02 Jun

Fantastic Spaces: An Evolution

Ever since the dawn of humanity, mankind has sought to reach or dwell in other worlds than the world that we live in on a physical level. Other worlds have always been part of the arts and of storytelling. In some cases, within the respective storylines, people don’t have access to these worlds, while in other cases; they interact in one way or another with these worlds. The results differ, sometimes the “other” worlds have a positive impact on people’s lives, sometimes a bad one and sometimes the result is mixed.

Other worlds serve not only as an escapist way of being something different in a world that hardly changes, but also a way to explore ideas and concepts of the unconscious.

 

 

The evolution of the way we perceive and think of other worlds has evolved in time and, more often than not, it has accompanied the evolution of society as a whole. The type of fantastic world has not always been created at the same time as it was in fashion. As is often the case, there were some forward thinking authors that created books and stories that came later in fashion, as in the case of many books that became movies in the 21st century, discussing contemporary 21st century topics.

 

 

Ancient Times

In ancient times, fantastic characters and otherworldly beings used to live someplace accessible and near, yet still far out and out of reach. In many old, traditional folk tales, these lands are behind a hill, across the lake or on a mountain. Think of mount Olympus and the gods that inhabited it. Mount Olympus was a place the Greeks could see, but it was in a way out of reach. A village somewhere in the region or a valley were also common places where fantasy events took place.

 

 

Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, as populations started to engage in strong migrations and pilgrimages, the world became more open and soon enough, the mythical spaces of old times lost their mystic charge. People became aware of their environment, and yet, many “other” people and places were seen as strange and dangerous. And that was for a good reason. In the Dark Ages, people did not know what to expect from foreigners. They were a threat to their gene pool and could carry diseases or have aggressive attitudes towards them. In these times, we see fantastic worlds being described as far away. This is a reflection of the fact that people knew that there was a world beyond their own, but that they did not know what could be there. These works were mostly popular creations, in written literature allegories were the dominant ways of conveying stories.

 

 

Exploring Time

As men embarked on journeys to the East and the West to discover new lands, the fantastic stories of the 17th and 18th century often took place on fantasy islands. The illuminist character of the times also had a strong influence on the ways in which these lands were portrayed. Here we can mention works such as Tommaso Campanella’s “La città del Sole” (“City of the Sun”), or Sir Francis Bacons’ 1627 novel “New Atlantis”. Also, Margaret Cavendish’s “The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World” is another great example of a world that is very hard to reach (it can be accessed through the North Pole), but which is accessible nonetheless. The background for these had been already laid out by authors such as Thomas More, who had published “Utopia”, completely called “Libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, de optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia” in 1516, where he depicted an imaginary island and its social and political customs.

 

 

The Era of Mechanics

The 19th century was the time of the industrial revolution. This era started out in 1760 and by the time the 18th century started, many machines and intricate systems were already in place and quite common. In this period, writers saw the potential that these machines and technology at large had, and thus the first sci-fi works appeared. It was now that characters such as the monster of Frankenstein appeared and Jules Verne wrote his stories on explorations with the use of technology. Now, unlike any other time, places that had been completely inaccessible became accessible to the mind. In 1870, Jules Verne published his famous “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas: An Underwater Tour of the World” (“Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin”), in which a team of explorers uses a submarine to hunt a mysterious sea creature. The book was very much ahead of its time, but it made sense for it to appear at that time, as, for the first time in history, people could go underwater.

Fantasy worlds now were a mix of exotic places and places found outside of the Earth or, as another Jules Verne example goes to show, inside the Earth. Fantasy was now starting to become science-fiction, the 18th century being a transition from mystical creatures and magic happenings to a mix of unknown creatures and fantastic technology.

G. Wells’ 1897 “The War of the Worlds”, in which extraterrestrials visit Earth after arriving with the help of a spaceship is another great example.

 

 

Rediscovering History

In a world that was overwhelmed with mechanical devices that were loud, rough and that threatened the human spirit; the romantics of the 18th century went back to the days of old and rediscovered the past. In this sense, as people were marching more and more towards technology, many romantic writers rediscovered stories in which fantastic stories took place in nature – as nature was becoming a new mystery. The tales of the Grimm brothers in Germany, which were retellings of folktales, are a very good expression of this phenomenon. In these stories, we often see the main character wander off in a forest to meet with humans with superpowers, witches or otherworldly creatures. The story of Hansel and Gretel, who walk off to the woods and meet a witch, or Snow White who meets seven dwarfs in a forest home are good examples of these views. Romantics also discovered the ruins of the past and old castles (many times haunted ones) were at the center of fantasy storylines.

