MEMORIES OF THE FUTURE / exhibit curation - 2010
The work I was doing in my second year at Cranbrook laid the groundwork for an exhibition at the school’s Forum Gallery that I organized in December 2010, entitled Memories of the Future. The show consisted of a body of work from myself, Jessica Calek, Wes Taylor, Leo Hanifin, and Mackenzie Schubert. I was interested in the intersection of past and future within my own work and the work of my fellow students, and I thought it was exciting that we were all dealing with notions of the future in somewhat melancholy, nostalgic ways -- an unbuilt future, perhaps, or the potential for decline, with the suggestion of narrative over time coursing through it.
My proposal for the exhibition began with a quotation from Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism, in which he examines his own nostalgic feeling for the British Brutalist architecture of the mid-twentieth century. This is an architecture which is itself infused with notions of temporality; it was built with ideas of a utopian future in mind, yet it now stands as a ruined monument to the past, and its material qualities (brutal, pseudo-Platonic, time-stained concrete) serve as signifiers for both that potential future and that sense of rotting past. Hatherley watched these decaying concrete monoliths being torn down in the 1980s, and, to him, they “seemed so much more futuristic” than the contemporary houses and shopping malls being built to replace them.1 Questioning his own feelings towards these concrete monsters of a bygone era, Hatherley concludes he is experiencing “the common contemporary phenomenon of nostalgia for the future, a longing for the fragments of the half-hearted post-war attempt at building a new society, an attempt that lay in ruins by the time I was born.”2 Ideas of past, present, and future, unrealized, alternative, potential, and failed, swirl together in a mass of confusion, fiction, hope and despair, symbolized and memorialized on all sides by an act of architecture, of design. This is the feeling that I wanted to capture with the Memories of the Future forum show, filtered through examinations of ruin design, manufactured futures, narrative, and the ghosts of The Terminator and Mad Max.
In Sonic Warfare, Steve Goodman uses the phrase “memories of the future” at two different points to describe both the process of consumption-inducing “sonic branding” and its antithesis, the time-scrambling viral methodologies embodied by “Afrofuturist sonic fictions.”3 In Goodman’s words, “anticipative branding culture ... sets out to distribute memory implants” through “earworms,” jingles, slogans, logos, and so forth.4 These “memory implants” seek to “encourage repetition of consumption, a repetition of a memory that you have not had.” These “memories of the future” are merely virtual, “despite their sense of familiarity.”5 Goodman juxtaposes these constructed future memories with the literal connections between past, present, and future found in dub music, and, as I mentioned in the Bay City Bullshit chapter, he posits this viral sense of connection through time as a potential model for an alternate capitalist system. “Instead of leaving the past behind or treating it as static,” Goodman writes, “Afrofuturist sonic fictions tend to find routes to the future in the past through the looped achronology of time anomalies, or ‘knockings’ -- communiques from outside the present, transmitted like radio waves in terms of premonitions or memories of the future.”6
Indeed, Goodman, as a recording artist and head of the Hyperdub record label, titled his first Kode9 & the Spaceape album Memories of the Future as a nod to the theories he lays out in his book. The parallels between his book and his music are fascinating: the book articulates a set of conceptual ideas about an metaphoric alternate viral ecology for music production and consumption, and the music he writes as Kode9 serves as an example. The “feel” of his music, particularly the 2006 Memories of the Future album, allows for hauntological, intuitive connections to be made to the theoretical framework expounded upon in his Sonic Warfare book: it is an album of dystopian unease, moving through the potential future/past ruins of London (or, perhaps, “London”). I used the term “Memories of the Future” for the forum gallery exhibit as a deliberate nod to Goodman’s work, both in print and as Kode9, because of the cross-media overlap his work exhibits and its emotional/theoretical connection to my own explorations.
My contributions to the show consisted of a series of thirty-three 35mm photographs, mounted on MDF board and presented in a grid on the wall, and a set of six four-foot-square panels, which, taken together, formed the skeletal suggestion of the narrative inherent within my work at Cranbrook.
The series of photographs revisited the motorcycle rider character from previous projects, following him as he wanders through an abandoned landscape, beginning in rural areas, moving through suburban and commercial environments, and ending in an urban setting, full of abandoned storefronts and boarded-up property. The placement of the photos in a comic-book-like grid on the wall of the gallery gives the project the sense of narrative, as the protagonist slowly moves from place to place, experiencing mankind’s interventions into nature over a period of time, from tree planting to strip malls to derelict urban environments well past their prime. No other people are present. The narrative ends with a series of double exposures, as time compresses and the protagonist loses his opacity and fades away. He disappears in the final panel in a flash of light, as the camera effectively takes a picture of nothing. The suggestion is that this last human figure, having gazed back on the twentieth century from some unknown future/imagined perspective, is literally removed from the frame, removing all traces of humanity with him (all traces, that is, except the ruined buildings and other interventions that we’ve left behind as markers, monuments, of our presence).
