FutureEverything 2016 review: Experiments in Art

Feature by Ali Gunn | 11 Apr 2016

FutureEverything 2016 offered new ways of thinking about the future and artistically minded experiments in data visualisation. Our writer went along to the conferences and festival and found a programme influenced by Ballard, community and consumerism.

FutureEverything is a festival of ideas. Drew Hemment, founder and creative director, opens this year’s conference explaining how the organisation uses art and design to drive new thinking.

This year, FutureEverything is focused on the fundamental issue of resources, with the theme Less and More continuing the festival’s 20-year legacy of challenging the status quo, provoking questions and pushing boundaries in art, design and technology.

By providing creative approaches to what may seem uncreative facets of technology and the digital environment, FutureEverything creates opportunities for the wider public to engage with concepts in a tangible way.

Smoke Signals by Ed Carter and David Cranmer, part of this year’s public programme, does just that.

The making of Smoke Signals

Data, as they say, is all around us. Every tweet or email we send adds to the mass that governments, businesses and organisations collect and collate in order to better understand how, and why, we connect with them. In 2014 FutureEverything launched an artist commission that would explore the community these data streams create for arts organisations. The commission presented Carter and Cranmer with an opportunity to take visualising data into a whole new realm. 

As part of a year-long research and development project, FutureEverything has been working with seven leading British arts organisations to collect their email data in the hope of better understanding the value and impact of their networks. The artists’ resulting piece, Smoke Signals, uses smoke and sound to represent the assembled data, taking inspiration from cryptography, in particular the Polybius Square, an Ancient Greek cipher. Filling the darkened room at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, smoke is projected out of Arduino-controlled cannons in rings. With each puff of smoke, more data feeds into the room, and as soon as one smoke signal is expelled, the previous becomes disrupted, unsettling the flow of data.

In using data as a medium Carter and Cranmer have taken something that to many people is mundane and uninteresting, and turned it into a beautiful and tangible concept. Does it actually matter what the data is, for the end result? Maybe not. But the success of this piece is the artists’ use of digital technology and art to tell a broader story about the data streams that are part of our daily lives, and the networks that they underpin.

Gazelle Twin's dystopian vision

Elsewhere in the programme is another work looking at an aspect of our lives: day-to-day consumerism.

Commissioned by FutureEverything, Gazelle Twin, Chris Turner and Tash Tung present Kingdom Come, taking its name from JG Ballard’s novel of the same name and using the idea of the repetition of consumer life to create a 45-minute audio-visual battering. The trio explain in their Q&A session how, rather than jumping on the High-Rise Ballardian bandwagon, for them the author has always been a major inspiration, with thematic elements creeping into their work almost subconsciously.

Presented in six chapters, the piece is performed by two singers dressed in identical costumes. The video centres on a deserted shopping centre, which is presented as a symbol for society’s obsession with consumerism. Between panned shots of empty car parks and ascending escalators are videos of violence, crowd panic and YouTube fail clips. The switch between scenes of crowd hysteria and the empty guts of a shopping centre heightens the contrast between the two, while the images of riots and sale hysteria bear a striking resemblance to one another, adding to the sense of the uncanny.

Echoing Ballard’s words in Kingdom Come – ‘the suburbs dream of violence’ – Gazelle Twin, Chris Turner and Tash Tung have created a vision for the future where there is no community. Hyperconsumerism and commodity fetishism have taken control of daily life; we are reduced to tribalism and violence, and the shopping centre is the battleground.

Tools to tackle the future

In seeking to challenge the old saying ‘less is more,’ FutureEverything 2016 explores how four distinct things – life, the Earth, uncertainty and community – can provide alternative resources and assist us in navigating our impending futures.

Through presentations at the conference and commissions situated throughout the city, the festival is able to open up a platform for critical thinking.

At a time when art in schools is under threat and considered merely a hobby, FutureEverything offers something refreshing – a place where the meeting of art, design and technology drives the conversation, and where concepts and ideas are open to be challenged, discussed and built on.

FutureEverything 2016 ran 30 March-2 April 2016 in Manchester