 

 

Screen Worlds

The invention of cinema in the late 1800s and its popularization in the first years of the 20th century made way of a new way of telling stories. This can be regarded as a time when a shift took place, as the screen started to become the go-to place for fantasy and sci-fi stories.

The fantasy stories of the early cinema were an extension of the literature of the late 19th century. They were exploring at the same time scientific fantasy, as well as terror-based storylines.

The move from country life to the big cities that were emerging in that time also turned the city itself in a playground for mystery and fantasy. If you think about it, films such as the 1933 “The Invisible Man” directed by James Whale was in a way a symbol of the anonymity of people we meet in big cities.

The fear of the unknown, monsters and the going wrong of technology were all fantastic topics that were explored in mundane places. As technology entered the lives of people more and more and as the outside world stepped into the lives of people through radio, newspapers and magazines, artists and storytellers realized that one does not need to go to a land far away to meet with otherworldly creatures.

 

 

The Space Age

In the 1960s, after a period of disaster and then a decade of recovery, people started looking outside the planet for fantasy-based stories. As the space race was underway and the first men landed on the moon, space became “the final frontier”. Series such as “Star Trek” and films like “Star Wars”, Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” or “2001: A Space Odyssey” were all sci-fi stories that took place in other galaxies, in space ships and so on.

 

 

Home-grown Fantasy

The topic of human exploration of outer space changed during the 1980s and 90s and went in reverse, as more and more stories about extraterrestrials exploring our world started to appear. “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” released in 1982 and directed by Steven Spielberg is a great example of how aliens entered our homes and how the quotidian life became again a place for the meeting between humans and extraterrestrials. Launched in 1993, “The X Files” was a series that continued that trend.

After 2000, however, while the home was still at the center of most media productions and stories, the focus shifted from aliens and advanced technologies to fantasy worlds where technology was almost lacking. This was most likely a reaction to the spread of technology in daily life. The combination of these two elements: the home and other daily environments and a world of fantasy, but barely any technology has given birth to stories such as the “Harry Potter” and the “Chronicles of Narnia” series, which all start out in the quotidian world, but soon move to an undefined place, to which once can arrive with the help of everyday elements – Harry Potter enters a wall to find his train and the gate to Narnia is in a closet.

The concept of the undefined fantasy place was also a big trend during the 2000s. The fact that storytellers realized that placing a film in a certain time and space would make it subject to revisionist histories, politics and accuracy criticism; as well as because things were changing so rapidly in the decade and technology was advancing so quickly that “futuristic technology” could have been redundant in a few years, many films of the 2000s take place in spaces that, while they may be defined, are generally lacking a relation to the world of planet Earth. “The Lord of the Rings” series and the “Golden Compass” movies are great examples of how this concept is expressed.

 

 

The Mind

Around 2010, the mind started more and more to become the last frontier. After this year, more and more fantasy and sci-fi movies started to appear that took place inside thoughts and imagination. “Inception” directed by Christopher Nolan, which was launched in 2010 was the stepping stone for this motif, which has been processed even in indie cinema, in films such as the 2014 production “Comet”, starring Justin Long, in which the characters go back and forth between different, alternative universes.

 

 

Forecasts

While it is hard to predict cultural trends, we can go on a limb and make a forecast for the years to come. It is highly probable that in the near future, the fantasy worlds will take the shape of robotics. As technology becomes more and more embedded in our bodies and lives, we are likely to see an increase in films and cultural products that deal with robotic worlds or, more likely a mixture of robotics and the mind. The 2009 film “Avatar” is probably the foregoer of what is next. Sci-fi worlds will discuss the concept of using technology to overcome the world itself, to exist in other worlds and have more and different abilities than you would regularly have. Technology and humans will go hand in hand. In other words, they are somehow derived or based on the concept of transhumanism, which wants to overcome the human state through technology. Space and time won’t matter anymore – people can go from one dimension to another with the help of technology and maybe even be different creatures in those worlds.

 

Worlds of fantasy are embedded in the human mind, because they fulfill a very important need. They are an expression of our imagination, but more than that, of our inexplicable experiences. They give shape not only to the things we see and think, but to the things we cannot think of. They tell stories that cannot be grasped with the means of the ordinary world and calm our anxieties about the unknown. Therefore, analyzing and understanding them is essential for the understanding of the human mind and generally of the human experience.

