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Sonya Dyer on ...And Beyond Institute for Future Research

7 September 15 words: Wayne Burrows
Ever wondered what it'd be like to see into the future? Well, this lady and her chums have been having a bleddy good crack at it
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photo: Ben Harriott

Can you tell us a bit about the way …And Beyond Institute For Future Research (ABIFR) has developed during your time at Primary?
The version of the ABIFR in Nottingham is made up of a really interesting group of women, ranging from students and mums to working women, none of whom knew each other before this project started. When I began the institute existed in my imagination. I hoped that by imagining it, it could seem to exist in the imaginations of other people. The project at Primary has been about the collective journey we've undertaken, where everyone involved has a platform to really utilise her own skills and interests, and to frame the project in her own way. What I really don't like, and didn't want to end up doing here, was to get other people to do my work for me. This is about all of us working together.

I gather your own interest in the future goes back to your childhood?
I was really interested in people like Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in Star Trek, and Mae Jemison, who was the first black female astronaut. I was also fascinated by the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 because a woman schoolteacher was going to go into space. My mum told me when the launch was happening so I could watch it live on TV – and then of course there was the explosion, and I didn’t know what was happening because it was like watching a film. I felt devastated afterwards because I'd invested so much in this one schoolteacher who was going into space. Later, this was all tied up with science fiction, especially the work of people like Octavia Butler and Ursula K Le Guin – writers who had interesting takes on how we might imagine new ways of being and living together in the future.

What was it that gripped your imagination about these kinds of narratives as a child growing up in London?
If I were to analyse it, I think it was the potential for adventure, the sense of outer space as a location outside our current reality, where the possibility of creating other kinds of stories and narratives was open. What science fiction gives you, as a nerdy kid growing up, is a space where you're enjoying worlds you can transport yourself to, and they give you the keys to create similar worlds of your own. I mean, I also liked things like Enid Blyton, which were just as remote from where I was living as outer space. But in the longer term it was the visual culture built around these ideas about the future that held my interest. When you watched Star Trek or Dr Who the ways the future would be visualised were always fascinating and I could imagine a space for myself inside those visions. That was probably the most important thing.

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photo: Ben Harriott

I recall seeing some links you posted to trailers for recent African-made science fiction films. Is this something that's part of your research?
Yes, in parallel with things like Afro-futurism, which has a very long history and is obviously a very big influence on my own project. That runs from people like Sun Ra to a current musicians like Janelle Monáe, who uses a lot of Afro-futuristic imagery in her work – drawing from things like Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Star Trek, as well as more directly from more recent Afro-futurist material. So all that is in my project’s pot too. I'm mainly interested in reimagining the forms that female intellectual labour might take in the future, so ABIFR is about drawing on all these threads to imagine, as ambitiously as possible, what possibilities might be open to us.

One focus of your work seems to be the meshing of gender and race in the ways we think about the future...
I did an event in June with two other artists, Sutapa Biswas and Ope Lori, looking at this question as part of the public programme around the Glenn Ligon exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary. We specifically discussed intersectional feminism there, but I think my work is about creating connections between seemingly disparate parts of many different things. In a film like Interstellar, the demographics of the United States say that white Americans are on course to become a minority, with mixed-race, Hispanic, Indigenous, African- and Asian-Americans already a majority of children under five and set to become the majority of Americans over the next fifty years. But the future of the United States is presented as if you could be in a dust bowl state with no Mexicans.

How do these themes relate to the idea of the practicalities of the space programme you described at the press conference when you launched the project?
There is a space programme that provides a framework for many things in the project, but obviously that’s a metaphor, so it's not really about that in a literal sense. The workshops will be framed by a scenario about a future civilisation travelling in space, but the questions we’re using that scenario to ask are more broadly applied – basically, what kinds of future can we possibly imagine for ourselves? How ambitiously do we want to think about the possibilities?

It's always obvious in hindsight that our visions of the future end up looking like the time they were made in – so Metropolis looks like the twenties, Star Trek looks like the sixties, The Matrix looks like the nineties…
These films and stories always reflect contemporary anxieties. I love films like Back to the Future, and would love to own a hoverboard, but of course that film is not really about the future at all. It's about that moment in the eighties when the fantasy of returning to a fictional fifties small-town America was gaining political traction. As a species, we always find it difficult to see beyond our own noses and anxieties to the possibilities that might exist beyond us. But there are always little nuggets and glimpses, so if you think about how we use mobile phones now, it's totally Star Trek. But in the sixties it would have seemed absurd that these phones might really exist and be so taken for granted by all of us. So in that one small way we are living out a little bit of that Star Trek vision of the future.

Into the Future: Workshops and Seminar, Broadway and Nottingham Hackspace, Friday 11 – Saturday 12 September, £5 - £15.

Sonya Dyer website

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