In the Shadow of the Perisphere

“Worlds of Tomorrow” invariably acquire an ever increasing patina of quaintness as they travel at the speed of time up the big track to whatever new Today our actual tomorrow is incrementally morphing into. While our culture is still one that “predicts the future,” the history of such predictions proves that we can only invoke probabilities. We may entertain personal fantasies of the self as drive-by futurist, undraping the shape of things to come with an offhand yet perfectly penetrating glance, but, as ever, we can only traffic in childishly simple representations of the bafflingly organic complexity of people, places, and things. Claim to some special knowledge of the future, of course, remains an essential, invariably illusory aspect of any political position. Every candidate necessarily claims a better understanding of the future than his or her opponent. In some saner iteration of the human condition, candidates might be elected on the basis of having argued most convincingly their denial of any claim to prescience.

My experience of Bruce Mau’s Massive Change is of a World of Tomorrow already acquiring its destined patina. I look first—out of long experience with and affection for such projects as well as an abiding interest in their history—for hints of the particular tonality of that quaintness. What will be the effect, for instance, of Herman Miller’s upscale corn-based workstation chair 40 years from now? What might it mean—culturally, personally, emotionally—then? What might be the modality of nostalgia through which it will be viewed? Will it be a rarity, the bulk of the run having been composted? (Herman Miller’s Aeron chairs have often been the most valuable asset of defunct IT start-ups, their other hardware having been obsolete long before the auctioneer arrived.) How might that pallid prosthetic nose of artificial tissue—rather murkily suspended in its small vitrine—strike someone for whom the cultural and commercial meanings of artificial tissue are primarily sexual?

One only learns to sense these tonalities, however dimly, through the study of older Worlds of Tomorrow: the world of 2005 was most present in the 1939 New York World’s Fair, in the hokum of a yearned-for futurity. Our actual, terrible, astonishing, and undreamed-of reality could indeed be glimpsed, however dimly, within the Perisphere, at Flushing Meadows—but only through this acquired sense of inversion. The same must surely be true today of Massive Change, where the secrets of our actual future are locked within those aspects of the exhibit’s vision that will seem most charmingly, most wistfully ridiculous from the point of view of the coming midcentury.

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