 

 

29 May

Curating the Mind: The Culture of Today and the Politics of Tomorrow

Many people, especially those who grew up in the 70s, 80s and 90s sometimes get a bit nostalgic about old-timey television. Well, not necessarily extremely old-timey, but for the time when television was pretty much at its peak. That world where you would wait for a show, then maybe for the rerun and when television was the source of entertainment and news seems so strange now, even to someone who grew up with it. It’s hard to imagine how it looks like to someone who hasn’t even seen it.

 

 

While it a way better experience to do it as we do it today, where everything is available at all times and you can watch or listen to anything pretty much any time and on multiple devices, there was something interesting about classic television if we can call it that way.

Television, as it was until the boom of online streaming, was curated, and that was part of what made it cool. On the one hand, this had advantages, for example the fact that it was highly curated created a mystique around it and there was a lot of reasoning when it came to it, why it was the way it was. For example, nighttime films were at night for a reason: there was a connection between the life the viewer had and what was on television. There were cartoons in the morning during the weekend, sit-down interviews in the afternoon and epic series in the evening. There were special shows on special days and television seemed to be a mirror of life. Television was molded after what the viewers did. In a way, culture has taken its inspiration a lot from real life, but it often seems that after the late 2000s or so, it goes the other way around: life is taking its inspiration from culture. If we think about it, in the 1980s or 70s, culture makers would look at the streets, at what people did and listened to and shaped their products after what was going on. After the late 2000s, the trickle effect went the other way: culture dictates what is going and people reflect it.

With the expansion of the new technologies (tablets, smartphones, smart TVs), we are seeing some bizarre changes in the ways people consume and create culture. With the World Wide Web, what has happened is that everyone has become a creator and a curator. In the 21st century, people are curating their own lives. What this means is that you select what you want to read, see or listen to. You subscribe to webpages; you get content in your feeds and so on. While this is a good thing, it also has some perverse effects. For example, if someone subscribes to a certain set of ideas, they will only receive information and culture in front of their eyes that serve those ideas. It’s hard to make appreciations that concern value when it comes to these things. In a way, it’s good that you get to only consume content you like, but if you never look outside your bubble, you might miss a whole other world.

The second thing that has a strong connection to curating yourself is credibility. While credibility is strongly connected to cultural influence, it might not be as bad as you’d think. The argument many people make is that in the online world anyone with thousands of followers is a credible source. In other words, any lie said loudly, many times and to a million people can become truth. Which is dangerous, but so is lying in the mainstream media and let’s face it – classic television and print media has too often been a source of manipulation. A big problem that I see with cultural consumerism and the online world is that culturally it can have a bad impact. Who’s to tell what will push us forward and what will keep us back? If bad media products are pushed into everyone’s life then we’re going to go back really badly. And it’s a known fact that culture influences politics, so analyzing the culture of today definitely offers insight in the politics of tomorrow.

The third thing that curating your own life creates, which can be said is the most important is that the quality and taste factors drops significantly. If there are no arbitraries of taste, if “everything goes” as post-modernists would have you believe, real value can get lost quickly. For example, we can often see photos taken by various people that get so much exposure and that are considered of such high value, without actually having an artistic value. What makes them be so appreciated is that they were taken with a certain technology which offers something special, such as a high quality image. In this case, you are basically praising a shell with no content. And, if you only add shells with no content, you won’t have anything to feed off in the future. Figuratively speaking. Basically, if we keep promoting bad art or, better said, art that is not actually art, products with no content, soon many lives won’t have content. We need to make the clear distinction between information, art and technology, which seem to be extremely blurry today – we can even speak of an advent of “infoartainment”. And that would not be a big problem, in the end, art is meant to inform and to entertain, but more often than not, information these days is badly constructed to say the least, a lot of art is not art by any definition (except the anti-art definition given by post-modernism) and entertainment is not very entertaining, it can be said that it is mostly background noise. We seem to have lost the notion of doing something and doing it well.

In a world where the ratio of creators to consumers is pretty much 1:1, where everyone is a creator with pretenses, as well as a consumer – can you have a good discourse on quality?

This is why it can be argued that in order to survive, art should break from itself. We need to separate bad art from good art and to reinforce the strength of qualitative art – we need to make a difference between information and everyone having a voice and almost everyone being an artist. Museums should be real spaces of learning – learning that is, not entertainment; and truly valuable art should be seen as such. Having high standards is the only way to go if we wish to achieve great results as a world culture.