This narrative takes on new meaning when it’s revealed that the landscape the motorcycle rider is traversing is, in fact, Bay City -- the same Bay City that served as a backdrop for Bay City Bullshit, refracted through the lens of another, more contemplative persona. The photos were all obviously taken in the present day, yet, due to their lack of human presence beyond the helmeted protagonist, they have the eerie feel of a constructed fiction, a stage set, a lie -- in other words, another piece of bullshit. The protagonist in this story becomes a stand-in for myself, undertaking a psychogeographic journey through his former home town, emerging from an ambiguous state of nature, making his way to the center of the City, peering in at the suggestion of forgotten stories, crumbled landmarks, human events with a short lifespan juxtaposed against the timelessness of space. This journey through the landscape becomes a journey through the protagonist’s own past, from the perspective of outsider; he is hiding his own identity behind a mask, a mask which carries connotations of escape, transition, power, armor, masculinity, quarantine, otherness, distance, and so on.
My other part of the Forum show was a different vague narrative, consisting of six 48” by 48” panels, primarily featuring masked out acrylic text juxtaposed on top of images. The first panel in this series was the “We’ve got all the time in the world” panel featuring an image of a dilapidated post-apocalyptic motorcycle, which I had completed earlier, and the last panel was the portrait photograph of the motorcycle rider with text reading “I still need you,” also completed as a previous project. These two endpoints of the narrative were fleshed out with four accompanying panels, in two sets of two. One set featured a still frame from the “Phil Smokes a Cigarette” animated film project, juxtaposed with the text of an interview I conducted with a friend of mine named Chad, resident of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The other set was based on a gritty image of the open road, covered with text reading “That’s when I knew I couldn’t go back.” These two images served as a bridge of sorts between the beginning panel and the end, suggesting the skeleton of a story and hopefully providing context for my intentions with my work in general.
The text of the interview revolves around the death of the mining industry in the Upper Peninsula and Marquette in general, a death which echoes the postindustrial economic decline of places like Detroit and Bay City, and the ensuing search for locational identity, which often defaults to a reliance on tourism.
The emphasis on tourism in the interview is important, because tourism represents one potential outcome of the narrative of the postindustrial city. Tourism, however, is problematic, in that it serves as the perpetuation of a false simulation, an emphasis on “history” instead of history. As the interview describes, after cities cease to rely on production as a means of economic sustainability, “cultural identity becomes a tourist attraction,” yet, as Chad points out, the tourist version of that cultural identity is not real. It is a mere simulation, and a revisionist one at that. In fact, it sets up a system of three simulations, each one reinforcing the next and simplifying the one that came before: the city becomes a simulation of its own past, the tourist attraction becomes a simulation of that city, and the tourists themselves become simulations of curious visitors, blindly roleplaying as they see what they are expected to see, checking that tourist attraction off of some arbitrary list of landmarks. All three simulations perpetuate a myth that eventually overtakes reality.
The result is something like contemporary Manchester, where myth and reality are no longer distinguishable; as Owen Hatherley describes in A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, it seems that “the eventual point of Joy Division or Acid House was to lay the groundwork for postindustrial speculation and gentrification,” resulting in Hatherley’s damning criticism that “an oppositional, independent pop music has become a new museum culture in today’s Manchester,” just like “the Situationist critique of postwar urbanism has curdled into an alibi for its gentrification.”7 A similar situation is occurring in contemporary Detroit, where the city has arguably become more well-known for its present state of extreme postindustrial decay than for its historical automotive-based affluence, even though one phase of history obviously caused the other. Think of Detroit, and you think of “ruin porn,” and the city is becoming dangerously close to being consumed by that postindustrial affectation -- it’s turning into a simulation of itself. The same process happens in places like Bay City and Marquette, but on a smaller, less well-known scale.
The sentiment expressed in the phrase “That’s when I knew I couldn’t go back,” illustrated in the second to last panel of the gallery installation, probably needs little explanation in the psychogeographic journey-based context of my body of work. It is a rumination on many things, related to changes in time, space, emotion, and the infinite ways in which they overlap each other. It is also, perhaps, a statement about the pointlessness of nostalgia -- one can never go “back,” particularly when the place you try to go back to is turning into a mythological version of itself.
1. Owen Hatherley. Militant Modernism. Zero Books, Hampshire: 2010.
3. Steve Goodman. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. MIT Press, Cambridge: 2010.
7. Owen Hatherley. A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. Verso, London: 2010.