Arcosanti was supposed to be an example of what a smartly designed, environmentally conscious town could be. Located about 70 miles north of Phoenix, Ariz., the experimental settlement was founded in the 1970s by architect Paolo Soleri, who died in April. Soleri always envisioned Arcosanti as somewhat dense—about 5,000 people on a 25-acre swath of land—with tall, vertical buildings constructed using ecologically sustainable materials and techniques.
The dream didn't exactly succeed, but it didn't fail, either.
"It feels both utopian and dystopian," says San Diego artist Victoria Fu, whose 2009 experimental film set in Arcosanti will be one of many artists' works featured in Approximately Infinite Universe, a science-fiction-inspired show on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's La Jolla location through Sept. 1. "The town definitely encapsulated both sides. It was kind of sad, but hopeful— desolate, but it wasn't completely giving up."
Fu's film, Portmanteau, is a 16 mm, two-channel projection that, through an eight-minute loop without any real narrative, captures Arcosanti's other-worldliness by following a woman wandering through the empty town's extraordinary buildings and the surrounding desert. The piece is fragmented, disjointed and strange, made more eerie by the score, which Fu stitched together using samples of sounds from more mainstream cinema (you may recognize a few bits and pieces from the movie The Eclipse).
Fu's work isn't straightforward science fiction, but viewed within the context of the MCASD show, both it and Fu's other piece in the exhibition—a short, dreamy, grainy film focusing on a woman holding a mirror and reflecting light into the camera's lens as she roams through the Hudson River Valley— demonstrate MCASD associate curator Jill Dawsey's aim, which was, in part, to highlight contemporary artists creating their own fictions and alternate realities.
"I like that the show is loosely based because it could be all about starships and aliens and things, which I do hope there are some of," Fu laughs. "But the bigger idea, the bigger impact of why science fiction is relevant to us, I think that's a really smart lens to look at it with."
Science-fiction references and influences seem to be appearing with increasing frequency in contemporary art, says Dawsey, who organized Approximately Infinite Universe and included artists like Edgar Arceneaux, Chitra Ganesh, Yoko Ono, The Otolith Group, Saya Woolfalk and others.
"And my job as a contemporary-art curator is to represent what artists are thinking about or looking at," Dawsey says. "There's something very much of the zeitgeist in this show, apart from what it says about sci-fi; it's also reflective of the contemporary art world right now. What's nice about the show is that it's really beautiful work, and it's quite playful and quite visually dramatic, but there are also visual ideas—ideas about society, history and the future."
Arceneaux's works, for example, imagine Detroit as a ruined city from the future. His drawings give homage to Drexciya, a strange and secretive underground Detroit techno-music group from the 1990s who wrote a complex backstory on their album sleeves claiming "Drexciya" was an underwater country populated by the unborn children of pregnant African women thrown overboard during The Middle Passage from Africa to the United States.
Ganesh's site-specific installation includes an unusual large-scale painting that extends off the canvas onto the walls and space around it via sculptural elements. The Brooklyn artist's work envisions alternate narratives of sexuality and power.
A part-plant, part-human hybrid is at the center of Woolfalk's vivid paintings.
"It's as if she's created a society we can learn from," Dawsey says. "It's really elaborate; she has a website detailing the narrative."
One of the centerpieces of the exhibition, which takes its name from a Yoko Ono album, is an early video piece by Ono. It's essentially a live-feed camera directed at the sky, and the resulting broadcast simply shows what's happening real-time in the sky above the museum. Dawsey says she included the piece because it seems to invoke sci-fi related things like UFOs and other objects one might see flying in the sky, but also because the point of the piece is to look outside of oneself into the larger universe beyond.
"That's also an important recurring theme in the show," Dawsey explains.
Comic-Con is right around the corner, and while Dawsey hopes the show attracts an audience more attuned to popular-culture ideas about science fiction, the major impetus for the show wasn't to pander to the big annual event's massive crowd. The purpose of the show is to exhibit and analyze why and how contemporary artists seem to be increasingly attracted to the aesthetics of imagined futures and alternate possibilities.
"One of the interesting questions for me is: Why now?" Dawsey asks. "Why are artists thinking about science fiction now? It occurs to me that this is a moment when we're dealing with climate change, political conflict and vast global inequalities, and I think a lot of the science-fiction movies coming out now are disaster movies or very apocalyptic. I think it's this moment when it maybe becomes difficult to imagine what the future will be. I'm personally looking to artists to offer visions of what different futures could be and what those possibilities are."
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