By Mark Rohtmaa-Jackson & Allan Hughes / Blue Mountain Arcturus
When not in the tower he haunted the room where he had set up his War Tables – high benches on which rested models of cities and castles occupied by thousands of other models of soldier. In his madness he had commissioned this huge array from Vaiyonn, the local craftsman. […] And Dorian Hawkmoon would move all these pieces about his vast boards, going through one permutation after another; fighting a thousand versions of the same battle in order to see how a battle which followed it might have changed.
In Moorcock’s The Chronicles of Castle Brass, Hawkmoon is consumed by a madness to commission his miniature armies, and finds their permutations and predictions more absorbing than the fine day outside his room of tables. Rather than turning inward like Hawkmoon, we, under the guise of the parafictional games company Blue Mountain Arcturus, find ourselves examining tabletop gaming as a means to turn our inward selves toward the wider world: as a language through which we try to alleviate our anxieties of the fine day. This text is a summary of how we hope to achieve alterations to our conditions through an experimental practice. It hopefully points towards areas of study that might be useful to others working with tabletop games as a means to learn strategies for survival: the challenge to critical games design in the wake of Guy Debord and Alice Becker-Ho’s Game of War (1987).
Citadel of Chaos (2019) is our case study for this article, an artwork made for the exhibition Polymorph Other at Queens Hall Arts Centre, Hexham, that same year. It was conceptualised, designed and built as a large piece of scenery or terrain for a hypothetical wargame table. It is a background rather than a focus; something that gives a place an environment that enables other things to happen. As such it is about the possibilities of things happening because of what we might have made. But this is not just on the small scale (a piece of scenery allows a story to be told between players through a game being played) but in the belief that this kind of work can change things outside of the system in which their world is contained (that such stories can lead to possibilities elsewhere).
This article is a brief introduction to science fiction theatre by Greek artists based in Greece and the UK. I’m happy to have been asked to also discuss the theatre company I co-founded, Cyborphic, as the main case study. One would hope that science fiction theatre hardly requires an introduction: the genre has been on stage for at least a hundred and one years, since Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which premiered in 1921 in Hradec Králové. However, science fiction theatre has been present as a largely invisible and underexplored category. In the 20th century, it not only included stage adaptations of Mary Shelley’s and H.G. Wells’s novels, or musicals such as Little Shop of Horrors or the Rocky Horror Show; it also included plays by Samuel Beckett, Caryl Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Alan Ayckbourn, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. A foundational text by Ralph Willingham, Science Fiction and the Theatre (1993), remains one of the few studies that demonstrate the strength of the science fictional imagination in 20th century theatre.
The genre has proliferated in the 21st century, most notably in experimental and fringe productions. More and more artists and theatre companies appear happy to label their work ‘science fiction theatre,’ marking a change from the last century, in which dystopian and post-apocalyptic settings such as that of Beckett’s Endgame, or devices such as time travel or alternate history, could often appear on stage without terms like “sci-fi” appearing anywhere in the accompanying marketing. Notable exceptions to this included the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool (founded in 1976), and Ray Bradbury’s theatrical adventures in Los Angeles, where he led the Pandemonium Theatre Company and adapted several of his well-known science fiction stories for the stage.
More recently, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, a crime/science fiction thriller set in a virtual realm, had its world premiere in California in 2013. Plays by Alistair McDowall, such as Pomona (2014), X (2016), and The Glow (2022), featured genre elements, from Lovecraftian horror to science fiction and the supernatural, and have been staged in the National Theatre and the Royal Court. Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, later adapted into a 2017 film. The first theatre festival to focus on science fiction was Sci-Fest LA in 2014; it included theatrical adaptations of works by Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker. California seems to be particularly friendly to the genre, as does New York, where the Untitled Theater Company #61 has staged new science fiction plays by Edward Einhorn and his adaptations of Ursula K. Le Guin’s and Philip K Dick’s work. Also in New York, Mac Rogers has presented his Honeycomb Trilogy (2012), a trilogy of science fiction plays based on R.U.R. Meanwhile, in the UK, science fiction plays and performances have been populating fringe festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe, Vault Festival and others — including the Talos Science Fiction Theatre Festival since 2015. On that note, and to begin discussing where contemporary Greek theatre-making fits into this world, I will next reflect on a company and a festival dedicated to science fiction on stage.
