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.


Black box recorder


“SF names not a generic effects engine of literature and simulation arts (the usual sense of the phrase “science fiction”), so much as a mode of awareness, characterized by two linked forms of hesitation, a pair of gaps.

“One gap extends between, on the one hand, belief that certain ideas and images of scientific-technological transformations of the world can be entertained, and, on the other, the rational recognition that they may be realized (along with their ramifications for worldly life). It is a gap that lies between the conceivability of future transformations and the possibility of their actualization. In its other aspect, SF names the gap between, on the one hand, belief in the immanent possibility (and perhaps inexorable necessity) of those transformations, and, on the other, reflection about their possible ethical, social, and spiritual interpretations (i.e., about their embeddedness in a web of social-historical relations). This gap stretches between conceiving of the plausibility, i.e., the prospective factual reality, of historically unforeseeable innovations in human experience (nova) and their broader ethical and social-cultural implications and resonances. SF thus involves two forms of hesitation—a historical-logical one (how plausible is the conceivable novum?) and an ethical one (how good/bad/altogether different are the transformations that would issue from the novum?) These gaps compose the black box in which scientific-technological conceptions, ostensibly unmediated by social and ethical contingencies, are transformed into a rational, “realistic” recognition of their possible materialization and their implications.

“SF embeds scientific-technological concepts in the sphere of human interests and actions, explaining them and explicitly attributing social value to them. This may take many literary forms, from the resurrection of dead mythologies, pseudo-mimetic extrapolation, and satirical subversion, to utopian Auffiebung. It is an inherently, and radically, future-oriented process, since the exact ontological status of the fictive world is suspended. Unlike historical fiction (of which SF is a direct heir), where a less intense suspense operates because the outcome of the past is still in the process of being completed in the present’s partisan conflicts, SF is suspended because all the relevant information about the future has not been created yet, and never can be.

“Since future developments influence revisions of the past, SF’s black box also involves the past, in the hesitation that comes in anticipating the complete revision of origins. A past that is not yet known is a form of the future. So is a present unanticipated by the past. Further, since SF is concerned mainly with the role of science and technology in defining human—i.e., cultural—value, there can be as many kinds of SF as there are theories of culture. Obviously, this conception of SF concerns the range of possible science fictions, many of which have not been realized (for many and various reasons), and not just the actual historical production of the commercial genre known as Science Fiction…”

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

Quantum Comedy

“Anthropology, perception psychology, neurology, phenomenological sociology, ethnomethodology and even ethology (in its study of imprinting in animals), all confirm the quantum mechanical and Existentialist view that the world we perceive is a Mickey Mouse cartoon our brains have created out of signals that arrive as raw energy at the rate of millions of bleeps per second. Which type of Mickey Mouse cartoon—or Homeric epic, or Soap Opera—we make of these signals depends on our genes (which species of brain we have—mammalian, serpentine, insectoid etc.), and next on our imprints, and our conditioning and “learning” or brainwashing by society, and these are perpetuated by our lazy habits and only sometimes modified or somewhat transcended by our efforts at creativity and higher awareness.


“The various “models” of quantum mechanics—and it is symptomatic that we dare not call them “theories” any more—are all in direct contradiction to common sense and to common sense-data (the Mickey Mouse cut-outs our brain constructs from the energy bleeps it receives). Each type of quantum model is at least as weird as Dali’s Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse Biting a Telephone.

“Is Schroedinger’s cat in the famous gedankenexperiment dead or alive, or both, or somewhere in between? Each quantum model gives a different answer to that crucial question, just as different quantum models tell us that an unmeasured particle is simultaneously spin-up or spin-down or both or neither. Heisenberg said Eintsein’s attempt to find out what such and unmeasured particle is “really” doing was “like the medieval debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.” Why should an unmeasured particle not also be giving birth to a blind horse biting a telephone?

(The only particles we know anything about are the measured ones, which are shaped and to some extent created by the measurements. just as the only people we know anything about are the encountered ones who are shaped and to some extent created by our encounters with them. You knew that already, didn’t you?)

“Back in Joyceland, there is the Garry Owen mystery. Garry is a dog, and in the world of appearances one can even say Garry was a “real” dog. That is, he was whelped in 1888 and was owned by J. J. Giltrap, a Dublin breeder of pedigreed Irish setters. In a 19th Century novel, if Garry Owen appeared, he would be a definite and specific dog corresponding to the 19th Century delusion that a definite and specific “reality” exists somewhere apart from observers and observings. In the quantum comedy of Ulysses, there are three Garry Owens, or three Mickey Mouse cut-outs of the infinite space-time process called “Garry Owen,” each seen by one of three different observers: the first is a lively and endearing animal, the second is a surly and dangerous brute, and the third actually talks and even recites Gaelic poetry. This is the kind of attention to existential, phenomenological relativity that makes Joyce contemporary, whereas “realistic” writers are still living in medieval Aristotelian myth. Joyce’s multi-valued dog is as paradigmatic of our age as Schroedinger’s dead-and-alive cat.

