message, decoding the artist’s intention as we enjoy the illusion that the whole world could be – is – like this. Sam Smith’s sculptural installations elegantly examine this kind of experience, exploring the material qualities of technology such as the digital camera, or the techniques of green screen, while expanding the space of the gallery into multiple conceptual dimensions. For Smith, SF is a narrative form that enables an active imagining that’s both specific to the materials he employs but also one that signifies a narrative that’s tantalisingly absent, defying the impulse of SF to explain its implications for an experience that is far more ambiguous.

Ms & Mr’s works display a similar obsession with the tropes of SF such as time travel, parallel universes and alternate realties. Their work has repeatedly returned to a conflation of scientific knowledge with a kind of free-form wondering of possibilities and potential. Their video installations function as capsule narratives as they simultaneously foreground the technology behind – and in – the work; power cables are left showing, monitors are mounted on conspicuous stands and flats, as if the work itself was the remnant tech from a space launch or laboratory experiment. Hayden Fowler’s installations and video pieces have long been engaged with the kind of aesthetic experiences that Darko Suvin suggested are found SF when he appropriated the term “cognitive estrangement” from Russian Formalism and Brechtian theatre to explain its dissociative aesthetic [3]. Fowler’s installations propose seductive narratives, bringing together the visual experience of the natural history museum or zoo with the domed cities of classic SF creating what Suvin calls a “possible world” a “little space time island which is in some ways complete in itself, rounded off and set off against other possible worlds.” [4]

Science fiction as a literary or cinematic genre creates its provocative sense of estrangement in a different way to that of contemporary art; the framing of SF within a linear narrative medium such as a novel or a film produces a unique kind of temporal experience to that of seeing a work of art in a gallery, even when artists are using time based media such as video or film [5]. There is a palpable sense of difference in that immediate experience, as different as reading is to watching. Yet contemporary art and SF are intimately linked by in their deployment of metaphor. Suvin argues that a metaphor is “a unitary meaning arising out of the (verbal) interaction of disparate conceptual units from different universes of discourse or semantic domains.” [6] Suvin asserts that the meaning of a particular metaphor changes given the particular social context citing the example of “this man is a wolf”, the idea of the wolf having very different connotations in Western societies [aggression, sexuality] to that of a tribal culture [honoured or esteemed spirit].

The curious aspect of the relationship between SF themes and concepts as they are expressed in generic forms and in contemporary art is that they don’t come from different cultures where metaphors would naturally have different connotations. In fact, they come from the same culture, or at least the same cultural reference points, recognisable to anyone familiar with the experience of a technological society. Suvin’s cognitive estrangement as the central aesthetic experience of science fiction is just as applicable to contemporary art since we live in the same universe of discourse. What is fascinating is the way artists use the tropes of SF to produce metaphors that are both familiar and unutterably strange, reminding us that when the aliens arrive the first question we will ask is not, who are you? but, who are we?

Notes:

[1] Istvan Csieser-Ronay Jr. “The SF of Theory: Baudrillard and Haraway”. Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3. Science Fiction and Post Modernism, 387-88.

[2] Where the concept of time travel might be considered a metaphor for memory, in SF that metaphor is literalised: we can travel in time and experience past or future time.

[3] Takayuki Tatsumi, “An Interview with Darko Suvin”, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 12, Part 2, No. 36, July 1985, http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/interviews/suvin36interview.htm Date accessed March 16, 2011.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Although many artists have experimented with narrative cinema, blurring the lines between what might be termed ‘video art’ and mainstream film-making, the gallery experience of time-based media tends towards looped videos, short duration pieces, multiple screens and other decidedly ‘non-cinematic’ devices.

[6] Darko Suvin, “On Metaphoricity and Narrativity in Fiction: The Chrontope as the ‘Differentia Generica’”, SubsStance, Vol. 14, No. 3, Issue 48 (1986), 52.

Text: Andrew Frost, ‘Transmissions from the Resonant Zone’, from Awfully Wonderful [exhibition catalogue], 2011.

Image: Ms&Mr, Frame Drag [unfinished future proposition], 1988/2009/2024. Home movie VHS, hi-definition digital video and animation, silent, synced 2 channel, 3:57 min.

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