It’s cool to be a nerd.

This message has emerged as speculative fiction — fantasy, science fiction, and other related or in-between genres that tell “realistically impossible” stories — has assumed a more prominent place in popular culture over the last decade. The establishment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008 played a significant role in this development, while the steady influx of speculative fiction movies — ranging from the famous vampires of Twilight (2008) and the dystopian visions of The Hunger Games (2012–2015) to a return to the ever-popular topic of space travel in Interstellar (2014) or the recent attempt at combining science fiction with gothic horror in Paradise Hills (2019) — demonstrates that Hollywood is both aware of and ready to capitalize on this resurfacing interest. This is to say nothing of the recent leaps in literature, which has seen a veritable new New Age of speculative fiction in the works of Toronto’s own Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, and China Mieville. It feels like popular culture has recently remembered that the sci-fi section of your bookshelf is not something to be embarrassed about and hide from your friends.

In some sense, one could feel a similar kind of awakening in the Toronto art scene in 2019, not because there was no interest in sci-fi previously, but because there was suddenly an explicit centering of the genre. Rather than being thrown in as an afterthought, speculative subjects — dystopian near-futures, digital Eden-like spaces, ecocritical spins on the past — serve as the metaphorical canvas on which artists can highlight pressing issues, including those that might initially seem too heavy for a genre we think of as mere entertainment. In this way, the exhibitions I was lucky enough to see in 2019 build on the kinds of critical thinking that have characterized science fiction from its inception. These artists and their works embrace the malleability and expansiveness of speculative fiction, particularly science fiction’s interest in going “far out” — physically, metaphysically, and ideologically — when it comes to thinking about our world, our universe, and our existence within them.

“There is no doubt that we have reached a turning point, a time of upheaval brought about by an overwhelming desire for long-overdue change — as is often the case in the speculative fiction genre, the situation can no longer stand.”
Syrus Marcus Ware: Ancestors, Can You Read Us? (Dispatches From The Future) (installation view), 2019 © Larissa Issler, Ryerson Image Centre
Lisa Jackson, Biidaaban, 2018, VR. Photo courtesy MOCA Toronto.

Now, amid the current COVID-19 pandemic, the art of last year’s exhibitions has taken on a new urgency. With the clarity of hindsight, these works posit that one person’s conception of dystopia is an inescapable everyday reality for others, especially those marginalized by the dominant white capitalist system as it crafts its own vision of “utopia.” Syrus Marcus Ware’s video Ancestors, Can You Read Us? (Dispatches From The Future ) (September 11–December 8, 2019, at the Ryerson Image Centre) and Lisa Jackson’s interactive virtual reality experience  Biidaaban: First Light (June 10–July 7, 2019, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto)[1] are stark reminders of how elusive the idea of a future is for some within contemporary society and of Black and Indigenous peoples’ fight for the right even to have a future.

“The dream of an Edenic future — of reversing climate change, of bringing about racial and social justice, of creating a more transparent and accessible art world — is now framed not as a return to something that never existed but as a discovery of something that we can bring into existence, a movement forward rather than back.”

Ancestors and Biidaaban both win victories in these battles. In Ware’s case, this is a victory over the current ravaging of the earth, over white supremacy, and over what Ware calls the “Black death spectacle.” Ware’s three-minute-long video features a generation of Black activists living in 2072 who convey a message of love and hope to our current generation, each individual continuing where the previous speaker left off to create a single form of address from a collective body. In Biidaaban, it is a victory through reconnection with traditional knowledge systems, reminding settler viewers that Indigenous culture is not a part of the past but a viable way forward in surviving the future that might await us. Jackson’s work invites us into an atmospheric vision of a Toronto ravaged by some sort of apocalyptic event where we navigate several familiar locations in the downtown core, including the Osgoode subway station, Nathan Phillips Square, an office building near City Hall. The inclusion of Indigenous language and allusions to ideas of creation and origin encourages us to contemplate the role that Indigenous knowledge systems and language play in this speculative vision. Ware and Jackson’s works draw attention to how calls for the establishment of a more just society for those communities that are actively left out of the dominant narrative constantly, cyclically reemerge and are suppressed.

Writer and scholar M. NourbeSe Philip recently commented: “I think of the [COVID-19] virus, invisible to the naked eye, which has wreaked such havoc in such an achingly short time, and see the parallel with another virus, albeit metaphorical — the virus of greed that spawned that earlier global disruption and destruction of nations, peoples, cultures.”[2] There is no doubt that we have reached a turning point, a time of upheaval brought about by an overwhelming desire for long-overdue change — as is often the case in the speculative fiction genre, the situation can no longer stand. At the same time, the constantly shifting reality of COVID-19 has caused more than a few nostalgic murmurs, longings for the “pre-Covidian” world often paired with an anxiety over this return, an uneasy feeling best encapsulated by film and television scenes of packed bars or coffee shops, of people hugging and shaking hands; it is simultaneously a feeling of fear and of longing for intimacy.

