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Futurama

Photo by Robert WedemeyerNOSTALGIA FOR THE FUTURE ISN'T WHAT IT USED TO be. During my nephews' recent visit, when I finally laid eyes on Disney's new Tomorrowland, encrusted with its faux Jules Verne filigrees, I was once again amazed at how they just don't get it. Art Nouveau was truly hip in, what -- 1961? Now here's the corporate Disney, maneuvering for some ill-conceived inversion of planned obsolescence, pitching the future as perpetual camp anachronism while once again bulldozing the idiosyncratic and intriguingly off-register tomorrows of more recent yesteryears just when they would have clicked with the kids.

Of course my nephews loved it.

AFFECTIONATE APPROPRIATION OF OBSOLETE FUtures seems to have started in the early '70s, with wry boomers like John Carpenter (Dark Star), the Firesign Theater (I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus) and Devo (Duty Now for the Future) turning the naive techno-optimism of Captain Video and other postwar sci-fi in on itself, playing its sweet and orderly superficiality against the deep indeterminacy of psychedelic culture and the monolithic malignancy of the military-industrial puppetmasters. While it briefly made for some excellent art, this stance was swiftly absorbed into mainstream culture, becoming such a default irony as to crop up in . . . well, Disneyland.

Many of the jaded have retained a certain skepticism about the similarly boosterish claims in circulation regarding the transformational potential of the cybersphere. While I am happy to download mp3s of John Oswald's Plunderphonics onto my boss's hard drive, the vision of 6 billion happy workers lodged in their cubicles, basking in small-screen radiation, is low on my personal list of Utopias. Unfortunately, the position pioneered by Carpenter et al. no longer packs the novelty quotient needed to effect any serious debunking, or even critical examination. New strategies are called for.

A new exhibit at the Luckman Fine Arts Gallery at Cal State L.A. attempts to gather together a few such sidelong investigations of contemporary futuristic scenarios from the visual-arts scene in Los Angeles. Curated by the spousal team of Julie Joyce and Adam Ross (whose own entirely appropriate retro-futuristic landscape paintings were left out, presumably for reasons of curatorial protocol), "Post Millennial Fizzy" takes its name from Infinite Jest, the trendiest doorstop-as-novel since Gravity's Rainbow. While I have been warned clear of David Foster Wallace's weighty tome, the show's press release informs us that it involves a movie so entertaining that it puts people into comas, and a soft drink called Post Millennial Fizzy.

Given this thematic preset, it's unsurprising that most of the 11 artists in the show display a proclivity for fetishistic consumer engineering, suggesting that the future will be intricately constructed from pastel-tinted, vacuum-molded polystyrene and the like: untouched by human hands. Considering the state of the art currently in favor in Los Angeles, this hardly stands out as a daring or even perceptible position. However, the strength of this particular curation, of individuals whose work has been seen elsewhere, often to lesser effect, is that it reveals an unsuspected depth to the glossy modular design units that pepper the city's galleries.

The least aseptic work in the show is Dave Muller's Supergraphic (1999), a signature cluster of hand-crafted posters mimicking designs for other (mostly L.A.) artists' shows in endearingly fey washes of watercolor on paper. Laced with a fragmentary motif of stylized blossoms, these paintings give the impression of one of those proto-digital sliding-tile picture puzzles that eventually resolve into a meaningful image. This DJ-style mutational plagiarism neatly addresses the impending dissolution of authorial privilege with a psychological edge that teeters between egoless service and amoral predation.

Jason Rogenes also turns in a signature piece. His hovering assemblages of white Styrofoam stereo packing material, scavenged from industrial trash, reclaim their heritage of post-human fabrication and then some. Lit with integral dangling-wire fluorescent tubes, their success depends a great deal on the space in which they are encountered. In this instance, project chimera (1999) ranks somewhere toward the top, and the nice post-apocalyptic cargo-cult chill these sub-Corman F/X deliver -- looking for all the world like dimly remembered colonizing starships reconstructed from what was left behind -- hasn't been depleted yet.

Another poet of extruded polystyrene is Shirley Tse, whose stacked and intricately routed sheets of high-density foam titled Polyphantasmer (blue) (1998) was first exhibited last year in the backroom at Shoshana Wayne. This piece, whose laborious process is revealed only on close inspection, benefits from its situation in Luckman's large gallery, where the viewer's focal distance and attention span can stretch out a bit.

Halsey Rodman's The True Star Disappears in the Spot-light (1999), consisting of color-coordinated plastic "crystals" displayed in groups on custom pedestals (and so reminiscent of the traumatic Star Trek episode "By Any Other Name," in which the entire Enterprise crew was reduced to chalky polyhedrons that crumbled to dust when handled roughly), and David Schafer's portion-control-minded fast-food furniture grouping Cluster 38/5 random (1999) both address the arc of diminishing practicality of the human body for optimum social/architectural efficiency. The fact that these collections of furnishings are nevertheless seductively designed to our very human visual prejudices subtly equates their anti-visceral progressiveness with formalist modernism.

Miriam Dym and Kathleen Johnson both make formally extravagant explorations of landscape devoid of such pungent self-reflection. Dym's massive laminated computer print Blue and Slate Map With Orange Inserts (1999) pushes the kineticism of Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie into the utterly virtual, describing a hopelessly tangled schematic devoid of intelligible symbols or verbiage. Somehow, the density of the information and its utter muteness don't translate into a sense of futility, or maybe we just don't notice it in the orgy of entertainment afforded our eyes. Johnson's computer-altered cloudscapes create zones of digital incongruity that hint at a binary structure underlying our perceived reality. The strange sense of déjà vu that these images evoke gives an unsettling, dreamy edge to what is otherwise the sweetest vision of the coming digital apocalypse included here.

Robert Stone, T. Kelly Mason, Joey Santarromana and Jennifer Steinkamp (who contributes what I consider her best work, 1996's perspective-grid video loop Flutter Flutter) all fall more or less into the same morally ambiguous camp, which sees curious hybrids, digital recombinance and technology-fueled diffusion of identity as the parameters of our imminent millennial reality.

IN THE THINNER 1974 NOVEL THE FUTUROLOGICAL Congress, Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem constructs a hilarious, nightmarish labyrinth of increasingly bleak and desperate virtual realities. As each layer of illusion is peeled away, humanity is revealed as a single feeble human in a test tube being stimulated by a vast network of life-support technology and hallucinogens into believing he is living a utopian life charged with intrigue, and therefore hope. The role of the arts as a means of envisioning potential futures may be a mere conceit, a jangly analgesic to distract us while the human animal devolves into obsolescence. While some of the art in "Post Millennial Fizzy" hints at such dark scenarios, the overall tone is one of optimism and affectionate disregard for the historically propagandistic functions of futurism. If Joyce and Ross are right in their optimism, then this show may come to be seen as a sort of manifesto. If they're not, it doesn't matter anyway.

POST MILLENNIAL FIZZY (Addressing the Possibility of the Future) | At Luckman Fine Arts Gallery | Cal State L.A. | Through May 1


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