A report from the Lofoten International Arts Festival: ‘I Taste the Future’
If I were to say ‘science fiction’, what would you picture? Perhaps the chest-busting ‘John Hurt moment’ from Alien (1979); the bulbous-headed baby in a basket, delivered to us by Steven Spielberg in E.T. (1982); or Roy Batty’s final words in Bladerunner (1982): ‘All those moments will be lost, in time, like tears in rain. Time to Die.’ These scenes of wondrous cinematic creativity have come to define an entire genre of speculative fiction, one tasked with providing momentary glances into alternate worlds. But while crucial, such cosmic inventiveness is not the sole reason that science fiction has endured, across so many mediums, for so long. That prize is shared with the social-, cultural-, political-commentary that pulses away beneath the spectacle – that which is said without being said at all. As Donna Haraway writes in her ever-necessary Cyborg Manifesto (1991): ‘The boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.’
In Fabrizio Terranova’s film Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (2016), included in this year’s Lofoten International Arts Festival (LIAF), a month-long exhibition of 19 artists, artist-duos and organizations curated by Milena Høgsberg and Heidi Ballet and held on the Norwegian archipelago, north of the Arctic circle, a cackling Haraway picks up this thread once more. Science fiction, she proclaims, referencing the novels of Robert Heinlein, Joanna Russ, et al., is not ‘fiction’ as we understand it, but rather philosophy cased in narrative. She qualifies: ‘some of the best thinking is done as storytelling.’ Terranova’s mesmeric interview footage (stunted by far-from-seamless, far-from-necessary animated interludes) sees the miraculous orator weave frantically yet flawlessly through ruminations on colonial legacy, the failures of capitalism (and its harshest critics), and baseless gender definitions, as well as her own own sexual history. But, invariably, Haraway returns to that same refrain: we can, must, utilize storytelling as a method through which to ‘propose something real […] something that is not yet but might be’. ‘Until the stories start getting told like that’, she continues, ‘we are speechless’.
Imagined futures as blueprints for ultimate realities is the theme of this year’s edition of LIAF, ‘I Taste the Future’, and as reality tailspins further down the fictive rabbit hole, it’s a good place to start. We live in a ‘post-truth’ non-world, after all, in which ‘fake news’ can spark a resurgence in fascist sects, re-establish archaic racial divisions, and help elect a volatile US President who, tucked in the plush breast-pockets of various multinationals, will gladly pass off climate change as the stuff of legend. (The battle between capital and climate that perpetuates this denial is particularly important to the Lofoten archipelago, which sits above an untapped oil reserve worth an estimated USD$60 billion.) Moreover, many of the most damaging social truths of our time are largely founded in myth and make-believe: gender, race, class, national identify, beauty. Haraway introduces Terranova’s film with an anecdote relating to the latter. Some time ago, on the Princeton campus, she noticed how many of the students had perfectly straight teeth. The homogeny struck a nerve because Haraway, too, had perfect pearly-whites – blessed by the hand of her dentist. ‘How’, she asks, ‘does the orthodontist know when to stop?’ Cue an extensive period of research into the history of odontology and the revelation that the ‘correct facial angle’ that dentists strive to craft did not originate with man, woman, or any other ‘patient zero’, but in classical sculpture. 'The correct facial angle’, Haraway stabs, eyes set to burst, ‘is the angle of the Greek gods!’
Toothy adaptions (as status symbols) glisten throughout Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s film TEETH, GUMS, MACHINES, FUTURE, SOCIETY (TGFMS) (2016), which takes Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto as its starting point. Filmed exclusively in the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, the city in which Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the work centres around ‘grills’, the metal dental adornment commonly associated with US hip hop. Somewhat uncomfortably (physically, conceptually), Reynaud-Dewar fits four local comedians with sets of grills, and launches them into a dislocated discussion around that very action: the appropriation of cultural symbols. Tonguing her silver frontispiece, a white comedian mutters: ‘I don't fully understand that identity and I might be taking something away from that’. A black comedian mutters: ‘It's hip-hop culture […] you cannot take that away from us. You should not be allowed to take that away from us.’
Such contradictions repeat and resurface throughout Reynaud-Dewar’s film to interesting effect, but less welcome questions remain: Can four citizens truly represent the city of Memphis – and the two African Americans amongst them black culture as a whole? Does Reynaud-Dewar feel that the hip hop that soundtracks her fairly gratuitous panning shots of suburbs legitimizes her position as a white, European ethnographic commentator? Does a simple broaching of the topic of appropriation justify a conscious undertaking of that act? I’m not convinced. But interesting points are raised during the film’s climax, as the comedians riff on Cyborg Manifesto against a deafening electronic soundtrack. Haraway’s proposed cyborgs were an abstract, idealized race whose creation might herald the obliteration of age old, socially-constructed binaries. But as the comedians discuss the speculative future within which said beings might exist, they slip back into the very (human) preoccupations that Haraway wishes to dissolve: gender, race, labour – even reproduction and base arousal are touched upon (‘Do cyborgs masturbate?’). Through the group’s inability to escape coded social structures, we come to question whether Haraway’s optimistic proposal might ever be attainable. Would robotic ‘adornments’ really be of benefit to humanity, or would they simply lay metal over layers of rust, concealing the corrupted matter that lies below – much like the grills themselves, clasped affront of decaying incisors.