The news, early in the pandemic, of the wealthy fleeing New York City for more rural areas reminds me of how the Renaissance rich built villas in the countryside to escape from illnesses in the city, a privilege still with us today and one still afforded only to the upper echelons. These recent events speak to a quasi-return of the now anachronistic idea of the primeval wilderness, which academic William Cronon describes as a framing of nature as “the last bastion of rugged individualism” and “a product of civilization . . . hardly . . . contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made.”[3] Timothy Morton, one of the central figures in the fields of object-oriented ontology and queer ecology, echoes this thought as he points out that “human society used to define itself by excluding dirt and pollution,” and that “excluding pollution is part of performing Nature as pristine, wild, immediate, and pure.”[4] Yet, as Bugs and Beasts Before the Law — a video by Toronto-based artist duo Sharlene Bamboat and Alexis Kyle Mitchell working under the moniker Bambitchell and shown at Mercer Union September 14–November 2, 2019[5] — demonstrates, the desire to impose physical and moral ideas onto nature is a problem stretching back to the Middle Ages. Bugs and Beasts is an experimental film in five chapters that tells the story of five animals or objects convicted of crimes. These perceived transgressions range from trespassing and theft to more serious accusations of assault and murder, such as the accusations against the elephant Topsy, who was sentenced to death by electrocution in 1903 for killing a spectator and being “bad” and “hard to handle.” Although we no longer put animals on trial because they have been accused of doing “the devil’s work,” we still condemn them to death with our deliberate environmental neglect. The dream of an Edenic future — of reversing climate change, of bringing about racial and social justice, of creating a more transparent and accessible art world — is now framed not as a return to something that never existed but as a discovery of something that we can bring into existence, a movement forward rather than back. While the first two changes are broader and more daunting, the gears of change in the art world have certainly begun moving, largely as result of the unavoidable reality of social distancing and travel restrictions.

Laure Prouvost and Jonas Staal: Obscure Union.Commissioned by Mercer Union, Toronto,2019.Installation view:Mercer Union, 2020. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
Bambitchell: Bugs and Beasts Before the Law.Commissioned by Mercer Union, Toronto, 2019.Installation view:Mercer Union, 2019. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

How do we move forward, then? Previously, this question was often answered with some variant (techno-optimist or techno-pessimist) of “robots will take over the world.” But the most convincing answer that I have found in art is Laure Provost and Jonas Staal’s installation Obscure Union (December 7, 2019–February 22, 2020 at Mercer Union), which was one of the last exhibitions I saw prior to the imposition of lockdown measures. Consisting of a plywood maze featuring a number of placards with slogans like “We are Your Comrades” and a swirling octopus projected in the middle of the dark floor, Obscure Union recalls the utopian ideals of Surrealism and Russian Constructivism, both of which were concerned with rethinking not only art’s place within society but also the very processes by which art is made. The projection also reminded me of a recent controversial study in which researchers argued that the octopus is a real-life alien that came to earth many years ago, potentially crashing down to our planet on a meteor.[6] The octopus of Obscure Union and the exhibition’s investment in exploring new ways of gathering and promoting a larger-scale unionization of the human and the non-human now feel like a fitting foreshadow of the current COVID-19 pandemic. The entanglement of health, wealth, class, race, our reliance on one another, and our need for intimacy have recently been returned to the fore. We have been forced to become like octopi, to stretch ourselves thin, to persist through exhaustion.

More promising, however, is how much of the art world is now taking cues from the octopus’s symbolic evocation of balance and healthy interconnectedness, as discussions about art now seem to be oriented toward questions of survival and adaptation, of care and resilience, of righting past wrongs and charting a more equitable path forward. These concerns recall the ever-pressing issues germane to intergalactic space travel and exploration, the idea that if we leave Earth, with its limited resources and the increasing threat of environmental catastrophe as a result of climate change, then the problem will be resolved because its manifestations have literally and physically disappeared (think along the lines of the Zen koan, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”). For art galleries, this issue of adaptation has recently taken the form of moving exhibitions online, although with this comes concerns of copyright and artists’ control of their work. In a broader scope, Jackson’s Biidaaban embodies the way technology itself can step up to that challenge, how the way we tell stories can be made more immersive and dynamic yet tranquil with the help of mediums like VR. Already we are witnessing some alternative proposals, from the projection-based Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit to the new experiential art initiative Superblue. Whether these are truly viable options and not merely attempts to capitalize on the populace’s hunger for technologically oriented art installations that primarily function as aesthetic selfie opportunities remains to be seen.

[1] See my review “Yakoweyentehta’onhátye Ayontahonhsí:yohste’: Tsi nikanó:ron ne Kawennaráhston Nè:ne Í:kare ne Biidaaban: First Light, Yakaón:ni ne Lisa Jackson,” Peripheral Review, November 27, 2019, https://peripheralreview.com/2019/11/27/yakoweyentehtaonhatye-ayontahonhsiyohste-tsi-nikanoron-ne-kawennarahston-nene-ikare-ne-biidaaban-first-light-yakaonni-ne-lisa-jacks/.

[2] “Covidian Catastrophes,” Canadian Art, April 9, 2020, https://canadianart.ca/features/covidian-catastrophes/.

[3] William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1, no. 1 (1996): 13, 7.

[4] Timothy Morton, “Guest Column: Queer Ecology.” PMLA 125, no. 1 (2010): 274.

[5] See my review in Canadian Art, November 13, 2019, https://canadianart.ca/reviews/bambitchell-2/.

[6] See Josh Gabbatiss, “Are octopuses aliens from outer space that were brought to Earth by meteors?” The Independent, May 19, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/octopus-aliens-scientists-theory-meteors-space-earth-cambrian-explosion-a8358631.html.

[7] Donna J. Haraway, “The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Constitutions of Self in Immune System Discourse,”  Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 223.

Margaryta Golovchenko is a settler-immigrant, poet, critic, and academic based in Tkaronto/Toronto, Treaty 13, and Williams Treaty territory, Canada. She is currently completing an MA in art history and curatorial studies at York University.