The Future is Upon us Constantly
‘The thing about the future is that it has arrived. If you’re writing about the present day, it’s impossible not to write about the future as well. It’s sort of pressing on the door, the social and political change.’
J.G. Ballard (Ballardian.com 2007)
Ideas of when and where the past ends and the future begins are slippery. The past, for instance, needn’t necessarily be populated by dinosaurs, or cavemen, or Romans; nor does it even have to have been documented by a historian. By the same token, the future needn’t be a far-flung, vague and unknowable idea. For the future is literally upon us constantly, while the past happened an instant ago. My own future is unfolding before me as I write – though, of course, by the time you come to read this, it too will be in the past. As these few sentences surely demonstrate, I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately: our place in it, and the way what we do impacts the next hours, days, months and years.
This is due in no small part to spending time – there’s that word again – immersed in the films of Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho, especially those presented at Tate Liverpool (November 2018 – March 19) as key constituent parts of their first UK exhibition News from Nowhere. This is the latest iteration in their overarching project inspired by the 1890 novel by William Morris of the same name. In that book, a man falls asleep and dreams that he has awoken one hundred years in the future, in a time devoid of capitalism and, therefore, industrialisation. Society – and life – is equal, simpler, and apparently all the happier for it. Presenting so utopian a view of the world (to him, at least), Morris reflected his misgivings about his own time.
Initiated in 2009, at a juncture during which the artists were questioning the value, nature and importance of contemporary art – their own included – Moon and Jeon responded with a project that now consists of a website, exhibitions, lectures and workshops, as well as their films. For the purposes of this essay I’m going to be focussing on the latter, in particular those in the Tate Liverpool show. Moon and Jeon have commented that they like to work in film because it is a ‘valuable collaborative platform’, and that the ideas and thoughts of those involved are able to be weaved together, like ‘warp and weft – combining multiple elements to create a single fabric’ (Tate Etc. issue 44: Autumn 2018, p.17).
Film, too, behaves like a time travel device. While it records and depicts present events, on screen, these events can be shuffled, so as to occur in the past, present or future when juxtaposed in the narrative, with different chronologies. It’s a simple trick that we all understand, but never any less of a convincing one for that. Fitting, then, that their chosen genre is Science Fiction. As many have observed, with Sci-Fi, speculating about future events allows us to interrogate our present. As the artists said to me: ‘we would like to remind [people] that our work is definitely not about some interest or concern of an upcoming future, rather, it is for the reflective and ruminative attitude on present time – as “borrowed from” the future time’.
This is the case with the central pivot of News from Nowhere, their 2012 film El Fin del Mundo. Here, Moon and Jeon borrow a similar device as used by Morris to traverse time as a means of spotlighting our own imperfect present-day realties – and concerns. On two screens we see two protagonists in vastly different worlds, if not locations. As is soon revealed, they occupy the same geographical space, but happen to be separated by chronology (just as in Morris’s story). On the first screen, a man barely subsists in an era in which life as we know it, due to ecological catastrophe, is on the verge of collapse. Although not oblivious to his impending fate, he nonetheless spends his increasingly finite time, not scrabbling for survival, but by doggedly scavenging materials with which to fashion artwork (albeit quite amateurishly). Among his haul, transported in a shopping trolley, is a dog. Not moving, we must assume that the dog has died. Whether it was the man’s companion, or intended artistic material, we don’t know. His myopic endeavour in the face of certain doom is at once tragic, touching, and heroic. To him, his commitment to art is not futile. Anything but.
On the other screen, a woman in pristine hazmat suit one hundred years hence, sorts through and categorises artefacts and samples in the aftermath of planetary catastrophe. This is the new world and she, we learn, is a citizen of Tempus. In the wake of disaster, rather than diminished nation states powerful conglomerates (Tempus among them) have filled the vacuum, offering safety, belonging and nourishment in return for labour and unquestioning compliance. El Fin del Mundo’s society, arisen out of the apocalypse, is tinged with shades of classic dystopia: control through fear – of not belonging, and of environmental hazards – being the most obvious. Couched in benevolent safety warnings, there is much you cannot do as a Tempus citizen. If we accept that Sci-Fi is a tool by which to reflect on the ills of the present, it is also commonly seen as a genre of rare predictive qualities, and this scenario hardly seems too huge a leap today.
Amid the personal constraints and warnings to work and conform, however, something else emerges. Something new. Or, rather, lost. While sorting through the relics and artefacts left by the man, the woman in the future makes a discovery. Like messages in a bottle sent with the certainty that only desperation can instil – that the intended person will, must, be in receipt of them – an awakening seems to be triggered in the woman. Things are suddenly illuminated; literally, as a mess of fairy lights left by the man in the past flicker to life. The awareness isn’t just one way; space and time collapse and, briefly, intermittently, the two become a pair, wordlessly joined across the decades, the twin obstacles of disaster and time overcome. It is as if, in discovering the man’s message in a bottle in the form of art, there is once again room for hope to flourish in this time. A sense that ‘no, things needn’t be this way’. Intuiting this, the woman makes a kind of vow to herself (or is it a mantra?), that ‘My Future Will Reflect a New World’. As the credits roll, the dog in the past that we assumed was dead, scampers through the man’s workspace; like the woman, it has been reborn. While we cannot know what comes next, a strong sense of hope via an ineffable belief in art and its effects upon us, prevails. This, on the page, perhaps reads as somewhat corny, but the confluence of the dog’s rebirth and the choice made and expressed by the woman is a powerful one.
