On a night in early August, 1956, the exhibition ‘This Is Tomorrow’ was opened at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London by a robot. Robbie, the fictional character from cult sci-fi film ‘Forbidden Planet’ (also released that year) was the perfect spokesperson for a show that brought together pop-culture, communications theory, art, technology and design to create popular visions of tomorrow. With his friendly, butler-like personality and mechanically spinning eyes, Robbie the Robot made the potentials of technology feel familiar and, for many, seemed to offer desirable improvements for their domestic lives.
The architect Theo Crosby is often credited as the main instigator of ‘This Is Tomorrow’, who saw it as an opportunity to explore the potentials of collaboration between artists, architects and designers. Rather than seeking to attain an over-arching unity, 37 artists were invited to come together and work in 12 groups in any way they chose. As Reyner Banham later wrote in his review of the exhibition: “The idea of synthesis was interpreted, at one extreme, simply as a requirement to house or decorate one another’s work, and at the other extreme, as an invitation to smash all boundaries between the arts.” Evoking early experiments like the Bauhaus, collaboration across the arts was seen as a radical programme for the future that would unleash their social force, and the antagonisms and disagreements that arise through collaborative working.
Now, over sixty years later, the Whitechapel Gallery has staged the exhibition’s re-enactment. ‘Is This Tomorrow?’ has invited architects and artists to work together to create a series of installations on the future, many of whom are working together for the first time. But whereas the 1956 exhibition aimed to position the arts as a positive and driving force for society, in ‘Is This Tomorrow?’ it is wider developments, be they technological, social or political, that become the dangerous forces the collaborators seek to address.
The exhibition as a whole involves 10 distinct installations that invite different forms of experience. ‘Enclosure’ by artist Amalia Pica and 6a architects, the first installation encountered within the exhibition, explores human relationships with non-human animals. A maze of low metal fencing used for herding sheep, populated by colourful objects for animals in captivity, creates a squeaking labyrinth for the viewer to move within. As with Pica’s other work, these objects act as both props and symbols. Evoking the many roles that animals play in human languages, and the inter-dependencies we have with them, ‘Enclosure’ suggests an architecture in which animals are entirely instrumentalised to serve human needs and, in turn, the new dependencies and forms of meaning this will create.
The role of digital technologies is one of the main threads across the commissions, appearing in several of the projects. ‘I Want To Be The Future’ by artist Cao Fei and mono-office, is a speculative design proposal for a totem interface that connects physical spaces with digital networks. Able to be hacked by different users, the totem involves familiar technologies such as wi-fi and a projector but can also be customised and deployed within interiors or in public spaces. Just as totems are often mediums with which to communicate with the spirit world, here the interface transforms everyday digital interactions into spiritual exercises that shape and are shaped by their users. The idea of a ‘vision for the future’ here becomes literal, with the installation mimicking the future-oriented language of architectural renderings and prototypes through a series of diagrams and images of the totem in different sites, as well as a full-scale proto-type of the object itself.
Spirits also appear in the installation by Jacolby Statterwhite and Andrés Jacque: ‘Spirits Roaming the Earth’. Taking a house track by Statterwhite’s mother as a starting point, the installation brings together film, a projection and an amorphous tar-black structure filled with organic shapes, to reflect on the inter-connections of queer desire, cities and environmental extraction. Through a series of short episodes, the work weaves together luxury high-rise property developments in New York, digitised images of queer eroticism and the displacement of resource extraction and pollution that comes with these developments. In these narratives, the subversive potentials of queer desire become intertwined with speculative markets and environmental struggle. The attraction that attaches to market-driven images of ‘progress’ in the high-rise city are shown to have concrete, and at times detrimental, effects, a theme that also re-emerges in Rachel Armstrong and Cecile B Evan’s installation ‘999 years, 13 sqm (the future belongs to ghosts)’ at the end of the show.
Just as in the original ‘This Is Tomorrow’, the collaborations in the exhibition involve different ways of working together. Rana Begum and Marina Tabassum Architects’ ‘Phoenix Will Rise’, is evocative of a more familiar collaborative format between architects and artists. In the work, the white-box architecture creates a low enclosure, the ceiling of which is punctuated by a hole that opens to the sky-lights of the gallery. Within its curved surface is a carefully folded and powdered surface by Begum that plays with the light entering the space. The result is a space of calm and contemplation, unlike many of the other exhibits in the exhibition, that asks about the future of sacred spaces, and the role artists and architects might play in creating these environments.
Despite the many challenges of the present, architecture and design continue to be seen as inherently progressive and problem-solving disciplines. This, it seems, is one of the main presumptions the exhibition as a whole unsettles. In ‘Borders/Inclusivity’ by Farshid Moussavi and Zineb Sedira, design becomes a tool of policing and oppression. Focusing on the infrastructure of the border, the installation involves a labyrinth of closely packed revolving barrier gates that trigger different sounds - from tasers to bird-song - as the viewer moves between them. Red crosses constantly glare from the tops of the barriers and the experience is claustrophobic, disorientating and interminable, with many of the barriers resisting the direction you want to go. In ‘Borders/Inclusivity’ border policing is no longer simply confined to the edges of nation-states but becomes a pervasive urban and architectural form for those that undergo it.
In the sixty years since Robbie the Robot was first introduced to the public, artificial intelligence has gone from being portrayed as a friendly servant to that of an imminent existential threat. As Lydia Yee, curator of ‘Is This Tomorrow?’, has noted, the future for London certainly seems less bright than it did in the UK’s post-war boom. So too are the artists and architects in the exhibition more self-reflexive and critical about the social power of their respective disciplines. It’s fitting then, that the exhibition is framed as a question, rather than an assertion. But the remark of a British Pathé newsreel on ‘This Is Tomorrow’ in 1956 still seems appropriate for the exhibition today: “Strange, exasperating, too much for some people to swallow, but giving everyone something to think about.”