This feature originally appeared in Issue 31.
You obviously have a great interest in science fiction.
I was raised on science fiction from an early age. I am really interested in science fiction but I am not a science fiction-fan. I sit between a strong interest in pop and geek culture, and more classical visual arts, high culture. When the Barbican Centre does a science-fiction show it either has to be an artist’s take on the field or what we wanted: an honest, straightforward take. That said, you can find a lot of diversity and different perspectives. We’re mixing films from Ethiopia with Star Wars memorabilia and Dara Birnbaum. That tension is going to be interesting for sure and I hope it is going to appeal to a generation that doesn’t have a problem with the mixing of things. People now can watch Stranger Things and then come to the Barbican to see a really obscure Taiwanese film and then go back home and watch Game of Thrones.
Despite this recent blurring, are you approaching the show chronologically or is it grouped much more thematically?
It’s a bit of a chronological approach but it’s more thematic. The idea of the show is a journey through science fiction. In the first part you take a boat or a train and go the furthest you can, take a balloon and go into the air, then you go into the sea and into the earth. So basically you map the world. In the second part, you continue this journey upwards, to the Moon and space and there you meet all sorts of unfriendly aliens. There’s the idea of colonization. In the late Sixties we did go to the Moon, and then the new wave of science fiction took us back to our own environment to transform it. How can you control the space you live in? When you can’t control it, you destroy it and then rebuild it. In the last part of the show you come right back in: inside yourself, final frontiers, the limits of the mind, inside the body, transformation of dreams, playing with the space-time continuum.
In the main show we have nine hundred items: books, comics, film clips, props, globes from the nineteenth century, magic lanterns… So precious items, pop items and also artist’s projects: Dara Birnbaum, Pierre-Jean Giloux, Larissa Sansour, Isaac Julien, Conrad Shawcross. In the exhibition there are also discursive approaches and the politics of the genre. Maybe Dara’s piece is the most discursive and the most ironic. But I didn’t want to use contemporary artists who just simply have an ironic take. Isaac Julien’s piece, for example, is clearly inspired by Octavia Butler who is a very important Afro-American science-fiction writer from the twentieth century. It’s very poetic.
Has science fiction been an overly Western genre historically, or is it just that the Hollywood films have had so much attention?
We have tried in the exhibition to be as diverse as possible. I wouldn’t say it’s a purely Western genre as obviously the Soviets were very big on science fiction. Science fiction has been very big in Japan since the war because they have adopted a lot of American ways. It’s also in the Arab world. But for sure there is a very strong white male Anglo-Saxon tradition because it’s a genre of exploration and colonization. H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds is about Martians, but it’s also about something else. It’s about the mirror image of colonization. Science fiction is the literature of change, and the biggest changes are those brought by technology.
Have you noticed particular trends in the way that contemporary artists respond to science fiction?
I think there has been a lot of contemporary art that has been discursive, that has taken science fiction and used it and transformed it for moral, societal or political discourse. It’s rarer, like Larissa Sansour’s work, to have a take which is serious, which is non-derivative. It’s her own vision and an original one. That’s probably new. I’m quite excited by the commissions. We have Trevor Paglen’s new Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite which is a very poetic idea for a satellite that you could fit into a very tiny box and launch into space and it would deploy and not be seen with the naked eye when it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere. That will be above the well in the foyer like a big shiny beast. We have new Conrad Shawcross work which will include a series of monoliths with cut-out figures and behind there will be a reprogrammed industrial robot with light and sound which will create this shadow play and react probably to the people around. I think it will be quite impressive and freaky. The Barbican itself is obviously perfect for the utopian/dystopian environment.
I was thinking that as I walked through it. It reminds me of some of the old science-fiction films now, a semi-futuristic vision that now looks a little retro.
It’s like the film High-Rise, which plays on J.G. Ballard’s novel and which is very close to the Barbican’s environment. It’s the perfect space for a science-fiction show.
Are there any pieces included that are particularly exciting for you?
I do actually have a favourite piece. We end the show with a cabinet of books that were owned by Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer. Because Borges is such an important figure in linking fiction to reality, all those really interesting ideas are there. The idea that fiction creates worlds—that’s the main idea of the show.
“Into the Unknown” runs from 3 June until 1 September at the Barbican Centre, London.
This feature originally appeared in Issue 31.