Into the Unknown- A Journey through Science Fiction at the Barbican (2017)

Nothing can break the laws of physics. Nothing that is except the power of the human imagination.

There is plenty of evidence to show how science fiction predates the actual practice of science itself and that ideas which underpin scientific enquiry are connected to our most profound thoughts and values. As a genre, science fiction has always had the freedom to explore beyond the accepted parameters of science itself. It has the power to examine who we are, in relation to the constant changes that propel our societies forwards. As well as exploring our fears and desires, perceptions of place within the Universe, our fractured identities.

The Barbican’s latest exhibition ‘Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction’ amply demonstrates how the genre is a very broad church. It is presented in four ‘chapters’ that each explore different aspects of the subject and are evocatively titled ‘Extraordinary Voyages’, ‘Brave New Worlds’, ‘Space Odysseys’ and ”Final Frontiers’. Named surely so as to whet the appetites of anyone even slightly interested in the subject (which is almost everyone I should imagine).

‘Into the Unknown’ has taken on a difficult task; because as we all know, science fiction provokes passionate exactitude in many of its acolytes. But the curators have included something for everyone. During my visit I encountered people of all ages. It was especially nice to see so many families with children, who’s parents probably wanted to share their experiences of films and tv shows like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’.

Many ideas that emerged from science fiction came into conflict with the accepted conventions of their own time, only to be vindicated later on. People believed them to be impossible. For example, technical innovations like flight, space travel, computers or even mobile phones. However the best stories and scenarios turn current certainties on their head or satirise the hypocrisies of the world, so as to reveal deeper insights into our natures.

Upon entering the show in the Circle gallery, one might be forgiven for being somewhat overwhelmed by the number of exhibits and projections. Many large scale exhibitions overload their galleries; with multimedia presentations that end up diminishing the entire show or too many artefacts that essentially say the same thing. However this is not the case with ‘Into The Unknown’. Although there are many exhibits to view, they are well arranged and clearly displayed.

The exhibition covers a great deal of territory and touches on some of the wider aspects of futurism. Although what it does show is certainly enough, for a more expansive view of the subject; I recommend the many talks by Isaac Arthur to be found on Youtube. One of his favourite authors is his namesake Isaac Asimov; who’s ideas underpin so many of the key concepts of Science Fiction and are present throughout ‘Into The Unknown’.

‘Extraordinary Voyages’. In this section we see vitrines filled with books, props, posters, drawings and objects that explore the origins of science fiction. Accounts of journeys beyond the then-known world, distant Utopias and races of hitherto unknown beings. Untainted and vast landscapes that suggest terrains of the mind. Imagine the ‘Mappa Mundi’ made real. Take the imaginary terra incognita of Lilliput for example, or even the very real (but then unknown) continent of Antarctica. Itself a landscape of the mind and imagination for a writer like H. P. Lovecraft.

Here we encounter the science fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Critiques and satires of the Age of Reason and incredible journeys to places previously unknown or inaccessible. Mary Shelly, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are among many others included. Works that examine the rise of technology and difficult questions that arose in the wake of Darwin and Colonialism. As the modern age came into being, people started thinking about what we’d left behind on the road to civilisation. Could we perfect human beings and the societies in which we live? What about the impact of Marx and other thinkers? Also about our primal natures. This was a period of great change in which Nietzsche and Freud were stripping back the facade of our precarious civilisation. It was an age of optimism, before total war taught us a bitter lesson about the machines which had helped to realise our dreams. They can so easily become nightmares. Governments can go wrong and the factory can easily mutate into the abattoir. These concerns were articulated by many writers of the period and became a staple of Dystopian science fiction through the twentieth century into our own times. Many examples of which are to be seen or referenced throughout this exhibition.

The nearby display of mid twentieth century aerospace recruitment advertising was taken from magazines. One was for Los Alamos in New Mexico. Their vagary was amusing, given that Los Alamos was where the US Military developed and produced Nuclear Weapons.

On a different note we have James Gurney’s’ Dinotopias’. These evoke, as Rachel Cooke observed, Poussin like harmonies and dramas of antiquity; but in a parallel universe where sentient dinosaurs exist together with shipwrecked humans who have somehow established a common society. I personally felt these bizarre and confounding images evoked the spirit of 19th century Orientalist painting. But with dinosaurs. You can certainly see where some of the ‘Star Wars’ imagery might have had its genesis. Gurney used conventional painterly techniques to produce these pictures, which perhaps explains why they look so archaic. It also is indicative of the tendency for Sci-Fi illustrators to never stray that far from a conservative realism in depicting the settings of epic stories. Even the most experimental artists rarely go further than say, later Dali when it comes to illustrating imagined worlds. Which is perhaps not too surprising in that like Dali, they wished to create ‘concrete’ views of an alternative reality.

Talking of Dinosaurs, Gurney’s work sits side by side with examples of the original Ray Harryhausen creations for such films as ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ with James Mason; conveniently part of a looped sequence projected overhead. These charming monsters will strike a chord with anybody over the age of 40; from a period when stop frame animation was the most advanced special effect and CGI a future magic as yet unimagined.

