PAST SHOW: RETROFUTUROLOGY ETHAN WYTHE STEPHEN
How the Past Saw the Present // How the Present Sees the Future
A group show of visual art curated by the Hollow Earth Society,
Ethan Gould & Wythe Marschall, Founding Colonels
On This Grave Matter, According to the Automatic Notions & Stalwart Opinions
Of the HOLLOW EARTH SOCIETY, LLC (“COMPOS•ABYSSVM”)
Written by Col. Wythe Marschall, with Col. Ethan Gould,
On behalf of the whole & noble Society
Manifesto I (Fall–Winter 2010)
Back to the Future, Forever; or, the DNA of the Buggles
The imagination (as a productive faculty of cognition) is a powerful agent for creating, as it were, a second nature out of the material supplied to it by actual nature. (Kant)
To have an imagined future, you must simultaneously have an imagined present and an imagined past.
A DeLorean decked out in flashing lights and complicated-looking wires: It's a modest-budget promise that, yes, the technologies of our age—our new computer chips and LED lights and cars with doors that open upright like a space pod—can puncture the time barrier, with the right old-fashioned mad scientist at the steering wheel! Where to go? A rowdy 1950s, wherein a white kid can invent rock and roll? A steampunk 1800s? A future wherein the promises of kaleidoscopic, holographic advertising from the late 1980s come to fruition—a world with yet another layer of retrofuturist dreaming added onto the small-town diner...?
Our visions of the future are nested.
Our conception of time is hyperreal. In explaining the visual gimmicks of a single cultural artifact such as the Buggles's "Video Killed The Radio Star," we must refer to the heyday of radio; the future promised by television executives in synthesizer advertisements; science fiction pulp covers from the 1950s; the neon-on-black-and-white aesthetic of MTV in its early years, not to mention the gallery scene that birthed that aesthetic; 1950s diner-decor futurism; the late-1970s body-posturing and dystopic styling of Devo; Fritz Lang's Metropolis, looking forward to 2026; the garb of mad scientists in movies from the 1940s;—and the sigh that comes with opening a magazine and seeing all of this, compressed down into an ad for sunglasses for hipsters.
Or not even for hipsters: The retrocamp fashion exemplified by an irritating blend of past and future has been recompressed and sold in shopping malls internationally. This isn't marginal pulp—
This is the process on which the present runs.
Future Process in Art: Two Nested "Presents"
For in question here is a departure from the world toward a place which is neither a non-place nor another world, neither a utopia nor an alibi, the creation of "a universe to be added to the universe." (Derrida)
Much of today's pop aesthetic in music, fashion, and art draws from 1980s imagery—which took much of its camp style from the 1950s' conception of the future, with its neon colors, swooping angles, and wingtips—already looking to the past, to 1930s space-pulp media—which took as its schema the work of art nouveau Martian travelers from the 1910s—drawing upon nineteenth-century futurists such as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells...
Working from the this conceit—that visions of the future from decades past are rendered in artistic media, styles, color schemes, codes of dress, and modes of eroticism that are no longer in vogue, lending them a charm, something upon which we can draw for inspiration—we find our artistic path forks in two directions:
- Art can look to the past with the intent of creating a more intense historical moment now—a more ideal or dystopic world, replete with steampunk devices and rejiggered via alterations in the technological tree and its aesthetic. This is the presentfuture–past (how the present thinks the past should have embraced the future). This is the negative mode or key of time, in that it destroys and builds back up an already conceived history, or an already "real" present. (Steampunk, alternative histories, Verne...)
- Art can also look to the future, and in doing so, illuminate contemporary fears and hopes by finding in our likely futures more or less compelling visions to bring into reality, into the present. This is the pastpresent–future (how the present thinks the future should imagine the present, which will, in the future, be the past). This mode or key of time is positive, in that it fills in a void; it seeks to define opportunities that may never be otherwise revealed. (Archigram, science fiction, Wells...)
There is, of course, in reality, only the situation of the present. Yet artists can from this position imagine likely others—many likely others. There are many times, all interlocking—vectoring forward or backward—to create our "present," or the illusion that we live in only one present and not many potential futures, many evolving pasts, many interpretations of the futurepast (what the present will be, when it gets to the future—to itself), or should I say the pastfuture (what the present has been, falling away from itself into a rigid and paradoxically misty past that is too definable, too open for us to agree upon).
