Looking back to the future
Visitors to the Futurama exhibition at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York left with a souvenir badge that declared, “I have seen the future.” What they had actually seen was an elaborate piece of propaganda; a massive model landscape in which modern metropolises were joined by what their creator Norman Bel Geddes liked to call “magic motorways,” all teeming with cars.(1)
The “Word of Tomorrow” presented in Futurama ranged from life-sized to miniature. It featured more than 500,000 buildings, one million trees, and 50,000 cars, trucks and buses (10,000 of which actually moved).(2) Automobiles, and the roads they zoomed along, were very much the stars of the show. Which comes as no real surprise since the primary purpose of this ambitious display was to sell cars and lobby US government officials to build more roads.(3)
Futurama was a giant advertisement for American automotive giant General Motors. And in many ways the more than five million people who visited had seen the future: a rather bleak future in which personal freedom was conflated with owning a car; a future in which whole neighbourhoods were razed to rubble to accommodate roads; a future of pollution, congestion, the rapacious consumption of fossil fuels and the wars waged to secure their supply; a future of anthropogenic climate change.
The future we are living in now.
I have seen the future
I first felt like I had seen the future when I read JG Ballard’s 1962 novel, The Drowned World. Reading this slim sci-fi story in the mid 1980s, when nuclear Armageddon loomed large, Ballard’s post-apocalyptic vision of a ruined semi-submerged metropolis – strangled by vines, patrolled by carnivorous reptiles and equally dangerous men – seemed both realistic and inevitable. Today The Drowned World reads like a prescient vision of our current climate emergency.
Since 2014 I have been using imagery of the ruined model city in sculptures which seek to draw attention to the dangers of an anthropocentric world view. As these mini cities disintegrate they can be read as warnings; a vision of the post-apocalyptic future we are wilfully creating through both action and inaction. But they, like The Drowned World, can also be seen as a glimmer of hope.
As I have argued elsewhere, Ballard’s post-apocalyptic story can be read as a utopian vision of the slate wiped clean. He pictures a fecund world in which humanity is on the wane while the rest of the natural world flourishes without us. It’s a vision of hope, but one tinged with a deep sense of loss: the loss of humanity in all our terrible brilliance.(4)
A few years ago I heard an author say on the radio that the role of a sci-fi writer should be, not to describe impending disaster, but to imagine a positive future; to envisage utopia, to dare to hope. I can’t remember his name, and I’ve paraphrased him wildly, but it’s a valid point.
Today, as our political leaders put their heads in the metaphorical sand and refuse to address the realties of the climate crisis; as temperatures rise along with sea levels; as so many people suffer from despair in the face of ecological upheaval that Australian philosopher Glen Albrecht came up with a name for the condition – solastalgia, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, didn’t really catch on but eco-anxiety did; as we build yet more roads; as we continue to burn coal: catastrophe seems inexorable. Inevitable. Picturing it is just a little bit too much like stating the obvious.
Imagining a better world is much, much harder.
With Futurama 2.0 I’ve tried to rise to this challenge. It is a utopian vision of the city, albeit a modest and subtle one. Compared to its predecessor this model city is utterly lacking in sophistication. There are no bells, no whistles, no moving parts. Brightly coloured and literally held together with sticky tape, it looks like something kids might make.
There are clues to its utopian leanings scattered throughout Futurama 2.0, but this right here is key: children aged four to 12 years-old did contribute to the project, and so did local high school students, and adults from both the Fairfield and broader Sydney communities. More than 50 people answered my call to come make their mark on this model metropolis. We made the city together.
There are other elements in this artwork that point to its utopian leanings. For a start there aren’t any cars at all; Futurama 2.0 is a walk-able city, with (presumably) an efficient public transport system tucked neatly underground. And the trees are massive, old growth giants venerated for their carbon sequestering, shade-throwing and inherent wisdom. Corporate branding is subverted and re-purposed to suit other agendas. Futurama 2.0 is a conglomeration of classic Western skyscrapers, Aztec-esque pyramids, Middle Eastern style towers, pan-Asian pagodas and suburban bungalows all coexisting harmoniously; a kind of multicultural architecture made from just six basic shapes. But the collective nature of its construction remains its most potent symbol of hope.
