May 11, 2010

Science Fiction and Art

William Gibson’s Neuromancer changed everything in 1984. For those of you who haven’t read it, Gibson coined the term cyberspace, and posits a near-future world in which people can go on line directly from their brain; where body augmentations are routine and extensive; where corporations run the world, brutally; where artificial intelligence is routine; where consciousness can be stored on discs after death. The ripple effect in the arts of this vision has been felt as more and more innovations in the field come from those using internet and digital technology. Two artists who come to mind are San Francisco’s Amy Franceschini, who uses her web organization, Futurefarmers, to network and organize environmental activism worldwide, and Lee Walton, a former San Franciscan who is currently teaching at the University of North Carolina. Some of Walton’s work is among the strongest internet-derived artmaking I’ve come across. I particular enjoyed his 2009 body of short videos, F’Book, on Facebook, in which he reenacted the short headlines on friend’s facebook status update postings (eg “I just washed down my vitamin with beer,” or “I just put out a small fire on my computer.”) These are just seconds long, but are beautiful, moving, and hilarious, and something that feels utterly well, cyber, and new.

The science fiction-inspired installation artist Stephen Hendee, who teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has turned me on to two younger British science fiction writers who are in the cyberpunk genre, carrying Gibson’s work forward. It reminds me of how an argument could be made that most of the experimental art of the past hundred years was sketched out by Duchamp and we’re just filling in the gaps of installation, performance, relational aesthetics, ad infinitum, that he initiated. The two writers filling in Gibson’s blanks are Iain M. Banks and Richard K. Morgan.

Banks has a long series of novels about the Culture, a progressive, inclusive anarchistic empire that exists among many other smaller empires (earth is not included) that are contemporary to our world, but as the cliche goes, utterly technologically advanced:  travel across the galaxy is routine, suffering and need have been eliminated, there’s no need to work, etc. It’s kind of an idealized libertarian paradise. The hoot is that artificial intellgence is commonplace, a given, and AI beings are legal equals to humans. In fact, the most powerful forces in the Culture are AI spaceships that are immense faster-than-light vehicle/beings that travel the galaxy with millions of Culture citizens aboard. They’re called the Minds and their names are hilarious. There is an elite subgroup of even more augmented and powerful beings who are responsible for interactions with non-Culture civilizations, kind of a black budget quasi-military force, but of course, completely benign. Morgan’s world is more violent, in many ways closer to Gibson’s: there is no death because consciousness is stored in a chip in the back of the neck. However, in this dystopia, the rich warehouse spare bodies while the poor have to hope for the best, and their chips, after death, can be stored for years in a bureaucrat’s desk. Corporate interests and political forces battle all over the galaxy for controlling power. The body-jumping anti-hero is Takeshi Kovacs, about whom three novels have been published.

I’m not sure exactly how the visual art of the next decade will encounter the ideas of these books, but my intuition is that their mix of anarchism, cynicism, fluid identity, and technological seep into every aspect of life, will be taken up.

Comments (4)

  • that’s great renny!

    looking forward to hear what you make of it.

  • Try a some older Larry Niven, Jack Vance “The Languages of Pao”, and Alfred Bester to see where it all comes from.
    If you liked Harrison’s “Deathworld” and some of the violence in Morgan books, try Neal Asher.

  • Thanks M. I’ll stop by the Lab.

  • marcella says:

    here is a good example of a bay area artist that has been working with all of these themes for a long time: this show currently at the lab, is mind boggling and pretty amazing. it goes from an oil rig w/ mutated overgrown crabs to a super computer inhabited by a strange homemade guitar playing alien to a demented puppet show set.

    probably the most well versed sci-fi literature aficionado i’ve ever met, i know that bonnie banks was a penpal w/ philip k dick and is a constant presence in neal asher blog’s forum where his renderings of asher’s imaginings are in heavy rotation. he is always championing the work of local under rated writer, jack vance (

    i am also really curious to see work developed in the vein of greg egan’s oeuvre (“diaspora” is a favorite) . his is a world where disembodiment has occurred and consciousness has shifted. i feel that between social networking websites and things like chatroulette we are definitely getting there.

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