We embrace both forks in the present. We seek to enhance the possibilities implied by a doubling of presents; we believe other artists seek the same.
Towards a Hollow Earth
My world provoked my dream, and my dream made me see the world, which otherwise I had simply ignored in my fantasies. (Handke)
We are not anti-science, anti-process, or anti-art. Most certainly, we are not anti-present, anti-reality. We are an investigational assemblage of how these concepts can function differently, in many evolving media, across a sea of eras and styles. Particularly, we are interested in alternative processes that yield parallel (not opposite) results to those yielded by empiricisms, sciences, traditional artistic modes, and astrologies and snake-oil-decoctions of all sorts.
Our process, what we want: We create a dream, based on the world, to better see the world. The world of art and its extensions is not a fantasy, but a Surreal space, a more-world than the world. We create art not in order to escape the "real," but to better understand it, to get under its skin. Learning alone, in the absence of the (human) play of styles and possibilities, is not only tedious; it is in fact blinding. Creating art is liberating (if not regenerative). It is the blindness of liberation, of Tiresias.
The mad dream of "another" world—built in/on top of/and through this world. The mad dream of controlling not the world (folly, hubris!), but the shadow of the world, the contents of the world's dream... That is our dream, which is a waking, crafted dream, one visible in ink and pixels.
In asking you to consider the myriad different artistic possibilities of past and future, we are merely asking you to free yourself from a present that is only real so long as you are bound by it. A paradox, the present vanishes into the past (receding, slithery shadow) or explodes into the future (aerolizing, puffery toxic fog) the moment you try to define it. Today's styles are already slipping beyond your words to describe them; they are growing into post-styles, then camp; then comes the inexorable return to the "traditional" (which was once the avant-garde); then, a perpendicular infusion from a colony, a colony of dreams...
Because the earth is already living in a nested present that is at once pastpresent and futurepresent; because today's style is already a chimera of all eras, a protean cycle of innovation/camp/and reaction; because our dream is the world, which is real, which contains us, dreaming;—the earth is already hollow. We are merely pointing out—and more elegantly presenting to the public—a situation that is already everywhere extant.
Manifesto II (Winter 2011)
What is/why is RETROFUTUROLOGY?
Despite or perhaps because of the first three sections of the first RETROFUTUROLOGY manifesto (RFM1), I felt the need to end on an addendum—a few definitional retrofuture quotations and a list of links. Still, this was not organized into a cohesive answer (I resist cohesion, or disbelieve in it).
And since RFM1, a few people have asked me for a definition of “retrofuturology” (which I made up, or thought I’d made up, until I found several others had also already made it up), “retrofuturism” (which has a more or less standard definition), and “retrofuture” (the adjectival form of “retrofuturism”).
So instead of relying on my maximalism (a Society precept) to get me through, as in most of the first manifesto, I though I’d rely fully on my cento (ditto) and allow other, more expert experts to voice my “answer:”
Says Wikipedia, manic with hyphens:
Retro-futurism (adjective retro-futuristic or retro-future) is a trend in the creative arts showing the influence of depictions of the future produced prior to about 1960. Characterized by a blend of old-fashioned "retro" styles with futuristic technology, retro-futurism explores the themes of tension between past and future, and between the alienating and empowering effects of technology. Primarily reflected in artistic creations and modified technologies that realize the imagined artifacts of its parallel reality, retro-futurism has also manifested in the worlds of fashion, architecture, literature, and film.
Nowtro – the 'Now' retro! A movement of ever regurgitating the past and reintroducing it back in the present or, sometimes even the 'neoteric' near future!
Comes in many names that in the example below, I couldn't help but self-coin a new one all by myself!
See also: the 'Millennium Effect', retro-future/ retro-futurism/ retro-futurism, neo-retro, retro-modern, retro-vintage, metro-retro, retrogressive, retrocon (retroactive continuity), contemporary classic, neotraditionalism, retro-futurology, technostalgia, newstalgia...
Nowtro: also called the 'newtro', or my own self-coinage: neotro. Dig.
A few flavorful words from Paleofuture.com:
TVs that hang on walls? Automatic lights? Food cooked in seconds? American power companies sure had the future figured out! Except for one little thing... we're still waiting on those driverless cars...