While 2012’s El Fin del Mundo uses the collapsing of linear time and space to great effect, the two new films commissioned for the exhibition at Tate Liverpool differ markedly in tone. The two separate parts, collectively known as Anomaly Strolls, are for one much more abstract. Instead of a clear narrative and demonstrably human central characters, they rely and dwell upon absence – of a clear chronology, of visible interactions, and fixed locations. Filmed in Liverpool, as well as in Seoul and Busan, South Korea, they articulate, in deeply contemplative fashion, what it is to exist today. How, amid the bustle of society and throngs of people, one can feel (intentionally or otherwise) anonymous.
Anomaly Strolls I: Alchemy of Golden Leaf quietly leads the viewer through unpopulated streets. In classic end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it style, we are presented with an eerie, uncanny world. This world looks just like the one we currently inhabit, save for one thing: people. There is the blowing of blossom on the wind, the changing of traffic lights, the ticking of a clock marking time, and the flickering to life of a television set. But there is no human presence. More: a kettle boils, a cup of tea, steam still rising, remains untouched, and a cigarette is left to smoke itself. Then the film draws not so much on classic Sci-Fi, as tales of the Marie Celeste – adrift at sea with the table set for dinner but no crew to eat it, or to toast a so-far successful voyage. The queasily unsettling feeling is emphasised in a dreamlike moment where the camera lingers on a photograph in a seemingly abandoned dwelling. The photo is a seascape, the waves of which suddenly begin to churn. At the film’s close, a lone motorcyclist, the first sign of humanity made flesh, makes its way out of town. It feels like an act of desertion, condemning this place to its ghost-town status. Then, finally, gently, pedestrians move hither and thither. What can it all mean? By juxtaposing the trappings of quotidian life with desolation, followed by the reveal at the film’s close, is somehow to add ennui to the uncanny.
Anomaly Strolls II opens with somebody enjoying a pint of beer in a Liverpool pub. Echoing Alchemy of Golden Leaf, this somebody appears as an uncanny presence, surrounded by chatting locals. Perhaps ‘appears’ isn’t the best way of putting it, rather, we are conscious of a certain absence. This is swiftly emphasised with the sliding across a table of a pint glass, apparently by no one. As the pub door swings open, signifying their exit, we see a trolley filled with items we recognise from El Fin del Mundo. Has the man from that earlier film succeeded in another metaphysical leap? The trolley proceeds through deserted streets, its progress intercut with footage of a mechanised loom. As if to confirm our suspicions about the traveller, the artists have described this (at an artists’ talk at Tate Liverpool) as ‘a metaphor for the weaving of time and space’. Further evidence that our unseen actor could be an apparition or messenger from the coming apocalypse. But, is he a warning from his ‘future’ of times to come, or simply here to obsessively collect vital materials? His trolley, when it stops, does so outside the entrance to Tate Liverpool; the next stop for our weary but determined traveller.
Should you spot references to some of your favourite films of the genre in any of these works, it is no surprise. Moon and Jeon have been candid about the debt they owe to influential Sci-Fi. From Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner 1982 and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey1968 to Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan 1978 and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind 1984 – they draw on Great Big, universal ideas. Equally, they wear their influences lightly, and are never afraid to divert from these ur-texts. This extends to the premise of Morris’s News from Nowhere. Much has been written about the deadening effect of utopian narratives on story arcs: when things turn out well, and characters encounter nothing seemingly insurmountable past a certain point, our interest as readers and/or viewers will necessarily wane. By the same token, if fiction contains all of the same elements of the post-apocalypse and dystopian societies that emerge in their wake, audiences at some point will come to suffer a certain fatigue where such narratives are concerned. Or, perhaps, we will consider them altogether too close to our own reality.
In El Fin del Mundo and Anomaly Strolls Iand II, Moon and Jeon opt for a twist on these tropes. Taken together, I see in them more than a passing resemblance to Chris Marker’s revered time travel ‘photo-novel’, La Jetée 1963. In it, set against a grim backdrop, a lone time traveller is doomed to relive or experience a striking vision he recalls from his past – or is it his future? This chimes with the collapsing of space and time in El Fin del Mundo, and with the unseen navigator of Anomaly Strolls II. Moon and Jeon’s films, as with Marker’s, contain ghosts, doppelgangers and projections of the future. Where they differ from Marker’s masterpiece is in their retaining hope for something different. That hope is manifested in the form of art. This puts me in mind of an observation made by Mark Fisher in his essay Future Shock (Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder 2014, p.16). In Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men 2006 Fisher states: ‘Without any possible connection to the future, cultural objects become museum pieces, a set of decontextualized ornaments.’ For Moon and Jeon, however, such objects – their making and their discovery – offer salvation.
Rather than proposing that what awaits us will be utopian or dystopian, Moon and Jeon have striven to leave that particular door open. Their films, and the wider News from Nowhere project emphasise that while we can’t know what is to come, what we do in the here and now, as individuals and as a society, will dictate how our future will look.
By Mike Pinnington
Mike Pinnington is a freelance writer and editor based in Liverpool in the UK. He is the co-founding editor of The Double Negative (thedoublenegative.co.uk), an online magazine dedicated to the best of contemporary art, design, film & music.