I. On Cyborphic — or do Orphics dream of Cyber sheep?
Cyborphic is a London-based Greek and Science Fiction theatre company, founded in 2017, producing ancient and contemporary Greek theatre. The company is run by playwright and lecturer Dr Christos Callow Jr. and dramaturg and classicist Dr Andriana Domouzi. Its projects have included a reconstruction of Euripides’ fragmentary tragedy Melanippe Wise, and the solo performances Mayuri and Posthuman Meditation. Cyborphic has also run the TalosScience Fiction Theatre Festival of London (which predates the company, being founded in 2015). The festival has featured contemporary science fiction plays, including work by Greek theatremakers, such as Superhero by Andreas Flourakis. Cyborphic also organised the Performing Greece conferences on contemporary Greek theatre (including papers on Greek science fiction theatre) and the latest Stage the Future conference on science fiction theatre. The company runs a small network for science fiction theatre artists and academics, SF Theatre Network, and organised a network of Greek artists in London.
Of these projects, the most ambitious is Melanippe Wise. The completed text included Domouzi’s translation of the play’s surviving fragments and is based on Domouzi’s doctoral research into Euripides’ two lost Melanippe tragedies, Melanippe Wise (c.418-411 BC) and Melanippe Captive (c. 413-412 BC). It was first presented at the Hope Theatre in London in November 2019, funded by the Institute of Classical Studies and the University of Derby. The process for researching and reconstructing the play was explored in a workshop series titled “Lost Greek Tragedy: Staging the Fragmented and the Fantastic” (Domouzi 2020), and will be further explored in a chapter of Domouzi’s forthcoming edited volume Tragedy Resurrected. Reconstructing, Adapting and Staging Lost Greek Tragedy, to be published by De Gruyter.
Finally, Cyborphic aims to bring interdisciplinary research to theatre-making. Cyborphic’s website features an online database of 21st century science fiction theatre plays and performances, chronicling more than 100 plays with sci-fi elements, including Afrofuturist, contemporary fantasy, horror, and others. Currently, Cyborphic are planning TalosV, and a full production of Melanippe Wise.
II. On Greek Science Fiction Theatre; Live or Leave your Myth in Greece
If we’re happy to consider proto-science fiction when discussing the underexplored Greek science fiction theatre, one may start as early as the fragmentary play Daedalus by Sophocles (likely a satyr drama) where the fragments “160 and 161 testify that the play contained something about Talos” (Sophocles, 1996), the artificial man of bronze. If we were to maintain this flexible approach to genre, we could consider several Greek adaptations of classical Greek drama that have used science fictional, futuristic and/or dystopian elements across the 20th century. One of the most interesting such texts is Medea by Vasilis Ziogas, written in 1995, which features a chorus of metahumans in addition to three goddesses, and blends ideas from Greek philosophy, Christianity and astronomy along with a posthuman take on Medea. The play is unpublished but there’s a copy in the library of the Department of Theatre Studies of the University of Athens. The following quote demonstrates well the style and attitude of the play:
And you Metahumans, that the wisdom you achieved while you were living, rewarded you with the fourth level of galactic life. It is not Jason that elevated himself to the meadow of the fourth dimension, but it was me who descended to meet him. (Ziogas, cited in Domouzi, 2016)
What is of particular interest here — and this is an important theme that science fiction and ancient Greek theatre share — is the struggle of the individual with the cosmos, a struggle which takes mythical proportions. Domouzi argues that at the heart of the play is “the dual substance of Medea,” who is presented here as “some kind of human goddess,” and that the “meaning of the universe and the purpose of existence are central to the text, positioning the characters and the myth against a cosmic problem” (Domouzi, 2016).
Besides such adaptations of classical Greek plays, there have been in Greece — as is the case everywhere — several theatrical adaptations of science fiction films and novels, including quite a few takes on Clockwork Orange as well as We ; an adaptation of The Man from Earth was at Theatre Alkmini from 2013 to 2014, and theatre director Katerina Evangelatos had presented a new adaptation of 1984 in 2016.
