Conference; Drawing the Future

4th International Illustration Symposium
Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH)
Parks Road, Oxford
7-8 November 2013

At this symposium, not only did I hear Johnny Hardstaff deliver a keynote address, which prompted me to request an interview (we talked about imagining a graphic language of the future), but I also delivered a paper. Here’s a summary, and some slides.

Drawing the Future: Exhibiting Illustration

In the Spring semester I deliver a series of lectures on the “future” to Graphic Design and Illustration students (Level 5/2nd Year) at University of Brighton, and start with a couple of definitions so as to debunk such notions as, the future isn’t really anything to do with us right now, and, it’s all just science-fiction anyway.

“The ‘Future’ is everything that happens from [beat] now (…as they say in the movies…)” …is my playful opener; then I hit them with Tony Fry’s definition (from Design Futuring: sustainability, ethics and new practice, 2009); “The future is not presented here as an objective reality independent of our existence, but rather, and anthropocentrically, as what divides ‘now’ from our finitude. In other words, we exist in the medium of time as finite beings (individually and as a species) in a finite world; how long we now exist — the event of our being — is determined by either an unexpected cataclysmic event (like our plant being hit by a massive meteorite) or by our finding ways to curb our currently auto-destructive, world-destroying nature and conduct.”
…and that’s how I began this talk too.

I set out to show that perhaps by way of a heightened familiarity with drawn and animated futures peopled with cute and cuddly characters, used to entertain and promote (everything from breakfast cereals to banking services), a more positive, friendly, utopian version of the future is being proliferated. In comparison, the “scary”, sci-fi, dystopia future of apocalyptic blockbuster movies seems worn out; not so much because we can “see the wires”, but because we’ve developed “explosion fatigue”; such gargantuan, special-effects-driven destruction just doesn’t “feel real” anymore.

Looking at how we got to this point, I present a wide range of examples from artists, writers, film-makers and designers who’ve helped us imagine the future: from the first use of the word robot (in the play R.U.R by Karel Capek); to the first on-screen robot (“Metropolis”, Director: Fritz Lang, 1927); to future-gazing predictions on a series of Scottish cigarette cards from the 1930s; and on to post-war Japan’s love affair with manga and anime’s re-telling of natural and man-made destruction (comprehensively documented by Takashi Murakami in the seminal exhibition and catalogue Little Boy: the arts of Japan’s exploding subculture.


Then, I suggest that curators too are beginning to present imagined futures, and name a slew of recent exhibitions staged in various museums, which feature drawing, illustration, animation, digital/generative art and design and graphic user interfaces. While benefitting from the flexibility of having commissioned unique “assets”, that may be employed above and below the line via integrated and interactive marketing, just as on commercial projects (this “360” approach was explained to me by Miles Donovan of Peepshow Collective), these exhibitions differ from mainstream “futures” by dealing with controversial and difficult subject matter. Not all is rosy in these exhibited futures; in their collaborations with graphic artists, museum curators have not hesitated to explore dystopian possibilities. But, perhaps it’s the less than monumental scale, or the lack of pretensions of the hand-drawn, familiar from graphic novels and satirical cartooning, that make these often-time disturbing visions watchable, and enlightening. Such a personable medium makes this iteration of grave matters more bearable and engaging. But these images can shock too, perhaps because, at first glance, they approximate entertainment.


If we consider the changing definition of the museum, as suggested by the International Council of Museums, then it’s clear that these exhibitions are redefining the remit of the museum. In a 2007 document the ICOM declared; “A Museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” At the 2010 ICOM Conference, the definition had shifted; “The Museum will be considered as a process, as a forum, and as a construct, of knowledge and culture.” In 2013, the ICOM website declared; “The Museum has evolved, in line with developments in society.”

To that end: the Victoria and Albert Museum’s interactive, digital logo for “Decode: Digital Design Sensations” (mentioned here), which invited visitors to customise the computer code for this generative logo via a dedicated micro-site; the transparency of the curatorial and collaborative commissioning process that produced “Sky Arts Ignition – Memory Palace” (reviewed here); and the introduction of the concept of design fictions in Dunne & Raby’s “United Micro Kingdoms (UMK): A Design Fiction” (reviewed here), which encouraged the Design Museum’s audience to imagine how decisions made now might spin-out various future scenarios, all demonstrate the ICOM’s “evolution”. Each of these exhibitions, in its own way, presents an innovative re-reading of the idea of interactivity, not by way of bells and whistles, but by being a place that might provoke thought and provide time and space to think. Looking to the future, the museum assumes a new relevance, as a third space, not private, not commercial, but public, educational, and hopefully, free.



Decode: Digital Design Sensations
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
8 December 2009 to 11 April 2010

Matt Pyke & Friends: Super-Computer-Romantics
La Gaîte Lyrique, Paris
21 April to 27 May 2011

Watch Me Move: The Animation Show
Barbican Art Gallery, London
15 June to 11 September 2011

United Micro Kingdoms (UMK): A Design Fiction
Design Museum, London
1 May to 26 August 2013

Sky Arts Ignition — Memory Palace
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
18 June to 20 October 2013

Universal Everything and You: 1000 Hands
Media Space, Science Museum, London/Online/App
21 September 2013 to 7 February 2014