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?


[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, 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.


The past always glows

“It’s hard to think about the present because the past always glows…

“In the good old days before cappuccino and sushi and ruccola went global. Well before red peppers spiced up our salads. Before adventure became a sport, and nature became a spot. In the good old days the Paris Metro smelled like cigarettes and lofts were reserved for only the New-York elite. Before seat belts beeped when they weren’t fastened and spies really did come from the cold. Before cell phone conversations were banned on trains. Before Googling became an aspect of human behavior. In the good old days when every second person was not a hero and every third was not a victim and every fourth was not stressed. Before we had an identity on line. Before toll-free numbers were delocalized and sent to Africa or India. Before the idea of a preemptive war existed. Before we thought there would never be any billionaires in Moscow. Before beach volleyball and snowboarding became Olympic sports. Before fusion cooking and before liquid nitrogen was used to make minute ice cream. Before you could get an espresso in Hamburg or Milwaukee. When Thai food was exotic and cholesterol a curious word used only for Scrabble games. In the good old days when people walked on the moon and snow covered London for weeks during Christmas time. No, it’s too far away, I don’t remember all that. It never happened.

“A time when things were not weird, but strange, and then they were really strange, a David Lynch kind of strangeness. In those disconnected days before Blackberries and SPVs. Before voicemail became the interlocutors in our lives. Before Godlum appeared on the screen. What a great actor. Before the Euro and before a wall was erected in Israel. Before democracy and free market became the only alternative. When New Zealand was not yet known as the set of The Lord of The Rings. Before people started using “like” to make similes about anything and everything. Before Shrek appeared on screen and everyone loved him because like us, he doesn’t understand any metaphors. When you could smoke in bars in New York and Los Angeles. Before the Bush Dynasty. when Schwarzenegger was the Terminator and not a governor. Before IPods, EBay, Viagra and spell-check. Before Western architects were lining up to build towers in China. Before people start ordering salads at McDonald’s. Before music became our soundtrack. Before clothing became a costume. Before we start looking at the world as a standing stock of material. Before the word “tree” did not mean “wood”. [1]

“Every technology is a metaphor. That much is clear. The difficult matter is to sort out whether this is a primary or secondary function. Which is to say, did we initially make this universe of instruments, machines, tools, and devices as a way of talking about our condition, only then to discover, post hoc, that all the amassed hardware also proved useful for solving various practical problems (washing dishes, killing neighbors, etc.)? Or did it work the other way around? Did we set out to kill our neighbors, say, and then notice that the sword was a lovely way to say “violence”?” [2]

[1]. Philippe Parreno & Rirkrit Tiravanija, Stories are Propaganda. Original Soundtack text of Stories are propaganda, a film by Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija, shot in 35mm in China in 2005, transferred on DVD and of a duration of 8’40”.

[2] Yara Flores, Spirit Duplication, Cabinet, Issue 39, Learning Fall 2010.

Image: The destruction of Neo Tokyo from Katushiro Otomo’s Akira. Via Sci-Fi-O-Rama.

To anticipate and elaborate

“Science fiction is marked by contrasts between the quotidian and the fantastic and images that depict such moments abound in the works of numerous contemporary artists in the ‘21st Century: Art in the First Decade exhibition. Mitra Tabrizian’s City, London 2008 could well be a scene from a science fiction film, its group of men in an office atrium mill about in aimless contemplation, an ambiguous narrative suspended in time. As Kobena Mercer points out in the exhibition catalogue, “…in the corporate minimalism of their architectural surroundings, the men’s dark suits draw attention to similarities of gender and age. Variations of race and ethnicity are apparent as white faces are in the minority, but sameness makes an odd return in the look-alike indeterminacy of the majority…” Like the film Gattaca, with its narrative of genetic manipulation and the domination of commercial imperatives, and its highly stylised art direction of office atria and suited men and women, individual identity in both film and photograph is besieged by the technological-real.”