But what of Greek science fiction on stage? The first co-production of the Greek National Theatre with the Greek National Opera, Galaxy, also premiered in 2016. The show combined ambitious visual effects, dance and performance, and explored, among other things, cosmic topics from the Big Bang to hopes of alien life elsewhere in the universe. Other examples include another production at Alkmini, Mars 1, by the theatre company “θεατρικό σωματίδιο πΟδήλατρΟν” (which might best be translated to “theatrical particle bIcycle”) and the dystopian drama 3% by Vily Sotiropoulou — set in 2040 — which first ran from 2016 -2017, and was presented again in early 2021. Even its pre-pandemic edition featured Skype connections with actors based in other countries. There was also Mission to Planet Earth by Sakis Serefas, produced by the National Theatre of Northern Greece in 2010 and concerning two alien beings that visit Earth. Home Greco by Vaggelis Alexandris and Odysseas Androutsos, which ran from December 2018 to March 2019 at Theatre Stathmos, was an intergalactic sci-fi comedy exploring the history of Greece through aliens. Another surreal but sf-relevant play is Blood Enemies by Arkas, published in 2007 and performed in 2008 at Neos Kosmos Theatre in Athens; the play features anthropomorphised organs in the body of a dying alcoholic shortly after an accident — the dialogue between the Small Intestine and the Colon is meant to be both funny and existential, as they’re stuck in a Beckettian scenario, with no luck being transplanted and thus surviving in another body, unlike other organs.
It is safe to assume that if Greek science fiction theatre is influenced by anything, it’d primarily be the Theatre of the Absurd and subsequently Science Fiction Cinema and Literature, rather than the lesser known tradition of science fiction on stage, such as in American or British theatre. I doubt that Alistair McDowall or Anne Washburn are well-known in Greek or Greek-Cypriot theatre; however there was a staging of Caryl Churchill’s A Number in Athens at 2005 and a staged reading of a Jennifer Haley’s The Nether directed by Evita Ioannou in October 2020 in Lefkosia, Cyprus.
Many of the performances mentioned above rely more heavily on surreal and absurdist elements than science fiction; what is exciting from an interdisciplinary perspective is how Greek theatre aesthetics can influence the exploration of science fiction in Greece, Cyprus and European theatre more broadly. Some of these plays explore what it means to be Greek, or to exist in modern Greece, from an alien or dystopian perspective. But what of Greeks abroad?
When it comes to thinking about science fiction theatre and performance of the Greek diaspora, especially in the UK, identity issues related to immigration and isolation may be more dominant, alongside general concerns about the state of the world and/or of the planet.
An Ice Thing to Say by London-based Vertebra Theatre and directed by Mayra Stergiou, has involved several Greek artists in its production and has participated at several festivals (in London, Melbourne, Reykjavik, Stockholm and elsewhere), having had both digital versions for online events (that blended live and recorded performance) and live, in-person shows. The performance, blending elements of physical theatre and ice installation, explores the encounter between a human being and a polar bear, and engages with issues of the Anthropocene Era and anthropocentrism. It also featured in one of the Talos theatre festivals (at the Cockpit Theatre in November 2020) alongside another theatre project by Greek creatives, Genome Theatre’s Genesis 37, an immersive performance that involved audience participation both in-venue and online (via Zoom and thanks to a projector and live-streaming from a camera-person on stage), in a feminist story exploring the ethics of cloning.
My own science fiction play, Mayuri; or, The New Human, was performed as part of the Kensington + Chelsea Festival and online for Edinburgh Fringe in August 2021, and explored issues of robotics, posthumanism and immigration. I’d rather not talk about it in my own words here; but according to Geraint D’Arcy in a lovely review in Foundation 140 (Winter 2021 issue), the play is centred “on the triumph and anguish of abandoning the body in favour of a technological and philosophical unknown.”