For it is together that we have the power to shape the future.
Tracey Clement 2019
*A shorter version of this essay was published by FCMG on the occasion of the exhibition.
- Norman, Bel Geddes, Magic Motorways. New York: Random House, 1940.
- The theme of the fair was “Building the World of Tomorrow. Donald Albrecht, ed. Noman Bel Geddes Designs America, New York: Abrams, 2012, 290-294.
- It was very successful. See: Nathaniel Robert Walker, “American Crossroads: General Motors’ Midcentury Campaign to Promote Modernist Urban Design in Hometown USA,” Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum 23, no. 2 (Fall 2016): 89-115.
- Tracey Clement, “Mapping the Drowned World.” University of Sydney, 2017, 190. http://hdl.handle.net/2123/17344
Futurama 2.0 is a utopian vision in which everyone has a chance to shape where we live.
Created while I was artist in residence at Fairfield City Museum and Gallery, this mini model city was made with the help of local high school students and kids aged 4-12, and adults from both the Fairfield and broader Sydney communities.
All together more than 50 people answered my call to come make their mark on the city.
We made Futurama 2.0 together.
Tracey Clement: Futurama 2.0
Fairfield City Museum and Gallery (FCMAG)
26 October – 29 February 2020
Opening: Saturday 26 October 2019 from 2pm
The word banquet implies abundance, but also gluttony and greed. Like much of my recent work, Banquet uses the symbol of the ruined city to highlight the impact of an anthropocentric worldview.
The brutalist towers of Banquet are made from sugar cubes. Perched on fancy cut crystal glassware, they are flooded with laundry soap. They tilt, crash and dissolve over time.
Sugar is sweet, but it is also addictive – another white powder. The toxic legacy of the sugar industry (driven by our mass consumption) ranges from slavery to bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef. And as the bright blue laundry detergent in this sculpture undermines the foundations of the city, it is a reminder that what goes down the drain ends up in our rivers and oceans. All of our actions have implications for an environment with which we are inexplicably entwined.
Banquet is the first artwork in my ongoing series of sugar cities.
Tracey Clement is known for creating artworks that meticulously utilise labour intensive techniques for their conceptual resonance. In Soft Science she turns her attention to knitting, a skill still largely regarded as women’s work.
In Soft Science, when the domestic feminine act of knitting is made an integral part of a laboratory experiment, we are asked to acknowledge two truths: that women have always made a significant contribution to the supposedly masculine domain of science, and that the hard facts of science are not the only way to make sense of the world.
Soft Science highlights the fact that there is more than one way to skin Schrödinger’s cat. In a secular society we tend to look to the quantifiable facts of science for meaning. But art too is a way of understanding the world; a knowledge generating system which is different, but no less valid.
In Soft Science, when cold rational laboratory glass meets soft warm knitting, fuzzy logic is made manifest. In other words, there is no right answer in an experiment calculated to prove, if it proves anything at all, that truth is a mutable concept and that much of the universe may be ultimately unknowable.
Please save the date for my upcoming solo show, Soft Science, opening 12 December.
In Soft Science, cold, rational laboratory glass meets warm, fuzzy knitting in an elaborate faux experiment designed to prove (if it proves anything at all) that the universe is ultimately un-knowable.
WATCH me making What goes around...
38 Lander Street
12 – 22 December 2018
Opening: Wednesday 12 Dec, 6-8pm
The ruined city is gone and the white cones of salt now spread throughout the gallery like satelite cities in an inorganic termite colony.
The dodgy Latin of the title equium tumulus sali multiplex is a nod to the naming conventions of science, one of the many strategies we use to attempt to tame and control the natural world.
The work is on show in:
3 May – 2 June
Opening Night: Wednesday 2 May, 6-8pm
The first work in my Soft Science series, Soft Science: City, debuted in the group show Couplings in April 2018.
Curators Helen Hyatt-Johnston and Brad Buckley selected 30 artists (who are also couples) to exhibit together, including me and my partner Peter Burgess.
Dominik Mersch Gallery
11 April – 12 May 2018
Opening: Tuesday 10 April, 6–8pm
All three bodies of work which I made for my PhD (Post-Premonitionism 2, Metropolis Experiment, and my Drowned World Maps) came together in my show Mapping The Drowned World, for 3 days only. Both the sculptures and the maps were made in response to JG Ballard’s 1962 novel, The Drowned World. You can watch me de-install the show in the video below.
This the fifth (and final) map I’ve made as part of my Mapping The Drowned World project, inspired by JG Ballard’s novel The Drowned World.
You can find all of my Drowned World maps here.
In this map the conventional view of the planet is inverted. After all, there is no right way up in space.
18.3 hours of drawing, January – September 2017.
Metropolis Experiment, 2-17 June 2017 at AirSpace Projects, Marrickville.
Metropolis Experiment is part architectural model, part mad science: the whole city is a laboratory. But instead of shiny stainless and gleaming glassware in sterile white surrounds, we are presented with rusty tripods and salt crystals that creep up and over everything, corroding as they go. In Metropolis Experiment something has gone horribly wrong: it’s a ruined model city, a metaphor.
Metropolis Experiment is my third recent body of work which responds to the vivid prognostications of JG Ballard’s 1962 post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, The Drowned World. View the first here and the second here.
What links these works is the image of the ruined city, an image Ballard conjured so evocatively in The Drowned World.
Thanks to its scale, Metropolis Experiment draws on the conceptual qualities of architectural models (as well as ruins) in order to make a point. As theorists are fond of pointing out, all ruins simultaneously embody both the present and the past.
Meanwhile, architectural models are inherently aspirational. They embody potential, physically manifested, but not quite realised. They represent the future. As a ruined model city (a combination of both) my artwork adds a third temporal stream: the future already devastated.
Metropolis Experiment is a premonition, a warning.
Metropolis Experiment II is actually part of a larger work, Metropolis Experiment, which will be shown at AirSpace Projects 2-17 June 2017.
This sculpture is the unholy love child of an architectural model and a chemistry trial gone horribly wrong: it’s a ruined model city, a metaphor.
Metropolis Experiment is part of my third recent body of work in my Mapping The Drowned World project which responds to the vivid prognostications of JG Ballard’s 1962 post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, The Drowned World.
This the fourth map I’ve made as part of my Mapping The Drowned World project, inspired by JG Ballard’s novel The Drowned World.
Maps are always staking a claim or making a point. Far from being an endeavour of pure science, they are political and cultural tools. They frequently represent power and the domination of both people and places.
Maps are artefacts deeply embedded in the cultures that make them and the conditions of their time. And my Drowned World maps are no exception.
In my Drowned World series of drawings I transpose a predicted ocean level rise of 70 meters on to maps of the world. These artworks picture planetary geography re-shaped in a way that echoes Ballard’s science fictional vision of The Drowned World, but they are also grounded in the real.
This map took approx 25 hours of drawing, August – December 2016
The time-consuming nature of these works is a deliberate strategy which points to our complicity in creating our current climate crisis.
This catastrophe did not just happen: it took centuries of dedicated labour, ruthless exploitation of the natural environment, manic consumerism, and blatant disregard for the consequences of our actions to reach this moment in time.
The Buckminster Fuller projection was created in 1943.
Post-Premonistionism 2 is a sequel. It is my second sculptural response to JG Ballard’s novel The Drowned World. This work was installed during the group exhibition I coordinated, Mapping The Drowned World.
Thanks to its scale, Post-Premonitionism 2 draws on the conceptual qualities of architectural models, as well as ruins, in order to make a point. Architectural models are inherently aspirational. They embody potential, physically manifested, but not quite realised. They represent the future, while ruins ellicit a temporal slippage between the past and the present. But as a model city, my artwork adds a third temporal stream: the future already devastated.
Model cities are conventionally displayed so that the viewer takes a ‘god’s eye view’ like a triumphant ruler surveying his domain. In my work, the ruined city is positioned at eye height, precariously balanced on salty peaks of vaguely anthropomorphic volume, emphasising our complicity in creating this ruined future. Like Ballard’s novel, my ruined city is a warning.