Navigating Towards the Future: Thoughts on the 'Brave New World?'

By Emma Christine Karlsen.


If you visit Akershus Kunstsenter this fall, you can get a glimpse of the future. Or rather, what the future might look like. Seven different rooms portray seven different future outlooks. This year the art center is exploring the many directions we are navigating towards, and in the ongoing group exhibition Brave New World? they are navigating towards the future. When putting together this exhibition, the curators Rikke G. Komissar and Monica Holmen turned to present-time, asking: “What is influencing us these days, and where does this lead us?”[1]. Thus, themes such as artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, geopolitical conflicts and transhumanism emerge among the selected artworks.


Several of the artworks function as potential future scenarios, where one does not exclude the other. The artists are addressing issues that humanity might face in the future, and in some cases they offer a solution. In one room a video is projected onto a black wall in a pitch-black room. The intense darkness creates a gloomy mood. It’s difficult to grasp exactly what it is we are witnessing. Unidentified objects are drifting underwater, air bubbles ravage and light refractions can be detected. The view shifts from underwater to surface, and then back again. Is someone drowning? A dialogue amplifies the supposition, recalling images from the ongoing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. Is this what we can expect from the future – (forced) migration? And if so, who is fleeing and from what?

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, "Quicksand" at Brave New World?, Akershus kunstsenter

The artwork described above is Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen’s Quicksand. Accepting the subsequent interpretation, Larsen outlines a situation recognizable to us (though, for most of us, only from media coverage). Other works included in the exhibition depict more remote scenarios – some even resemble images from a science fiction movie. But we are wrong to dismiss these as mere fantasies and nonsense. In fact, Donna Haraway claims that “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion”[2]. According to her, constructed concepts tend to become social realities. Haraway specifically writes of “women’s experience” as such a construction, but one could add numerous examples: “the orient”; “patriarchy”; “woman”; “leisure” and so on. Furthermore, fiction has the potential to present us an alternative world, it can be “an imaginative resource suggesting some very fruitful couplings” [3].

All the artworks displayed in Brave New World? builds on a foundation found in the present day. This is no jolly space age future à la The Jetsons. The varieties of future images at Akershus Kunstsenter, activates evolved versions of already existing technologies – for example speech recognition and robotics. Therefore, I would argue, the exhibition is given a certain substance and seriousness which forces serious reflections regarding the kind of future we are contributing to today.


Skyum Larsen’s work shares its dystopian outlook with Clemens von Wedemeyer’s ESIOD 2015. In this video a woman is searching for her lost memory in a world where boundaries between human and machine are dissolved. Humans resemble machines and memories are saved digitally and are detachable from its owner, like a hard drive or the now more common ‘cloud’. Problems occur when the artificial intelligent system does not recognize the woman. The video explores what can happen if artificial intelligence ‘outsmarts us’ and no longer can be controlled by humans. EDIOD 2015 reminds of a horror story – not much unlike the many blockbuster movies about AI takeover. At the very least, it is deeply techno-critical. Wedemeyer is suggesting that machines pose a threat, that they are something potentially dangerous and therefore should be controlled – that is, before they seize to control us. It is precisely such a negative attitude towards technology which Haraway opposes to in the earlier cited A Cyborg Manifesto. According to Haraway, cyborgs – hybrids of machine and organism – are considered “monstrous and illegitimate” [4]. The implications of such a mindset are not fruitful – which fiction can be. If we fear technology, we without doubt fail to see the opportunities it may offer. “Single vision produces worse illusions than double vision or many-headed monsters”[5]. Considering this, Wedemeyer’s video does not contribute to “fruitful coupling”. And, I would argue, it is these fruitful couplings we need in order create a more livable future for all human (and non-human) beings.

Ask Brean is exhibiting another video art work: organiskMaskineri.head. The silhouette of a human head is projected onto the wall, the inside is filled with mechanical cog wheels. This immediately comes across as a more optimistic comment. In contrast to Wedemeyer, Brean presents a man-machine consolidation without any skepticism targeting machines. In his work, the merge between human and machine is simply stated as a fact.


A more optimistic attitude can also be detected in the works of Jalila Essaïdi and Hege Tapio. These artists contribute with a techno-optimistic approach. The former explores how human skin in combination with other organic materials, such as pig skin and spider silk, can create bulletproof ‘suits’ for human beings. Bulletproof Skin is a section of slow-motion videos illustrating how the different hybrid material reacts to a bullet shot. The result is a visually beautiful art work. I suggest that Essaïdi’s work represents a techno-optimistic approach, meaning she seizes the possibilities within modern technology. The backdrop for this work though, is unavoidably pessimistic: a suspicion that a bullet proof skin one day will be necessary to protect us selves from the dangers around us. Tapio, on the other hand, is displaying three kinds of fuels on each bottle: respectively made from lamb, chicken and human organic waste. The artwork is titled Human Fuel. The optimism exists in the belief of a solution for the potential – or more accurately, the unavoidable – lack of resources in the future. This makes Essaïdi and Tapio victims of technological and environmental optimism. The dangers of these future scenarios are that we continue to ignore urgent issues of our time, because a “there is always a way”. Martha Kenney offers a well-formulated rendering of Haraway’s opinions on the matter: “On the one hand, we’re witnessing unprecedented environmental optimism born of a misplaced trust in technology, the naïve belief in efficacy of “spreading awareness” without really changing anything, and flat-out denial in the face of climate change, species loss, and planet-wide environmental violence experienced predominantly […]”[6]

Jalila Essaïdi: "Bulletproof Skin" at Brave New World?, Akershus kunstsenter

Hege Tapio: "Human Fuel" at Brave New World?, Akershus kunstsenter

Brave New World? offers a variety of future scenarios addressing different issues we are likely to face sometime in the future. Some artworks present a future full of hope, solutions and optimism while others are of the more pessimistic kind. Neither of these two alternatives comes without complications. The visitors are urged to engage in the issues the exhibition raises – in particular, the question of what role technology should have in the future.



Notes

[1] Komissar, Rikke G. and Monica Holmen. Speech held 28.09.2018 at the opening night of Brave New World? at Akershus Kunstsenter, Lillestrøm.

[2] Haraway, Donna. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the

Late Twentieth Century. University of Minnesota Press, 2016, p. 6. Retrieved 28.09.2018. https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/modules/fictionnownarrativemediaandtheoryinthe21stcentury/manifestly_haraway_----_a_cyborg_manifesto_science_technology_and_socialist-feminism_in_the_....pdf

[3] Ibid., p. 7.

[4] Ibid., p. 15.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kenney, Martha. Donna Haraway (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press. 312 pages. ISBN: 978-0822362241. (Book review). Retrieved 04.10.2018. https://sciencetechnologystudies.journal.fi/article/view/63108/25011


Additional references

Akershus Kunstsenter. «Brave New World?». (Handout from the exhibition Brave New World? at Akershus Kunstsenter, Lillestrøm, 28.09.2018-04.11.2018)

OSLO FORM LAB 2018