The Future Starts Here! An engaging vision of the future
In the refined cave that is the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Sainsbury gallery, you are invited to plunge your hands into a sandbox. It doesn’t look like one, as projected coloured light makes it resemble a natural terrain, but it has the cool, granular feel remembered from childhood. As you scoop out troughs and pile up mounds an interactive system changes the projection such that lakes and snowy peaks appear, disappear and shift. The object is to tell you something about the effects of intervention on landscapes.
It’s an enjoyably tactile moment, unexpected for any exhibition of design, let alone one on the abstract universe that digital technology is often thought to be creating, but part of the point of The Future Starts Here is that the material as well as the virtual world is being recreated. “If we had done this five years ago it would have been very much about apps, but now the future is about physical things again,” says Rory Hyde, the V&A’s curator of contemporary architecture and urbanism, who with the architect Mariana Pestana curated the exhibition.
So it includes inventions such as Jalaila Essaïdi’s tree antenna, a basic-looking but clever coil which, placed around a trunk, enables the entire tree to broadcast and receive radio signals. Also featured are genetically engineered super-salmon and a self-sailing ship that can clean up oil slicks. On a wall is projected a film that traces the origins of mobile phones backwards from the users of the finished product via shipping lines and Asian assembly lines to African quarry workers hacking and sifting minerals from the earth.
The show has exhibits where new technology plays a supporting if crucial role, such as the crowd-funded, 400-metre Luchtsingel pedestrian bridge in Rotterdam, and some where it has almost none, like the Brick by Brick housing initiative by Croydon council. A mannequin wears the caped, Lycra, red-and-yellow, Marvel-style “super citizen” outfit that Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, used to wear to publicise graffiti removal and other public-spirited works. The idea here is to show new forms of civic engagement, not technology, albeit one facilitated by the speed and reach of the modern image.
The exhibition installation, by the architect Andrés Jaque and his Office for Political Innovation in Madrid, supports this material, lived, half-familiar, hybridised version of the future. It eschews the smooth, white, round-cornered look that the future has been assumed to have at least since the 1950s, offering on arrival an ornate and colourful plastic structure, a sort of techno-gingerbread house, which shelters a display on the future of personal and domestic life. The design invites you to enter rooms, sit down, lie down and touch things.
In the centre of it you can look up into a sombre hemisphere, in which there is an animated description of the likely effects of global warming on the Sahel region of northern Africa: 250,000 deaths a year, it says, even if the Paris agreement ceiling of a maximum 2C rise is met. Otherwise (and it’s obviously a big “otherwise”) the exhibition has a more hopeful air than much current musing on the future.
There is spookiness, not least in a section that deals with research into immortality, but also wonder, and the possibility that design can find responses to the crises of the modern world. A wall of trees, for example, from Senegal to Somalia, might conceivably mitigate the Sahel’s catastrophe.
Having gone through a period, earlier in the century, when new technology was thought to be unquestionably sunny and benign, the prevailing mood is now dystopian, preoccupied with the concentrations of power and upheaval of civil life that come with disruptive technologies. Hyde and Pestana want to rebalance: not to hide the dark side but to offer “evidence” of both the creative and sinister possibilities of design and allow visitors to draw their own conclusions. “I think it’s incredible,” she says, “that all these smart people are working on our future right now. At the same time many objects are ambivalent.”
This intended ambivalence is nicely captured by a quotation at the show’s entrance from the French cultural theorist Paul Virilio: “the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck”. It is also embodied in the largest single exhibit, Aquila, a solar-powered drone developed by Facebook which, able to stay aloft for three months, will enable the connection of remote places to the internet. It’s great – giving access currently unavailable to what Mark Zuckerberg calls the “next billion” – and it’s menacing, the wide wingspan that stretches across the ceiling symbolising the global embrace and limitless power that companies like Facebook seek.
The curators mostly don’t want to take sides, although it is clear – as between, say, super citizen and Cambridge Analytica – where their sympathies lie. The captions prefer to ask questions: “are devices bringing us together or pulling us apart?” for example. “Is Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor?” asks a big sign. “If Mars is the answer what it is the question?” asks another.
The effect can come close to those glib ads with which HSBC smothers airports – for example captioning photos of tattooed bodies with “traditional” and “trendy” – but it’s a whole lot better than making sweeping statements and unfounded predictions. Since nothing dates faster than futurology it’s intelligent of Hyde and Pestana to offer instead a landscape of possibilities. It’s also important, as Pestana argues, not to present the future as inevitable. “There is a tendency to think that the future is happening to us,” she says, but “we can and should choose.”
The interaction of the material and the virtual can work in at least two directions. The physical – and especially the human body – can be augmented, empowered and given unprecedented capacities. Or it can become a negotiable, fragile, decreasingly essential vessel for the play of networks and systems within it and without. This intelligent, well-presented and quietly provocative exhibition shows these possibilities without drawing bogus conclusions. You don’t perfectly see the future, and it may or may not work.