‘Space Odysseys’. On the same loop as ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ are two other significant films that both, in their own ways, aimed to be scientifically credible at the time of their release. The first is Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, which despite being 50 years old this year, never seems to age or loose its perfect evocation of an imagined period that at the time seemed impossibly distant and far off. The other film is Fritz Lang’s ‘Frau Im Mond’, which took great care to create a journey to the moon based upon then current scientific principles. In particular the ideas of rocket visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and German scientist Hermann Oberth; who’s eager young apprentice was Werner Von Braun. He would later lead the team that developed the key concepts of American space exploration and the Saturn 5 rocket that took Apollo beyond earths horizons to the moon. Life imitating Art.

Each of the many projections not only fitted in without over-complicating proceedings; but were timed so as to relate to the others located nearby. I would go as far to say that given the amount of material on show and the complexity of the exhibition’s narrative; this is one of the best laid out shows I’ve seen in a long time.

Taking an irreverent and non linear approach to narrative; ‘Astro Black’ is an ongoing episodic video installation by Soda_Jerk. Here he uses a fast paced, multi layered technique of video collage to explore African and western perceptions of cultural and social, political and technological history; informed by theories of Afrofuturism, ‘Astro Black’ uses as a starting point Sun Ra’s feature ‘Space is the Place’. This is then mixed together with snippets of real life footage of Apollo 11 and 70s science fiction film classics like ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Other imagery includes Kraftwerk in Düsseldorf, Ronald Reagan and The Manson Family. The result is both humorous and entertaining; but serious in revealing how images can be ‘cut and pasted’ to alter their original meaning. That new ‘unexpected’ meanings and readings can emerge from these changes of context. Therefore, ‘Astro Black’ also demonstrates many of the shared characteristics of collage and Hip Hop.

Distributed throughout the show are display cases housing the key Sci-Fi novels by almost every author who has ventured into the subject. The range of course includes the stuff you’d expect like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; but these authors sit side by side with books by William Boroughs, Doris Lessing, Martin Amis and JG Ballard. The collections also included several lesser known gems; like Zamyatin’s ‘We’. I for one wanted the keys to the vitrines, so as to go and read the many books with Ive not yet read.

The power of early radio is exemplified by the 1938 Mercury Theatre broadcast of Well’s novel ‘The War of the Worlds’ emanating from the walls of the gallery. Arguably the most famous prewar exploit of that man of his time Orson Welles’, it still has the power to shock; having ‘Fake News-ed’ thousands of American listeners into believing a Martian invasion was actually taking place. The story is of course a thinly veiled critique of Colonialism that captured the public imagination during the end of the Victorian period. Darwin had shaken to the core that self assured sense of entitlement Europeans had acquired through several centuries of conquest. But what if the tables were turned and instead the conqueror became the conquered? A clip of 1951 film is also on show.

A particularly memorable exhibit was a console that allowed the spectator to take control of a space vehicle; from its launch to landing. The big screen required the concentration and thought of anyone brave enough to become the Flight Director in ‘Mission Control’. I saw several kids see it through, although a couple did give up.

‘Brave New Worlds’. Andre Breton once wrote that ‘poetry must lead somewhere’. When you look at a picture, how often do you long to see the worlds just beyond the point of view of the frame? Science fiction has often imagined landscapes and vast cities that exist away from the earth and what is humanly possible. Utopia or Dystopia? If we consider the latter, what kind of societies might emerge in the future? In a world of total surveillance and uniformity, would we as human beings continue to have free will and remain individual, or might we be become a collective species with some kind of hive mind? How might future societies cope with problems of overpopulation, nuclear proliferation and disease? Or even a global apocalypse caused by alien invasion or more likely our own environmental complacency? Could we use space and other planets to alleviate the problems we face on Earth? All of these themes have been explored in science fiction.

Moving through the Circle and looking at the many film props, I noticed a few that personally stood out. I had already heard Cillian Murphy’s chilling and desolate ‘hello!!!’ echo round the exhibition from Danny Boyle’s superb post apocalyptic horror ’28 Days Later’. But then I saw his gold covered sun-resistant suit from ‘Sunshine’ by the same director, which looked like a cross between a welder’s outfit and a Han Chinese Jade-tiled burial suit. But I found the most meaningful exhibit of all to be the humble school exercise book integral to the plot, belonging to Murphy Cooper in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’. Just the word ‘S.T.A.Y’.

Pierre-Jean Giloux’ poetic film ‘Invisible Cities Part 1: Metabolism’ takes a fight through a vast cityscape in some distant place that might be on earth. Fragments of white material rain as snow upon an urban landscape full of extraordinary architecture. Some of the city’s features, such as the ‘double helix’ street layouts look fantastical; yet are located together with buildings and infrastructures that resemble those of a 21st century metropolis like Dubai. Seeming like a future ‘ just over the horizon’, Giloux’ film is informed by the Japanese ‘Metabolism’ movement in architecture.

‘Final Frontiers’. The effects of technology on our conception of ‘Self’ are a common theme in science fiction. This can take many forms. Many films and stories have examined, with varying degrees of philosophical depth; the idea of looking within to glimpse the infinite. One particularly successful example included is the film ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’.

