Designs For Different Futures
Before entering the Walker Art Center to view Designs for Different Futures, I stopped for a latte. As I requested a size and kind of milk, and even opted to dine-in at a far corner table of the museum’s restaurant, I found myself sliding back into the familiarity of this pre-pandemic ritual. The strands of that comfort quickly unravelled when the masked barista opened a logbook and recorded my phone number—a new practice related to the museum’s contact tracing efforts. Once we overcome the present pandemic, there will surely be others to follow, and this submission of contact details will become a prerequisite before entering any public building: masks, distancing, and contact tracing are here to stay. A warming climate coupled with industry pushing deeper into the planet’s wildlands means that new diseases will emerge at greater scales than ever before. If this is the future, then the word “different” in the exhibition’s title offers a bit of hope to cling onto.
But that hope is dashed upon entry. At one end of the exhibition sits Another Generosity, a massive, membranous bubble engineered by the Helsinki-based Lundén Architecture Company. Its proportions could be seen as playful, resembling an inflated illustration from a cell biology textbook. The longer you linger, though, the louder it wheezes—a response to the carbon dioxide it receives from your breath. Its exacerbated sigh reminds us of our own contributions to escalating climate catastrophes. At the other end, through four galleries that hold 80 works from an international group of architects and designers, are two videos from Keiichi Matsuda exploring not-so-distant labor futures. In both, Matsuda employs augmented reality to parody the worship of work-life balance and productivity. In Merger, the protagonist, an accountant, leaves her physical body to fuse with “the network.”
The inclusion of these disparate projects within the same exhibition reflects the curatorial team’s ambition to introduce futures as inharmonious as our presents. While putting together a show about speculative futures, the team—composed of curators from the Walker, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, alongside a host of consulting curators—was aware of the legacy of past world’s fair-style showcases that have claimed new theories and technologies as conclusive and inevitable. To that point, in his essay for the exhibition catalog, consulting curator Andrew Blaveult writes, “[T]he world’s fair evolved into a showcase for what tomorrow might bring. It did so under the guise of technological progress as an exclusive form of futurity, particularly as these events became exercises in corporate visioning.”
To counter that history, and its associated legacy of colonialism, Designs for Different Futures presents a multiplicity of possibilities organized under 11 broad themes: Bodies, Cities, Earths, Foods, Generations, Informations, Intimacies, Labors, Materials, Powers, and Resources. The
most basic message of the show is potent: weathering catastrophes now and ahead requires the decentering of any definitive voice and a greater consideration of creators working from the margins. However, the way the curatorial team invites us to that conclusion is disorienting.
The Walker has built its reputation on exhibitions and programs that foster critical exchange. In contrast, the description of Designs for Different Futures on the museum’s website reads as a shopping list of innovative products: “[V]isitors will encounter lab-grown food, textiles made of seaweed … an affordable gene-editing toolbox, a shoe grown from sweat, a couture dress made with a 3D printer, and a system that learns from our sewers.” The Walker and its partnering institutions rely on the spectacle of individual objects to market the exhibition. This showiness dictates how the works are situated within the physical galleries, which begin to feel like a trade show floor, only the salespeople have become gallery guards suddenly thrust into the classification of “frontline workers.”
There are few quiet moments in the exhibition, as each object demands our attention. Along one wall, a documentary highlighting alternative designs for breast pumps runs next to a film exploring a postapocalyptic Seoul from the perspective of a self-driving car. After viewing these videos consecutively, I am left with the same hollowness I experience after scrolling through Instagram for too long, absorbing disconnected content and remembering nothing. In the next gallery, a figure donning the costume from The Handmaid’s Tale stands before a wall with silk-screened text from Martine Syms’s The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto. The iconic red cape and white bonnet overshadow Syms’s critical passage.
The exhibition follows this jolting rhythm throughout. Global issues and related inventions bleed into one another before being drowned out by the next. Though Designs for Different Futures avoids the world’s fair-esque tendency of asserting an authoritative future, it replicates other aspects, including an overemphasis on technological advancement. Despite incorporating projects that question technology’s progress (see Joy Buolamwini’s AI, Ain’t I A Woman, which confronts anti-Black misogyny embedded in artificial intelligence), the exhibition, at times, resembles the “exercise in corporate visioning” that Blaveult cautions against.
For example, in the “Intimacies” section, a glass case contains the “affordable gene-editing toolbox” mentioned earlier. Created by a genetic design company, the kit—which sells online for $169—allows consumers to edit bacterial genes at home. Though the emergence of genetic engineering products has caused widespread controversy, the decision to arrange the kit behind the glass case removes the object from the visitor, giving it the feeling of a sales display rather than a work to be engaged with. As a result, its presence in the consumer marketplace goes unquestioned.
These criticisms are accompanied by the understanding that COVID restricts the show’s iteration at the Walker, necessitating a sterilized environment. In its premiere at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in October 2019, the exhibition concluded with a reflection space where visitors could sit, converse, and chew on the ideas they encountered. Such a feature in Minneapolis would have slowed the exhibition’s pace, but was likely eliminated due to gathering restrictions. Headphones were also removed, requiring videos to be played out loud simultaneously, contributing to the sense of discord.
Excuses can only extend so far, however, as the show becomes undone in a singular, heartbreaking moment unrelated to the virus—a moment in which the curtain falls and the machine that runs the show is revealed as something leaking and glued together. A set of stairs is located next to the PhoeniX Exoskeleton, a robotic device that allows people with spinal cord injuries to walk. The Walker has posted a sign reading “Barriers to Accessibility” between the device and stairs that acknowledges the imposed barrier. Its text ends with a prompting question: “[H]ow can all people be fully included in human-made environments?” The flimsy recognition disappoints for two reasons. The first is that, while there are three more sets of stairs within the show, none display a similar sign. The second lies in the fact that, despite undergoing the extensive process of reopening a museum during a global pandemic, simple ramps were not built in an exhibition focused on constructing alternative worlds. Of all the speculative scenarios that Designs for Different Futures invites, a future in which a museum invests in the actual improvement of living conditions, rather than just touting the aesthetics of accessibility, seemingly could not be imagined by the curatorial team.
Designs for Different Futures stretches itself too thin. By refusing to assert focus, instead choosing to filter projects through 11 ungainly themes, the curatorial team ends up providing little for visitors to grasp from the clutter. Under these circumstances, the future is neither good nor bad, but something overwhelming, commodifiable, and, perhaps most concerning of all, out of our hands.
And yet hidden in the exhibition is a possible way out. Behind that maroon costume, Syms’s manifesto opens with a sobering recognition: “That the most likely future is the one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.” Her words cut through the noise and call us back into the present, away from spectacles in glass cases, towards a future already contested but yet to be determined.
Designs for Different Futures is on view at the Walker Art Center through April 11, 2021. The films included in the exhibition are available for free online at walkerart.org/dfdfvideos