We’re lucky to be talking today to Jonathan Reus and Sissel Marie Tonn, whose collaborative work appears under the name Sensory Cartographies. Their work includes, among other things, the creation of wearable technologies that explore the nature of sensation and attention. […] So like many great collaborations, there’s quite an interdisciplinary aspect to Sensory Cartographies, is that right?
Sissel: Yes, we both have our different backgrounds. Jon really comes from a music and performance background, as well as instrument building and media archaeology. And my background is more in visual arts and arts research.
So tell us how Sensory Cartographies came to be.
Sissel: It started in 2016, when we got an opportunity to do a residency together in Madeira. Sensory Cartographies really grew out of that residency. I’d been to Madeira before in 2013, and started this drawing project, to do with Madeira’s position in the Age of Exploration, which you could really call the Age of Colonization.
By Smin Smith. This article first appeared in Vector 292.
Defining Science Fiction Art
The term science fiction as critic Adam Roberts states “resists easy definition […] it is always possible to point to texts consensually called SF that fall outside the usual definitions” (2006:1). This makes the process of defining science fiction particularly difficult, especially as an artist. The science fiction art we produce often falls outside of definitions which centre literature, film and television narratives.
When I started Vagina Dentata Zine in 2015 (a print publication documenting the relationship between fashion and science fiction), I had Norman Spinrad’s definition in mind: “science fiction is anything published as science fiction” (quoted in Roberts, 2006:2). I am particularly drawn as an artist to understandings of science fiction that prioritise multiplicity, and ultimately reclamation. Having been involved in queer, feminist zine publishing for a number of years now, I regularly witness visual science fiction beyond film and television — beyond the “mainstream white supremacist capitalist patriarchal cinema” (hooks, 1996:107) that criticism still prioritises. It seems more important than ever to move science fiction studies beyond these constructs, to let the emergent and more generative science fiction happening on the fringes into academia.
Here I think particularly of the Afrofuturist legacy, a potent multimedia project that encompassed “the theoretical and the fictional, the digital and the sonic, the visual and the architectural” (Eshun, 2003:301). We do speculation a disservice when we limit its reach. Thanks to the work of multiple artists, zines and journals like Vector, science fiction criticism is finally expanding its remit to encompass the various modes of science fiction art.
My understanding of science fiction art has also been shaped by convergence culture, a contemporary phenomenon affecting both science fiction and the arts. Transmedia studies of science fiction identify a phenomenon where the “boundaries between media have blurred to the point at which it makes little sense to foreground fundamental distinctions between contemporary media” (Hassler-Forest, 2016:4-5). Narratives are simultaneously built across (but not limited to) films, television shows, books, comic books, video games and toys.
Similarly, contemporary art necessarily involves a convergence of media, building “a general field of activities, actions, tactics, and interventions falling under the umbrella of […] a single temporality” (Medina, 2010:19), that of the contemporary. For both Hassler-Forest and Medina, convergence has liberatory potential; as Medina puts it “[…] there is some radical value in the fact that “the arts” seem to have merged into a single multifarious and nomadic kind of practice that forbids any attempt at specification” (2010:19). As a fashion stylist once confined to the genre of visual culture, blurring the boundaries of art, science fiction, and science fiction art specifically feels especially productive.
Samuel R. Delany once proposed that “we read words differently when we read them as science fiction” (2012:153). This essay declares that we read art differently when we view it as science fiction, specifically fashion design and imaging practices.
By Stephanie Moran. This article was first published in Vector 292.
Since at least the beginnings of industrialism, technological innovation has incorporated attributes of animal perception and behaviour. More recently, this process has been recursively intensifying, in a process of ‘the biologisation of computer technology and the computerization of biology’ (Vehlken, 2019). Technologies inspired by nature deepen our understanding of natural systems, in turn fostering new technological developments: from the development of behavioural biology around 1900, through the use of media technology in biological research and the acceleration of bio-technoscience in the 1970s, to the use of simulation modelling and then computational-intensive modelling beginning in the 1980s, and most recently the rise of Machine Learning methodologies in Artificial Intelligence. Now studies of birdsong inform voice recognition software such as Siri and Alexa, while billionaire sci-fi fan Elon Musk is funding research into neural interfaces with the brains of mice and pigs.
There is a moment in an 1836 lecture at the Royal Institution when John Constable argues that “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?” Various nineteenth century artists actually made science-fictional paintings — John Martin and Thomas Cole spring to mind — and groups of artists such as the Futurists, the Vorticists and the Surrealists embraced the ambiguities of modern technology in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1956, the “This is Tomorrow” exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery was opened by Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet and featured science-fictional imagery among its utopian and dystopian reactions to post-war, consumerist Britain. Among its many visitors was a new writer called J.G. Ballard.
