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‘Designs for Different Futures’ Glimpses Our Earthly Precarity

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BmoreArt’s Picks: February 25 – March 2

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Art AND: Angela N. Carroll

About halfway through Designs for Different Futures, the special exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I realized I was thinking about the end of the world. I stood in a glass-enclosed room with the synthetic scent of flowers made extinct by climate change, while a girl of 5 or 6 years old played hide-and-seek nearby, and I wondered how her life would differ from mine.

Near the entrance sits a scale model of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the climate-controlled storage site in Norway that contains over one million seed samples in case of agricultural collapse. A woman’s voice echoes softly over the speakers, “You look lonely, I can fix that.” 

The line is from Blade Runner 2049 and, like the film, Designs for Different Futures provides a glimpse of a dystopian world through reminders of our earthly precarity and visions of a brave new world. The show whispers our vulnerabilities rather than shouts them, though. The lighting is dim and the room cavernous, and section titles line the top of the wall like an analog ticker tape of collective anxieties—JOBS JOBS JOBS INTIMACIES INTIMACIES INTIMACIES BODIES BODIES BODIES. 

The exhibit, which is up through March 8, does not explicitly deal in pessimism, but rather exists at that point of potential where our countless fates branch out before us. What choices do we have now and what future will we end up with? 

"Raising Robotic Natives," designed 2016 by Stephen Bogner, Philipp Schmitt, and Jonas Voigt (Courtesy of the designers) Photograph © Stephan Bogner, Philipp Schmitt, and Jonas Voigt. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019.
"Vespers III," designed by Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter Group, MIT Media Lab. 3D-printed plastic, biological material, fabricated by Stratasys. Photo by Nora Belblidia

With a wide range of artworks, designs, and commercial products—90 works by 150 artists/collectives from 31 countries—there is also a wide range of possibilities. In the video “Housewives Making Drugs,” by Mary Maggic, a cast of transfemme TV hosts cheerfully offer instructions on how to make estrogen at home, and subversively bypass government and pharmaceutical industry regulations. Fashion designs by Lucy Jones display adjusted knee and elbow dimensions that allow for greater flexibility for people in wheelchairs. Forty shades of foundation makeup from Fenty Beauty (designed by Rihanna) represents an inclusive range of skin tone types, and a world in which whiteness is not the default.  

Still, a Black Mirror-like sense of dread is hard to escape when maneuvering past a robot designed to bottle feed a baby, or when walking by seven hyperrealist masks created using DNA from discarded chewing gum.

I hadn’t planned on an afternoon of existential anxiety when I came to the museum. A friend recommended a different exhibit, Off the Wall: American Art to Wear (up through May 17), which features fashions from the 1960s and ’70s. But after the sleek and gray future of Designs for Different Futures, walking past colorful clothing while a Janis Joplin track looped on repeat felt cheesy and naïve, as though this nostalgic reality could solve the world’s problems with a stoned out “peace and love, man.” 

Off the Wall doesn’t claim to explore anything more than craft and textiles, so it’s unfair to compare the two exhibits, but seeing them in close succession made me think about how different eras conceive of the future. While I can look at the Boomer generation and envy their economic security and cheap college tuition, they also had Vietnam, Jim Crow, and the underlying threat of nuclear war. Did the future seem as bleak to them?

The difference, it seems to me, is in the level of information at our fingertips. With a constant barrage of bad news, it’s nearly impossible to not feel overwhelmed. Designs for Different Futures echoes this reality in the sheer volume of work present, and the sensory overload makes it difficult to focus. Neri Oxman’s 3D-printed death masks contain colorful living microorganisms, a kind of life after death in one corner. Across the room is “Mad Horse City,” an animated video set in Lagos, Nigeria in the year 2115 designed by Olalekan Jeyifous and Wale Lawal. And nearby is a helmet designed by Devon Ward and Oron Catts which emits vapor composed of mouse meat. The effect is like scrolling through an iPhone while the TV is on and three friends in wildly different emotional states talk to you. In other words, it’s very contemporary. 

One of the more noticeable works in Designs is a giant breathing blob of inflatable polyurethane, designed by Eero Lundén, Ron Aasholm, and Carmen Lee. Sensors cause it to react to fluctuations in carbon dioxide while color changes based on temperature. Plastic pockets filled with air and water expand in response to their immediate surroundings, so that as you breathe, the installation breathes too. Human action, the piece suggests, doesn’t exist in a bubble. While some might fantasize about escape to a Mars colony, we weren’t built for isolation. We interact with others and affect the space surrounding us.

One piece in particular differs from the other tech-centric works in that it’s as much rooted in the past as it is in the future. A tapestry depicts a map of the El Aaiun refugee camp in southwest Algeria, where Sahrawis (people from Western Sahara) were displaced more than 40 years ago when Morocco annexed their land. The piece was created by more than 30 women using traditional weaving techniques and a classic North African geometric motif, but the map displays clusters of residential and public buildings, along with shops, paths, and goat barns, all color coded via a legend in the corner. The description states the camp is a “centralized self-government that provides health and education services to its people across hundreds of miles, supported by various nongovernmental organizations, until such time as they can return to their homelands. This woven map is not only a depiction of an orderly, working society in the present but a civilization waiting for a much-hoped-for-future.”

In his essay “On Becoming an American Writer,” Alexander Chee asks, “How many times have I thought the world would end?” He traces his experiences through the AIDS crisis and 9/11 and friends dying from cancer, and wrestles with the question of why art is important in the face of devastation. This question has stuck with me, maybe because I find it comforting in a way. He’s made it far enough to ask the question after all. It reminds me that in spite of doomsday predictions, in spite of all the times humans have been sure the world would end, we have kept making art and communities, and so we keep going.

"Svalbard Global Seed Vault," designed 2008 by Peter W. Søderman, Barlindhaug Consulting (Exhibition display courtesy of USDA Agricultural Research Service, National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation). Photograph courtesy of Global Crop Diversity Trust. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019.

Designs for Different Futures is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through March 8. Images courtesy of the museum except where otherwise noted.

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