Ashley August: Thoughts on “Near Future”

In the third and final installment of Rice Design Alliance’s fall lecture series, “Near Future,” I was overwhelmed by the feeling of inevitable intangibility. A sense that what has been will not always be, calling into question that which ‘is’. Polish visual artist Agnieszka Kurant and British architect and curator Liam Young invited us into their worlds of contrasting duality, where we are asked to challenge our ideas of connection and reality.

Young began with a high-speed photo barrage of pop culture media icon, Justin Bieber, focusing on his group of followers known as ‘Beliebers.’ Young’s point was that a very real community was conceived in a completely virtual world that functions as if it were very present. He continued this theme of virtual communities bound by the internet and social media, demonstrating that connection, as we once understood it, is rapidly being redefined as interaction via high speed, instantaneous messages, texts, and tweets. The office environment that was once largely symbolized by clusters of cubicles and break room banter has shifted to include the ‘virtual office’ and businesses of ‘one,’ where individuals acting as a company, group, or other collective can be separated by great distances, may never meet, and may never physically be present in the same real space. These virtual cities, or rather collective communities, no longer need physical geographical representation to be just as ‘real’ as Chicago, Houston, or Los Angeles to those who inhabit them.

Young continued by citing the Arab Spring phenomenon where entire groups banned together and mounted a rebellion against their government, coordinating and communicating solely via the internet, text messages, Facebook, and Twitter. The strength of that endeavor was largely due to the instantaneous method of communication, quick reaction, and the inability of an organized government to ‘disconnect’ the uprising from the omnipresent web that links almost every individual on the planet. Young concludes that we as humans will inevitably find ways to connect ourselves to each other and our environment, in fact creating that environment almost out of thin air to provide for the needs and/or wants of the community, whether it is a group of boy-crazed teenage girls gabbing over Bieber or a highly functioning collection of rebels seeking to improve their daily lives.

Agnieszka Kurant introduced her exhibited works that focus on collective thinking and phantoms. Her exhibit, entitled “Exformation,” is a collection of what she defines as phantoms, begging the question of what it means for something to exist. The “Phantom Library” comprises dozens of books, created by Kurant, that have been mentioned in other literary works by authors such as Philip K. Dick, Roberto Bolano, and Jorge Luis Borges, but do not actually exist. Kurant used a font, Unknown, created just for her, and assigned ISBN numbers and barcodes for each ‘book’ to which she gave form. Kurant designed the cover art based on information provided in the original work and embedded a synopsis on the back cover based on how it had been described in the literary reference in which it was imagined. She also displayed “Map of Phantom Islands,” in which she has geographically located numerous ‘lost’ or imaginary islands that do not actually exist but whose existence is actually supported by their reference in letters, maps and other tangible documentation.

Kurant maintains the idea that something—a book, an island, a work of art—could be made real and tangible merely by the belief of its existence; whether or not that belief is based on actuality can impinge on our consciousness and yield effects. Kurant then broached the subject of the collective and inevitability in both her exhibits of large, organized city mounds created by a colony of termites and “The End of Signature.” Kurant worked with entomologists at the University of Florida to study a large colony of termites which was provided colored sand, gold glitter, and crystals. Left to their own devices, the termites created a cluster of well organized mounds that provided adequate ventilation and daylighting, and was easily traversed by its inhabitants—displaying the organization of a collective when a singular outcome is desired. “The End of Signature” demonstrated how multiple individual signatures can be “collected” and merged to form a singular signature that inherently embodies the collective of individuals from which it was derived. 

Both artists elegantly conveyed the notion that the collective thought can determine not just what exists and what does not, but also just how tangible that idea, concept, community - or even location - is. 

Contributed By

Ashley I. August