Thousands of transparent plastic squares hang from the ceiling over my head like a space-age sheet. Lights make them sparkle and seemingly float, illuminating rusty-brown irregular splotches in the center of each otherwise crystalline scale — drops of donated blood from as many Singaporeans.
Suzann Victor’s Bloodline of Peace work I saw displayed in 2016 at the Singapore Art Museum focused on the themes of bloodshed, shared identities, and peace, but the image returned to my mind during the Covid-19 pandemic. Was it a vision of “separate but together,” an attempt at containing our human mess of blood and viral loads in hermetically sealed slides that are interwoven no matter how much we try to pull apart?
Foresight is meant to blend the art of imaging the future with the science of framing its study. Perhaps art can provide both a sense of wonder and inspiration for our work as well as speak to trends in motion.
Modern art has a long past of looking to the future.
The word Futures is, in of itself, reminiscent of Futurism, an Italian, 20thcentury school of modern art that “aimed to capture in art the dynamism and energy of the modern world,” as the Tate Modern in London defines it.
“A racing motor car … is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace,” Futurism’s founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote in his 1909 manifesto in Italy’s Le Figaro newspaper, referring to a famous classical Greek sculpture at the Louvre in Paris. And the beautiful machines did dominate the world in the ensuing decades. The understanding of the environmental damage the internalcombustion engine wreaks has tarnished their luster — but this conscientiousness emerged in artistic visions as well.
A windmill looms over an oil well in JeanMichel Basquiat’s Air Power from 1984 — part of late singer David Bowie’s collection. Anyone who has passed through western Texas or similar oil producing areas in transition can attest that the scene is no longer an abstract painting but a reality. Massive wind turbines with blades like beached whales line ridges behind oil fields throughout area, illuminated by the burning flares of oil and gas wells at night.
I have seen hints of things to come in past exhibits – mostly on evening outings during work travel. Informally, in my better moments, I have tried to find the oddest thing among the exhibits — the oddity of oddities — and stretch it from there. If done right, it could be an exercise in evaluating trends. What does this say about different domains, whether using STEEP (social, technological, economic, environmental, and political) or another framework? What will this look like to viewers in 10 years or 20 years?
Even modern art will rarely reflect truly fringe trends after the gristmill of making it into a museum show. But they do capture in a visual way those formerly far-out ideas that may be starting to gain critical mass on the edges of society.
Art that has come back to me over the years includes The Crystal Quilt, on display at the Tate Modern in London in 2012, which began with a project from 1985- 1987. The work was not a literal quilt but a series of events, lectures and performance art that looked at “the experience of aging, and in this case how aging women are represented in media and public opinion.”
Standing in the bowels — the old turbine hall — of the former power plant, the concrete walls thrummed with the noise of visitors instead of generators. A video of white-haired women who were part of the artist’s community performance piece years earlier played against the wall. I hadn’t hit 40 yet then but was close enough to imagine myself at their stage. Do you become invisible, as the artist was questioning?
Anyone who has perused a lingerie or clothes catalog in at least most Western countries in the past two to three years can attest that there are more older women – and more older people and people of color and with varying levels of abilities – than before. Most initial media studies show that depictions still fall far below population rates, but they are increasing. The idea of anyone beside someone with a Brooke Shields body modeling designer jeans in the 1980s — when the artist’s work began — was mostly unthinkable.
Three years later, in 2015, Virgil Ortiz’ Revolt 1680/2180 at the Denver Art Museum explored bringing native cultures to the forefront and reimaging their history as well as their futures. His ceramics, and other works, imagined one different future that spun out after the Puebla Revolt of 1680 — a real event in what is now New Mexico.
“There isn’t a lot of room for science fiction in a serious art museum,” the Denver Post wrote at the time. “Sci-fi’s flights of fancy — its aliens and time travel, that strange romance of interstellar cataclysm — can seem woefully shallow in a place that aims to connect people deeply, soulfully to the human experience.”
“But Virgil Ortiz’s clay sculptures sail through the wormhole that joins cultural classifications at warp speed.”
And native groups and artists have only continued to reinvent not only their futures but the telling of their pasts, far beyond art museums, and approaching warp speed.
Yet you will find different meanings and inspirations from modern art, depending upon your own vision. Like artist Michael Heizer recently told The New York Times about his monumental City work that was just completed in the Nevada Desert: “I am not here to tell people what it all means. You can figure it out for yourself.”
Carla Bass (she/her) is an energy news editor who earned a master’s degree in foresight from The University of Houston. To connect with Bass, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.