THE GENUINE CONTENT of science fiction is not much more about the future than the present. According to Fredric Jameson, its interest is not to provide us with “images” of the future, but to bewilder our experience of the present. Or, better yet, to bluntly confront us on the “intolerable history of the present.” Where history, as it occurs, tends to reduce itself to a set of representations without content and where the future proves to be unthinkable, among others, because it has already made known a fragmented present, Jameson indeed sums up the essential function of science fiction as restoring the imaginary utopia while transforming our present into a past determined by what is yet to come. Moreover, would the paradoxical future of science fiction only be presented in conjugation with the past, that could be verified in most contemporary artworks today, which resort to science-fictional references, modes, and imagination to construct phantasmagoric critiques. This occurs more often as dystopic than utopic, and among overlapping temporalities.

Robert Smithson Proposal for a Monument at Antarctica 1966 negative photostat 20.3 x 30.5 cm Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Copyright: Estate of Robert Smithson Licensed by VAGA, New York Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York & Shanghai
Robert Smithson
Proposal for a Monument at Antarctica
negative photostat
20.3 x 30.5 cm
Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Copyright: Estate of Robert Smithson Licensed by VAGA, New York
Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York & Shanghai

CALLING PARTISANS OF all nations – Word falling – Photo falling – Break through in Grey Room – Pinball led streets – Free doorways – Shift coordinate points — — — .—.—————.—.—….—..—…—.— —….——————— ..—.. — . —.. .—.. ..—. — — .

This odd warning is an excerpt from Nova Express, published in 1964, one of the most sci-fi accounts by William Burroughs. In his “Delirious Nova,” Burroughs enjoins to “shift coordinate points.” This formula would serve as the main idea in the historical relationship between art and sci-fi from 1950-1960: by using sci-fi as the shifted backdrop image, otherwise new, as a tool to analyze the uncommon. Art will displace its own coordinates—aesthetically and critically— and extract itself from ambient formalism. During this period, some artists appropriated sci-fi, and in reciprocity, sci-fi took a closer look at art (in the case of J.G., Ballard). So well, in fact, that the relationship between art and sci-fi at times resembled a relay course, whereby the liberal exchange of images both visual and verbal took place on the basis of a worldly sensibility and shared imaginations. It is advisable to remember that some of these crossovers reveal a historical ambiguity sometimes marked by a sharp enthusiasm with regards to historical progress, sometimes by a profound skepticism about the evolution of the contemporary world. If sci-fi’s role is to contemplate the whimsical future, some of its anticipations, as we know, have been realized. As for art, it has, to say the least, been known to make significant historical intuitions.

The study of the relationship between art belonging to canonical history and what we have long considered a subculture presents a double epistemological stake: it allows us to locate the premises of the de-compartmentalization process that has gradually attenuated the categorical boundaries between high art and pop art, “academic” culture and subculture; it also falls within the scope of a cultural history of visual arts that consists of analyzing the latter in the light of what it appropriates from related fields and, above all, aims to measure how ideas and symbols circulate synchronically from one field to another.

“It often happens that such a parabolic mirror as sci-fi captures the climate of an era better than any other fictional genre, even into its troubling ambiguity,” notes American literature expert Pierre-Yves Pétillon. Thus the thematic crossover between sci-fi and artistic issues testifies to the complex reactions of culture to techno-scientific data, and even more so, to sociopolitical context. The minimal future and the entropic future thus come to moderate the preference of the 30 years following WWII for utopia.