“ELECTRICITY MAY BE THE DRIVER. One day your car may speed along an electric super-highway, its speed and steering automatically controlled by electronic devices embedded in the road. Highways will be made safe—by electricity! No traffic jam.. no collisions... no driver fatigue.”
Perhaps most succinctly, courtesy Retrofuture.com (my emphasis):
The future that never was, filled with fantastic trips to the moon. Dream cars. Jet packs. Inflatable furniture. Flying cars. Mile-high skyscrapers. Underwater cities. Personal rapid transit. Supersonic travel. The cure for the common cold. The promise of immortality...
And finally, from the awesome-sounding Ukrainian Futurological Congress, "5 Blocks," or five key concepts around the programming of the future, with attendant and insightful questions:
Control – Future is [a] controlled present. Or as Richard Barbrook put it in “Imaginary Futures”: “The ownership of time is control over space.” Strategic planning of a city, region or state in fact means planning the future. And this future is an instrument of control: of the workers, the inhabitants, the citizens. The contemporary system of control is steadily depleting itself, thus demanding forever new methods: tax ID numbers, chip implants, genetical modeling of unborn, wiretapping, etc. Modern city is a chip on wheels (cars), a chip with wings (airplanes), a chip with people (houses). What will the reality of control be?
Uncertainity – Quo vadis homine... Future is the unknown, which becomes reality in a certain moment. Or is it reality which we are changing to become future? Programming of the future is the coding of the automation of the system, which is continuously changing and never stays stable. How the unknown is related to our planning of the future?
Creation – Umberto Eco criticized Lévi-Strauss’ ambitions to turn structuralism into an ontology as appropriation of the structure which can be felt and even experienced, but which never can be fixed. Creating/creation often is the modelling of future by cognizing and seizing the structure of reality, namely by permanently penetrating it in order to put it into question. Creation means creating a code from the unknown, which we understand and feel: an act on the threshold between reality and its modification (of the past and the future). What does creation mean today? What will it be in future?
Past–Future – Looking at past visions of the future helps us to understand the limitations of the contemporary prophecies of the future. Retro-futurology studies the vision(s) of the future in the past. How did we imagine our reality after certain interference in it? We do not program the future without using our experiences of the past, but also any act is principally past, also of it did not happen yet. What is the relation of past and future?
Attempts to intrude into the dark structure of the future – This comprehensive block invites debaters and creatives who try to intrude into the unknown structure of the future or who deal with the various forms of intrusion into it. The subjects to be talked about may vary, from the avant-garde to changing the code of reality, which often led to unexpected shifts. Do we need to program the future?
Etymology: intentionally dubious
Finally, after concept, we choose the word, intentionally dubious as it is, because it is homologous; that is, it sounds like what it means. (The concept is closely related to onomatopoeia—think of how words and their meanings shape one another, verbally: fang, wasp, hiss; measurement, prudence, synchronicity; scuttle; burble; crackle...)
Retrofuturology—seven syllables, three components (past+future+word), two intonations (“serious,” ironic), one awesome
The political dimension: “retro” is “in,” anyway
“Retro” is “in.” Far be it from these humble harlequins to poke fun at this notion—that sometimes looking backward is useful, sometimes not. That sometimes history and memory are simply uncool...
Far be it from us, too, to poke holes (admittedly, these have been poked before, but deserve further poking) in the theses of the retro-avant-garde, or “steampunk.” (Colonial wet-dreaming? Imperial porn for hipsters who see their empire sinking?)
We admire the wild aesthetics and childishly dreamy action–adventure tropes of steampunk—zeppelins and hollow earths and monocles and corsets—but we like them for the possibility of their inversion...
Nomadism (as potential solution)
We are Leftists, and the idea of “truly” embracing these noxious colonial tropes terrifies us. To truly want to return to an era of sexual repression and rampant racism, when the world teetered on the brink of Fascism, is not an acceptable dream. (Dreams are not created equal.)
The Dreaming—the process of art and myth, the working-out of the unconscious in form, the theater of life, the realization of death-in-life that makes life meaningful—does correct itself over time, thank Bob, regenerating its possibilities even while, we admit, gleefully cannibalizing portions of previous aesthetics (the zeppelin, the corset...).