It is thus appropriate that this book on science-fiction art is published by the Whitechapel Art Gallery (in conjunction with MIT). As part of the Documents in Contemporary Art series — other titles include The Gothic, Beauty, Abstraction, The Sublime and Ruins— it brings together extracts from theoretical essays, academic journals, museum catalogues, interviews and written creative works, mainly produced in the last two decades. The book is arranged by theme rather than chronologically: “Estrangement”, “Future”, “Posthumanism” and “Ecology”, the first being driven by academic definitions of sf and the others by three broad areas of sf art. It is perhaps surprising that “Utopia”, “Dystopia”, “Technology” or “The City” are not sections, but it seems a reasonable breakdown. There is no editorial voice to situate each extract, beyond the bare fact of bibliography, and so most voices are gifted equal status, some contesting and others contradicting. Occasionally I longed for a map, or perhaps a clarification of whether, say, Afrofuturism starts in 1993 (South Atlantic Quarterly) or 1994 (that issue reprinted as Flame Wars) and I’m not clear whose typo M.R. Shiel was. And the volume assumes that you are familiar with the artists under discussion — a good many of them were names new to me, reflecting the eclectic range.
Across the volume there are some leading academic voices, such as Jean Baudrillard, Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles and Darko Suvin — represented by judicious extracts from central works — and writers such as Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Ted Chiang, Tom McCarthy and Kim Stanley Robinson. Atwood is given prominence as someone who has been accused of committing science fiction and who begs off the label, as what she writes isn’t what she thinks science fiction is, and she apologises that we may have taken offence at being misled into thinking it is science fiction. This is nicely countered in the interview with Kim Stanley Robinson, “Whenever science fiction gets interesting, then people try to give it another name. […] If its content becomes relevant, you call it cyberpunk, cli-fi, Anthropocene literature or dystopian fiction” (195). Nevertheless, Atwood places herself in the Vernian rather than the Wellsian tradition. But, of course, she isn’t producing art, in the sense of the other practitioners in the book.
The heart of the “Estrangement” section is an extract from Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, which situates science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement” (36). It is estrangement that is picked up on by the rest of the book — the sense of the familiar becoming unfamiliar and the unfamiliar becoming familiar, which we can surely see in the dialectical dance between the artistic simulation of, say, a landscape in paint or the reimagining of a location thanks to its depiction. Estrangement is a socio-political act, persuading us to think about the real world in a new way. The cognitive part of the equation — loosely, the science — is not really discussed in the extract, although Sherryl Vint picks it up in the next one. Suvin’s formulation allows us to see art in Pawel Althamer’s salutation to the new millennium in a Warsaw housing estate and then the travels of its inhabitants in gold spacesuits to Brasilia, Belgium, Mali and Oxfordshire. It empowers Afrofuturism and a huge amount of non-Western art by reframing European colonialism as an alien invasion and opens the space for new myths and fables. For example, Amna Malik discusses Ellen Gallagher’s Ichthyosaurus installation at the Freud Museum as “the basis of a foundation myth in which the sea becomes an incubator for the potentiality of the future” (79) (and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon is mentioned in an interview with Ama Josephine Budge ). Meanwhile Yinka Shonibare MBE’s Dysfunctional Family, featuring an alien family dressed in batik cloth imported to Nigeria from Indonesia, was on display at the “Alien Nation” exhibition at the ICA, reappropriating fabrics sold to that country because it was perceived to be African.
Africanfuturism, a term coined by writer Nnedi Okorafor, is used to describe science fiction created by Africans and those of the African diaspora. Afrofuturism, on the other hand, tends to define science fiction created by Black people predominantly in the U.S. – the key difference, Okorafor explains, is that ‘Africanfuturism is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West’ (Okorafor, 2019). While the practices of Africanfuturist and Afrofuturist visual artists differ greatly in their techniques and subject matter, there are common themes which run deeply through many works: hybridity, cultural tradition and history, trauma, and the possibilities of outer space. This article will showcase multiple contemporary Afrofuturist and Africanfuturist artists through the lens of these themes, exploring the ways their works resonate and diverge.
