05 June 2007

Why science fiction is the only legitimate art form of the 20th and 21st centuries

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I’d like to begin with a quote by Philip K Dick from 1974:
How does one fashion a book of resistance, a book of truth in an empire of falsehood, or a book of rectitutude in an empire of vicious lies? How does one do this right in front of the enemy?

Not through the old-fashioned ways of writing while you’re in the bathroom, but how does one do this in a truly future technological state? Is it possible for freedom and independence to arise in new ways under new conditions? That is, will new tyrannies abolish these protests? Or will there be new responses by the spirit that we can’t anticipate?

By only legitimate art form, I mean that which exemplifies the culture, the place and time in which the artwork is made -– the zeitgeist if you will, the spirit of the times. For example, in the 15th century, Western culture’s sudden new access to Arab maths and Greek science caused deep societal and cultural change. New continents were discovered and double-entry bookkeeping was invented.

’Man is the measure of all things’ was the new credo, as exemplified by perspective painting, where the average height of a man was literally the measure used to create pictorial space. If we compare a 15th century painting that’s still in the International Gothic style...

...with Piero della Franscesca’s Flagellation...

...it should be obvious which is the legitimate 15th century artwork.

We live in an advanced capitalist society, one that is only made possible through perpetual advances in technology. We need technology to advance simply to maintain the society that we have. This is an incredible thing. The industrial revolution represents a radical break with the past. Previously, every generation basically lived the same kind of lives as their parents and grandparents. Change happened on a much longer timescale. Let’s watch our first film. As well as being a nice illustration of how science fiction exemplifies our culture, it also shows how much things have changed in just half a lifetime. [Caltex ad]

We live radically different lives than practically all of our ancestors, pretty much mostly cos we have artificial lighting and regular clocks. Modern cities never sleep. There’s always someone up doing something. We are taller and we live much longer and easier lives than most people who have ever lived. Of course, all this comes at a cost. Two hundred years of industrialisation has stripped out virtually all of the readily accessible minerals and oil, wiped out a significant proportion of the world’s species, and fucked the climate for at least the next few thousand years.

By advanced capitalist society, I mean of course that we are now a consumer-driven post-industrial capitalist society. As the avant-garde art political group the Situationist International identified in the mid-50s:
The project of the postwar West is to redefine everyday life to mean the pleasurable consumption of material goods in a system of male supremacy and corporate hegemony.

This is the 50s future that we inhabit.

Like the revolution, the science fiction future – jet packs and holidays on Mars, an end to poverty and disease and work, and our descendents spreading out among the stars – was never going to happen.

Science fiction has always been about using metaphors of a technological future to talk about modern life now. Although it originated in the European avant-garde, as I will shortly demonstrate, it really came into its own in mass-produced pulp fiction and film – two media that couldn’t exist without industrial capitalism – so that with science fiction you get that magic marriage between form and content that produces great art. As Philip K Dick said in 1969:

[I]t embodies some of the most subtle, ancient, and far-reaching dreams, ideas, and aspirations of which thinking man is capable. In essence, it’s the broadest field ... permitting the most far-ranging and advanced concepts of every possible type; no variety of idea can be excluded from SF; everything is its property.

Let’s watch our second film, by Dunedin animator Fred O’Neill. [Fred O’Neill]

Some recurring science fiction images – robots and spaceships, pocket communicators and computer terminals that can access all of human knowledge – are now a part of our everyday life. In a lot of ways, science fiction has formed our world. Take the rocket ship, the ultimate metaphor for the American love affair with the motorcar, itself a quintessential modern thing. The visual metaphor of the rocket informed the design of 50s cars, huge things that were all fins and swooping lines, creating a feedback loop that’s continued to the present day. Just look at my Star Trek communicator! [Wave cellphone around.]

As I mentioned before, all this had its origin in the avant-garde art movement of the early 20th century. In 1904, while still an art school student, Francis Picabia, who would go on to paint the world’s first ever abstract painting five years later, declared:
One day all of us young painters ... will be the masters of Paris and turn the Champ Elysees into an immense playground. In circles, in serried rows, delimited by geometrical figures, we will set up all the plaster casts of the schools, all the marbles of the Louvre, the statues of the gardens and museums. And then the astonished bourgeoisie will see something unique. With a fusillade of stones we will demolish the Discobulous, the Belvedere Apollo, the Venus de Milo, and the Venus de Medici.

As usual, artists were the first to see the way things were. For the first time ever, the Golden Age moved from the past into the future. Rather than being dispensed by gods, we would use technology to transform ourselves into gods.

