Category: Documents of Contemporary Art — Published:

Today we announce Science Fiction, the latest in Whitechapel Gallery’s Documents of Contemporary Art series. And we ask: What might Sci-Fi tell us about the strange days of pandemic living?

In 1909, celebrated British novelist E.M. Forster wrote The Machine Stops, a science fiction story that is eerily accurate to our current existence. In this parable for the future, humanity is at the behest of the omnipresent ‘Machine’ and each person confined to their own isolated room, connected only by a form of video call technology.

A critical analysis of this story by N.J. Stallard is one of the many texts selected by Editor Dan Byrne-Smith for Science Fiction. Never has a theme felt quite so pertinent, as we adjust to what has become a new reality:

Are you happy to sit in a room where you can connect to a thousand friends? Or do you long to see your mother face to face? Do you find yourself avoiding or growing resentful of direct experience? Or are you worried the world is becoming increasingly the same?’ -N.J. Stallard on E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops

On Saturday 9 May, Jane Scarth (Public Programme Curator) is joined by Dan Byrne-Smith on a Live Instagram Q&A to unpack the ideas embedded in the new book.

Covering four thematic chapters: Cognitive Estrangement, Futures, Posthumanism, and Ecologies, the publication offers an essential primer in the authors, artists, and thinkers that have defined contemporary science fiction in art and literature. We are introduced to crucial positions, from Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s claim that we must ‘harmonise with exhaustion’ to overcome the ‘post-futuristic’ state of late capitalism, to Ana Teixeira Pinto’s breakdown of global futurisms (Afro-, Sino-, Gulf and beyond), to Ama Josephine Budge and Angela Chan’s discussion on the geopolitics of ‘cli-fi’ (climate science fiction): ‘Whose futures are we imagining?’, asks Chan.

Time and again the Whitechapel Gallery has explored science fiction futures. 1956s ‘This Is Tomorrow’ was a formative exhibition for the young JG Ballard. In 2019 we presented a queer imagining of the origin of the universe in Sophia Al-Maria and Victoria Sin’s exhibition BCE, and earlier this year we discussed ecology and apocalypse in ‘Stories at the End of the World’ with scholar Caroline Edwards and artist Veronica Gerber Bicecci. Here Caroline Edwards introduces the recurring theme of eco-catastrophe in Science Fiction literature.

As Dan Byrne-Smith states in his introduction, ‘the importance of simple acts of imagining things as other than they seem cannot be overstated.’ Whether utopian or dystopian, Science Fiction might offer a blueprint for possible worlds and a method of critique of the present.

Science Fiction is available to order now via most online book retailers and open local independent bookshops. Alternatively, you can support Whitechapel Gallery by buying through our online shop. Orders placed at this time will be dispatched or made available for collection once we reopen.