“There are numerous other works that engage with the aesthetics of science fiction in ‘21st Century exhibition. The project The Book of Migration 2009 which depicts a contested site in Israel/Palestine, and Bill Henson’s Untitled 2008-09 which quotes Arnold Böcklin Island of the dead 1880, propose connective lines between art, science fiction and the cinema – films such as La jetée and The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009) anticipate and elaborate on these depictions of the unease we feel in the contested spaces of the city, and by contrast, in the Romantic wilderness after the fall of civilisation. Perhaps the two most astonishing examples of the way contemporary art engages with SF can be found in two video works. SUPERFLEX’s Flooded McDonalds 2009 is exactly as the title describes; a McDonalds slowly fills with water, the detritus of wrappers and packaging and a plastic statue of the corporation’s mascot rising up to the ceiling. Aernout Mik’s Pulverous 2003 is a three-screen video of a supermarket being torn apart by a seemingly-bland collection of middle class types. This scene replicates an almost identical sequence in Blindness where the citizens of an unnamed city, stricken by a blindness-inducing disease, negotiate the darkened interior of a supermarket in a frenzy brought on by hunger and desperation. Although science fiction purports to depict moments that have not yet occurred, the relationship between art, cinema and the aesthetics of science fiction demonstrates that these are acute moments of contemporaneity sublimated and turned into an allegorical representations of our deepest anxieties. Moreover, the aesthetic of the science fictional are felt well beyond the borders of strict genre. Perhaps this says something about the way the popular imagination is manifested in cultural objects, but what it is certain is that the technological-real is inextricably linked to the way we perceive the world.”

Andrew Frost, “The Look of The Future”, 21st Century Blog: Art in The First Decade, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art.

Image: Mitra Tabrizian, City, London 2008, Type C photograph.

The Rapture of Science

Sydney-based artist Sam Leach has curated Extropians, a new show at Sullivan & Strumpf Fine Art. The exhibitions brings together a group of artists whose work suggests ambiguous science fictional narratives. Leach spoke to Science Fictional about the ideas and themes behind the title.

What is an “extropian”?

Sam Leach: Extropians are people who believe that progress in science and technology means that humans will soon achieve some kind of immortality. The term derives from extropy – not quite, but almost, the opposite of entropy – it refers to the idea that life and intelligence will expand in an orderly way throughout the universe. The extropian view is sort of an extreme optimism about the future. I’m not totally convinced they are right, but I do like technology and I really like the optimism.

Tony Lloyd, Unique Form of Continuity in Space Time, 2009.
Oil on linen, 23x30cms.

Perhaps you could talk about the selection of works for the show – what were you looking for when you selected the artists and their paintings?

SL: I wanted works which addressed the relationship between humans and technology and I tried to think about that in a broadest sense. So there are paintings which have technology as their subject matter, as with Tony Lloyd and Giles Alexander. There are paintings in which painting itself is represented as a transformative technology as with Stephan Balleux. The show really emerged after seeing some works by Topologies (Donna Kendrigan and Chris Henschke) and, quite soon after, a show by Charles O’Loughlin. Topologies create objects which seem to appeal to a nostalgia for an historical form of futurism – beautifully crafted wood and brass instruments which present quite sophisticated optical illusions with scientific themes. Their works do not unreservedly celebrate science but they do set up a very romantic view of technology. In O’Loughlin’s work data analysis based on his own social interactions is used to generate charts which the form the basis of his abstract paintings. Ultimately he aims to gather enough data to be able to forecast his own life. I could sense some connection between these works and when I came across the extropians it began to fall into place. O’Loughlin’s wildly ambitious plans for his data – not to mention his use of his entire life in the cause of data collection – was related to the scientific heroism hinted at in Topologies’ work. The final piece fell into place with Michael Graeve and Toshiya Tsunoda. In their works technology is already being used to extend perception beyond the limits of “natural” or un-augmented human abilities.

It’s interesting looking at the contrast between the works seen individually and then as a group. Taken individually, the paintings work in a realist mode and might suggest an ambiguous narrative, together they have a very science fictional feel, as though the exhibition works together as an overall narrative – was that your aim?

SL: A proper geek would prefer the term speculative fiction. Yes, I do think the paintings and the especially the piece by Topologies have that feel. I love science fiction so it is probably not a coincidence that the art that appeals to me has some hint of that too. I did try to create the possibility for narrative by including works which hinted at history (Lloyd, Topologies), works which engage the viewer with the present (Graeve, Tsunoda) and works which hint at futures both near and distant (Lloyd again, Balleux, Alexander). Many of the works cover several of those at once, of course, so it is not as though it unfolds like a comic strip. In the best traditions of hard science fiction, multiple realities and timelines co-exist.