“Elsewhere in this volume I enquire into the length of King Kong’s penis. My conclusions are relative to the context in which Kong belongs—the context of surrealism and dream—and are not consistent with the logic of Aristotelian “reality.” But to Aristotle a penis, like any other rod, has a “real” length which is “essential” to its “nature,” and we have known since Special Relativity (1905) that there is no such “real” length in experience, but only the various lengths (plural) of various observers or observing instruments. Like Dali’s Andalusian Dog and Joyce’s three-headed Irish setter, Kong’s penis and an Einsteinian rod are “in the eye of the beholder,” as it were. This is why all people with a good scientific education understand at once the answer to Zen Buddhist riddle, “Who is the Master who makes the grass green?”‘

Robert Anton Wilson, “Preface”. Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson & Robert Anton Wilson, eds.  Semiotext [e] SF. New York: Autonomedia. 1989. pp 18-19

Image: Edith Joy Rae, A nude with Mickey Mouse hair April 17. 09. Via Daily Painters

The rule of exceptions

“William Gibson is a science fiction writer, so is this science fiction? The answer is yes and no. Unlike Vonnegut, who goes to some pains to say he’s not writing science fiction even when he is, Gibson never shies from the label, even though he’s perfectly aware it’s not so simple a tag as it once was. Pattern Recognition is set in the present with no aliens or secret technologies. The plot turns on nothing more exotic technologically than chat rooms and posted film clips in a very recognizable Internet. Recently, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptomonicon, as fat as Pattern Recognition is lean, was largely treated as a science fiction novel by reviewers, bookdealers, and readers, even nominated for sf awards, though the main action involves the breaking of the Enigma code of World War II and isn’t science fiction in the usual sense. China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, on another end of the spectrum, seems science fictional even though it takes place in a Dickensian steampunk world with no connection to ours.

“Science fiction, in effect, has become a narrative strategy, a way of approaching story, in which not only characters must be invented, but the world and its ways as well, without resorting to magic or the supernatural, where the fantasy folks work. A realist wrestling with the woes of the middle class can leave the world out of it by and large except for an occasional swipe at the shallowness of suburbia. A science fiction writer must invent the world where the story takes place, often from the ground up, a process usually called world-building. In other words, in a science fiction novel, the world itself is a distinctive and crucial character in the plot, without whom the story could not take place, whether it’s the world of Dune or Neuromancer or 1984. The world is the story as much as the story is in the world. Part of Gibson’s point (and Stephenson’s too for that matter) is that we live in a time of such accelerated change and layered realities, that we’re all in that boat, like it or not. A novel set in the “real world” now has to answer the question, “Which one?”

Review | Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson by Dennis Danvers, Blackbird Archive


“One of the things I like about doing book tours is that I get to find out what I’ve been writing about — after a week or so, themes start to emerge. So far the interviewers have been focusing on ‘Is Spook Country science fiction?’ and do I think the present is scary?

“The 21st century is weird, man! I got there by the slow time machine, living my way to it. In a world like this, what constitutes the mundane? None of this is very mundane anymore, because it’s all touched by this kind of multiplex weirdness. We’re here, and it’s weirder than anything I’ve ever read in science fiction, except Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar. That’s the closest thing to a prediction of where we are that I can think of. Brunner found a way to have all the overlapping science fiction scenarios of a world like the world where we live in one book. (He borrowed the technique from Dos Passos, but that’s good.) But if you had gone to a publisher in 1981 and pitched a science fiction novel where there’s this disease called AIDS and there’s global warming and this list of 20 other contemporary things, they would have called security!”

Interview with William Gibson – Scifirama

Image: Stephanie Valentin, Threshold, 2009.

Philosophy of future history


“Science fiction is a historical literature because the theoretical act or the imaginative act that you perform is to postulate some kind of a future. The thing that makes it other than fantasy is the inclusion of a history connecting that future back to our present moment. Having provided that history, either explicitly in the text or implicitly, you are also providing a theory of history, unavoidably. You have to suggest what you think are the most powerful determinants, and also a philosophy of history is expressed, by whether you portray history as something that can be planned and consciously worked out to make things better in a kind of enlightenment mode, or whether it’s just so contingent and filled with inexplicable events that it’s out of our control …

“All aspects of a philosophy of history end up expressed in any given single science fiction novel, even if they are merely part of the armature of the subtext. And if you care to play with these things specifically, then you can begin to make statements in the form of imaginative experiments or thought experiments: “If this is the correct theory of history then we should see something like this.” Then you write it out in a concrete form. It’s often in the novelistic detail of the text where you begin to believe or disbelieve in the theory that’s being expressed, because it seems coherent, convincing, likely or plausible, etc…”

Writing Against Reality: Rjurik Davidson talks speculative fiction with Kim Stanley Robinson and China Miéville, from Overland Literary Journal.

Image: Mission to Mars – Scott Listfield, via Fine Art America