In conjunction with the opening of their new group show theanyspacewhatever, the Guggenheim presented NY.2022, an “orchestral installation” by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Ari Benjamin Meyers, inspired by Soylent Green (1973), a sci-fi police procedural starring Charlton Heston and set in 2022 in a dystopian New York City.
Opening against a backdrop of Alex MacLean’s aerial photographs of agricultural and industrial sites, city ruins, and housing developments (mirroring Soylent Green’s brilliant opening titles), the performance followed with rough re-creations from the film: a man riding a stationary bike connected to a generator that powered a light bulb; four beautiful and listless young women in Balenciaga dresses playing electronic children’s toys; a couple bathing themselves with bottles of water, etc.
Next, Staten Island’s Richmond County Orchestra took the stage and performed Beethoven’s 6th, gradually trailing off as, one by one, players left the stage. Only when the lights came on did confused audience members venture some tentative clapping. Lasting about forty-five minutes, NY.2022 was constantly engrossing, so much so that its abrupt end was a disappointment.
Gonzalez-Foerster’s installation currently occupying the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London engages similar themes. Titled TH.2058 (i.e. Turbine Hall, year 2058), and set in a dystopian London plagued by incessant rain, the Turbine Hall has been refashioned into a shelter — fitted with beds, old books (what you’d expect: Ballard, Bradbury, Dick), and a film, The Last Film, showing on repeat: a montage of clips from films like Planet of the Apes, La Jetée, Solaris, and Peter Waktins’ The War Game.
What is ultimately unsatisfying about NY.2022 (and TH.2058 as well) is that, in the intervening years since the production of the works Gonzalez-Foerester is quoting, notions of the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic are even more ubiquitous, and the bar has been raised considerably by authors, filmmakers, and artists dealing with these themes.
Works like Cormac McCarthey’s book The Road; films like Children of Men and the grossly underrated The Happening; and a show as recent as After Nature at the New Museum have produced powerful visions of the “obscure disaster” the cultural imagination senses to be hovering in the near future.
The majority of the older body of work referenced by Gonzalez-Foerster created a dystopian scenario far enough into the future that it could be avoided (this not the case of a film like Watkins’ The War Game however, which contributes to its power).
What is most convincing about the current crop of works however, which arguably coincide with a broader historical shift, is that, rather than taking place in a far off future as a warning of what will happen if we do not change our ways, they take place in the present or immediate future. Dystopia might not come about with a flash and a bang. It might be gradual. It might even be something that we are currently living through.
This is perhaps what is most interesting about Gonzalez-Foerster’s two works: the idea that we have been imagining our species’ demise forever, and that, to paraphrase Chris Rock, life as we know it is not likely to end any time soon. Life is long. You’re probably not going to be blown up by a dirty bomb, washed away by a tsunami, or eaten by an alien, and you’ll have to live with the choices you’re making now for at least the next fifty years.