The Future Relics of Daniel Arsham
Every object has a story, right? Actually, I’d argue that’s a bit limiting: Every object has multiple stories. We know the significance of a thing is often linked to its provenance—who made it, out of what, when, and where. But ownership stories matter, too.
—Rob Walker, Center for the Future of Museums blog (2013)
There is a trend in both museums and publishing right now of releasing popular histories as explored through objects. While these books and exhibits aim to give exhaustive histories of places or things, they often tell only one of many stories about an object’s use or one of its users. Yet material things don’t have just one backstory. There are many stories about how and where objects were made, about why and how they were used, and about their disposal, repurposing, and abandonment in favor of other things.
In his joint sculpture and film project, Future Relic, conceptual artist Daniel Arsham creates fictitious backstories to go with everyday objects. So far there are two films with accompanying objects; Arsham has said he plans to include nine in total. They are all linked by an invented storyline centered on a post-apocalyptic Earth that is becoming inhospitable to human life. You can view Future Relic 01 and Future Relic 02 below. Arsham’s goal is not to answer questions, but to keep raising them. He has said that he is not aiming to convey any particular commentary with these sculptures but hopes they will get viewers to rethink the objects in their lives.
Arsham has dreamed up technoscientific imaginaries: the objects in his films are both real and fanciful. His sculptures are simultaneously literal casts of existing objects, symbols of our consumerist culture, and fine art. They are all media objects: guitars, keyboards, film reels, phones, and more. However, they are also obsolete versions of what we would consider their current forms. The camera in Future Relic 02, for example, is not a digital SLR or smart phone camera that might be popular today, but instead a retro manual exposure camera. Arsham casts his objects in volcanic ash, crystal, and other materials that give them both an ethereal glimmer and disintegrating, singed edges. The result is an aesthetic that collapses time: these are future objects from our past that are decaying in the present.
While the first film in the Future Relic series was an abstract archaeological dig based on the imagery of Lawrence of Arabia, Future Relic 02 appears more cogent in its exploration of the materiality of media. The 9-minute film focuses on a laborer, played by James Franco, of an unknown place and time in the future who is carefully discovering, cataloguing, and sometimes destroying objects. The film and corresponding sculpture (a camera) of Future Relic 02 brings to the forefront three themes that are missing from other contemporary object centered exhibits: labor, geology, and objectivity.
In imagining a backstory for his sculpture object that follows a lab worker apparently uncovering or creating the camera, Arsham makes visible the labor that goes into constructing the objects being used to define culture and explore cultural memory. Divorcing objects from the labor and laborers that created them reduces objects to only one story of their use. Exploring the relationships of both users and creators to objects allows for a richer picture of their cultural significance.
Whether or not it was his intention, Arsham’s sculptures using earthen materials are a reminder that there would be no media without geology. Rare earth minerals, like coltan, and other materials, like silicon, are necessary for the technological devices that we want and use. Even though much of our media today relies on the seemingly immaterial Internet, the materiality of media cannot be separated from the physical earth. The real archaeological digs of the future will uncover media objects that are full of hazardous waste, as the disposal of e-waste has often resulted in long term and widespread environmental degradation.
The images of James Franco’s character destroying objects as he catalogues them are the most striking to watch. Objects are often seen as records and archives as institutions, and yet archives are not neutral. The selection or omission of objects privileges certain stories and people, while marginalizing others. This applies not just to traditional archival materials like documents, but also to collections of living or formerly living material, such as “biobanks.” Which objects are chosen to be preserved, or are even capable of being archived, determines what might be found in the future and assigned meaning in our present.
While Arsham’s Future Relic 02 could, at first glance, look like familiar science fiction, these three elements set his work apart and raise critical issues for those of us doing object-centered storytelling about people and the environment. His films and sculptures are a whimsical, fictitious take on how archaeologists of the future might see us and our things. I, for one, can’t wait to see what the rest of the series brings. Future Relic 03, starring Juliette Lewis, will be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival later this year. And for more of Arsham’s object sculptures from the imagined future, check out his site specific installation from Art Basel Miami Beach this winter, “Welcome to the Future.”
Featured Image is “Daniel Arsham – Galerie Perrotin” by Julien Djou.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney is a PhD candidate in the Department of Zoology and Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies. Her dissertation explores how land use and climate change impact insect communities and farmer practices in agricultural landscapes across Wisconsin. She is also a public radio producer and host for WORT 89.9FM, where her beat is ecology and environmental humanities. Contact.