Adornment is key to choreographer Adam Linder’s performance To Gear a Joan (2017), which sees Norwegian vocalist Stine Janvin Motland slowly wander the streets of Henningsvaer like some lost nomad drifting from a post-apocalyptic future. With hair swept back and expression absent, Janvin Motland occasionally halts her one-party procession, removes her ergonomic armour, and forms it into a temporary habitat for song. The chestplate becomes a seat, the briefcase and leg guard a music stand, the arm an amplifier. (Somewhat less inventively, a loop-pedal comes in the form of an iPhone – it appears our future is not without Apple). A capella, our wayfaring stranger sings in abstract non sequitur of a future eco-feminist uprising of sorts, against society’s masculine paradigms that have seen ‘incentivized zones’ of the environment plundered by industrial greed and ‘a failed binary’ set in place. Linder is no lyricist (fresh darling buds / unlikely deflowered / cause he’s been fucking / into the abstract / since my man Plato cowered / crusaded into endless flex zones), and as a result the libretto is tricky to follow. That said, it’s hard to resist the pull of the coda, a battle cry of sorts, which lingers behind Janvin Motland as she dons her battle garb and continues her journey once more: ‘Joans are going in / Joans have grown thicker skin’. Here, a future vagabond, returning with news of a victory. Victory over what, however, remains to be seen.
Other works are less concerned with amending that which exists as deficient than they are with utterly eradicating its very existence. For his 90-minute video Smashing (2004), filmed while on a teaching residency at Fondazione Antonio Ratti in Como, Italy, Jimmie Durham invited local students and artists to each bring him an object that they wanted destroyed. They, like we, meet a suited Durham at a desk, its surface empty aside from a large rock. One by one, figures walk into the frame and place their objects in front of him: a novelty cactus, an alarm clock, a toy car. And then comes the rock: again, again, again, it is brought down on the objects, until the executioner is satisfied with the spoils. Once the task is complete, Durham stamps, signs and hands proof of demolition to the visitor, a simple yet charged swipe at the destructive practices that are often central to official governing regimes. Ho Tzy Nyen’s The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia Vol. 3 (2017) is a visual investigation into the actual commonalities that exist within the eponymous region, which was rudimentarily grouped together by the Allies in the midst of World War II in spite of the region’s divergent languages, religions, cultures and political systems. The multimedia dictionary, which draws from a database of thousands of video clips, feature films and sound bites relating to the region, is structured around a repetitive script of alphabetized keywords: ‘A for altitude, A for attitude, A for anarchism; B for barbarian, B for Bondage, B for boundaries’. The end product, however, is anything but structured: Algorithmically tweaked, the imagery and sound material supporting the alphabet is distributed in a wholly random order, meaning that a new set of associations and attachments is bestowed upon each word from cycle to cycle. The dictionary, in this sense, is appropriately paradoxical: like the so-called Southeast Asia that it attends to, it is endless, irresolvable, utterly indefinable.
The title ‘I Taste the Future’ contains a trio of timeframes. ‘I Taste’ situates us in the here and now, as we live and breathe; ‘the Future’ should also be obvious; and by virtue of the latter’s definition, we can assume that something has passed. But to taste the future is one thing – to catch the odd note of sweet or sour before it falls from our teeth. But can we, removed as we are in the present, ever clamp down on this future? Pick out its bones and remove its oily skin so that once it is ready to consume, we too are fit for the task? The absurdity of this desire to master the ‘not yet now’ (and the self-important assumption that humanity is in any way a central player in this drawn-out tale) is questioned by Daisuke Kosugi’s participatory sound work, Good Name (Bad Phrase) (2017). Drawing upon his experience working within the risk analysis sector, Kosugi problematizes the notion that we might quantify, predict and thus prepare for the future via a prescribed set of rules and regulations by, well, prescribing a set of rules and regulations. Next to a coastal football field, the surrounding waves and rocks playing the role of the home crowd, assistants pass pairs of headphones to audience members. These play four short stories (two by Kosugi, one by Walter Benjamin, one a Japanese folktale translated by the artist), each of which has been spliced with directives as to how one should interact with the material. Take up a position on the field, a voice reads. Walk to the centre circle. Walk to the closest corner. Find a white line, place your feet at either side, stare at the line. A story begins: ‘At a place famous for a day trips, not far from Qingdao, there was a section of rock’.
The instructions are clear, commanding and, as a quick glance at the bodies being coaxed around the field will show, followed to a tee. But as Kosugi wants to impart: command does not assure concentration; rules outlined rarely equate to rules followed. At one point, I was advised to move beyond the gaze of others and stare just above the horizon; at another, to skirt the edges of the field at a pace that did not consume energy. After 10 minutes, I returned the headset to Kosugi, who asked me which stories I had heard. I could not name a single one – perhaps a woman was at a bus stop; perhaps a hand was against a car door. My mind, like I, had wandered beyond the prescribed lines of the exercise, the literal lines of the field. Understandable, then, that the working title of Good Name (Bad Phrase) was Exercise for Disorientation.
Kosugi’s project makes obvious something that we already knew: You can never predict, let alone control, the future. (Nor the past, for that matter; and rarely, in my experience, the present.) But the act of projecting futures is not futile, for speculations as to the nature of the hereafter allows us to gain a better understanding of where we are in the present. What are we happy with? What engenders malcontent? What are we lacking? What do we have in surplus? If ‘I Taste the Future’ is anything to go by, we are restless, we are reaching, and we are not in a position to seek solutions. Instead, we lust for alternate techniques and teachings that might allow us to survive a while little longer (something evidenced by the presence of The People’s Kitchen Tromsø, a volunteer organization that prepares free meals with expired yet still-consumable foodstuffs). It makes for deflating, if not expected, viewing, but this yearning to endure discloses something positive: a still-present vitality, energy, belief, which one day might see solutions become more feasible. For now, to draw us back to Haraway, we must keep telling new tales, putting fresh spins on old stories, until we arrive at something real that is not yet but might be.
Main image: Lisa Rave, Europium, 2014, HD video still. Courtesy: the artist and LIAF