III. A Conclusion; or, perhaps, a Cliffhanger
One of the challenges of science fiction theatre-making is the creation of work that succeeds both as theatre and as science fiction. Willingham noted that most of the science fiction plays he catalogued in Science Fiction and the Theatre “are the work not of science fiction writers, but of independent dramatists schooled in the old playwriting formulas” (Willingham, 1994, 3). The ideal perhaps here is that, as the cultures of science fiction and theatre continue to explore each other, we have in the 21st Century more plays that build on both traditions. My hope for the future of Greek science fiction theatre is that it engages with both the more-developed science fiction theatre traditions beyond Greece, and with contemporary science fiction literature by Greek writers — rather than operating in a vacuum or reacting mainly to classic dystopian texts. Another hope is that it interacts more with the speculative fiction — and proto-sci-fi themes — of Greek myth and classical theatre.
In any case, I hope that this article has demonstrated that — for better or worse — Greek science fiction theatre exists, and that it has a growing (and perhaps a glowing) presence.
D’Arcy, G, 2021, “Review of Mayuri, or the New Human,” Foundation, vol. 140, no. 50.3, pp.130-132.
Domouzi, A, 2016, “The Metahuman in Modern Greek Theatre: science fiction motifs in Medea by Vasilis Ziogas.” Performing Greece II: Conference on Contemporary Greek Theatre, 3 December, London.
Domouzi, A. (2020) “New life for lost Greek drama: reflections on reconstructing and staging Euripides’ Melanippe Wise.” Institute of Classical Studies blog. July 2020. Available from: ics.blogs.sas.ac.uk/2020/07/09/new-life-for-lost-greek-drama-reflections-on-reconstructing-and-staging-euripides-melanippe-wise. Last accessed 2 February 2022.
Sophocles (1996). Fragments. Edited by Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. P.64
Willingham, R. (1994). Science Fiction and the Theatre. London: Greenwood Press.
Christos Callow Jr is a Greek British Playwright and Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Derby. He has founded the Talos: Science Fiction Theatre Festival and has written several science fiction plays which have been presented at Being Human Festival 2021, Kensington + Chelsea Festival and Edinburgh Fringe.
All images are part of No Ordinary Protest project, with permission from Mikhail Karikis.
Please briefly introduce yourself.
I am a Greek-born artist based in London and Lisbon. I work mostly in moving image, sound and performance. I develop projects through collaborations with individuals, collectivities and communities that are often located beyond the circles of contemporary art. In recent years, I have been working extensively with children, teenagers, young adults and people with disabilities.
Since the early stages of my practice, the politics and materiality of the voice have been key concerns, while at the same time engaging with themes that give voice to different ways humans relate to the environment. There has been an instinctive journey that I began with films exploring voicing conditions of labour in the context of extractivist practices. This moved forward by looking at models of sustainability and eco-feminism, and more recently eco-activism and emerging forms of labour that service nature.
I would say that my works prompt an activist imaginary and rouse the potential to imagine possible audiotopias (i.e. speculative places invoked through sound) and desired futures. I employ listening as an artistic strategy to help determine the content of my projects with the aim to highlight alternative modes of human action and solidarity, and to nurture critical attention and tenderness.
To what extent do you consider your work and practice to be ‘science fictional,’ if at all? Do you actively think about genre in your work, or do the labels come after the fact? (Surrealism, social realism, performance etc.)
I find science fiction and fantasy literature inspiring, but I do not think of my own artistic work through the lens of a specific genre. Perhaps where some science fiction literature and my art practice align is the way I employ my work to imagine and propose different worlds. I often start projects by embedding myself in different community contexts, and as such, social realism is always my starting point. Reflection, imagination and fantasy play an important role as I develop the themes and the projects mature and take shape. A decade ago and after I’d spent several years producing work that was furious and acutely critical, I took the decision to go further and invest my energy and imagination to proposing ‘better’ alternatives. My use of the word ‘better’ here implies a world with social and environmental justice, egalitarianism and practices of care.
Sounds plays a central role in much of your work. Can you say a little bit more about how you see the relationship between the sonic and visual aspects of a new project?
I am currently developing a project which explores our relationship to weather phenomena. I am approaching it from three sonic perspectives: folk songs that call out to the elements, capture and transmit traditional knowledge about seasonal change and meteorology; a second angle is that of music instruments that imitate the sounds of weather and bring the environment into the concert hall through sound, like, for example, wind machines and thunder sheets; and a third perspective is the acoustics of resistance generated through eco-activism and protest. I am working with folk singers, professional experimental musicians and young school children on this project to bring together these three different forms of auditory culture that are testimony to our profound connection and entanglement with the weather. As is common in my work, the performance of these different forms of sound will determine the visual dimension of the project. Be it on a macroscopic or microscopic dimension, all my films capture acts of communal sound-making, resonance and vibration, and document the power sound has to set into motion the material universe, activate our sentiments and mobilise political thinking and action.
Are there any works of science or speculative fiction (in any medium!) that have particularly inspired you?
Every child and teenager should read The Iron Woman by Ted Hughes for its environmental focus, for empowering children heroes with activist ecological thinking and rebelling against adults, and for the central role listening and noise play in the story as superpowers that activate empathy toward more than human beings. The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin is a book everyone ought to read for its acute reflections on capitalism, gender politics and anarcho-communism.
Interviewed by Phoenix Alexander and Jo Lindsay Walton
This interview first appeared in Vector 295.
Hi Alexis. Could you introduce yourself and say a little bit about your background?
Hello, my name is Alexis Panayiotou. I’m a fine artist and a drawing tutor on the BA: Fashion course at Central St. Martins.
As you know, this is a special issue of Vector focused on Greek SFF. So our first question is: do you consider yourself a Greek artist?
I think of my identity as mixed or somewhere between cultures. I was born and raised in London. My parents are both Greek, from Cyprus, both came to London very young, my mum nine and dad fourteen. They have lived here ever since. I have never been to Cyprus so I only have a vicarious idea of the place, through my parents and other relatives, and a bit from TV and radio.
I grew up in a Greek household, eating Greek food, hearing Greek music every day. Greek was my first language until I started school, although now I only have a rudimentary grasp. At home I was steeped in Greek culture and as a young man I would have described myself as solely Greek, and I remember feeling very lucky and proud to be so.
As for ‘artist,’ I’ve only recently started being comfortable using the term — it comes with lots of lofty aspirations! When I was young I drew a lot, like most kids, so there were always parents or teachers telling me I was an artist, or that I would be one.
Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.
Born in London to Chinese parents, Gordon Cheung is an artist who will, whenever possible, talk to people who want to know more about his work. I’m very grateful for all of the occasions when he has given his time to discuss his work with me, conversations which often turn to the topic of science fiction. This interview took place on 4th March 2020, as the impact of COVID-19 was beginning to be recognised in the UK, as the streets of central London started to look very quiet, and elbow bumps had replaced handshakes as the acceptable greeting among friends. Before the interview, we discussed COVID-19 and the strange sense of fear that was taking hold. We talked about whether perhaps there was a sense of xenophobia attached to it, relating specifically to China.
The context of the interview was his exhibition ‘Tears of Paradise,’ held at Edel Assanti Gallery in London from 17th January to 18th March 2020. The interview was a chance to explore Cheung’s fascination with science fiction, the ways in which his practice becomes a lens through which to view some extreme conditions of modernity, and the nature of his work as a series of speculative forms. It was also a chance to talk about these interests in the context of an exhibition that very much looked towards China. The show was presented as a reflection on the continuing emergence of China as a global superpower, an act of witnessing which looks towards futurity as well as to historical narratives, such as the Opium Wars. The five paintings in the exhibition offered aerial views of landscapes, equal part actual and prophetic. These relate to sites of infrastructure projects on an enormous scale. Using a combination of methods, including paint and hardened sand, floating cities coexist with the proposed outlines of new urban realities. These paintings shared the gallery with Home, a sculptural installation made using bamboo and paper from the Financial Times. These sculptures, suspended from the gallery ceiling, were recreated forms of traditional Chinese windows, evoking homes demolished as part of the ongoing process of rapid urbanisation.
Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2001, Gordon Cheung has built a practice around painting, while sometimes making use of sculpture, video and elements of installation. He is best known for his paintings, often large in scale, created on a paper laminate surface made up from stock listings cut from the Financial Times. His 2009 exhibition ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ brought together these elements to create a hallucinatory overview of the present, through evocations of both histories and futures. The exhibition demonstrated the extent to which Cheung’s work had become a visual practice of cognitive estrangement. There is not just a demonstration of an interest in science fiction but rather the construction of a science fictional set of operations manifested in a body of extraordinarily rendered imagery, offering a contested arrangement of the future in a form that demands engagement.
Cheung’s work beguiles and seduces, alluding to the terror of the sublime while exploiting the seductive potential of images and surfaces. He is captivated by the ongoing history of the twenty-first century. Earlier work was preoccupied with his own memories of the promise of a technological revolution, a future that was never to arrive. The hopeful things to come, both social and technological, that Cheung was once led to believe in have been superseded by wave after wave of catastrophe, played out as forces of global capitalism, perpetual conflict, and environmental destruction. Within Cheung’s work, the apocalypse is happening right now.
The thematic and symbolic territory has moved on since Cheung’s ‘Four Horsemen’ exhibition over a decade ago. For some time he developed something of an obsession with tulips, both as a trope of Western painting and as the embodiment of the first speculative economic bubble. As evidenced in the exhibition ‘Tears of Paradise,’ his practice in recent years has increasingly looked at imagery and narratives derived from his fascination with China as global superpower.
Artist-researcher Beatrice Glow’s extensive commitment to public history shapes her work across social-botanical history, dispossession, enslavement, migrations and extractive economies. Building long term projects directly with communities, Beatrice maps complexly interconnected colonial histories through grounded investigations and emerging technologies. Currently on a residency, Beatrice chats from Singapore with Angela Chan in the UK about her work and science fiction’s capacity to tell truthful histories and envision just futures together.
AC: Hello Beatrice, thank you for calling with me. Given the array of your practice, how would you like to describe yourself as a practitioner and what are the key themes that guide your outlook and activities?
BG: It’s constantly going through evolutions, and at the moment, I think of myself as a multidisciplinary artist-researcher in service of public history. I activate many different mediums across art, from sculptural installations to video, to emerging technologies, and all of that with the intent to meet my audience where they are. Public engagement is an important factor in my practice, and for the art, to shift a dominant narrative.
AC: I first experienced your work through your solo exhibition Forts and Flowers (2019) at Taipei Contemporary Art Center, which is part of the larger community-centred project Rhunhattan: A Tale of Two Islands (2016 – ongoing). That was my entry point into the many extended investigations you sensitively spend time with. They often focus on everyday elements of migration, extraction and globalisation, such as etymology, perfumes, tableware, nutmeg, architecture. How did you begin mapping these complex and multiple histories of colonisations, and as aligned with indigenous land sovereignty and climate justice?
BG: I’m glad you got something out of that exhibition, because it was a small attempt at trying to bring that story to my ancestral homeland in terms of the larger history that ties together the different migration flows, the circulation of people, goods, cultures between Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Great Ocean in between.
Place is very important to me in how we shape ourselves and reflect on who we are through lived experiences. Growing up in North America, with family in South America, and parents from Taiwan, I’ve always had in mind how my family’s experiences are different by place. After university I had an amazing opportunity in receiving a Fulbright grant, and I moved to Peru, where there is the largest Asian Latin American population. The year before that, I had been to Argentina for a few months to meet my family, and that really piqued my interest in the different ways in which we experience belonging and feeling safe as racialised people in this world. My uncle, whom I met there, seemed very much not to have been in a safe place for most of his experience; he slept with a pistol under his pillow. They went through the saqueo in the early 2000s in Argentina so they had a very different idea of what it means to be a racialised minority. It made me interested in this side of history, and I was also surprised about the way I was treated as a romanticised ethnic Other. Experiencing humorous yet strange questions/encounters or microaggressions, I guess, led into my early development as an artist: just trying to poke fun but ask questions around identity and perception, and how we show up as racialised bodies.