The term “speculative fiction” is credited to Robert Heinlein, who liked to call it “spec-fic” – but it seems the term has been subsumed back into the greater generic name “science fiction” – do you see a difference between the two terms? And how does that relate to the show?

SL: The term has drifted in and out of use for quite a while. Fans of this genre do tend to be enthusiastic so there are many thousands of internet pages devoted to discussing the nuances of these terms. For my two cents, I tend to think of speculative fiction as a slightly better description of the genre and a bit broader than than science fiction. Some of the most interesting books do not really go into science at all but look at alternate histories or social structures – Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game, Philip K Dick and Neal Stephenson spring to mind. In this show, with one or two exceptions, there is no reference to any actual science. The works deal with the relationship between humans and technology without getting too bogged down in the actual gear mechanisms.

Charles O’Loughlin, September, 2009.
Gouache on paper, 49x45cms.

The imagery of science fiction tends towards a decidedly realist mode of image making – yet you’ve also included abstract works such as Charles O’Loughlin’s mandala-like ‘September’. Was there something in that juxtaposition that interested you?

SL: Absolutely. In the same way that I wanted works which specifically addressed the future, present and past I also wanted to look at artists who used a wide variety of modes in their work. O’Loughlin’s practice verges on performance. His works are really charts which present information, month by month, about who he meets, where and how often. When a painting of a graph is shown, or even several of them, it is really only a tiny fragment of his overall work, which presumably won’t be finished until he is dead or gives up. Or both. The paintings are presented together with books of coded data. Literally thousands of pages of the stuff. They hint at what these apparently abstract paintings represent but they are absolutely no help at all in recovering any kind of meaningful information from the charts. Where the realist paintings have a science fiction feel, O’Loughlin’s work feels closer to the way imagery is actually used in contemporary science – mostly for the graphic display of statistical information (and mostly unintelligible to all but the authors).

Joanna Lamb, High Rise 8, 2009.
Acrylic on canvas, 170x120cms.
From the companion exhibition High Rise.

Joanna Lamb’s latest paintings are also on show at Sullivan & Strumpf and seem like a very natural continuation of what you’re talking about. The title of her show Highriseseems to be a direct reference to J.G. Ballard, whose spirit is very much present in your show too. Was putting the two exhibitions together intentional?

SL: Funny you shoud mention that because I spent the weekend installing a rainwater tank and Ballard was never far from my mind. Sullivan and Strumpf will have to take the credit for bringing the two shows together. It is a really great juxtaposition. Ballard consistently asked questions about the way that technology and especially urban development might impact the human psyche. The extropians themselves seem pretty unconcerned about the possible psychological implications of extreme longevity or technological augmentation of the human. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are optimistic about the implications. The image of the highrise perfectually captures the moment of transition between utopian vision and dystopian delivery, especially as it is shown in Lamb’s paintings with their idealised clean, hard edges and disturbing acidic colours. Since my show is upstairs from the highrise, maybe it could be thought of as a sort of tech version of the blood garden!

Giles Alexander, 1180 AD, House of God, 2009.
Oil and resin on canvas, 65x105cms.

You’ve often included technological objects in your own painting – how do you see your own work relating to the show?

SL: To be honest the show is a massive indulgence for me. I love the aesthetics of science and technology and to some extent this show could be subtitled “ideas I wish I’d had” or “works I wish I’d made”. The themes of nature and technology are important for me but the relationship between humans and animals is of equal importance. This show allowed me to really get stuck directly into the human/technology relationship via the entertainingly extreme position of the extropians. The other thing is that my own practice is primarily painting – trying to paint well is a very time consuming process and doesn’t leave a lot of room to engage with other modes of artistic production even though I am very interested in them. So it is great to be able to look at the themes and ideas I am interested in using objects, installation and sound works. Even if someone else made them.

Extropians, curated by Sam Leach, and High Rise by Joanna Lamb are at Sullivan & Strumpf, Paddington until December 13.