Perspective

Fragile Futures: A perspective from the ground

By
James Burke
Date
17.12.2021

As the name suggests, Fragile Futures forces us to reflect on our uneasy relationship with nature and technology. The show coincides with COP 26, the conference seen by many as the definitive moment in our collective future with regards to climate change.

As we move further towards integration with technology and away from the organic heartbeat of the planet the show seems to ask:

What is technology for? What should we do with it? What are the dangers? What are the opportunities?

Art provides the space in our lives to come together and reflect on our position in the universe and this show highlights our actions as a species. The Shed offers the space to have this conversation. Walking in, you’re instantly hit with the transition between the neutral white public spaces of the lobby and the dark ethereal experience of the exhibition halls. You’re invited through this threshold into a different realm - a slice of otherworldliness that ask us to leave our roles, rules and systems at the door in order to connect with the more primal, instinctive and intuitive level that resides deep within us all.

Straight from the off we get the impression that all is not well. The darkness and sinister music composed by ANOHNI suggested that we are on edge - the tone feels uneasy and ominous.

The show starts with Fragile Futures and sees man standing over his greatest achievement: the domination of nature. Dandelions are presented in gridded, structural circuit clusters which appear like mini cages. The flowers are beautifully crafted yes but incarcerated none the less. Where as once nature was wild and free, we now see it in stacked in man made grids, kept alive by electricity and displayed at our own convenience.

This echoes a regime of control over nature that started as far back as the agricultural revolution (if not beyond) and has picked up pace ever since. In this installation it’s actually difficult to see where the tech starts and nature stops such is the impressive design and nuanced production synonymous with Drift and symptomatic of the direction we are headed as a species.

Fragile Futures

However if nature is a wild beast to be tamed, then man has found something one better in his appetite for control: the machine. Something that we can rear from scratch.

As you move into the next room we meet Coded coincidence. Here we find scores of mini light installations; the suggestion of elm seeds blowing in the spring winds. While reminding us to embrace nature’s laws of chance and coincidence, these 'seeds' become strangely reminiscent of fledgling 'beings' almost like baby drones which are being bred with an impressive if not chaotic level of autonomy.

Kept at bay by the net that contains them, it’s almost as if these are the hatchlings of one of Drifts other major works; Franchise Freedom which see’s fully developed drone technology flying in impressively conscious formation. We all stand and watch in wonder. These feel young, natural, almost naive and whilst the concept of a seed explicitly represents the early stages of life and possibility, the way these are integrated with light implicitly nods to the convergence between nature and technology and as such highlights our time and place in this emerging world. So much promise, but what is it all for? What do we do next?

Ego

Materialism then explores the nature of our curiosity as we prod and dissect the world around us. This collection highlights our need to understand. Everyday items broken down in their component parts displayed to shine a light on our consumption. The more we break down, the more data we gather and thus the more we can use this knowledge to manipulate the world around us to suit our needs. But at what cost? Again the fragile relationship between man, nature and technology is addressed.

Drifters

In the next room is Ego. Pure theatre which perhaps alludes to the fragility of our built environment but also celebrates the playful nature of the human condition. The dark space and single spot light give this real poignancy as we see technology utilised for our own entertainment - much like the court jester or puppet made to dance for our pleasure. The execution is beautiful and elegant in it’s minimalism.

This poetic nature highlights the fact that while machines undeniably have their functional uses integrated into almost every aspect of our lives, it’s the human notions of communication, art and beauty that make these things mean something on an emotive level, providing the element of hope we need for this relationship of dependence to end well. It goes back to our fundamental story as a species - is it one of separation, control and fear or one of unity, love and beauty? Technology increasingly plays the central role in this dichotomy.

What this show does tell me is that deep down everyone wants to be together. Despite our differences, borders and systems of separation, we want to connect and communicate. We are social beings, we just want to be seen. It was interesting observing the way people interacted with the work in the space. It seemed like the temporary permission to step out of the intensity and rigours of the everyday grind and connect on a more intuitive level was quenching a thirst for many that was arising from deep within.

That’s why spaces like these are so important in a compartmentalised world. We all feel our place in nature deep down, no matter how buried it is. The artist acts a vessel to communicate for the collective.

The final room is the show stopper, 'Drifters' sees 5 giant floating blocks dancing ominously above our heads to a booming soundscape. A perfect use of the Diller Scofidio + Renfro's vast 4 storey space. Again this is theatre of the highest order. If we were in any doubt before about hierarchies of control, this piece provides a fascinating insight to the question as one by one viewers lay down in submission to the experience.

It dawned on me that at the beginning of the show technology is presented in a cage and by the final room we are all lying down beneath it towering impressively over us. Where the boundaries are between nature and technology is unclear and Drift explores the possibility of harmony between the two. One could argue that technology is just a manifestation of nature - of our nature. The 5 blocks manoeuvre gracefully over head and then as the choreographed performance ceases, they slowly re-arrange themselves back into configuration as if to suggest that whilst the dance of life will always take place, everything eventually goes back to order… the natural order.

The beauty of the show is in the simplicity of its execution from both a technical and experiential perspective. At times you forget the human hand in the work instead mesmerised by the intense sensory overload. This too is perhaps another little red flag for humanity as we increasingly believe the version of the world presented to us via computer algorithms so accomplished at making us think, feel and do things which may not always be in our best interests. I’m not suggesting that this is Drifts motivation but you can’t help but see parallels in the way we increasingly trust technology with every aspect of our lives.

Tech isn’t going away and the planet needs help now more than ever before so the question remains for us all: What do we do with the tools we have? And perhaps the answer is... this. Make art and beauty. Make space for people to deliberate our place in the world allowing us to build a conscious future out from that vantage point. For me this show felt a collective cry for help, hesitant about the future but beautiful non the less.

As I left the building I felt an overwhelming desire to find some green space and enjoy the sun on my face, an appreciation for nature and its infinite power. Maybe the answers have been right in front of our face the whole time.