Nerd Klaxon: Barbican to host Science Fiction exhibition this summer

Curator Patrick Gyger tells El Reg what you can expect

Interview The Barbican Centre will host a sprawling festival-style Science Fiction exhibition this summer, featuring an immersive range of exhibits from across the breadth of the genre.

Curated by Swiss historian and writer Patrick Gyger, who spoke to The Register about the exhibition, the purpose was to explore Science Fiction “as an experimental genre, delving into its storytelling roots to discover how its visionary creators captured imaginations around the world to become one of the most popular and enjoyable narratives today.”

Despite including an enormous range of material the exhibition is fundamentally not a collection of objects, he says. Showcased within the Brutalist London landmark will be over 200 books from original manuscripts and typescripts through to contemporary art commissions and existing art works, as well as more than 50 film and television clips including rare and unseen footage, not to mention the pulp magazines, advertisements concept art, film props, comics, video games and robots that have been generated by the human imagination about science.

“You have to tell people a story, to give them an insight,” explained Gyger. “It's not a display of memorabilia or a collector's cabinet of curiosities—there is one in the show — but it's about telling the story of Science Fiction and why it's important to us, why it's driving us to delve into realms we don't know of yet, to go beyond our own knowledge. It's about what's striking, what's important in Science Fiction, and how it makes us dream of things. Just displaying a gremlin here and a spaceship there is not going to do the job.”

Set in the Barbican's Curve Gallery, the exhibition aims to visitors on a journey through “strange lands, dystopian worlds, and virtual universes in four chapters,” titled Extraordinary Voyages, Space Odysseys, Brave New Worlds and Final Frontiers.

Patrick Gyger

El Reg was excited to see, among the many books listed, Thomas More's work of 1516, Utopia, which some consider to be the first ever work of Science Fiction, although you wouldn't get complete agreement nor disagreement with that claim, according to Gyger. The curator noted that some claimed the first elements of Science Fiction appeared in the True History of second century satirist Lucian, particularly for featuring extra-planetary travel and conflict with aliens.

Others claim that Science Fiction began with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein “because of the use of technology and science to transform the world,” Gyger said, but added that for him More's Utopia was “at the very root of Science Fiction.”

In most Science Fiction works there are several ideas, and looking at the film Blade Runner, Gyger noted “it's supposedly about replicants and artificial humans, but it's also about the city, for instance, and it's also about the future generally, and ecology—there's not a single idea there—so taking Blade Runner and having it in the exhibition, you have to consider where you think that work has the most impact, or how did it define the genre in the most striking way, and for me it's the vision of the city of the future, more than the idea of the cyborgs or artificial humans.”

Blade runners

“It is dark, but it is actually rooted not in Science Fiction but in architecture, because someone that was really important to that construction is Aldo Loris Rossi, an Italian architect mostly from the seventies, and he was very influential in how the city of the future in Blade Runner is depicted.”

“Science Fiction influence our way of seeing things, but also gathers material from other creators out there. It's not a self-contained vaccuum. The way we tried to make things at the Barbican is to try and see the cultural impact of the work and the ideas expressed in the work as much as the official discourse', you know, the fact that Blade Runner is a story about replicants is probably less important than this kind of neo-noir discourse of the city.”

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Blade Runner will indeed be making an appearance in the exhibition as an auto-encoded feature piece, created by an engineer and artist using neural networks to reconstruct the film as per the psuedo-intelligence's programming.

There were several reasons why the exhibition decided to show Blade Runner in this fashion, including both the difficulties and expense of acquiring the rights to the film and the impending release of its sequel, Blade Runner 2049, but also because it seemed like “a smart way to do it” said Gyger.

“The film was fed to a computer, and we're not showing the film, we're showing what the computer was told to watch in the film, so it's like the dream of the film through a computer. It's like an android dreaming the film,” said Gyger, referencing the title of the original novel by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids dream of electric sheep? “It's a very blurry, hazy, rendition—it's a really poetic take on the project.”

“Next to that we have this other film which is really silly but very fun, called Sunspring,” said Gyger.

Sunspring is a short Science Fiction film whose plot was generated by a predictive algorithm which had been trained on “some basic Science Fiction film plots” to produce its own where “in the future young people have to sell their blood to go to Mars or whatever, some really random thing” said Gyger, although it doesn't sound too unlike the future which vampire VC Peter Thiel and Elon "Emperor of Mars" Musk are ushering us towards.

Images such as glitch art and Twitter account @Archillect don't appear in the exhibit because of Gyger's stringent rules defining Science Fiction. Archillect's automated curation process uses an algorithm which is fed a list of keywords and adapts dynamically based on the response to the resultant images as they are received and shared on social media.

Such artworks aren't “rational, fictional projects”, said Gyger. “The definition of Science Fiction that I'm using is very broad, but still very strict. It has to be fictional, it's not a mimetic representation of the world. It has to be conjectural, and it has to be rational—so it's not a fantasy.”


Among the dominant features of modern Science Fiction that seem most obviously conjectural is that of the city, which is swollen with a dense population and segregated by absurd divisions in wealth.

Works of literature from William Morris' News from Nowhere, Ursula K. Le Guin's philosophical short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas to one of Gyger's reading suggestions, China Miéville's The City & the City, all play with “the dystopian and utopian aspects of the city in the same place at the same time” said Gyger.

The extremely popular film franchise The Hunger Games features a society where a wealthy and technologically advanced Capitol city is surrounded by poorer segregated districts, from whom “tributes” are demanded forced to fight to the death on an annual basis for the amusement of those in the Capitol—a “death game” which earned the series some criticism for perceived lack of originality.

