In the future, how will our cities evolve and adapt? It’s a question many have explored – look no further than Blade Runner’s vast, industrial landscapes, or J. G. Ballard’s dystopian novel, High-Rise. For its newest exhibition, ‘Tomorrows’, Athens’ Onassis Cultural Centre (OCC) delves into this very question, telling stories about possible cities and exploring the dystopian and utopian scenarios that have been dreamt up since the 1960s.
The works respond to the concept of ‘Ekistics’, which was conceived by Greek city planner Constantionos Doxiadis, who proposed that the success of future city development was dependent on the balance of five fundamental elements: nature, shells (buildings), networks, society and anthropos (people). In many of the works, these elements are thrown off-balance, lending themselves to uneasy portrayals of strange technologies and barren landscapes. In others, they are used to reimagine familiar cities, like Athens itself, beyond the use of technology that exists today.
We spoke to exhibition curator Daphne Dragona about the vision behind ‘Tomorrows’, its practical roots in architecture and design, and its focus on the Mediterranean.
“Most of the projects tend to blur the boundaries between the real and the fictive, the known and the unknown, the dystopian and the utopian.”
Sarah Roberts: Some of the works were obtained through open call submissions. How do you think that process added to the overall exhibition?
Daphne Dragona: Around 40% of the works on show were selected through the open call. The decision to have an open call was made for two main reasons. Firstly, we wanted to reach out to artists, designers and architects, especially young and emerging ones, whose work we might not have been aware of. Secondly, we wanted to overcome generalised approaches about the future of tomorrow’s urban environment and to discuss the role of the particularities of different geographical areas. A key element for us was to underline that there is not ‘one future’ but different, heterogeneous ones in direct connection, of course, to different needs, challenges and possibilities. It was something that we felt was missing from the exhibitions and events engaging with the topic of future.
Sarah: Did you notice any distinct patterns in how contributors envisaged these futures?
Daphne: A common feature among many of the works is a form of subtle exaggeration. Most of the projects tend to blur the boundaries between the real and the fictive, the known and the unknown, the dystopian and the utopian. They start from traits and phenomena of the present and they explore how these might play out in the future. The role, for instance, of new techno-natural ecologies, of sovereign infrastructures, or of new systems of algorithmic governance, are very much discussed, highlighting the changing relationship of the human to nature, but also to the machine. One could also say that a certain form of anxiety is felt while experiencing most of the works; this is interestingly counterbalanced by the exaggeration, humour and irony that also prevail in them.
Sarah: How did you merge elements of architecture and design into the exhibition?
Daphne: This came naturally, thanks to a strong binding element of speculation. We should clarify that in the case of the works presented, the ‘functional’ role of architecture and design is vanishing and is being replaced by a need to raise questions and provoke discussions. The fields of speculative design, urbanism and architecture were of great interest for us, as they were able to engage works of contemporary art with the future.
We also focused on the great legacy of the past; that is the visionary work of the architectural and design studios of the 60s, and their speculations on how the urban future might evolve. We wanted to show this continuity with the prominent presence of two historical works from this period, while also highlighting how our expectations of the future have now changed. Our aim, therefore, was to create a space where differentiations between the fields of architecture, art and design would fade, and reflections about present as well as past futures would be encouraged.
“How might ongoing technological, environmental and societal changes affect tomorrow’s worlds? Which future do we want to see being shaped?”
Sarah: What different techniques are used to convey possible futures?
Daphne: The exhibition hosts a wide variety of works using different media, formats and materials. Videos, drawings, models, installations, wearables and objects are all brought together to discuss opposing possible future scenarios. They all tell stories from a near or distant future, but the methodologies behind the works vary greatly depending on their creator. Tobias Revell, for instance, presents a docu-fiction about New Mumbai, Penelope Haralambidou presents a selection of projects from March Unit 24 of the Bartlett School about future cities, buildings, and landscapes that she calls ‘architectural film essays’. A number of 3D printed objects from the 3D Addtivist Cookbook, initiated and edited by Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke, comment playfully on the role of 3D fabrication in the formation of Mediterranean post-natures. A group project by the Yale Advanced School of Architecture, led by Micheal Young, features images and models that document future infrastructures in Iceland, and ‘Kitty AI‘ by Pinar Yoldas, tells us in a video how artificial super intelligence might be the only efficient form of governance for a future planetary city.
Sarah: What do you hope that people will take away from this collection of work?
Daphne: Mostly, our hope is to offer the opportunity for critical reflection. The show, we must clarify, does not promise any answers, it rather raises questions that invite the audience to explore the future by revising the present itself: How might ongoing technological, environmental and societal changes affect tomorrow’s worlds? What role can we play in their formation? Which other forms of agency need to be taken into consideration? Which future do we want to see being shaped? In a period when the future feels closer than ever, we wanted to locate the starting points, practices and methodologies that would allow us to create a context and approach its multiple aspects.
‘Tomorrows’ is on at the Diplareios School in Athens until 16th July 2017.