Thursday, August 21, 2014

'Next Brave New World' at Arebyte Gallery, 20th August 2014

Futurology is a mug's game.  History is riddled with people making  idiots of themselves when predicting the future, from Victorian underwater cities to the famously dumb 1977 assertion "there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home".  It turns out that aside from the most vague, obvious ideas (computers will get faster, technology will get smaller) it's downright impossible to predict the twists and turns technology will take and how they'll alter our behaviour.

But this hasn't stopped the graduates of The Royal College of Art from trying!  But rather than pompously declaring what the next big thing is going to be, this Next Brave New World is extrapolated from contemporary life.  These sci-fi visions aren't so much serious predictions, more explorations of what the end-point of 2014 trends.  Laced with satire, humour and imagination they lead us into the human genome, to outer space, even up the M1 to Blackburn.

Superbivore by Kathryn Fleming
Immediately catching your eye is Kathryn Fleming's menagerie Endless Forms/Endless Species.  Throughout human history man has altered the ecosystems around him; be it medieval deforestation, 20th century dam construction or genetically modified supercrops. Fleming makes references the idea of the Anthroposcene: that humanity's impact upon the environment is so large that it constitutes a new geological epoch.  

It's a concept fascinating and worrying in equal measure, one that Fleming has approached through subtle humour and imagination.  Two taxidermied "synthetic biology" animals pose in the centre of the gallery - man's sticky fingers rummaging in the genetic cookie jar brought to life.  Perched gracefully atop a crag is her Superbivore, a majestic deer/goat/giraffe hybrid topped off with a tangled coral reef antler.  Below it prowls the Retro Reflective Carnivore, a fierce-looking six-legged predatory coil of muscles combining the best of feline and canine.

It's one thing to imagine genetic manipulation, quite another to have a three dimensional, lifelike example of it in front of you.  It's posited that these creatures would roam around a future Regent's Park, now converted into hothouse for evolutionary selection; a self-sustaining zoo where predator and prey can exist in competition - each engaged in their own race for survival.  Fleming's creations are beautifully realised and her graphic design excellent, strongly reminiscent of Jurassic Park with all the potential for disaster that implies.

Indivicracy - by Alexa Pollman
Nestled alongside are another set of beautiful creations: Alexa Pollman's Indivicracy.  As opposed to the genetic experimentation, Pollman's is more a political prediction.  It posits the gradual collapse of nation states and traditional nationalities - replaced by identities constructed around economic activity.  The jumping off point is the emergence of transitory groups of migrant workers shipped from around the world to fuel building booms in Middle Eastern cities.  Required to surrender their passports, the shady companies that exploit them shear away their nationalities, reducing them to depersonalised economic assets to be moved at their employer's whim.

Pollman imagines groups of truly transitory humans, united by their constant motion rather than the geographic location they happened to be born in.  Her realisation of this is a costume that emphasises motion; a body fused into a clothing-vehicle with limbs that terminate in wheels rather than hands.  Race, gender and age are suppressed, leaving an identity that's summed up by behaviour.  Rendered in soft cloth it's a remarkably tactile creation, yet the blank, expressionless hoods with their blank eye-hole bear more than a passing resemblance to Klan hoods - underscoring the whole thing with sinister undertones.

Smile, The Fiction Has Already Begun by Zoe Hough
This queasy atmosphere continue in Zoe Hough's Smile, The Fiction Has Already Begun. Projects like the 'Happy Planet Index' push back against traditional ideas of a countries success; measuring not the economic output but the happiness of the population.  At first glance it seems like a nicely hippy dippy sort of plan,  all hugs and smiles.  But as Hough later points out, a happy population is more likely to be law-abiding and economically productive - factors that may lead governments towards manipulating our emotions to force us to be happier.  

Her exhibit imagines Blackburn, apparently one of the least happy places in the UK, being made happy.  Black clothing is heavily taxed, the population walks around with rictus grins plastered on their faces and everyone skips everywhere. It reminded me of the Ned Flander's vision of the future from The Simpsons, where the real horror is that happiness is rigorously enforced.  Her exhibit combines corporate iconography and design, showing the machinations of glass-tower dwelling London bureaucrats mirrored in a very creepy video of a 'happy' Blackburn.

The Validation Junky by Adam Peacock
Further manipulation of the human form occurs in Adam Peacock's The Validation Junky, an complex piece that treats the modern body like a piece of plasticine, playing God and reshaping us into something 'better' suited for modern living.  Peacock argues that our bodies evolved for a hunter/gatherer life on the savannah, not to be hunched over the halflight of a computer monitor.  He splits the body from the brain, first picking apart the 'post-industrial brain' as a complex diagram of political, social and emotion needs built atop Maslow's hierarchy of needs; realised in a huge intricate diagram and a fantastic book that showcases his ideas by building up layers of transparencies.  Accompanying this are his bizarre future bodies designed for a sedentary lifestyle.  They're troll-like and vaguely infantile - freakish yet weirdly logical for modern life.

Finally we reach out into space with Henrik Nieratschker's The Boltham Legacy.  A fictional British industrialist has embarked upon a 400 secret space mission to bacterially colonise a distant planet, allowing him to gain the upper-hand in future space mining. Displayed, as if in some 2414 museum are the artefacts; a letter written by Boltham to his family, a diagram of the precious metals up for grabs at this planet and his elegant equipment.  

The Boltham Legacy by Henrik Nieratschker
The upper-class British tendency for imperialism and outer space are a potent combination; the methods Nieratschker imagines weirdly reminiscent of reproductive fertilisation; the bacterial container as sperm cell and planet as egg.  Given that NASA go to enormous trouble to sterilise their spacecraft to prevent bacterial stowaways, it's interesting to ponder the ethical dilemma of us conducting our own planetary invasions; a thought experiment that loops right around the ethics of modern mining of polar regions or rainforests.

Following the exhibition there was a wonderful dinner where each artist presented a course influenced by their work on display.  As we gobbled down delicious cocktails, pancakes, soups, biscuits and cakes the artist explained their motivations and thought processes, as well as taking questions from the audience.  The gathered crowd proved remarkably well-read, shooting perceptive questions at the artist on topics ranging from the politics of fashion to the differences between wild and domestic animals.

I've always been a big proponent of art as food and this dinner was one of the best examples I've come across, and served as a perfect way to get to know the artists.  And the food was absolutely delicious.  Five fascinating future visions, five delicious courses at dinner and five genuinely interesting, smart young artists:  a damn good night and a damn good exhibition.

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