So in Peru, I wanted to look at the longer history of Asian presence in South America, and that brought me to so many homes of people with diasporic histories. I visited many cemeteries, for records of Japanese and Chinese labourers, which uncovered difficult histories. I also traced the railroads from Lima city all the way up to the Andes. I finally took a boat ride in Iquitos, which is a city in a jungle in the Amazonian river basin, looking for the village called Chino, which on a basic level means Chinese. But really the word Chino is an imaginary word to me: it has many definitions in Spanish, the colloquial language and its slang. Meaning orange in Puerto Rico, it can also mean an indigenous person in Central America, 50 cents in Peru, or cannabis, in reference to squinty eyes one has after smoking. So I was looking for Chino in its plethora of meanings. When I finally arrived, they said I was the first chinita to arrive, but I don’t identify as Chinese. I was placed under that umbrella, and I was placed to think about how we are read.
That experience also allowed me as a young person to visit the Guano Islands where Chinese ‘coolies’ were forced to do labour, and where the first railroads in Latin America were built to transport the guano on these islands. These horrific places that inflicted violence on these people, and trying to understand that history, also allowed me to see the complexities of where my privileges were, and where my disadvantages were. I met teachers who were of indigenous and mixed race ancestry, white Peruvians, and Afro-Peruvians who also have Chinese ancestry that’s not so much documented, which informed what it means for me to be a visibly racialised settler in South America.
That set the scene for me, regarding how we tell important stories, and what the artist’s role is in recovering stories that are not told. A lot of people had entrusted me with the responsibility, telling me I’m the first person to ask them these questions and allowed me to do their interviews and they shared their family photos. It was a gift that I could stay for two years doing this work with people. When I travelled back to the US, I thought about the stories that slip through the gaps in the archives, and one of the main ones was the pre-Columbian connection between Asia and the Americas, which signaled to me the Great Ocean, known also as the Pacific. There’s one founding myth in the northern coastal region of Peru, of Señor del Naylamp who arrived on a boat, and he had almond-shaped eyes, and many concubines and ‘brought civilisation.’ There are many archaeological references to this character, and people were wanting to tell me that our ancestral heritages are related, like in these stories. Such folklore and artwork allow for more speculative understandings of history than the archives of history books. It made me think about the Great Ocean, and growing up in California, my mother’s brother would say if you look out to the west, you’ll see Taiwan. This sparked my imagination that despite geographical differences, you’re always connected to a place.
I’m presently on a residency, and I’m in the Malay archipelago that’s a homeland of many Austronesian peoples, and their history is under-discussed in the world. The general consensus in linguistic research, which some contest, is that Austronesian peoples set sail from Taiwan around five to six thousand years ago, and people speak Austronesian languages across Taiwan, Aotearoa, Madagascar, Hawaii, Indonesia, Philippines, Rapa Nui, just to name a few. So it’s a very beautiful story about human connection that’s also seen in certain foods of the Pacific that are found in the Andes. Those are the stories I’m interested in about Asia and the Americas, in which history doesn’t begin with Columbus; it’s an anti-colonial narrative I began following then, even if I didn’t realise this at my younger age. So you see, I’m mapping a very big map!
If you ever publicly identify as a futurist, you will eventually be asked what contemporary futurism – an admittedly vague term which somehow covers everyone from tech-centric venture capital strategists and Pentagon policy wonks to Ray “Singularity” Kurzweil and the snake-oil Barnums of Silicon Valley – has to do with the proto-fascist 1920s Italian art movement of the same name. Bruce Sterling’s latest novella, Pirate Utopia, is (in part) an attempt to answer that question.
Written in the bombastic style that animates much of Sterling’s more recent short fiction, Pirate Utopia is populated by characters whose larger-than-lifeness is predominantly a function of their unfettered will-to-power (but also cocaine). In this alternate Adriatic, minor historical figures and allegorical types rub shoulders in Fiume, the little city at the heart of the breakaway microstate known as the Republic of Carnaro, where Futurist poets and artists work side by side with rogue military leaders and mercenary engineers to establish a proto-fascist entrepôt with its own hi-tech missile factory.
