Endowed with Genius

“And the AI, endowed with genius and the threat of boredom, was endlessly editing everything that was here, sculpting its own little storylines and odd sights; a marriage of the clever and peculiar leading to a view that people would watch, if only for fear that they might miss something remarkable. Moments later came the musical hum of a real bus. An efficient box pulled to the curb and opened up. Six or seven strangers climbed out, every face twisted to protect identities. And every one of them wore a red nose and the bright white skin of a clown…”

Text: Robert Reed, “Mantis”, in Engineering Infinity. Solaris, 2011.

Image: Mark Ryden, Goodbye Bear, 2006. Oil on canvas, 9″x8″

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.

The Heat Death of The Universe

(1) ONTOLOGY
That branch of metaphysics which concerns itself with the problems of the nature of existence or being.

(2) Imagine a pale blue morning sky, almost green, with clouds only at the rims. The earth rolls and the sun appears to mount, mountains erode, fruits decay, the Foraminifera adds another chamber to its shell, babies’ fingernails grow as does the hair of the dead in their graves, and in egg timers the sands fall and the eggs cook on.

(3) Sarah Boyle thinks of her nose as too large, though several men have cherished it. The nose is generous and performs a well-calculated geometric curve, at the arch of which the skin is drawn very tight and a faint whiteness of bone can be seen showing through, it has much the same architectural tension and sense of mathematical calculation as the day after Thanksgiving breastbone on the carcass of a turkey; her maiden name was Sloss, mixed German, English and Irish descent; in grade school she was very bad at playing softball and, besides being chosen last for the team, was always made to play center field, no one could ever hit to center field; she loves music best of all the arts, and of music, Bach, J.S; she lives in California, though she grew up in Boston and Toledo.

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(4) BREAKFAST TIME AT THE BOYLES’ HOUSE ON LA FLORIDA STREET, ALAMEDA, CALIFORNIA, THE CHILDREN DEMAND SUGAR FROSTED FLAKES.
With some reluctance Sarah Boyle dishes out Sugar Frosted Flakes to her children, already hearing the decay set in upon the little white milk teeth, the bony whine of the dentist’s drill. The dentist is a short, gentle man with a moustache who sometimes reminds Sarah of an Uncle who lives in Ohio. One bowl per child.

(5) If one can imagine it considered as an abstract object, by members of a totally separate culture, one can see that the cereal box might seem a beautiful thing. The solid rectangle is neatly joined and classical in proportions, on it are squandered wealths of richest colours, virgin blues, crimsons, dense ochres, precious pigments once reserved for sacred paintings and as cosmetics for the blind faces of marble gods. Giant size. Net Weight 16 ounces, 250 grams. “They’re tigeriffic!” says Tony the Tiger. The box blatts promises. Energy, Nature’s Own Goodness, an endless pubescence. On its back is a mask of William Shakespeare to be cut out, folded, worn by thousands of tiny Shakespeares in Kansas City, Detroit, Tucson, San Diego, Tampa. He appears at once more kindly and somewhat more vacant than we are used to seeing him. Two or more of the children lay claim to the mask, but Sarah puts off that Solomon’s decision until such time as the box is empty.

(6) A notice in orange flourishes states that a Surprise Gift is to be found somewhere in the packet, nestled amongst the golden flakes. So far it has not been unearthed, and the children request more cereal than they wish to eat, great yellow heaps of it, to hurry the discovery. Even so, at the end of the meal, some layers of flakes remain in the box and the Gift must still be among them.

(7) There is even a Special Offer of a secret membership, code and magic ring; these to be obtained by sending in the box top with 50 cents.

(8) Three offers on one cereal box. To Sarah Boyle this seems to be oversell. Perhaps something is terribly wrong with the cereal and it must be sold quickly, got off the shelves before the news breaks. Perhaps it causes a special, cruel cancer in little children. As Sarah Boyle collects the bowls printed with bunnies and baseball statistics, still slopping half full of milk and wilted flakes, she imagines in her mind’s eye the headlines, “Nation’s Small Fry Stricken, Fate’s Finger Sugar Coated, Lethal Sweetness Socks Tots.”

(9) Sarah Boyle is a vivacious and intelligent young wife and mother, educated at a fine Eastern college, proud of her growing family which keeps her busy and happy around the house.

(10) BIRTHDAY
Today is the birthday of one of the children. There will be a party in the late afternoon.

An excerpt. Read the entire story here

First and last men

“On waking one morning, B was surprised to see that Shepperton was deserted. He entered the kitchen at nine o’clock, annoyed to find that neither his post nor the daily newspapers had been delivered, and that a power failure prevented him from preparing his breakfast. He spent an hour staring at the melting ice that dripped from his refrigerator, and then went next door to complain to his neighbor.

“Surprisingly, his neighbor’s house was empty. His car stood in the drive, but the entire family—husband, wife, children, and dog—had disappeared. Even more odd, the street was filled by an unbroken silence. No traffic moved along the nearby motorway, and not a single aircraft flew overhead toward London Airport. B crossed the road and knocked on several doors. Through the windows, he could see the empty interiors. Nothing in this peaceful suburb was out of place, except for its missing tenants.

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“Thinking that perhaps some terrible calamity was imminent—a nuclear catastrophe, or a sudden epidemic after a research-laboratory accident—and that by some unfortunate mishap he alone had not been warned, B returned home and switched on his transistor radio. The apparatus worked, but all the stations were silent, the Continental transmitters as well as those of the United Kingdom. Disconcerted, B returned to the street and gazed at the empty sky. It was a calm, sun-filled day, crossed by peaceful clouds that gave no hint of any natural disaster.

“B took his car and drove to the center of Shepperton. The town was deserted, and none of the shops were open. A train stood in the station, empty and without any of the passengers who regularly travelled to London. Leaving Shepperton, B crossed the Thames to the nearby town of Walton. There again he found the streets completely silent. He stopped in front of the house owned by his friend P, whose car was parked in her drive. Using the spare key that he carried, he unlocked the front door and entered the house. But even as he called her name he could see that there was no trace of the young woman. She had not slept in her bed. In the kitchen, the melting ice of the refrigerator had formed a large pool on the floor. There was no electric power, and the telephone was dead…”

The Autobiography of J.G.B, The New Yorker. Read more