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Viva Paci

Images from the Future: Lost and Found in the Images du Futur collection

Some Ideas of the Future

Julia Heyward, The Visit, 1993 (video)
Julia Heyward, The Visit, 1993 (video)
Le futuroscope : le parc européen de l'image : un lieu pour apprivoiser le futur Ars Electronica Center : museum of the future Art Futura 1990: Realitat Virtual = Realidad Virtual = Virtual reality
"Images du Futur rarely asks questions about the future that is in store for us, but loudly trumpets the feats of high technology." This is how a journalist with the Montreal daily La Presse summed up his visit to the third instalment of the exhibition Images du Futur in a column published on September 3, 1988. Since that time, the spectacle of the future (avenir) and the presentation of the future (futur) have provided fodder for artistic creation (in literature, architecture and films), in addition to supplying the language of marketing: "buy this and buy it now because, in the future, nobody will be able to do without it." And visions of the future have often paved the way for technological modelling, promising putative (but wholly technological) advances in the state of the world. This way of showcasing the future has represented a major attraction for the fairground events featured in the great universal, international and technological expositions of our times. One of many such instances is to be found in the Futurama Pavilion sponsored by General Motors and designed by Norman Bel Geddes for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. (1)

Generally speaking, the 1980s and 1990s saw a considerable upsurge in the spectacle of the future, if we go by the number of displays and spaces then devoted to mass audiences. More specifically, the 1980s marked the first time this spectacle was showcased along with the tools of the technologist: transistors and optical fibres, light-sensitive cells and systems, personal computers and cables. All this together constituted a mix of realism, popular-mechanics-style approximations and anachronistic displays — exhibiting, as had already been done, technological artefacts from the present while, at the same time, presenting them as promises of the future and, indeed, as pure visionary prototypes. Since the 1980s, projections about the future (with the exception of Star Wars) have involved fewer and fewer of the kind of classical science fiction conventions seen, for example, in intersiderial horizons and time travel à la Buck Rodgers. Stress has been placed, rather, on the democratic and ready-to-hand uses of novelties representing the real promises of the near future. Before outlining the displays that Images du Futur put on for the general public, I would like to give an overview of several other events that, in the same period, drew on other constructions of the future and attested, by their very names, to this same visionary quality.

Like Futuroscope in France (begun in 1984 and inaugurated in 1987), EPCOT or the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, which opened in 1980, was a theme park that sought to give visitors an actual physical sense of what the future would be like, building on the 19th-century Luna Park experience through the use of new technologies for its various attractions. Visitors were granted the privilege of testing the newest innovations of NASA and the Defence Department. They stepped into the future, where they were permitted to see, touch and enjoy the latest technological advances — all on Sunday, too, in shorts and sandals and with hot dogs in their hands. (2)

The Museum of the Future of the Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Austria, was founded 1996. The current practice of the Center and the nature of the artefacts in the Museum of the Future (mainly machines) lead one to reflect on the reciprocal influences of new technologies and art practices, and on the concrete developments that have occurred in both the economic sphere and our daily lives. The very name of the institution, Museum of the Future, betrays a clear yet provocative mandate. We are dealing here with a new type of museum that does not set out to mummify the history of technology. The Museum of the Future is, rather, a sort of prototype that gives access to the technologies on display, which are presented as things that will become part and parcel of the daily lives of future generations. Disciples of Protagoras, ("man is the measure of all things"), the museum staff invite visitors to test the machines; both groups thus represent essential components of the museum structure. By establishing a link between the past (of objects) and the present (of their display), all museum collections assign the value of a legacy to the objects in their possession. Now, precisely because they are museumified, institutionalized, preserved and exhibited, the artefacts in the Museum of the Future take on a historical depth, even when are devoid of one. These artefacts derive directly from research projects supported by the Ars Electronica Center, which implies that they have gone through neither art channels (collectors, galleries, auctions) nor commercial routes (trade shows, industrial production and use); instead, the link between present and future is what counts in this museum sui generis. The Museum of the Future exhibits and demonstrates the things that each one of us will possess if experiments are followed through to the end, and, particularly, if we learn to use these technologies between now and then.

