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Craft/Work

Factory For The Future: The Barbican Goes Science Fiction
Robert Barry , August 6th, 2017 10:05

Craft/Work talks to curator Patrick Gyger, curator of the Barbican Centre's current major science fiction exhibition, Into the Unknown

Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction. Film Still, Afronauts., Frances Bodomo (2014)

A few years ago I found myself with time to kill, browsing the shelves in a prominent Bloomsbury bookshop. “Where do you keep your science fiction?” I asked.

“We do not sell science fiction,” came the reply like a judgement delivered from on high.

That’s funny, I thought to myself as I turned back to the stacks with eyebrows raised. Here’s Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing’s The Sirian Experiments, William Burroughs, Olaf Stapledon, William Gibson, J.G. Ballard… No science fiction, you say?

“That’s a process that is really interesting,” Patrick Gyger says, when I tell him this story. “As soon as something was good enough, it leaves the genre.” Gyger knows a thing or two about leaving the genre – he’s tried to escape himself a few times. But for Into the Unknown, the show he’s just curated for the Barbican Centre, he’s channeling his inner geek one last time.

Into the Unknown is subtitled ‘A Journey Through Science Fiction’ and perhaps you’re thinking you’ve had it up to here with shows about science fiction. Don’t we get them all the time now? But, as Gyger points out when we meet over a pint round the corner from the Barbican, it’s actually remarkably rare that the genre is allowed to speak for itself, on its own terms.

The Smithsonian’s Fantastic Worlds show that just closed earlier this year was really much more about the effect of science on the popular imagination, through hoaxes and newspaper satires as much as novels. MoMA’s current Future Imperfect focuses on humanity’s uncanny knack for imagining its own doubles. FACT Liverpool’s Science Fiction: New Death is about identity and community, the real and the virtual. Past Futures at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art was really about the cold war and its effect on the American psyche.

“Most exhibitions,” Gyger complains, “use science fiction as a tool to talk about the current political situation in Afghanistan or wherever.” This is not the case with the present show. “It’s not about the science of science fiction,” he insists. “It’s not about how science fiction speaks about the current state of affairs. It’s not about gender in science fiction. It is about science fiction. It’s about itself. And believe it or not, it’s very uncommon to have a show that is about the genre that does not try to justify its existence by making reference to something else.”

Since the origins of the terms in the pulp magazines of the early twentieth century, science fiction has always been the genre that dare not speak its name. What little latter day respectability it may have found has tended to be as mule for a multitude of competing agendas (if you’re not sure what I mean, try reading any broadsheet article about the current TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale).

Into the Unknown is different. A veritable love letter to the genre, it is also a bibliomane’s paradise. Alongside the film clips, newly-commissioned contemporary artworks, cinema memorabilia, ephemera, and marginalia, the show is dominated by vitrine after vitrine stuffed with luridly-jacketed paperbacks, detailing a literary history expanding in every direction imaginable since its earliest prehistory in the utopias and fantastic voyages of the early modern era.

Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction.Magazine cover, Amazing Stories (April 1926) #1, Agence Martienne, Courtesy coll. Maison d'Ailleurs / Agence Martienne

It was through books that Gyger first became embroiled in the whole sci-fi game. As a teenager, he marshalled a literary youth – devouring Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 at age 8 – into a pre-www online business. Long before there was Amazon, there was Adder’s Choice, a net-based shop for second-hand books run by Gyger and a friend on a Usenet bulletin board.

“We both had big collections,” Gyger explains, “and at a certain point we were like, what the fuck, this is too much stuff.” Adder’s Choice would have been one of the very first online bookshops – pipping Amazon by almost a decade and Silicon Valley’s own email-based Computer Literacy Bookstores Inc., by as much as three years – and it specialised entirely in used SF and fantasy (with a particular emphasis on the back catalogue of Philip K. Dick, thanks to the museological completism of Gyger’s friend). The shop only lasted a few years, but in a strange way it led directly to Gyger’s next post in the SF trenches.

Gyger was a regular guest at his friend’s place, popping round to compare editions and play Dungeons & Dragons. “His father would always mention someone called Jules. This is Jules’ room, he would say.” Gyger’s curiosity about the identity of this ‘Jules’ – and quite what lay behind his Bluebeardian closed door – was finally relieved. “My friend says, oh, it’s Jules Verne.”

“Jules Verne?” Gyger asked, dumbfounded. “He has a room here?”

“Yes. He has a room.”

Peeking behind the door revealed a veritable Aladdin’s Cave – “one of the biggest Jules Verne collections in Europe.” Thanks to Gyger, that collection is now housed in its own dedicated Espace Jules Verne in the Swiss Alps.

Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction, Postcard On the first Lunar cosmodrome, Andrey Sokolov and Aleksey Leonov. 1968, Moscow Design Museum

I was fourteen, on a family holiday, when I first went to the Maison d’Ailleurs in Yverdon-les-Bains, drawn by a landmark H.R. Giger exhibition. There is a photo of me somewhere cowering mock-terrified beneath a full-size Alien model from the Ridley Scott film. I have a vague memory of sitting in one of the Harkonnen Capo Chairs designed for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never-filmed Dune project. The Maison d’Ailleurs, to teenage me, was a portal, a gateway to a space of dark dreams and weird fantasy.

“It went into a crisis after that show,” Gyger tells me. “It was poorly managed and I think it was not engaging the local audience and the budget was cut by the city. Then they hired me.” Gyger was just 27 when he became the museum’s director in 1999. “They had no money so they needed someone that would be paid nothing, basically.” He recalls stepping into mildewed galleries on his first day of work, wading through four years’ worth of unopened mail. “The collection was a complete mess,” he recalls.

Under Gyger’s stewardship, they were able to turn the place around. “I didn’t know what I was doing so I was able to do it.” After a few years, with a renewed exhibitions programme and reinvigorated public engagement, they were even able to take over the derelict theatre next door, renovate it in the style of a Victorian library and fill it up with a new permanent collection: one of Europe’s largest Jules Verne collections.

Gyger gave a decade of his life to the Maison d’Ailleurs and the Jules Verne collection, directing a science fiction festival in Nantes at the same time for five of them. Then finally, in 2010, he was offered the directorship of Nantes’ multimedia arts space Le Lieu unique. “I was ready to do something else – non science fiction projects! This label that was fir-branded on my forehead: science fiction guy – Oh my god! I’m so over this. But what really interests me generally – this is how I run the Lieu Unique – is how contemporary cultures and arts are on the one hand, an observation of our own world and a factory for the future.”

Like Michael Corleone’s ageing Don, this year may well find Gyger lamenting, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Le Lieu unique opened its own H.R. Giger show in June coinciding by chance with Gyger’s debut at the Barbican. “The Barbican got in touch and said, we’re thinking of doing a science fiction exhibition. And I said, I don’t have the time. And they said, we are the Barbican.… I mean you can’t really turn down a gig at the Barbican.”

Into the Unknown, finally, is more than just a library under glass. It is also a contemporary art show, with exciting new work by Conrad Shawcross, Isaac Julien, Larissa Sansour, soda_jerk, and Trevor Paglen. The works range from sculpture to video to immersive light and sound installations. But what, I wondered, was the function performed by the SF imaginary for contemporary artists?

“I think the function,” Gyger replied, “is the what if. You can extrapolate wildly, taking technology to an absurd point. That’s the game of science fiction.”

Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction is at the Barbican until 1 September 2017