The Dreaming always makes more of everything, including futures. There is no definitive future, only a definitive present, which is already past. Art attempts to rides waves of false definitive-ness, but ultimately great art transcends (is nomadic) and makes immanent (is ubiquitous [monumental, quietly obvious], or seems that way in retrospect).
Dreams of the hollow earth are not automatically American Utopians founded upon the failures of the real America in the 1800s or early 1900s, but we must be vigilant that they not become as much. (Dreams are our building material; we must not let them be poisoned.) We must be vigilant to use the possibilities of alternative futures to enhance, ethically, the present.
Luckily, we are hardly alone in this quest.
Thus it has not fallen to us to renew the past-future (or was it the future-past?), on behalf of the Left and for all aesthetes and scientists (the latter word connoting an aesthete of Reason—a nerd-artist, as opposed to we aesthetes, who are artist-nerds) [or do I have it backward again?]. Rather, to quote ourselves:
Our visions of the future are nested. Our conception of time is hyperreal. This is the process on which the present runs.
Long live the zombie past: “retro” is reclaimed—by the present and its futures
Beyond the political, futurisms have always ended up retro, because they have been forced to rely on techne that is always already falling from the stratum of the avant-garde, into that of the banal and merely conventional, and then into that post-conventional but pre-obsolescent realm in which books, CDs, gasoline-engine cars, and so much of our total daily techne now dwells. The realm of retirement home innovations, the spent promises of Utopias-past (or Utopias-never-quite-arrived)...
Potential: solution and nostalgia (the future is coming, just around the corner... any minute now...)
Futurism is always an ache, and “retro-” anything is, too: These are the discourses of a dissatisfied present, a post-everything and overdosed-on-irony world into which no new or next avant-garde can be birthed. A world pregnant but frozen (in carbonite! or like Disney’s head, in cryogenic cold!).
Thus, by celebrating, and then—by selling and explaining it—destroying all the past-futures and futures-pasts, we allow ourselves to move on, to grow up—into what?
The proto of Mikhail Epstein (emphasis mine):
Play becomes impossible in a space where there is nothing but play, and for this reason play itself creates a sphere that it differentiates and protects from itself. Difference unfurls its omnipresence, creating something that differs from difference itself: a possibility of wholeness that we have indicated by the prefix "trans-" in space and will indicate later by the prefix "proto-" in time… As such new unities are constructed from the sphere of difference itself, postmodernism crosses over to the next phase of cultural movement. Pluralism of disciplines, semiotic codes, and cultures enters into a new, non-totalitarian whole, where difference acts in mature form, that is, by differing from itself. It no longer opposes itself to wholeness, but rather creates wholes from itself, from the free play of self-differentiation. …
The child's play of difference destroys idols by tearing them down to fragments and quotations; the mature play of difference hears the silence within speech, senses a thing amid its descriptions, and contemplates the purity of the future amid its failed projections. …
Postmodernism announced an "end to time"… … But it is as difficult to speak about infinity as it is to speak about the end: it is nowhere to be found except in positing a new beginning. One can only speak about that beginning which reveals infinity negatively, as the semblance and impossibility of finality. To conceive of "beginning" and "end," as necessarily symmetrical and correlative, is to distort the asymmetrical nature of time. Time belongs to the condition of uncompletedness, the preeminence of beginnings over ends. … A beginning thus understood as leading to an open future and manifesting possibilities for continuation and an impossibility of ending can be designated as "proto."
The world expands again, aesthetically and (fingers-crossed) ethically, in all dimensions. We are not locked into the zeppelin-verse, but neither are we barred from it. All is gleefully potential again in the kosmos.
Guided by other ghostly future-voices: the RETROFUTUROLOGY show
In our show, over 30 artists, from diehard steampunks to Marty McFly-inspired hoverboarders, are investigating past visions of the future. These visions represent everything that has been hinted at previously in RFM1 and RFM2:
- access to alternative-evolution techne,
- access to events which did not come to pass,
- nostalgia for same,
- horror at same,
- terror of nostalgia for same,
- spiralling anti-futures which reveal problems with present,
- over-consumption as discourse,
- cento (use of parts of others in your new whole),
- wholesale quotationalism and its death—
- and its regeneration through cento (sincere quotationalism, or post-irony, proto-irony)...
The list could fill a book. It is an honor to host so many visualizations of so many important intersections of dead futures and present artists.