Future U

Dr Joseph Brennan speaks with curators Dr Evelyn Tsitas and Associate Professor Jonathan Duckworth about the works of ‘Future U’ – 18 artists’ shifting and speculative visions of a both wonderous and nightmarish future.

The future is the time that will come after the present, but what is the ‘U’? ‘On one hand, U is YOU – the human in the maelstrom of technological change in the 21st century,’ Curators Dr Evelyn Tsitas and Associate Professor Jonathan Duckworth tell me about the exhibition, which draws together works from 18 artists. But the runaway acceleration of technological advancement throws up other questions here, too. A ‘future that may be Unknowable, Undefined, Utopic, Upgraded, Unlimited, Unexplored, and also, Unavoidable’.

In curating ‘Future U’, Tsitas and Duckworth sought artworks that open debate rather than offer answers. ‘We did not seek out artists with a shared vision of the future,’ they tell me. ‘We found ourselves drawn to diverse artists whose work grappled with key questions about human endeavour, society, relationships and rituals, the environment, and the manipulation and transformation of our human bodies.’ In other words, a speculative future where the freedoms of artistic practice ‘allow us’, in Tsitas’ words, ‘to explore the probable, the literal, the factual, the unthinkable, and even the unimaginable, without being constrained by facts, law or current reality.’

Stelarc, StickMan/miniStickMan, 2017, aluminium, pneumatics, electronics. Documentation of The Dedalus Project: Chrissie Parrot Arts, Perth, 2017. Photography Toni Wilkinson; sound design Petros Vouris; engineering Tim Jewell; programming Steve Berrick; audio engineer Alwyn Nixon-Lloyd; technical assistance and video production Steven Alyian. Courtesy the artist and Scott Livesey Galleries, Melbourne

The curators ‘did not fetishise work that looked futuristic or used cutting edge technologies,’ acknowledging instead ‘the provocations provided by the juxtapositions of artworks created by the human hand (Peter Ellis; Deborah Wargon) and the printing press (Maina-Miriam Munsky; Bettina von Arnim) along with those generated by computer algorithms (Duckworth/Hullick Duo; Christian Mio Loclair; Mario Klingemann; Jake Elwes; Libby Heaney)’. Complexity, in other words, abounds here.

For me, through immersion with the works available, a flicking-through is felt; a shaky-schema-sketching of the endless range of possible futures and unfixed U’s. As viewers and agents of an at-the-cusp tomorrow, there is an inevitable unease in the rushing forth of the future – especially in our current historical moment. This unease is inclusive of anxieties often bound up in a seemingly too-fast acceleration of technology, and modification of the self – a melting of binary categories (natural/synthetic, for example, or man/machine, as in Stelarc’s 2017 StickMan/miniStickMan).

Uncanny Valley, Beautiful the World, 2020, video still. Acknowledgements to Julia Zemiro. Courtesy the artist and RMIT Gallery, Melbourne

‘It is very interesting that you have picked up on this, as the interrogation of binaries is one of my key research interests,’ Tsitas says in response to my reading. ‘I embrace the messy complexity of hybridity and bristle against absolutes and silos.’ ‘Future U’ follows the success of Tsitas’ 2018 ‘My Monster – The Human Animal Hybrid’, also an RMIT Gallery exhibition, and has a strong sense of the ongoing and evolving-project-of-ideas about it. For example, it aligns with the Goethe-Institut Australia’s ‘Kulturtechniken 4.0 – Creating in the Age of AI’ project; and, after its scheduled opening in June 2020 was postponed, added an additional, upbeat work – Uncanny Valley’s 2020 Beautiful the World – that was created during the pandemic.

Patricia Piccinini, Teenage Metamorphosis, 2017, silicone, fibreglass, human hair, found objects. Courtesy the artist, Scott Lawrie Gallery, Auckland, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco and RMIT Gallery, Melbourne

Narrative-based sculptural works by Pia Interlandi and Patricia Piccinini are especially striking. Piccinini’s 2017 Teenage Metamorphosis, for example, confronts us with a vision of how biotechnology will blur species’ boundaries, pulling us back – in the curators’ vision – ‘to the reality that if we create such a hybrid, they are still part of our society, and human family despite their hybridity.’ The curators draw me to Mary Shelley’s 1871 ‘Frankenstein’ here.

‘Remember what happens when we turn away from our creations?’ They say, turning back time to the tamper-with-nature-at-your-own-peril anxiousness of Shelley’s age. But is 2021 so different? Amid the messiness of a pandemic, has the future ever been more pressing, and technology’s role in it more haunting for us – in the here and now? ‘When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck,’ Duckworth says, following French philosopher Paul Virilio. There’s a lot of shipwrecks in our projections of the future right now, which is where the benefit of this exhibition’s broad view lies.

The grim is here, in other words – but so is hope. As Tsitas puts it, ‘the artists in ‘Future U’ are very good at showing us how the future may possibly look, and at exposing both the exhilarating wonders and disturbing nightmares about what could happen.’ In ‘Future U’, as in art, we find breathing space for a speculative suppleness – as the deliberately slippery qualities of the creative practices on show give rise to more careful, and human, chartings of possible paths ahead.

Artists include Bettina von Arnim, Holly Block, Karen Casey, Duckworth/Hullick Duo (Jonathan Duckworth, James Hullick), Peter Ellis, Jake Elwes, Alexi Freeman, Libby Heaney, Leah Heiss (with Emma Luke), Amy Karle, Mario Klingemann, Pia Interlandi, Zhuying Li, Christian Mio Loclair, Maina-Miriam Munsky, Patricia Piccinini, Stelarc, Uncanny Valley Collective (Justin Shave, Charlton Hill, Caroline Pegram, Dr Brendan Wright, Dr Oliver Bown, Dr Alexandra Uitdenbogerd, Sally-Ann Williams, Antigone), and Deborah Wargon.


Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, author and cultural scholar based in Far North Queensland.


RMIT Gallery
31 July to 23 October 2021