Living in the Future

From Frieze Blog

by Matthew De Abaitua

Living in the Future, Issue Two

Living in the Future is a small magazine of essays, fiction, speculations and poetry, exploring science fiction ideas and the ‘science fiction-like phenomena’ emerging in the contemporary world. What are these emerging ‘science fiction-like’ phenomena? Not space exploration, aliens or time travel. Rather, Living in the Future examines the possibilities of artificial intelligence, the actualities of human interaction with computer algorithms, bio-technology and the cultural dominance of the network. It is, then, part of art’s evolving response to what we can call network culture.

In 2008 or thereabouts, the future changed. The long boom ended in banking collapse, and the consequent austerity policies will define the economic conditions of a generation. At the same time, the sudden mainstream adoption of social media shifted cultural primacy toward new behaviours and forms of digital technology. The previous 20 years had been dominated by the internet, of course, but it was only with the widespread adoption of social media and smartphones that digital stopped being thought of as a separate realm; instead, it became an all-pervasive structure and surface: a new mundanity, of sorts. Science fiction offers iconic forms and stories for artists seeking to navigate these new expectations of the future.

Magazines have a rich history of engaging with sci-fi. The term ‘science fiction’ originated with a magazine – Amazing Stories, edited by Hugo Gernsback in 1926. A more recent influence on Living in the Future is New Worlds, which under the editorship of Michael Moorcock, in the second half of the 1960s, synthesized science fiction with the avant garde. The new worlds it described were psychedelic and experimental inner spaces – this was the period in which J G Ballard was advocating the then-obscure novels of William S Burroughs as a link between science fiction and modernism. It was a time of possibility when it seemed as if science fiction would slip the bonds of genre and become accepted as a culturally progressive form.

Paul Kindersley, The Future People (perhaps), 2014, published in Living in the Future, Issue Two

Living in the Future calls for similar rapprochement between the art world and the subculture of the science fiction magazine. Co-edited by Rebecca Bligh and James Hedges, the first issue is about the ‘New You’, the idea that the unfolding future is changing what it means to be human. The second issue concerns the end of the world and the abiding longing for an apocalypse. Issue three is imminent.

The magazine is a hybrid between art writing and ‘inner space’ science fiction – the branch of sci-fi concerned with consciousness, the body and the psychopathy of the future mind – themes identified with writers such as Ballard and Grant Morrison (the coolly intoned provocations of the former’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) are a strong influence here).

Ballard began his career as a science fiction writer but had moved away from that description by the end of his life, for expedient reasons of the marketplace. Science fiction may dominate cinema and gaming but is ghettoized in its printed form. Some writers prefer the term speculative fiction, although that name is also contested, merely a tactic to get around the snobbery against the genre.

The writing in Living in the Future is more significant in its relation to the texts of the art world than genre. The magazine embraces the strange and deranged aspects of science fiction which stand apart from the reasoned, cognitive tradition associated with the writers Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, with their engineer stories and defiantly flat characterization. Stanislaw Lem, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Solaris (1961), accused authors such as Ballard of ‘giving up the programmatic rationalism of science fiction in favour of the irrational… to try to bring about the conversion of science fiction to the creed of normal literature.’ In other words, irrationality can be accepted into high art, whereas stories founded on reason remain in the realm of the low-brow. Science fiction needs both its rationalism and its dream fiction, works that fuse the will to strangeness with the generative hypotheses of empiricism.

Cécile B. Evans, Gesture, 2014, published in Living in the Future, Issue Two

Living In the Future draws its contributors from junior academia and young artists such as Cécile B Evans and Yuri Pattison. Evans’s story is ‘a script for a video message from a bot named AGNES that has overheard that the end is near.’ The text has a skittering attention span, leaping from pop culture refrain to melancholic undertow. In the same edition of the magazine, artist Aimee Heinemann’s phrase echoes this modish tone – ‘Because, like, after all, ‘Cartesian dualism is so 2000’’.

The first issue carries an interview with artist Ed Fornieles, about Los Angeles, that long horizon where the shimmer of marketing meets the sunset of art, where boutique advertising agencies blend into corporate cults. ‘LA is about streaming on floating concrete,’ he says, an evocative Ballardian observation.

Ad Minoliti, Ex-Men, 2014, published in Living in the Future, Issue One

Fornieles’s work stages the infiltration of science fiction ideas into the corporate world. Of course, they are already there: Apple’s in-store presence includes the enormous black monoliths of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The haptic interface of the smartphone, in which the user waves a magic finger to open various apps uses the gestural language of magic to mediate between consumer desire and the technological shaping and fulfilment of that desire. The intermingling of the corporate realm with the mystical or occult comes into pre-millennial science fiction via Morrison’s graphic novel The Invisibles (1994-2000). Like all great science fiction, The Invisibles asked ‘what if’ – in its case, what if all the 1990s conspiracies were true. In a recent frieze interview, artist Ed Atkins talked to me about Morrison’s influence on his avatar monologues. Not least amongst these influences is Morrison’s theory that branding-is-magick memorably showcased during a speech to disinfo.com, given while coming up on ecstasy. Philip K Dick is the originator of this strain of science fiction: pop culture, corporate cant and arcane knowledge – particularly the Gnostics with their refrain of ‘as above, so below’ – synthesized under the associative influence of drugs and paranoia.

The interconnectivity of countercultures is a subject discernible throughout both editions of Living in the Future. And once you start connecting the dots, it’s hard to know when to stop. A touch of apophenia: pattern-spotting in the random flux. In James Hedges’s introductory essay to the second issue, ‘A Short History of the Apocalypse’, he has a run in with bearded paranoid preppers (the American subculture of people actively preparing for the collapse of civilization) and anti-government survivalists. These are familiar figures from ’90s counterculture, from the Unabomber manifesto to David Koresh’s doomed Branch Davidian cult, and it is heartening to see that 15 years of exposure to the network has not made this tendency any saner. In network culture, the madness of distraction is a feature, not a bug: in Heinemann’s phrase – a nice pun on browsers and acid – ‘I never drop below seven tabs’.

Yuri Pattison, Untitled, 2014, published in Living in the Future, Issue Two

It is hard to tell stories when you are embedded in the network. Consistency can seem archaic. Likewise coherence. Some of the writing in Living in the Futureabandons coherence in a way that doesn’t interest me. Yes, the peculiar insinuations of spam bots can emulate Burroughsian cut-and-paste, and – yes – it can be difficult to discern where algorithmically-generated spam ends and Mark E Smith begins, but, still, a little of this kind of thing goes a long way. Science fiction has never let high style get in the way of a good idea.

In issue two, horror writer Quentin S Crisp deploys a pleasingly antiquated essay style to explore antinatalism: the idea that having a child is worse than committing a murder because murder is the curtailing of a life that would have ended anyway; having a child creates a death that would never have been. It’s a wonderfully exploratory essay that exposes the hypocrisy of atheist parents who deny life has meaning while inflicting it upon their children. Their materialist atheism asserts the primacy of the now. But their children are the future and, even worse, they will have to live in it.

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