What’s to become of us?

The Philadelphia Museum of Art presents ‘Designs for Different Futures’

5 minute read
Anticipatory structures: a gallery view of 2018’s ‘Another Generosity.' (Photo by Juan Arce, courtesy of the PMA, 2019.)
Anticipatory structures: a gallery view of 2018’s ‘Another Generosity.' (Photo by Juan Arce, courtesy of the PMA, 2019.)

Ask a small child about the future and you’ll be met with enthusiasm. Children can’t wait for the future and expect it to be great. Ask adults about the future and you may well get a groan—unless they’re enjoying Designs for Different Futures, now up at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA).

Some unusual adults retain that childlike fascination, not only dreaming about the future, but interpreting and shaping it through a range of endeavors. In Designs for Different Futures, the PMA brings together projects reflecting current thinking about the future from the sciences, technology, fine and decorative art, and ethical inquiry. The exhibit raises questions and offers many perspectives, giving viewers the intellectual and imaginative resources to draw their own conclusions.

Will we be techno-human hybrids with custom-printed organs and recyclable skin? Sequence genes as easily as baking a cake? Reduce suffering? Grow food from things around the house? Raise children with robots? Achieve peace? Surrender every shred of privacy? Whatever you think of the future, cruel or hopeful, invasive or transformative, you’ll find work here to challenge and confirm your view.

Stopping first in Philly

Philadelphia is the first stop for Designs for Different Futures, curated by a cross-institutional team from the PMA, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Each institution will host it over the next two years.

Projects are arranged in themed groups, such as Bodies, Cities, Resources, and Power, offering the perspectives of realistic optimists, frank pessimists, and designers of items classified as “speculative”—the exhibition’s term for provocative ideas on the outer edge of plausibility. Ouroboros Steak (2019) is one such example.

Picture three vitamin-like discs on a dinner plate. This is ouroboros steak, meat produced from one’s own cells, a speculative concept cooked up by Andrew Pelling, Grace Knight, and Orkan Telhan to question the supposed environmental superiority of lab-grown meat. The name comes from an ancient serpent that swallows its own tail.

Telhan, of the University of Pennsylvania, also devised the Simit Diet (2019), another speculative delicacy based on bread from his native Turkey. It consists of colorful mini-bagels slathered with probiotics bioengineered to make diners smarter, happier, or thinner…if they actually existed.

Bodies in motion

Many concepts are achievable now, including Lucy Jones’s clothing and accessories for those who use wheelchairs. Seated Design: Sleeves and Shirt (2016) accommodates users’ positioning and movement as they dress and propel wheelchairs. With Joonas Kyöstilä, Jones designed Essentials Suite for Wheelchairs (2018), attachable accessories that include a cup-holder and small zippered case.

Achievable now: innovations in wheelchairs, and accessories and clothes for folks who use them. (Photo by Juan Arce, courtesy of the PMA, 2019.)
Achievable now: innovations in wheelchairs, and accessories and clothes for folks who use them. (Photo by Juan Arce, courtesy of the PMA, 2019.)

Homayoon Kazerooni’s PhoeniX Exoskeleton (2011-17) is a robotic frame that fits over the body and enables those with spinal injuries to walk. Stance (2016), by Leslie Speer, Anthony Ta, Brendan Ngo, and Darren Manuel, is a prototype prosthetic leg that grows with users.

Welcome home

Exhibit visitors are greeted by Q The Genderless Voice (2019), a non-binary blend of many voices intended to “frustrate gender assumptions.” Created by Emil Asmussen and Ryan Sherman, the result sounds a bit inhuman and chilly, at least to ears unused to voice assistants.

From the emotionless Q, you’ll proceed toward a mysterious mound of clear beach balls that blushes and sighs as you draw near. But Another Generosity (2018) isn’t expressing affection, it’s just reacting to your physical presence. Made from air-and water-filled thermoplastic spheres, it has an electronic circulatory system that enables it to respond to changes in ambient temperature and carbon dioxide levels. Created by Eero Lundén, Ron Aasholm, and Carmen Lee for the 2018 Venice Biennale, Another Generosity anticipates structures that adapt to people and the environment, though you don’t have to know that information to feel awestruck when it changes color and exhales with a soft whoosh.

Mitchell Joachim’s Cricket Shelter: Modular Edible Insect Farm (2016) simultaneously solves the problems of shelter and nourishment. It’s a cave constructed of square plastic containers in which crickets can be produced for protein powder. While just a section of the farm is on view, the full prototype can produce 20,000 crickets…and an epic chirping chorus.

Fingerprints of the future

Heather Dewey-Hagborg thinks about our genetic fingerprints. In Stranger Visions (2012-2013), she created a rogues gallery of 3D masks from hereditary information extracted from chewing gum discarded on the streets of New York City. Extrapolating general physical characteristics from dried saliva, Dewey-Hagborg produced portraits that presumably bear a familial resemblance to the gum-chewers.

This inevitably makes you want to acquire her other invention, Invisible (2014), tiny spray vials that can destroy DNA traces left on objects and replace the original traces with faux genetic markers. Think of it as insurance against unwanted chromosomal surveillance.

Achievable now: innovations in wheelchairs, and accessories and clothes for folks who use them. (Photo by Juan Arce, courtesy of the PMA, 2019.)
Achievable now: innovations in wheelchairs, and accessories and clothes for folks who use them. (Photo by Juan Arce, courtesy of the PMA, 2019.)

Better tomorrows?

Among the art-based inclusions in Different Futures is Mad Horse City (2017), a dystopian video combining stories by Wale Lawal with computer models and photography by Olalekan Jeyifous. Set in dark, deserted streets after an unspecified “event,” the video runs on an umbrella-shaped canopy with seats underneath. Take one: You’ll want to sit down for this.

Spaces of Everyday Life (2016) is a statement of community resilience that speaks directly to the present. Designed by Manuel Herz and 31 weavers representing Algeria’s National Union of Sahrawn Women, the tapestry depicts a refugee camp that for 40 years has been home to the forcibly displaced Sahrawi people of Western Sahara.

Katie Paterson’s Future Library (2014-2114) is the most optimistic project on view. In Norway in 2014, the artist planted 1,000 spruce saplings to provide paper, in a century, for 100 books to be written, one each year, until 2114. Until then, all that will be known are the titles and authors, the first manuscript having been written by Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale. So with some luck, 100 years hence, the very youngest among us will still have the pleasure of books and libraries.

The future has enticed and terrified humans forever. Designs for Different Futures exposes a wide range of current thinking, including sophisticated and creative responses to the problems and opportunities that might occur. It will offer programming throughout the exhibition, and in the Futures Therapy Lab, provides visitors a place to explore their own ideas about what’s to come.

What, When, Where

Designs for Different Futures. Through March 8, 2020, at Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. (215) 763-8100 or philamuseum.org.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art welcomes, and offers varied programs for, visitors with disabilities. Accessible parking is available in the museum garage, and the west entrance is barrier-free. Accessible restrooms are available on each floor of the museum. Borrowed wheelchairs are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Resources and materials for those with vision and hearing disabilities are available. Service dogs are permitted. For information on specific accommodations, questions, or concerns, contact the Office of Accessible Programs, [email protected].

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