Emos de Medeiros is a Beninese-French artist currently living and working between Benin and France. Medeiros practises a concept he calls ‘contexture’: ‘a fusion of the digital and the material, of the tangible and the intangible, exploring hybridizations, interconnections and circulations of forms, technologies, traditions, myths and merchandises’ (Kikk Festival, 2019). Hybridity is alive throughout Medeiros’s work and is one of his central philosophies. In 2014, Medeiros’s performative installation Kaleta/Kaleta synthesised installation with performance, incorporating music, videos processed and recombined in real-time, photography and a performative video installation that encouraged public participation. Kaleta/Kaleta was hybrid not only in its medium, but also its subject matter. The work depicted the Beninese cultural tradition ‘Kaleta,’ which is a combination of music, dance and performance, itself a ‘unique mix of Brazilian carnival, American Halloween, and Beninese mask tradition.’ By reimagining this tradition through the use of digital technology, Medeiros explains, he sought to form ‘a synthesis between memory and vision, past and future, conservation and creation.’
The Vodun religion in Benin associates cowry shells with exploration, as well as protection, prosperity and fertility. In Vodunaut, the helmets are combined with video works presented on smartphones, merging the organic with the inorganic, the symbolic and spiritual with the digital and scientific. Through these objects, Medeiros points to an alternative future where Yoruba spirituality is situated in outer space, and in doing so his work ‘encompasses transcultural spaces and the questioning of traditional notions of origin, locus or identity and their mutations through non-linear narratives’ (Now Look Here, 2020).
Explorations of hybridity and tradition can also be found in the work of Jacque Njeri. Jacque Njeri’s visual artwork focuses on feminism, culture and empowerment ‘through projected extra-terrestrial realities.’ In her project The Stamp Series, Njeri redesigns selected stamps, combining local culture with space exploration and science fictional elements. Her MaaSci series of digital artworks puts the Maasai tribe, inhabitants of Kenya and Tanzania, into visceral imaginative scenes in space. Njeri’s Maasai science fiction imagines a universe where the Maasai people explore the stars. In MaaSci, the culture of the Maasai is made inseparable from space exploration. The MaaSci series put Njeri in the global spotlight and her work has since been exhibited in Kenya and the 2018 Other Futures Festival in Amsterdam.
Hod Lipson is a professor of Engineering and Data Science at Columbia University in New York. With Melba Kurman he is co-author the award-winning Fabricated: The New World of 3D printing and Driverless: Intelligent cars and the road ahead. His often provocative work on self-aware and self-replicating robots has been influential across academia, industry, policy, and public discourse more generally (including this very popular TED talk), and his interests also encompass pioneering in the fields of open-source 3D printing, electronics 3D printing, bio-printing and food printing. Hod directs the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia, where they “build robots that do what you’d least expect robots to do.”
Fiona Moore is a writer and academic whose work, mostly involving self-driving cars and intelligent technology, has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Interzone and many other publications, with reprints in Forever Magazine and two consecutive editions of The Best of British SF. Her story “Jolene” was shortlisted for the 2019 BSFA Award for Shorter Fiction. Her publications include one novel, Driving Ambition, numerous articles and guidebooks on cult television, guidebooks to Blake’s Seven, The Prisoner, Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who, three stage plays and four audio plays. When not writing, she is a Professor of Business Anthropology at Royal Holloway, University of London.
You are a celebrated figure in the world of artificial intelligence research. Can you tell me how you came to be interested in, and working in, this area?
Thanks. To me, issues like self-awareness, creativity, and sentience are the essence of being human, and understanding them is one of life’s big mysteries – on par with questions like the origin of life and of the universe. There are also many practical reasons to understand and replicate such abilities (like making autonomous machines more resilient to failure). I think that we roboticists are perhaps not unlike ancient alchemists, trying to breathe life into matter. That’s what brings me to this challenge.
My own interest in AI is, in part, as an anthropologist, looking at culture. To what extent will AI “learn” culture, at least initially, from humans, and to what extent do you see them as capable of developing culture on their own?
Yes, AIs learn culture (for better and worse) from humans and from a human-controlled world; but as AIs become more autonomous, they will gather their own data, and develop their own norms, perspectives, and biases.
Do you see this already happening? If so, what do AI cultures look like at present?
AIs today are still like children, and their cultures are heavily controlled by us humans– their “parents.” For example, AIs that generate music are influenced by existing human music genres; AI’s that generate human portraits are influenced by images of humans they find on the web – disproportionately favouring certain aesthetics, genders, and ethnicities, etc. AIs that generate text are influenced by prose that they are trained on, and so forth.
I have not seen AIs that have full autonomy on the data they consume, but this will eventually happen as artificial intelligence becomes more physically autonomous and can collect its own data. But again, we humans are also increasingly subjected to an information diet that is prescribed by the culture we live in, and we have to make a conscious effort to rise above our culture or go against it.
Among the earlier issues, there are still one or two gaps, so if in the course of your spring cleaning you find a #12, #33, #46, #47, or #49 perfectly preserved in amber, or a #50, #51, #53, #54, #62, #63 or #184 released by glacial melt, get in touch.
