The Future Perfect: Tomorrow's Thoughts Today on Urban Possibilities

One of the most eye-catching events at Open City Documentary Festival was a lecture and film performance about speculative future cities.
Ben Nicholson

“Directly opposite is the Elkridge Hotel. It can’t be entered. I wonder what’s inside. Is the block/cube poured full of colour, or transparency, with the road/pavement continuing on the floor?”

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in GTA Online, Michael Crowe

A ride in an autonomous taxi through a speculative future city via a lecture-cum-film performance, Hello, City! is surely one of the more immediately eye-catching prospects at this year’s Open City Documentary Festival in London. The set-up will be reminiscent of Sam Green’s performative documentaries like A Thousand Thoughts (2018) and The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller (2012). In this instance, speculative architect Liam Young, co-founder of the London think tank Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today, will act as tour guide to the city of the future while a big screen blend of documentary footage and computer-generated imagery illustrate and illuminate his words. What promises to be fascinating about this talk is the way in which Young and his colleagues seek to use the language of film and visual media to explore urban possibilities in the age of integrated technology and smart cities.  



But first came four short films. Programmed by the team at Open City Docs, they each approached landscape from a different angle (in some instances literally), engendering a sense of new perspectives through which to view familiar spaces. Hugo Deverchère’s Cosmorama (2018) utilized NASA technology primarily intended to record the extra-terrestrial to make the commonplace feel utterly alien. Aurèle Ferrier’s Transitions (2017)—which could have been shot by a trundling Mars Rover—moved slowly from desert terrain through suburbia to end up on the Las Vegas strip, a journey into urban environs from the outside. In Hiwa K’s View From Above (2018) a model city was viewed from above as we heard the story of a refugee trying to learn the details of a place he’d never visited so he could convince an immigration official it’s his home—as it is considered suitably ‘unsafe.’ The Hymns of Muscovy (2018) saw Dimitri Venkov shoot Moscow upside-down. The effect was to create a replica of the city that appeared, with the blue sky hovering ‘below’ it, to be floating high above the Earth. Each film, in its own way, prepared us for the dual nature of Young’s interrogation of a potential future—the tactile and intangible concerns—and in particular primed us for alternative perspectives.


What is perhaps most surprising when Young begins his talk about a speculative future is how contemporary the imagery feels. He may be framing his words within the context of a ‘city of the digital world’ but his first stop on this tour is concerned with what lies behind connected modern life. He shifts perspective from the product to the process, his drone imagery sweeping over natural landscapes being exploited for the resources to power our technological creature comforts in a vast, imagined worldwide city. This part of the talk is about the physical wrenching of material matter from the earth to construct our i-Utopia—the tangible cost, if you will. His footage is showing vast evaporation ponds providing lithium, the Kalgoorlie Super Pit gold mine in Australia, and the gem fields of Madagascar, all the while juxtaposing these sights with the uses for these minerals; from gold teeth and jewellery to mobile phones and laptops. What is especially striking is that in adopting the language of documentary cinema to demonstrate the violence of our consumption, he is reminding me how many modern documentary films are grappling with similar subjects. There are visuals that immediately call to mind Ben Russell’s Good Luck (2017), in particular the gold miners in Suriname, or one of several other recent films that have anthropologically explored mining over the past couple of years, from Eldorado XXI (2016), to City of the Sun (2017) or Dark Skull (2016). Now Young describes the diggers on the screen as “the beasts of the mining industry” and I recall writing about Zhao Liang’s Behemoth (2015) for this very publication. Zhao’s film explores the hellish cost of constructing a future urban idyll. This also reminds me of a passage from Adam Greenfield’s pamphlet, Against the Smart City (2013), in which he refers to the fact that ‘canonical’ smart cities (New Songdo in South Korea, for instance) tend to be built on greenfield sites, or as Gilles Deleuze put it, ‘any-space-whatever.’ “As Deleuze defines it, any-space-whatever is never important for any quality of its own but only for the connections it facilitates or brings into being. In the particular case of the smart city, the important linkages aren’t physical but those made between ideas, technical systems and practices.” This, in turn, makes me think of Bart Simpson’s Brasilia: Life After Design (2017), and I wonder whether Young will make a similar argument for human disconnection in a rigorously planned urban environment. I also think of Ana Vaz’s evocative A Idade da Pedra (2013), which imagines a future for Brasilia that sees the manual labour of workers with pickaxes chipping away at the marble ruins of this fallen city. I drift back to the images on the screen in time to see textile production, with women weaving fabrics, and I think of Rahul Jain’s Machines (2016). As if reading my mind, Young says “her body [is] repurposed as a component.” Although this talk is all about the linkages between ideas as described by Greenfield, right now Young is illustrating precisely the physical repercussions of our rampant technological evolution and consumption. The small print for our latest purchases.     


Despite how I may construct my thoughts on the talk, Young will, right from the beginning, be speaking in the future tense. He will introduce the hidden costs of a “city that’s stretched across the entirety of the planet” from the window of his driverless taxi. The visuals, a dark computerized impression of a city, will be a replication of how modern driverless cars see/scan their environment. It will remind me somewhat of the element of Theo Anthony’s remarkable Rat Film (2016) which navigates around a computerized city and, at one point, seems to see through a building into infinity. This will, in turn, make me think of the above quote from Michael Crowe’s profound and hilarious 2017 book An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in GTA Online (a riff on, and response to, Georges Perec’s seminal philosophical experiment of 1974, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris). Crowe follows his speculation on what is inside the building with a revelation that since doing his experiment another user “flew us in a helicopter through an otherwise impenetrable wall and I saw what was inside…” He leaves us palpably in the dark. Again, Young will read my mind and describe the buildings in a future city as like scaffolding onto which digital skins can be projected: “a green screen world where everything has become a screen.” I will think of players scrolling through character designs, costumes and upgrades on a loading screen and will be reminded of another section of Crowe’s book in which he ponders whether dilapidated or worn out buildings take additional time and effort to render given they have more detail on their surface. “We’re each tuned to our own architectural channels,” Young will summarise, evoking the image of that scene from Fight Club (1999) in which IKEA descriptors appear all around Jack’s (Ed Norton) dull apartment. I will imagine the lack of individual connection in this ironically connected world and remember the existential crisis of the protagonist in Jonathan Vine’s machinima short Martin Cries (2017) when he can no longer find his friends in a shared online landscape. Young will exacerbate those thoughts as he posits the notion of computer-generated celebrities and I will imagine a mixture of the Al Pacino film about a composited actress, S1m0ne (2002); the tragic loneliness of a YouTube starlet in Xu Bing’s Dragonfly Eyes (2017); and Annlee, the ‘background’ manga character repeatedly re-purposed by artists Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno to explore identity and consciousness through an empty vessel. These intangible implications are so important because ideology rarely evolves as fast as technology, Young will warn. “And in the future, everything will be smart, connected and make it all better.” He will conclude with a wry smile and the screen will go black. And I will stare at it and wonder whether Michael Crowe saw infinity or the void behind the impenetrable wall of a digital city—and which I would prefer. 

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