The ever increasing amount of control and order in our lives often seeds alienation, revolt and mental fracture. As in the stories of J.G. Ballard. A scene from the recent film version of the author’s excellent novel ‘Highrise’ is projected along with one from ‘Metropolis’ by Fritz Lang.

Also, is it possible to distinguish what’s ‘real’ from that which is ‘manufactured’ or ‘implanted’ in a world of technical dominance? Themes that run through novels by authors like Phillip K. Dick. Dreams and memories can be recorded and altered or suppressed. Stored and used as currency. At least two exhibits are derived from ‘Bladerunner’.

George Orwell mentioned in his dystopian novel ‘1984’ what he called ‘Proletarian Novel Writing Machines’. Oscar Sharp and Rose Goodwin’s ‘Sunspring’ is a film based entirely on a screenplay written by artificial intelligence. An algorithm called ‘long short-term memory’ was set to examine films like ‘Alien’ and ‘Tron’, so as to put together a credible story and dialogue. Actors then performed the result. I thought it was an interesting experiment and yet, perhaps inevitably, felt it lacking in credibility. Each character in the story appeared stilted and the algorithm hadn’t mastered the natural flow of conversation. All the same it was well performed and a fascinating prospect for the future.

Beyond the exhibition located in the Curve are other exhibits that take a more expansive view of science fiction. Works of art which explore many of our contemporary fears and preoccupations. That speak of our apprehension about the future, through an analysis of our past. Although its a bit of an adventure to find the exhibits in these areas, it is definitely worth the effort. The Barbican’s Brutalist architecture just adds to the feeling of being ‘elsewhere’.

I found Larissa Sansour and Soren Lind’s film ‘In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain’ totally compelling. Although it is obviously necessary to see the whole piece from the beginning, as the narrative is quite complex; the work also functions on a poetic level. Two women are connected by a stark terrain that evokes a perpetual Middle Eastern war zone; pock marked by bomb craters and littered with fragments of the same pottery. Through commentary we are able to ascertain the significance of the ceramic fragments and their relationship to the two women. These fragments tie the sister’s lives together and suggest the reasons for the older siblings conduct. What we see appears to be part dream and part confession, set in some desolate post apocalyptic future. A menace from the sky is a swarm like war technology; indiscriminately bombing and shattering, compacting everything into future archeology. This work is multi layered; successful in using archeology to explore memory. Blending archival photographs and CGI, so as to weave past, present and future histories together and prove that legitimacy is predicated upon material fact. Figures of the past, extracted from old photographs, return to bear witness to the traumas of the future.

The film has provoked mixed reactions; including being accused of anti-Semitism. But I didn’t read it as such. When questioned, Sandeep Dwesar, the Barbican’s chief operating and financial officer, talked about it as a poetic vision that could equally be applied to many areas of history; something in principle I agree with. All the same, I understand that given the political sensitivity of the region, it would be naive to dismiss the story as totally devoid of political associations.

As you approach the Barbican’s Pit, containing artist Conrad Shawcross’ ‘In Light of The Machine’; you can, in the words of John Hurt “sense movement”. From behind the large white perforated screens that surround it, ‘The Machine’ sits at the centre of its ‘lair’. You might read it as a malevolent presence, like Jacob Epstein’s ‘Rock Drill’ reimagined by H.R. Giger. It is heavy and large; ponderous in repetitive movement as it wields a long stick lit at the end, like a car robot aspiring to conduct an orchestra. You also hear the sound of the machine, made by its ball bearings in motion; which is deeply resonant and primal, like a wounded animal.

In actual fact there is a profound logic in the machine’s balletic movement. It’s delicacy and precision recalling that of a surgeon. The amphitheatre is surrounded by large sheets as described above; each enclosing the machine and obscuring its activity. Perforations vary on each, so that the light dances around the darkened space. Shawcross’ machine is describing the stars; tracing out in Ptolemaic certainty their paths of light.

Isaac Julian’s ‘Encore ll: ‘Radioactive’ is a deceptively simple piece. It cleverly uses video manipulation and editing to evoke our fears about the effects of radiation; interlaced with a narrative based upon the story of African American Arctic explorer Matthew Henson. We see a cyborg, played by Vanessa Myrie, walking through a coastal landscape and within a translucent apartment. The footage is taken from Julian’s 2004 film ‘True North’, shot in Iceland and Sweden; processed so as to appear otherworldly solarised. The film was inspired by a character from the writings of Octavia E. Butler, who’s themes included genetic manipulation, contamination and hybridity. I came away with an instinctive realisation that no walls or barriers truly have substance. All matter is transparent to radiation.

‘Into the Unknown’ is indeed a ‘journey’ and one I would very much recommend. Comprehensive and yet not too overwhelming, this is an exhibition that requires time to experience. Suitable for most ages; except perhaps very small children, it will enthuse and inspire them. I also found the show to be a trip down ‘memory lane’. Presenting everything from my favourite films to interesting and engaging fine art. Overall the exhibition does its job well and leaves the spectator with more questions than answers. And who can ask for more than that?

(C) Gideon Hall 2017