The archive is an absolutely fascinating place to swim around in. In Vector #79 (1977) I stumbled on two striking comic strips by Judy Watson. There are no words. In one comic, titled ‘The Last Fish,’ a fabulous high femme fish is exploring a desolate, junk-crammed ocean. Grinning fishers, evidently in competition with one another, track her on sonar, surround her, and all together cast their vast nets, sized for catches in the thousands or millions, snagging her in a monstrous tangled web. The final panel is remniscent of da Vinci’s Last Supper, except with a vast host of indistinct gatecrashers (5,000 at least) standing in observance. All attention is focused on the little fish on her platter. A single figure at the centre is poised with knife and fork. The seated ‘diners’ — crude national stereotypes — all point and reach, their faces fixed in eerie rictuses remniscent of fish-bones. One figure, skeletal from hunger, does not reach toward the last fish, but instead cowers from her.
In another comic, ‘If,’ blood flows freely from the protagonist’s breasts. She tapes them up, and blood pours from her navel. She tapes this up too, and visits a Dr [Somebody] — or perhaps Dracula, the edge of the sign is obscured — a balding fanged man, who drinks the blood from her breasts. She weeps, her tears turn to blood, she sits weeping under a tree. Then there is an ambiguous ecological epiphany: she smiles, she finds herself covered with — perhaps she generates? — flocks of dragonflies and butterflies.
Making art can follow many differing paths: allowing the subconscious to do its thing; waiting for inspiration to strike alongside the time to realise craft, developing pleasure in process and deeper understandings of the self. The Neo Liberal market’s force for establishing one’s own name as a brand is a powerful psychological vortex, and for some, it is also imperative to follow the academic establishment’s call for deep research and being precise in defining one’s conceptual intentions. For myself, a commitment to the process of assemblage seems appropriate in an age of polarised economical ideologies; I see this as a way of presenting stratified social critiques – an ethical choice.
My favourite indulgence in developing ideas is a long walk or deep soak in the tub – establishing time for reflection. I came up with a draft for my film in about two or three hours… I was twitchingly excited, as I’d conceived an idea to make a Cli Fi Western.
Mushrooms and fungi have a specific place in the imagination as strange and otherworldly, often associated with the fantastical or magical, but Gavin’s exhibition on the “future” of fungi posits them as significantly more science-fictional than fantastical. They are a technology – for use in the future of fashion, biotechnology or ecological industries, or an alien – an unexpected invader via decay or rot, part of the aesthetic that makes a landscape feel truly not of this world. The exhibition achieves this through the mix of mediums, beginning with some of Beatrix Potter’s botanical illustrations of mushrooms and fungi, and progressing through dance (in video form), textile arts, sculpture, collage, fashion, and an extensive display of books.
The effect is an exhibition that feels unfinished, if visually engrossing. Amanda Cobbett’s sculptures of mushrooms, perfectly rendered in thread and paper, are an illusion good enough to trick you, and Seana Gavin’s collages are alien worlds where mushrooms form otherworldly buildings, or fungi have unsettling human features. The small setting of the exhibit gives little room for in-depth exploration, and its high goal is undermined a little by the content. A display of mushroom-focused non-fiction literature amounts mostly to a display of book covers, which maybe spark thoughts but ultimately feel superficial. However, for a mushroom lover or for those interested in how the natural world can be positioned in a futurist mindset, it’s a fun way to explore how many different artists have used many different mediums to explore the world of mushrooms and fungi.
While the first two rooms of the exhibit largely explore mushrooms as an aesthetic or fascination, the final ‘Futures of Fungi’ room positions mushrooms as a future technology, one that humanity has not yet fully exploited, with potentials unexplored, with displays including experimental leather made from mushroom, and a typeface generated to ‘spore’ organically as mushrooms do. The strangeness of mushrooms, their in-betweenness between plant and animal, their interconnectedness, are all ways in which they challenge humanity to experiment with their potential. Not all science-fiction, after all, is an exploration of an alien world. Some are discoveries of the strange in our deep seas or our high peaks. Perhaps the next frontier is neither, but instead will be the forest floor.
The Design Museum used to be tucked away somewhere on the south bank of the Thames but since relocating to Kensington in 2016 has established itself as a premier cultural venue in the capital. Those of us a little longer in the tooth would recognise its newish home as having once held the Commonwealth Institute. Today the array of flags has gone but the building is still nestled next to parkland. It’s drizzling on the longish walk from the tube station. It’s the final week of “Moving to Mars” and it’s also half-term; which, as a sometime supply teacher, I should have taken into account. Let’s face it, what do kids love most? Dinosaurs. And second most? Space. (Witches are third, in case you’re wondering.) Continue reading “Mars By Design”→