… It is fully conceivable that the transformation of instruments would be too fast, way too fast; that the product makes excessive demands to us, of something impossible; that we actually push ourselves due to their demands, into a state of collective pathology…. It is not impossible that we… would be at the point of building a world whose rhythm we may not be able to follow, and it will be beyond our abilities to “understand,” a world that will exceed our ability to comprehend the capacity of our imaginations and our emotions, all as our own responsibilities. Who knows, maybe we have already built this world.
— Günther Anders


AT THE END of the 1950s and in the following decade, an endemic defiance developed towards positivism. The hegemony of hard sciences was criticized for being the barrier to specific definitions of human values: we refer to it as “directionless science.” In the context of the Cold War, and then the Vietnam War, this crisis of the ethics of science would take hold of public opinion, accompanied by a suspicion towards technological progress and its usage. Herein lies the genesis of the negative terminology, “Big Science,” which indicates a side of scientific research corrupted by the ideology of Big Business and political agenda. Orwell’s “Big Brother” was not far off. Similarly, by the end of the 1960s, social sciences began to examine post-industrial society. Various observations were made: the expansion of pleasure, the evolution of technical automation, modeling, and simulation, and, as a result, the control gained over the private sphere and individual desires. This anti-positivist suspicion and the awareness of the conditions of post-industrial Western society are corollary of a general skepticism vis-à-vis the notion of the “system.” It is an emblematic notion based on a scientific framework through the evolution of cybernetics, and on a collective framework through a consumer society where overproduction leads to waste and ecocide, where overconsumption causes inequality and where the commercialization of collective and individual aspirations engenders, in the words of Herbert Marcuse, the “one-dimensional” man.

This disgrace of rationalism and of the trilogy of system, order, and control is noticeable in most of cultural and subcultural activity. In particular, consequently, its concerns in the field of sci-fi are reflected in acute manners. During the 1950s, collective fear arose in the vision of a world devastated by nuclear catastrophe. As of 1962, the Cuban missile crisis and the prospect of a third world war spearheaded a polit-sci trend in cinema, of which Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963) makes a memorable satire. We rediscover in it the obsession of the Cold War as well as a defiance evoked previously vis-à-vis technology (the doctor, naturally, is insane). The ongoing protestors of the 1960s would also exert an influence on sci-fi, which during that decade also began to possess ecological concerns and move in an increasingly dystopic direction. Its visions of the future no longer were based in space, but on a closer horizon, in a world nearly similar to our everyday but in ruins essentially uninhabitable. SF’s New Wave began in England with Michael Moorcock’s magazine New Worlds (with British writers such as, J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, and the Americans Thomas Disch, Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, Philip José Farmer, and Norman Spinrad) that revivified sci-fi with a particular effervescence. There existed, notably in the United States, a specific and popularly disseminated scientific culture that provided the genre horizons both motivating and relatively demanding. Open to the ongoing experimental contemporary literature, American sci-fi tended in part to be resolutely speculative, and even held influence over classic novels: Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut, for example, exploit the concepts of counter-earth, clandestine networks, and parallel worlds. A quote from Vladimir Nabokov embodies much of the spirit of the work of artists like Robert Smithson: “The future is but the obsolete in reverse” (Entropy and the New Monuments, 1966).

Geometry is in the air of time, pertaining to the style of the period. Thus, in the middle of the 1960s, science fiction invented its own minimal forms intent on breaking away from the organic iconography that characterized the previous decade (extraterrestrial monsters, elaborate machines, anthropomorphic robots). Mystery is composed of a greater, more apparent simplicity, symbolizing nonetheless what is located beyond our faculties of comprehension. Symmetrically, minimal art was considered by its earliest commentators to be out of reach for the uninitiated viewer. In both cases, this notion is conveyed through unified, powerful, and hermetic forms.

1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey synthesized this vision of the strange object inaccessible to human recognition. In the Arthur c. Clarke short story that inspired the film, The Sentinel (1951), the hero discovers an enigmatic pyramid structure on the moon: “This was not a building, but a machine, protecting itself with forces that had challenged Eternity.” But this form made much reference to the ancient buildings found in our cultural memory, replaced in the film by the famous black monolith that articulates the various temporal sequences of the story. This parallelepiped, which sometimes is drawn on the ground, sometimes floating in space, appears to synthesize minimalism (it may as well have been proposed by Robert Morris, Ronald Bladen, Tony Smith, or John McCracken):

“The object before which the space-suited man was posing was a vertical slab of jet-black material, about ten feet high and five feet wide: it reminded floyd, somewhat ominously, of a giant tombstone. Perfectly sharp-edged and symmetrical, it was so black it seemed to have swallowed up the light falling upon it; there was no surface detail at all. It was impossible to tell whether it was made of stone or metal or plastic—or some material altogether unknown to man.”