In 1909, the Italian poet Marinetti published the Futurist Manifesto and went on a highly successful speaking tour of Europe. The Futurists glorified speed and technology – Marinetti wrote ecstatically about crashing his car, prefiguring J.G. Ballard – and, just like the student Picabia, wanted to destroy the art of the past and start afresh, create a modern art for a modern society.

In Moscow in 1913, the only performance of the Russian Futurist opera Victory over the sun ended in riots. In it:
[T]he sun, representative of the decadent past, is torn down from the sky, locked in a concrete box, and given a funeral by the Strong Men of the Future. The Traveller in Time appears to declare the future is masculine and that all people will look happy, although happiness itself will no longer exist. Meanwhile, the Man with Bad Intentions wages war and the terrified Fat Man finds himself unable to understand the modern world. The opera ends as an aeroplane crashes into the stage.

Kasimir Malevich, most famous for his one-man Suprematist art movement, designed the costumes and backdrops for the opera.

In 1919, he wrote:
One needs but to find the mutual relationships of two bodies moving in space; the earth and the moon; between these two, there may be constructed a new Suprematist satellite, equipped with all the elements, which will move in orbit, shaping its new path. In analysing Suprematist form in motion, we come to the conclusion that movement along a straight line towards any planet may be conquered in no other way than by circular movement of interstitial Suprematist satellites that form a straight line of circles from satellite to satellite.


Of course, between 1913 and 1919, technological progress reached its logical conclusion in the horrific mass murder that is industrialised warfare, something else never before seen on the face of the earth. As a result, the cyborg was born.

The Dada movement was a response to this madness. In Berlin, Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Hoch invented photomontage, a new visual medium that transformed the dominant society’s industrially produced propaganda and advertising into art.

George Grosz incorporated the technique into his paintings, explicitly portraying the plight of modern man using the metaphor of an android.

In New York, which he described as ‘the cubist, the futurist city’, Francis Picabia had worked through abstraction to a new mechanomorphic style.

Here he portrays the human condition as machines that fail to connect, endlessly repeating the same hopeless motions, going and getting nowhere, just like in a Philip K Dick novel.

People generally consider Dada to be a precursor of Surrealism, but that’s bollocks. Its true successor was Constructivism. The Constructivists also wanted to transform society into a technological utopia. They made no distinction between advanced art and everyday objects, such as chairs and tables. Here’s Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, a true science fiction extravaganza.


Tatlin’s Monument was:
...to be built from industrial materials: iron, glass and steel. In materials, shape, and function, it was envisioned as a towering symbol of modernity. It would have dwarfed the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The tower's main form was a twin helix which spiraled up to 400 m in height, which visitors would be transported around with the aid of various mechanical devices. The main framework would contain three enormous rotating geometric structures. At the base of the structure was a cube which was designed as a venue for lectures, conferences and congress meetings, and would complete a rotation in the span of one year. In the centre of the structure was a cone, housing executive activities and completing a rotation once a month. The topmost one, a cylinder, was to house an information centre, issuing news bulletins and manifestos via telegraph, radio and loudspeaker, and would complete a rotation once a day. There were also plans to install a gigantic open-air screen on the cylinder, and a further projector which would be able to cast messages across the clouds on any overcast day.

After World War II, which brought its own delightful technological innovations, modern art got hijacked by the CIA, which kind of fucked it for a while.

However, rather than dwelling on that, let’s have a look at Len Lye’s Birth of the Robot, which has a really nice juxtaposition of classical and modern motifs and which sums everything up nicely. [Len Lye]

Okay, I’ll finish with a new generation of NZ artists who are using science fiction forms to talk about their interests and concerns, and then, if we’ve got time, I’ll answer any questions.

First, we have Andrew McLeod.

This is by Brendon Wilkinson [slide 11]. When I was researching this talk, I came across this quote by Brendon: ‘For me, surrealism and science fiction are the only interesting things to come out of the 20th century, in terms of art.’

This is by Yvonne Todd.

Here we have Matt Hunt.

Here’s Paul Faris.

This one’s by Stephen Clover.

Finally, this is one of mine. It’s called Signs of a doomed civilisation.

Any questions?

[NB: These are the notes and slides from the talk that I gave at the New Zealand Film Archive on 2 June at the instigation of Mark Willams. I'd like to acknowledge both Mark and Anna Dean of the Archive, without whom this would not have been possible.]

1 comment:

Cj said...

Hey David, I keep meaning to tell you I really enjoyed your presentation!

visitors since 29 March 2004.