Brain Pickings

Retrofuturism Revisited: The Past Imagines the Future

By:

Flying cars! Spinning buildings! Voice AND color! …or what Disney has to do with Eve.

Last year, we looked at the 2020 Project, which invited some of today’s sharpest thinkers to imagine tomorrow. But how will their visions look to future generations? To get a taste for it, we looked to the past: Here are 6 charming visions for the future, from the past — a delightful exercise in retrofuturism that embodies humanity’s chronic blend of boundless imagination, solipsistic foolishness and hopeless optimism.

THE FUTURE OF TRAVEL

In 1936, Japanese magazine Shonen Club published World Transportation Invention Competition — an illustrated series envisioning the future of transportation, based on concepts by inventors from around the world. From high-speed monorail to tank-like battle boats to a car with spherical wheels, the images embody a fascinating blend of technological urgency and artistic imagination.

Mountain monorail -- Kikuzo Ito, 1936

A powerful airplane propeller balances a precarious-looking two-wheel bodice, while a tail fin keeps the train upright and stable.

sphere-wheeled car -- Reiji Iizuka, 1936

Based on a concept by a German inventor, the vehicle's oversized rubbery tires promise a smoother ride than the conventional tires and act as a cushion in the event of an accident.

WALT DISNEY’S TOMORROWLAND

Last month, we featured Walt Disney’s Man In Space — an entire series of retrofuturist visions for space exploration, part of his Tomorrowland program. In the following mashup, digital artist David Phillips remixes footage from the program to capture Disney’s legendary optimism about the future.

CLOTHING OF THE FUTURE

In the 1930s, Pathetone Weekly asked leading fashion designers to imagine women’s clothing in the year 2000. From an electric belt that adapts the body to climatic changes to a wedding dress made of glass to an electric headlight “to help her find an honest man,” the Eve of tomorrow is as delightfully retrofuturistic as they come.

As for [the man], if he matters at all, there won’t be any shaving, colors, ties or pockets. He’ll be fitted with a telephone, a radio, and containers for coins, keys and candy for cuties.”

Just about describes your average Brooklyn hipster.

Thanks, Meredith

HALLUCINATORY ARCHITECTURE OF THE FUTURE

Dark Roasted Blend, one of our favorite portals for eclectic interestingness, has a wonderful roundup of “hallucinatory architecture of the future” — architectural retrofuturist urbanism that leans on the side of the far-fetched.

More here and here.

VISIONS OF THE FUTURE

Vision as well as sound, oh my! When British telecommunication giant BT imagined the future of communication technology — from videoconferencing to high-definition document transmission — they made their most conceptually innovative proposition, the notion of telecommuting, with a kind of facetiousness most ironic in the context of today’s remote-everything workplace.

Given all these facilities, the businessman will scarcely need to go to his office at all. He can do all his work in the comfort of his own home.”

TELEFUTURE

In 1980, a TV segment entitled Telefuture envisions a world of television-based information services. While at its core lies a fascinating and, in retrospect, remarkably accurate exploration of the exponential progression of technology — including transmedia experiences that even modernity can’t get quite right, like Internet TV — the excitement and language used to describe technologies we now find primitive is a disarming source of amusement. We held it together quite admirably, until the vintage-voiced man described basic 8-bit diversions as “incredibly complex games” — at that point, through tears of laughter, we wonder how his vocabulary of superlatives would hold up against the latest Halo 3 or Guitar Hero.

But don’t think of it just as a receiver of programs from networks or local stations — it’s becoming a central display terminal, able to show pictures from a growing number of electronic sources, including traditional broadcast stations, 40 or more channels of cable television, video cassette recorders with timers to record programs to watch at your convenience, video disc machines that don’t record but play back records of films, specials and so on, and games people play, incredibly complex games now programmed into your sets by small cassettes or cards or memory discs.”

For some quality present-day retrofuturism, we highly recommend What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science — a fantastic, and not necessarily fantastical, anthology of 18 essays by leading scientists across evolutionary biology, anthropology, neuroscience and psychology exploring the future of ethics and the human mind.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

Stickwork: Patrick Dougherty’s Remarkable Tree Sculptures

By:

Sculptor Patrick Dougherty has an unusual medium: Trees. Yet he isn’t a traditional wood scuplptor, carving shapes into rigid trunks and branches. Rather, he weaves twigs into remarkable fluid shapes that exude the whimsy and lyricism of a Scandinavian fairy tale, blending it with architectural aesthetics and a profound respect for nature.