Like H.G. Wells’ machine, or those portrayed by Damon Knight in Beyond The Barrier (1964), the monolith travels in time and is presented as an ahistoric form, indifferent to vital cycles. However, contrary to the imaginary “tradition” that relates Knight to Wells, the monolith is not a machine (to the contrary: in the film, the machine is revealed with a fallible character, via the supercomputer HAL 9000); it is a superior intelligence, unnamable, and incommensurable. And the monolith will engage, at the end, the last survivor of the story in an unknown space-time dimension beyond infinity. Stanley Kubrick’s film synthesizes the concerns enlightened in artistic discourse: it is understood as a post-humanist manifesto (where only the computer is endowed with “human” emotions), anti-evolutionist (the monolith having manipulated as it pleases the progress of humanity since its origins) and anti-teleological (humanity meets a mutation, rather than an end). The narration is built in a gradual and abstract loop, dialogue is reduced to a minimum, and the relationships between the few protagonists are frigid. The scriptwriter summarized his intentions while stating to have wanted to create a visual experiment located beyond verbal constructions: “To distort McLuhan, in 2001, the message is the medium,” he explained.

We can consider Stanley Kubrick’s films as a kind of minimalist apogee, as the successful expression of an ongoing stylistic phenomenon that circulates freely between the visual arts, sci-fi, and the cinema (without mentioning other genres of artistic expression). The black monolith of 2001, a “monument” geometrically mutic and saturated with meaning, emblazoned its symbol of a minimal and post-human future in the memory of film enthusiasts all around the world. If, in the first half of the 1960s, the artists thought to widen this kind of abstraction, or even to transcend the conventional categories of the fine arts, the counter-cultures (psychedelism, protest movements) and subcultures (at the top of this list being SF) would complete the process of legitimization of these motifs, which at their origin, seemed rather distant from the hermeneutics of the great arts.


“THE FUTURE IS no longer what it used to be,” affirmed Arthur C. Clarke. one could add that—taking into consideration what the relationship between art and sci-fi reveals, and with regard to what, at least, concerns us here—the future does not have any future prospects. Britain’s Independent Group, established in the 1950s in London around the Institute for Contemporary Art, inaugurated pop aesthetics by drawing references from the ongoing spectacles of advertisement, the cinema, and consumer goods, but also from subcultures—sci-fi in particular. The Independent Group artists (among whom were Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, Nigel Henderson, and the architects Alison and Peter Smithson), in their individual practices but more so their collective practice (as seen is successive exhibitions between 1951- 195612) and interdisciplinary dialogue, provoked in visual collisions a translation of the detriments of post-war technology. Sf was one of the tools they employed in this polyphony, onto which the exhibition “This is Tomorrow” (Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1956) aimed to be the mirror. However, a crisis was already underway, visible in the perfume of obsolescence interfering in their images of a troublingly radiant future. The crisis became more specific in the 1960s, as counter-culture made its warnings heard, trying to imagine a future more worth living. It was then that the real chiasm between art and sci-fi took place, in the constant exchange of their symbols: sci-fi invents abstracted objects— hyperrational and inevitably more threatening than the monsters of yesteryears—while artists such as Peter Hutchinson and Robert Smithson began to look at art as abstract and rational, and through the infrared glasses of sci-fi writers. The themes converged. Artists, scriptwriters, and writers began to swap hermeneutic tools, collaborating with each other in the margins of flower power, as they sculpted visions of a dehumanized, post-historical future. Fredric Jameson also speaks of “the attenuation of history” in the postmodernist era and, to counter, consistently analyzes sci-fi as an exceptional ground of critical exercise where stories of the future deal with the present in the past tense. The future regresses, no longer in front of us, but far behind.

This text is excerpted from Valérie Mavridorakis’ introduction to her anthology Art et science-fiction: la Ballard Connection, Genève, éditions Mamco, 2011.