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Imagining Disaster: The Future is Unwritten

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved science fiction – whether on TV, the big screen or in book form. I loved shows like The Tripods and Chocky, adapted respectively from books by Johns Christopher and Wyndham. We even read John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at school. It was only well into adulthood that I became aware that, rather than belonging to something called ‘literature’, Science Fiction was in another category; this was called genre fiction, and not of the same standing – ‘low culture’ to the literary novel’s ‘high art’. 

Later, when I became involved in contemporary art, as regular audience member and as a writer of essays, reviews, gallery text, etc., science fiction was something I tended to speak less and less about, a taboo subject which, I presumed, was viewed pejoratively in certain circles. In a way I couldn’t have been more wrong. During this time, science fiction – as a device to communicate urgent concerns about war, colonialism, the environment and more – began to increasingly appear in the art gallery. 

In 2009, Tate Liverpool gave over huge amounts of wall space to Glenn Brown’s incredible paintings, epic reproductions of science fiction book covers so large “that their potential reality becomes almost plausible”; Chris Marker’s 1962 masterpiece La Jetée (an inspiration for films including The Terminator and 12 Monkeys) was proudly exhibited in the Whitechapel’s A Grin Without a Cat (2014); in 2017, Keith Piper exhibition Unearthing the Banker’s Bones channelled speculative fiction writer Octavia E Butler to “address current anxieties about the impacts of globalisation”. This is only a very small sample, and the list is growing all the time.

Today – like the contemporary art world – I have reconciled my enduring love of science fiction with my work. I’m in a sci-fi book club (something I’ve been really grateful of in successive lockdowns), whose number includes other art workers, and I’m writing a book on why contemporary art and science fiction are so comfortable in each other’s company. In these photographs I’ve documented these twin passions and, quite obviously, hinted at my Bibliomania. Discussed at our most recent Book Club, pictured, is Tentacle (2018), Rita Indiana’s vision of a near-future post-apocalyptic Santo Domingo, which weaves together myth, three different time-zones, climate change, class and identity politics. Coincidentally, one of its narratives concerns a colony of brattish contemporary artists, brought together to finance the cleansing of the sea through art sales.

Then there’s the shelves – books accumulated and read for pleasure; and a small selection of the research I’ve assembled for the book I’m writing, which will include essays and interviews. I read Butler’s Parable of the Sower after seeing and writing about Piper’s exhibition; Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 also inspired a show (which I’ve discussed in my essay for this series); books like Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon and Ursula K Le Guin’s The Word For World is Forest, meanwhile, are just great (very different) examples of the form.  

If you’ve made it this far down the page, you’ll probably have guessed that this is something I think about a lot, and it has informed the Imagining Disaster programme which Open Eye kindly invited me to produce. While I was setting up for these photos, our cat BonBon (Boh for short) got in on the act. He regularly assists me in my writing by stamping on the keys of my laptop. A big help when the words just aren’t flowing.


By Mike Pinnington / #ImaginingDisaster   


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