Dreams of a future past
AKA Blade Runner Chic
“There isn’t any subject you can’t tackle by way of science fiction.”
— Octavia Butler
Jade Townsend’s installation Shopping and Other Rituals draws on both the old and the new, bringing to mind the glitter and gold of fairytales (in which mirrors aren’t to be trusted, and gold is a curse as often as a reward) but also the highly polished surfaces and plastic geometry of the best sci-fi spaceship interiors. References to current and imagined technologies bubble up in my brain: the sharp-edged row of plinths and LED lights make the gallery feel like some futuristic computer server room, and the plinths share the cold severity of the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I’m also reminded of the ‘anomalies’ in the Strugatsky Brother’s Soviet novella Roadside Picnic, the debris left behind by an alien intelligence, beautiful and sometimes dangerous fragments whose true nature can only be guessed at. In this way Shopping and Other Rituals is literally a multi-dimensional work, accommodating alternate realities and timelines, as well as critiquing consumerism and desire in the present. To me, it seems to sit at the intersection of fantasy and technology – which is precisely where science fiction comes into being.
I notice, though, that if I’m using science fiction as an interpretive lens it’s not current science fiction that I’m making connections with – I’m not thinking about the future from the here-and-now but the future from the past. And what I think of more than anything else is Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. Something about the lights, the colours, the surfaces of Jade’s work – all of it seems to find a relationship with this postmodern neo-noir. In Blade Runner the city of 2019 Los Angeles lurks beneath a polluted golden haze, inspired by what Ridley described as “Hong Kong on a very bad day”. The heavy folds of shadow, the glow and shine of wet plastic under neon lights, the crowds, the skyscraper-sized advertisements… the future is here and it’s dark, dirty, and hyper-capitalist. The extreme extension of this mega capitalism in the Blade Runner universe is the construction of artificial humans, or “replicants”, whose very being is defined by their existence as commodity. They are super-humans, the best product on the market, and made with a four year life-span (roughly the same as a smartphone). Containing their own built-in obsolescence, they are also implanted with other people’s memories, allowing these artificial beings to have dreams and desires of their own. The replicants challenge what we consider to be ‘authentic’, much like the designer fakes and luxury knock-offs that piqued Jade’s interest during her residency in Beijing.
The city of Los Angeles (Blade Runner)
Blade Runner’s future-imagined-from-the-80s hovers between the weirdly timeless, the sometimes dated, and occasionally prophetic. Above all, it’s the look of the film that appeals to me, the detail and density within each shot. It presents us with an overcrowded and cosmopolitan city, heavily influenced by Chinese culture, in which the common language is a form of Esperanto that mixes elements of Japanese, German and Spanish. It’s clear that Jade’s interest in text and translation finds an analogue in this world of illuminated information, with street signage that incorporates logograms (characters) alongside alphabetic scripts, advertising iconic and at times anachronistic brands. This neon overload cuts through the dark and rain-soaked environments, making them feel both familiar and strange. The movie’s production design is justly famous, and was executed on a relatively modest budget (although they did spend $100,000 on neon lights). An on-set ethos of recycling meant that a lot of set pieces and props were used again or in different ways, which mirrors part of Jade’s process in creating Shopping and Other Rituals, together with an exacting attention to detail.
I can see the surface-level points of contact between this piece of sci-fi cinema and Jade’s carefully constructed aesthetic, but it’s also in the air and under the skin. Retro-futurism sits just under the surface of the gleaming mirrors and it’s selling you a double pass to its own brand of nostalgia and potential. At its heart, retro-futurism is about the tensions inherent in technology, and between past and future. It allows us to focus in on moments of change, the ways in which things might have been different – or the prophecies that have now been fulfilled. Shopping and Other Rituals can be read as a shrine to retail, to the rituals of touch, sight, and smell; and to shopping as an embodied experience rather than one mediated through a screen. It’s a monument to the present moment and the passing of one kind of experiential interface with the world to another, while also critiquing a system that generates ‘luxury’ goods without value – objects which, like the replicants, are denied a value beyond their limited lifespans and then discarded without thought for the consequences.
At times Shopping and Other Rituals feels like it presents us with the dream-life of objects themselves, caught between their own alienation and potential. Jade’s use of the chocolate box liners to line the floor of the gallery, which she collected from recently closed department store Kirkcaldie and Stains (wonderfully and accidentally crunched by many of our visitors – that’s one way to bring embodiment into the work), preserves a fragment of history but also transmutes it into something beyond itself and its original purpose. This is retro-futurism at its best and most critical, rescuing and revealing the potential of things at the moment they become obsolete, rather than fetishising lost objects and pasts for their own sake.
Posted by Martha van Drunen