Stickwork is a magnificent monograph of Dougherty’s best work from the past 25 years, featuring 38 of his most stunning structures captured in lavish photographs, alongside drawings documenting his construction process and fascinating anecdotes about each site’s particularities and challenges.

Close Ties

Brahan Estate, Dingwall, Scottish Highlands, 2006 | Photographer: Fin Macrae

Paradise Gate

Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA, 2001 | Photographer: Stephen Petegorsky

Cell Division

Savannah College of Art, Savannah, Georgia, 1998 | Photographer: Wayne Moore

Stand By

Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority, Raleigh, NC, 2000 | Photographer: Jerry Blow

Call of the Wind

Museum of Glass, Tacoma, WA, 2002 | Photographer: Duncan Price

Childood Dreams

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona, 2007 | Photographer: Adam Rodriguez

Hovering between landscape design, architecture, art and a living manifesto for our connection with the Earth, Dougherty’s is an uncommon talent and rare conceptual vision, captured beautifully and hauntingly in Stickwork.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

Democratizing Art History: 6 smARThistory Primers

By:

From the Byzantine empire to Rembrandt, or what web video has to do with democratizing art.

Traditionally, the study of art history has belonged to the privileged. Tuition-rich courses, overpriced textbooks, trips to museums (often across vast oceans) — they all cost a pretty penny. Nowadays, the field is gradually being democratized. During the past few years alone, MoMA has made a trove of Abstract Expressionist art available on the iPad; the Getty Museum lets users view art online in 3D with the help of Augmented Reality technology; and we can now take a virtual tour through Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, or gaze at essential Renaissance paintings hanging in the famous Uffizi Galleryin Florence — all for free.

smARThistory is perhaps the most centralized effort to make art history an accessible field. Developed by MoMA Director of Digital Learning Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, Pratt Institute chair of History of Art and Design, the portal now offers 115 videos presenting unscripted conversations between art historians about the history of art. (Find them all on Vimeo right here.) The easiest way to understand the project is to experience it, so we have curated a sampler of six videos, covering iconic art from antiquity to modernity.

THE ROSETTA STONE

Rosetta Stone, c. 196 B.C.E., granite, 114.4 cm x 72.3 x 27.9 cm or 45 x 28.5 x 11 in. (British Museum, London)

The story of [the Rosetta Stone] is historically incredibly important. It allowed us for the first time to be able to read, to be able to understand, to be able to translate hieroglyphics. [...] The Rosetta Stone is what helped [linguistic historians] understand that Egyptian hieroglyphics are not pictorial, they’re not pictograms but actually phonetics — so all those things that look like pictures actually represent sounds.”

ICON OF THE TRIUMPH OF ORTHODOXY

Byzantine, Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, c. 1400-1450, tempera and gold on wood, 39 cm x 31 cm (British Museum, London)

The gold is the spiritual, it’s the heaven, it’s what you’re not supposed to represent.”

APOLOLLO & DAPHNE

Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25 (Galleria Borghese, Rome)

This is all about not attaining beauty, almost having the thing that you want in your hands and having it slip out at the very moment when you attain it. [...] It’s a meditation on what sculpture is. Bernini, more than anyone else, makes marble seem like the wings of an angel, a cloud.”

A GIRL AT A WINDOW

Rembrandt, A Girl at a Window, 1645, 81.6 x 61 cm (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London)

To Rembrandt’s credit, he really does make you psychologically interested in her.”

METAMORPHOSIS OF NARCISSUS

Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937 (Tate Modern)

[The surrealists] called the ability of Dali to do this, to see things simultaneously as more than one thing, as a result of a psychological state, which they called ‘paranoic critical activity.’ It was based on a willfulness reading of Freud. Freud talked about the filters that kept the unconscious and the conscious mind apart. But Dali claimed that in the state of ‘paranoic critical activity’ he could actually embrace both the unconscious and the conscious simultaneously, so that his conscious mind could actually do the painting.”

ONE: NUMBER 31

Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950.

When we think of Pollock’s drip paintings, we think quite rightfully of an improvisation, like a jazz musician going off on a riff.”

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University, and you can also find him on Twitter.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.