As we set up for our fourth Zoom meeting of the day, our heavy skulls weighing down a neck which evolved to look up and out, we might be catching a glimpse of our future. The Covid-19 pandemic has spotlit humankind’s ever-increasing integration with technology and forced most live events to suddenly adapt to digital spaces.
But some programmers have been in this territory for a while: the Present Futures festival, for example, founded and curated by Glasgow and Berlin based artist Colette Sadler and produced by Scottish production company Feral Arts. Initiated in 2016 (then known as Fictional Matters), it grew from a desire to connect multi-disciplinary artists around themes of posthumanism, science fiction, the coming together of digital and physical realms, and the hybridising of bodies and technologies. Sadler’s influences run the gamut from Franz Kafka to Buckminster Fuller, but her interests are fused always with insights into the body, dance and movement.
Dance, for Sadler, is not necessarily threatened by technology (despite the sometimes-holy aura placed around it): current robotics she’s seen pale in comparison to the sophistication of the dancer’s trained, technical body. Furthermore, she asks, where does our identity begin and end now? Does it extend to the pen in my hand, to the phone I carry? Early editions of the festival had works that were more connected to physical bodies and technologies within a real setting but now, she explains, in its second year as Present Futures, going digital is in some ways an obvious ‘next level’.
Events in this year’s festival included artist discussions, CGI films, audio works and recordings of live performances that I jumped in and out of over the weekend. Sadler herself leads a movement session titled (Re)searching BODY A for which she worked with a hypnotist. In this audio-only work, with music from Mikko Gaestel and Heiko Tubbesing, an electronically distorted voice draws participants’ attention to their physical body. This body, it narrates, is new – ‘you’ have been transplanted into it and are to test it out in new terrains. I move through my study with eyes closed, sometimes nudging against the detritus of everyday life: the story allows me to embrace the imaginative possibility of this new body, finding a certain freedom from my muscles, bones and fleshy weight.
It’s not all utopian possibility: CGI films Feel My Metaverse by Keiken & George Jasper Stone, and AIDOL by Lawrence Lek, look to alternate futures with a questioning eye. In Feel My Metaverse, characters move through verdant and psychedelic virtual worlds in different bodies, but there is an undercurrent of loss and strain. In AIDOL, humans (‘Bios’) clash with machines (‘Synths’) in a narrative resonant with contemporary identity politics (‘don’t be such a bio-supremacist’), while notions of authenticity, and what it means to be human, are explored in the relationship between a fading superstar and an AI songwriter. Dance or performance intermittently appears in both as an almost heightened attempt at expression, human or otherwise.