Finally, Art Futura is a digital products fair that has been running in Barcelona since 1997. This fair, which shows hardware and software devoted to the creation of synthesized images, is a showcase, a festival featuring computer-animated creations for films and demos of new software. The future it shows and sells us attests to the speedy evolution of digital practices; it is measured on the small scale of prompt results and "improvements" with respect to the previous year.

Images of the future, or the magic of the senses 

Images du Futur, for its part, offered the public a lavish panorama on the use of the new technologies in art practices — let us remember that the saga of this exhibition began right in the mid-1980s — while attempting to convey, and always in spectacular fashion, technology’s new conquests in the domain of daily life (each year, for example, a special section was devoted to "domestic" advances in high technology: domotics, various uses of virtual reality, medical science, and so on).

The concepts and presentations of the future that Images du Futur laid before us, which differed from one another substantially, all set up complex relationships between past, present and future — generally speaking, these were the past of tradition, the technological present and a future when the uses of technology would be optimized.

Such temporal relationships — particularly the one with the past — are punctiliously avoided by the programmatic discourses of the institutions that generate them. All they do is preach the idea of the future they have constructed, without recognizing, or even so much as highlighting, possible and necessary connections to past tradition.

The tension between various temporalities was especially perceptible in the case of Images du Futur. While it was eliminated first in the title of the event and then in the promotional texts, the nature of the objects on display made it very real and obvious (see also "Installations/Attractions" and "Cinematographic Traces"). The future showcased at Images du Futur was neither techno/recreational (EPCOT and Futuroscope) nor didactic (Museum of the Future) or commercial (Art Futura); nor was there any desire to present a plausible future. Born amidst a period marked by a boom in video production, and imbued with feverish expectation and a disproportionate infatuation where the "new technologies" were concerned — we are still not completely out of this paradigm, which can nowadays alternate with an equally annoying catastrophism — the exhibition Images du Futur reflected the need to collect novelties; and it was spurred on by a certain popular curiosity, which made it a veritable witness to its technological present. Not harking back, therefore, to any existing tradition, the exhibition maintained a sort of institutional indeterminacy. This phenomena was perfectly symptomatic of its period, and shared with other manifestations of the time a tendency toward imagining the future. But Images du Futur remains in reality a rather curious phenomenon made up of diverse temporalities and institutional confusions, each of which helped shape a singular way of talking about its works and a new relationship with the public centred on viewer participation and "multi-sensory" stimulation (see also "Exhibiting").

By exhibiting works of art side by side with commercial ideas and scientific presentations, Images du Futur built a bridge between different institutions and set out to showcase its objects as the curiosities of a Wunderkammer, in which each and every element would be shown to be the work of an artist, even if it were a relatively marketable prototype. Starting with the title of the event (Images...), the sense that seemed most solicited was that of sight — as if, at the very heart of the concept, there was the idea that only images could come to us from this future. But, at the same time, Images du Futur was a place where images and artefacts could not only be looked at with astonishment and fascination, but also tested. The components of the works and devices, as well as the results obtained using them, often rekindled an old memory of other institutions, such as that of the cinema (see also "Installations/Attractions and Cinematographic Traces).

Visitors to and viewers of Images du Futur were continually encouraged to interact with the machines around them: and this multi-sensory dimension was what provided the underpinnings for the discourse of the future articulated by the exhibition (see also "Exhibiting").

Viva Paci © 2005 FDL

(1) For an illustrated panorama of the most significant international exhibitions, see Erik Mattie, World’s Fairs (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998). With respect to Futurama, see the anthology Remembering the Future: The New York World’s Fair from 1939 to 1964 (New York: The Queens Museum and Rizzoli International, 1989).

(2) For a more comprehensive presentation on EPCOT, I would refer readers to my “I have seen the Future: Projection sur la ville,” in Cahiers du GERSE, no. 6 (automne, 2004): 131-144. Title of issue : “Un monde merveilleux... Dispositifs, hétérotopies et représentations chez Disney.” Online at: