Into the Unknown
Rebecca Bligh reviews Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction, Barbican's summer exhibition, 3 June - 1 September
Full disclosure: I coedit living in the future, 'a magazine of science fiction and future-oriented art and writing'. One might think, then, that a sci-fi focussed summer exhibition at London’s Barbican would be right up my Straße. Even fuller disclosure, reader: I’m a woman.
First thoughts upon entering the main section of the exhibition: like being barricaded in a boy’s bedroom, vacuum-sealed into the Curve gallery and wholly isolated, in all senses, from the rest of the Barbican. Second thoughts: like inhabiting an illustrated essay plan, or an intensely personal mind-map that is proportioned like a cortical homunculus, its elements scaled in direct relation to how much stimulation said individual derives from them. Third thoughts: upon passing between media and objects stitched together with distinctively voiced wall texts; or is it vice versa, are the texts stitched with objects? Thinking, Who wrote that? Just whose head am I inside?
At the outset, sci-fi is strictly defined as: 'a narrative genre which creates fiction in a speculative and rational way [my emphasis]... These elements (fiction, hypothesis and reason) allow the genre to be distinguished from futurology (which is non-fictional), fantasy (which is non-rational), or general fiction (which isn’t highly speculative).' Well, this is a survey show, and here the curator has attempted to define its boundaries and police them. And is inevitably self-defeated, since, just like lichen, which has recently been discovered to consist of a three-way, not even just a two-way symbiosis, sf has—or rather, the sfs and their protagonists, agents and fans have—a habit of disappointing strict taxonomists. Hence the catch-all ‘sf’, ostensibly for ‘speculative fiction’, but with room for more (ask Donna Haraway), is now preferred by many.
So, for a survey show, a survey review. The first part, ‘Mapping the Extraordinary’, concerns exploration, both terrestrial and extra-, actual and speculative. Oh, and time travel, and quite a lot of Ray Harryhausen. There are maps and drawings and museum display cabinets with objects like a globe mounted on a cast iron stand you were apparently given if you bought the whole Jules Verne boxset back in 18–something. There’s also an interactive display, a touchscreen Mercator projection with a list of writers whose oeuvres either make reference to, or are deemed to have been affected by, their terrestrial journeys. If you touch their names, it tracks the routes taken by them and/or their characters. It’s not always entirely clear why these writers have been chosen and not others; what a very English formulation that is. While the list goes back to the ancient world, it’s pretty Eurocentric (including white Americans), and the only woman is Mary Shelley.
Next up, ‘Space Odysseys’. As well as the featured works and wall texts, there are cabinets of books that the wall texts thematically relate to; and yes, there are books by writers who are not men, but they don’t get to say anything. The wall texts speak for them—or largely don’t. The featured space exploration thing includes four writers, three of whom are men. Still, the woman, C.J. Cherryh, is someone I’d never heard of, so I learned something. There are some nice cosmonaut pictures, but nothing about the Cold War, and then, Sun Ra!
The next section features a triple-screened video installation of three episodes of Soda Jerk's Astro Black (2007–ongoing). As the wall text says, ‘in constructing fragmented and non-linear narratives, from historical footage, documentary and pop-cultural material, Astro Black attempts to dismantle dominant historical narratives and Black identity and propose multiple potential re-readings.’ They’re good (though largely very male, except for Lt. Uhura), and it’s right to see them here. They even begin to thaw me toward the curator, but then there’s a strong sense in which juxtaposition alone is left to effect the positioning of these works in relation to the ‘dominant historical narratives’ presented in the first part of the exhibition, which is curious when the wall texts are so precisely didactic on certain points, yet yield nothing on whose domination, and by what power.
Likewise, there is no mention of Sinofuturism (Lawrence Lek), although there is some Chinese sci-fi, or Gulf Futurism (Sophia Al Maria, GCC, Fatima Al Qadiri, Monira Al Qadiri). It could be argued that these are newer discourses or subgenres emerging from the worlds of art and theory, but this would be a weak argument for their exclusion, given that this is a show in a gallery that includes works of art. And isn’t sci-fi about the new? (Well, ok, not always). It may just be that they’re not (yet) visible to this curator, who is not in fact a curator but the Swiss historian and writer Patrick Gyger.
Of all the wall texts, possibly the strangest, least relatable and most meta-explanatory is the one on ‘the politics of science fiction’, which claims that while ‘science fiction can often be used as a commentary on identity, society, or the scientific issues of its time, carrying strong political overtones ... interestingly enough, it is mostly writers of mainstream literature that use science fiction politically. Authors who are more familiar to the genre tend to refrain from instrumentalising it, often preferring the genre’s capacity to inspire and enthrall.’ Just—wow. That’s when I know I have strayed Into the Unknowing.
Another main section is themed on utopias and dystopias, of which there’s another strict wall text definition. Screened excerpts include The Prisoner, and Ghost in The Shell. There’s futurology in here too, with fin de siècle drawings of ‘cities of the future’. There’s a blurring of themes here between ‘the future city’ and ‘u-/dystopia’: the book cabinet is themed on one side with u-/dystopia, and on the other with futurology and sci-fi, strictly distinguished and defined (we must have order!) This includes some of the authors who make up my own sf constellation, like the literary saint Ursula K. Le Guin, another wholly silent presence here. (I didn’t see James Tiptree Jr. here at all, though I could have missed her).
In the wall text for the ‘male, female and everything in between’ cabinet (flip side, posthumanism), Gyger acknowledges the influence of the social sciences on sci-fi writers of the 1970s, encouraging them to ‘engage with gender as a social construct’, and raise ‘critical questions about how race, gender and sexuality might be reconstructed or reimagined—concerns that are equally urgent and valid today’. He names, for example, Joanna Russ and Octavia E. Butler, and a book case includes Samuel R. Delany, but he doesn’t use the ‘f’ word or the ‘q’ word once anywhere. Are these really the kind of writers Gyger classes as mainstream? Are sex and gender not political? Also, when I enter the room, both of the screenings beside this cabinet depict women protagonists in a state of undress. One is Dara Birnbaum’s Wonderwoman, dressing and redressing for eternity; I mean, I know this work, it’s canonical, but it feels different in this context. I mean, really. Come on.
The flip side of the posthuman/gender case deals with alternate histories and euchronies, including steampunk. Near the very end, there’s a Borges reliquary of six sci-fi books he owned and annotated, some with dedications. There’s an acknowledgement of his influence on the genre, and no doubt his own literary sainthood confers virtue. Then there are pulp magazines and a wall text on ‘the strong sense of community and fandom associated with the genre’ as arising thereof. No doubt Gyger speaks of what he knows, and no doubt this was a thing, historically but, oddly, this is what does me in; I finally feel excluded, and want out of the boys’ bedroom. In one of the satellite works, I am moved and consoled by Encore II: Radioactive (2004) by Isaac Julien, an actual and thematic symbiosis of Octavia E. Butler, the African-American Artic explorer Matthew Henson (with Peary in 1909) and Julien’s own 1980s footage of a trip to Iceland. Last thoughts: the H.R. Giger stuff, the Stargate masks and the Interstellar space suit are really cool.
Rebecca Bligh is an editor and writer, based in London