Identified by glamorous (and thus ridiculous) nicknames – “the Poet”, “the Ace of Hearts”, “the Art Witch” – the heroes of capital-F Futurism unwittingly slip into the narrative space occupied, in our own timeline, by the more fully developed European fascisms of the early 20th Century: Mussolini, a magazine editor, is emasculated in his office chair by Syndicalist women with single-shot handguns, while a former Austrian art student takes someone else’s bullet during a failed putsch in a Bavarian beer-hall. But Carnaro is doomed not to last – for as Peter Lamborn Wilson has observed, the pirate utopia is always-already temporary and contingent; the polder cannot hold.
The arrival of “the Magician” – one Harry Houdini, squired by two USian pulp fiction pioneers – and his inviting of Lorenzo Secondari the Pirate Engineer to the States completes the story of Futurism and futurism. Both are essentially poetic movements fuelled by utopian genres of writing and the creative arts, and powered by the modernist legacy of a lust for power, velocity and creative destruction. Which is not to claim that small-f futurism is necessarily fascist, of course – but the same desires and fetishes can be found the manifestos of both, and today’s self-styled “neoreactionaries” (a small but scary intellectual splinter of the soi disant “alt-right”, fond of cool tech, racist pseudoscience and the presumed meritocracy of enlightened dictatorship) mark the ideological space where futurisms past and present overlap. Both futurism and Futurism are far less about the future than they are about a present in the perpetual process of radical sociotechnical reconfiguration, and the possibilities of power in times of flux.
Warren Ellis’s Normal begins with an ageing academic demanding cat gifs with menaces (assuming “menaces” can stretch to include a shank whittled from the handle of a ten-buck toothbrush), and the story only gets darker and weirder, unfolding around a plot featuring “a missing guy, a locked-room mystery out of Agatha Christie, and a pile of insects.” Normal Head is a retreat facility for burned out futurists – not the “woo, flying cars!!” sort of futurist, but the strategists and forecasters who have learned the truth of Nietzsche’s old aphorism about gazing into the abyss, and learned it the hard way. The abyss in question is the light-cone of increasingly plausible and probable end-games facing a civilisation whose ability to generate interesting new technologies has far outpaced their ability to plan, predict or control the consequences – and speaking from beneath my own futurist’s hat, I assure you it can best a basilisk when it comes to lookin’ back atcha.
In contrast to the pulpy swaggerdocio of Sterling’s story, Normal has a stark style and shape, tracing a bleakly Ballardian arc which, plotted on paper, would resemble a stock-market chart during a bank run: a justifiably and self-consciously doomed male Western professional attempts a heroic final act of self-abnegating redemption, only to reveal in doing so the even more comprehensive fuckedupness of, well, pretty much everything. Mercifully, Ellis leavens his grim prognosis with gallows humour, and with his well-tuned ear for the contemporary vernacular: you may be headed for a boot-on-a-human-face-forever sort of an ending, but you’ll find yourself smiling as an academic from a rival discipline describes economics as “a speeding death kaleidoscope made of tits” – particularly if you know anything about economics. (Or about academics, for that matter.)
Taken together, these two books shine a light on the intimate but often occluded kinship between science fiction and futurism, rooted in a shared ideology and teleology. I am reminded of a recent Clute riff, in which he observes – and I paraphrase – that in “the old sf” (which is to say, roughly speaking, 20th century sf) the reward for saying ‘yes!’ was the future, while in “new” sf, the reward for saying ‘yes!’ is death; this reflects and reproduces a recent tectonic slippage in our attitude to change, and to technological change in particular. The Republic of Carnaro may be doomed in Sterling’s story, but as Houdini and friends say ‘yes!’ to Futurism and smuggle its Promethean flame back to their homeland, they mark the beginning of a hegemonic American century – albeit one which seems to be drawing to a shuddering halt even as I type. But Adam Dearden and the other inmates of Normal Head, after long careers of saying ‘yes, but…’ to the future, suddenly find that it’s too late for questions and analysis, let alone for saying ‘no’.
Things being what they are, I think we’re all victims of #abyssgaze to some extent … and yet the dream of Carnaro lives on in the tax-exempt sea-steading fantasies and vaporware Martian colonies of libertarian millionaires. Perhaps, then, we could say that Futurism’s greatest trick was – and still is – making the capital disappear.
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.