SITE Santa Fe, Santa Fe
October 7, 2017 – May 1, 2018
The future is now, at least in the context of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. When the book debuted in 1970, the year 2017 was a figment of the journalist-turned-futurist’s locomotive imagination. He daydreamed personal spaceships and underwater cities for us, but also accurately foresaw the rise of the commercial internet, antidepressants, same-sex marriage, and—yes—Kim Kardashian. His most prescient visions were based on social changes and scientific advances that were already in motion. Among them: the refinement of artificial intelligence, the decline of the nuclear family, and the development of DNA profiling and genetic engineering.
The book was an international phenomenon, but its main selling point wasn’t Toffler’s soothsaying. The term “future shock” referred to a psychological state that already seemed to be taking hold. Toffler explained it as the individual perception of “too much change in too short a period of time,” an experience that could cause distress, social paralysis, or even insanity. In the global transition from an industrial society to a “super-industrial” civilization, our very humanity was at risk of shattering under the stress of structural change.
Like some of the best science fiction stories, Toffler’s book imagined a world that was just close enough to reality for readers to project themselves into it. Nearly fifty years later, SITE Santa Fe’s Future Shock exhibition fully closes the gap. With the book as a retro point of departure, ten artists explore humanity’s historic and contemporary visions for the future. The show marks the museum’s grand re-opening following an eight-month renovation and expansion project, which transformed the gritty warehouse space into an immaculate, temperature-controlled white box. Examining the show in light of SITE’s rapid evolution brings up serious questions about the institution’s own path into the unknown.
Future Shock starts along SITE’s western exterior wall, with three art billboards by Andrea Zittel that present vague, futurist questions. “To acquire possessions, or to live free of encumbrances?” reads one. Enormous vinyl insects by Regina Silveira swarm the glass facade of SITE’s new lobby, a display that’s presented by the show’s catalogue as an allegory for global corruption and environmental degradation but mimics the benign décor of natural history museums a bit too closely.
Past a new gift shop and cafe that are called Curated and Crave, respectively, Tom Sachs has parked a Mars rover from his long-running project called Space Program. The whole room has an aura of self-conscious cool that also permeates Sachs’s work. The artist and his team have enacted imaginary missions to the Moon, Mars, and Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter, using equipment built from cobbled-together found objects. In addition to the ramshackle rover, there’s a case of mixed-media Mars rocks, a sample return box made from an old suitcase, and a recreation of Sachs’s workstation.
The project’s quirky details—the suitcase is covered in old luggage tags; the artist’s tools are labeled with celebrity names—recall the twee cinematic universe of Wes Anderson, with its obsessive and almost eerie charm. Space Program might be about the pinnacle of human cooperation and achievement, but that theme is a bit lost in Sachs’s own reverence for the already outdated golden age of NASA. It’s a reminder that, when it comes to societal diseases, saccharine nostalgia trumps future shock in our current moment.
Other throwbacks are more successful, such as Dario Robleto’s Setlist for a Setting Sun (The Crystal Palace), a spiky forest of ephemera that recounts one of the first-ever recordings of human voices. “How might this remarkable new technology have altered one’s conception of time, permanence, and mortality?” writes SITE’s Chief Curator, Irene Hofmann, in the catalogue essay. In a dark room near Future Shock’s entrance, a loudly ticking wristwatch by Patrick Bernatchez imperceptibly counts down the millennium in a single rotation. How long will it be before a generation no longer recognizes an analogue watch face?
A second array of artworks explores the present and potential near-future with some humor and much apprehension. A film by Doug Aitken, presented on a billboard screen, maroons various animals in cheap motel rooms. Tight, exquisite imagery of a horse, a beaver, an owl, and other creatures in these artificial spaces evokes the apocalypse but also reminds us that we’re already on a collision course with the animal kingdom, as natural environments vanish. Alexis Rockman covers similar territory with considerably less wit. His monumental oil paintings, Bronx Zoo and Battle Royale, depict animals clamoring through the ruins of human civilization.
Darker still is Bernatchez’s forty-six-minute film, Lost in Time, which follows a mysterious horseman through a frigid, post-apocalyptic landscape. None of the show’s more surreal, futuristic imagery can match the bone-chilling presence of Future Shock’s contemporary technological marvels, however. A mock science lab by Lynn Hershman Leeson chronicles the staggering and often disturbing achievements of geneticists, and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Zoom Pavilion reveals the extraordinary sophistication of surveillance technology. Toffler’s visions of genetic warfare and pervasive government espionage may have already arrived.
Then there are the misfires. A display of minimal furniture and fashion designs by Andrea Zittel is a dated non sequitur, and two large-format photographs by Andreas Gursky make a stale point about globalization.
The show’s curatorial arc feels warped, awkwardly caught between older varieties of futurism and a contemporary mode of looking forward. It’s not just that twenty-first century people consider a new set of possibilities when we think about the future, it’s that our perception of time itself has changed.
When Toffler published his book, there was still some psychic space between the present and his imagined future. Now future shock has become future fatigue, as scientific and social advancements happen so fast (and news of them spreads so quickly) that the past, present, and imagined future tumble together. This effect hasn’t driven us insane yet, but it has led to a sense of chaos and foreboding that is reflected in the exhibition.
Toffler is partially responsible for this. After all, when you publicly announce your predictions, the world might just take them as advice. In the decades after Future Shock, he became a sort of futurist on the mountaintop, convening with the likes of Steve Jobs and AOL founder Steve Case as they laid the bricks of his future. Toffler coined the adage “the only constant is change,” an idea that has since permeated the contemporary consciousness.
Future Shock has one significant blind spot that’s more troubling than its somewhat muddled storytelling. The show zeroes in on technology and catastrophe as the bellwethers of the future, but technology is inherently classed, and catastrophe will affect a much broader population than the majority of white—and mostly male—art stars in the show. It’s exciting that SITE is aiming for bigger names and more ambitious installations, but they shouldn’t sacrifice a diversity of perspectives for it. In many ways, SITE’s last biennial, much wider than a line, was more forward-thinking than Future Shock. In that show, artists from across the Americas reflected on stories of their ancestors, urgent contemporary questions, and visions of the future that were dark and bright. As SITE reimagines its identity, the museum must focus not only on what will happen next, but on who they’re inviting to answer that question.