Such Science Fiction could stand in very stark contrast to the works of writers such as J.G. Ballard, but both are included within the exhibition.

Asked how they were distinguished, Gyger responded: “Do we need to make a distinction? No, I don't think so. That distinction is made for those who don't like the genre. When something is good enough in Science Fiction, they say it's not Science Fiction.”

Roy Batty Blade Runner

“Ballard, or the 'Little Prince' — one of these days Philip K Dick's going to be outside the realm of Science Fiction, you know? There are popular culture works that are good. You might or might not like something,” the curator added.

Gyger said his favourite Science Fiction book was John Crowley's novella Great Work of Time, explaining: “Crowley did a lot of Science Fiction, and still does, and his Great Work of Time is a very small novel about time-travel, and is very nostalgic and very powerful about people trying to kind of perpetuate the British Empire forever.”

Science fiction is “a very political genre because it does question who you are and where you are, what you're doing at the present moment, and anything that questions the future — where you're going to — is political by essence.”

That said, Gyger “was adamant to not go into the science of Science Fiction, or how Science Fiction depicts gender issues and all of that kind of discursive background and foreground in the field — which is always really interesting, how Science Fiction compares to real science, how it depicts African Americans — all of that is really interesting, but that's not our show. The show is about Science Fiction, in itself, and you can read all kinds of things in it, and we try to be a little bit discursive when we can.”

“There's stuff about Interstellar, and there are space suits, but it's not a show of four space suits from films and then a real space suit to make a comparison; you can go to the science museum for that. The show is really about that perspective, the genre, the point of view, which we can celebrate for itself. We don't need to say 'These guys in The Martian got it right' or 'These guys in Star Trek got it wrong', that's not the point.”

Some writers do attempt to keep as close to reality as they can for the sake of suspension of disbelief, said Gyger, “and in the case of The Martian they really tried to get everything right, because that was their game, the game of the novel is that, is trying to make something as realistic as possible. But we're not making comparisons. When Philip Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? He's not trying to say 'Oh yeah, in 1989 or whatever, this is supposed to happen. We'll have replicants for real.' He's not writing about that.”

There are some films, such as Gravity, said Gyger, “where there is very strong sense of verisimilitude — it looks like it would be real — but any scientist or engineer would tell you there are a million mistakes, but they're not mistakes, that's not what the film is about, it's a fictional story of adventure.”

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Gyger denied that curation was an “art form” as such, but accepted that creating a space for people to traverse was a creative activity. “This is done in partnership with the designers of the show, of course, and the people doing the lighting and the projections.”

“It's not a book. I think we've tried to make things appealing visually,” said Gyger, noting that while individual exhibits would tell a story in and of themselves, they would with their surroundings create context and bring audiences on a journey.

“It has to be immersive because of the topic of the exhibition 'Into the Unknown' you have to feel like you're surrounded by a bit of mystery, and of course you have some hands-on activities, there's a map of extraordinary voyages, we have an interactive element with The Martian as if you were at NASA control,” said Gyger, “and there are others where you are deeper in the immersion, but it's not a theme park.”

It will be a linear journey for audiences because it is set in the Curve Gallery at the Barbican, which Gyger described as “a very particular gallery where you enter on one side and exit on the other side, and it is really like this massive corridor, so it creates this narrative for a show.”

He continued to explain about the narrative takes people through the different ideas in Science Fiction:

The journey starts in the 19th Century when the planet is being mapped and people are filling in the blanks of the maps, and then going inside the planet where the Earth is hollow—or sometimes inside of the Earth there's another Sun, or you go under the sea and there you find the lost world of Atlantis, or the ruins of Atlantis.

When the whole world has been explored then you start going into the air, and then towards the Moon, towards space, and so in this movement of exploration you're covering the world and then going outside of it.

Then, when you reach the Moon and the stars you meet aliens, and they're not very nice people, and so you go back and this is where you recentre on your own home planet, and you destroy it and rebuild it constantly, creating dystopian and utopian worlds.

At the end of course, to go full-circle, what we call the Final Frontiers are basically, once you've rebuilt your environment, your environment defines how you are, whether you're a number as in THX 1138, or as in Ray Bradbury or Ayn Rand's work—once you have defined your environment you can start defining yourself and transforming yourself, so prosthetics, robotics, AI.

This is similar to the Ballardian notion of Science Fiction's destiny being an exploration, not of outer space but of “inner space”, Gyger agreed.

Gyger said that “the last part of the show is this kind of Ballardian new-wave of Science Fiction, and the journey basically is one that takes you back to yourself. You leave, you go and look at the horizon, and you push things further and further away, and you go beyond the unknown, and at the end you find yourself—or not,” Gyger joked. “You find yourself in front of your own image, as a robot or a cyborg, or inside your dreams.”

“There are things I'm very excited to have, like the Jules Verne original drawing of the mysterious island, although I don't think people are going to be as super-excited about that. I don't know. There's original H.R. Giger's works, which I think are exciting,” he said of the Swiss surrealist, who created the designs for the Alien films, as well as Jodorwsky's doomed adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel Dune.

“What I'm really happy to have is this encounter between pop culture items, contemporary art, design, films, comics, things from the 18th and 19th centuries, and very very recent works, so the breadth and scope of the project is what I'm happiest with, and this is something which could fail. It could be easier to say we're doing 70s and 80s Science Fiction from three well-known franchises and show costumes, but we didn't go that route, there are no costumes or movie posters, we didn't go the easy route,” said Gyger.

Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction is on at the Barbican Centre, London, from 3 June 2017 to 1 September 2017. ®


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