Source: Elie During & Alain Bublex, The Future Does Not Exist : Retrotypes, Paris, Éditions B42, 2014.
“Retrofuturism”: we have an exact date for when this portmanteau word was coined. It is attributed to Lloyd Dunn, an exponent of the sound collage, co-founder of the Tape-Beatles and a major contributor to the fringe art magazine Retrofuturism, a neo-Situationist side-shoot of the fanzine Photostatic created in the United States in 1983, and whose trademark was to appropriate a visual and graphic code recalling the nineteen-fifties, with its naïve crazes for technological innovation. Around this same time, a German electronic pop group, Kraftwerk, was working with a different set of images, those of the Constructivist avant-gardes of the twenties, to stage music that would ideally be played by machines. The term really caught on. It has been doing the rounds for a few years now on various levels of contemporary culture, at the meeting-point of the avant-gardes and mass culture, and art and technology too, describing in fact some rather different things, that do however have the shared feature of performing a time montage between past, present and future. In view of the diffuse nature of the phenomenon, any definition is bound to seem arbitrary; let’s give it a go all the same. “Retro-futurism” means the crossing of “futuristic” technologies or life forms with others that are deemed to be old-fashioned or out of date; more generally, the term indicates the transposition of such technologies and life forms onto media or into frameworks from another time. It suggests a telescoping of visions of the future with visions of the past, and entanglement of the two. For it is plain to see that visions of the future can themselves be dated, and usually are: that, precisely, is the whole issue behind retro-futurism.
If we take a closer look at its scattered manifestations, two main trends emerge. To make a long story short, there would appear to be, on the one hand, an amused fascination with “retro” futurism, for the imagery associated with visions of a dated, obsolete future; and on the other, the uchronic imaginary, with its dishevelled output of past worlds glossed over in the colours of the future; “futurized retro” if you will.
In the first instance, then, we should find a tendency towards retrospective anticipation, shortened to “retrocipation” (Arnauld Pierre in Futur antérieur: art contemporain et rétrocipation, Paris, M19, 2012). The idea is to envisage the future from the standpoint of the past, to restage, re-enact, reactivate the future as the past might have imagined it. (On this topic, see Elizabeth E. Guffey, Retro: the Culture of Revival, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2006. On “retro” in general, see Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, New York, Faber & Faber, 2011). Because there is a history of futurist projections and their mythologies, as indicated in “Yesterday’s Tomorrows”, the title of an exhibition held at the Smithsonian in the early eighties. The future has a history, and therefore it also has a past. The picturesque, futurist daydreams of people like H. G. Wells or Jules Verne, grandiose projects dreamt up by visionary architects or comic strip artists: the future is city-bound. It is Gotham City, and the Constructivists’ Moscow, the Metabolists’ Tokyo, or Buckminster Fuller’s Manhattan under a dome. Cities of the future under crystal domes, with air cars and dirigibles flying around in every direction (see the opening credit title sequence of Logan’s Run); real cities dotted with architectural follies, towers and geodes evidencing this passion for the future that only fifty years ago held out the promise of theoretically unlimited technological advances in Eisenhower’s America, and later on in Japan or China in the economic boom years. This is what the future might have been like if the past had been able to turn the propulsive power of the human imagination into reality. But also, here is what we were capable of imagining, this is the future in which we had the strength to believe. In a less phantasmagorical and much more technological vein, we also think of pictures of single-rail high-speed train models, cars with spherical wheels, rocket planes and so on, which feed our fetishist passion. Even the houses look like spaceships or flying saucers: just look at Matti Suuronen’s house “Futuro”. All this is well documented via digital and Internet resources, which already give us some idea of a huge archive of the future, as evidenced notably by the interest generated by time capsules at the major world fairs held at various times during the twentieth century, particularly those of 1939 and 1964 in the US. It was in fact in a very literal way that on those two occasions the Westinghouse Corporation sought worldwide publicity for their brand by enclosing in special metal capsules a selection of items deemed to be representative of the period and of its aspirations, for the attention of mankind at some future date. In 1939, the capsule contained the works of Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein, along with a copy of Life magazine, a few samples of the popular press (pulp inter alia), a telephone, a camera, and so on. Hence the trivial nature of the contents undermined the spectacular arrangement set in place for the rest of the show; some might see this as the point where futuristic storytelling and the tender, slightly condescending reverie triggered by the innocence of such images or “scenes of future life” (as the writer Georges Duhamel used to call them), ultimately meets the test of reality. Interest in futuristic extrapolation is always tinged with a spot of nostalgia for the past of those outdated futures, as much as it expresses a concern and even a special care for those outdated or still-born futures, the potentiality of which strikes us as needing to be saved somehow or other. No doubt many contemporary artists find it useful as a way of getting round the eternal injunction to be thoroughly modern.
So there we have the first movement: the past future gathered in by the present, archived and (why not?) with the story retold in an atmosphere of amused nostalgia. But “retro-futurism” also has a second meaning which points in the opposite direction: not from the past towards the future but from the future back to the past. The idea this time is to reconstruct the past in the light of the future, in other words to imagine an alternative past, a uchronia, by splicing the past with the future. All this requires is to retroject certain technological features of our present day or of some prospective future. This is exactly the operation suggested by the science-fiction genre known as "Steampunk”. This distant cousin of Cyberpunk owes its name to a well-known novel by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, The Difference Engine. Published in 1990, the narrative of this novel develops the hypothesis whereby the computer was invented a hundred years earlier, in the mid-Victorian period in England, from the combined power of the steam engine and Charles Babbage’s analytical engine. These steam computers belch out smoke like locomotives; they are shipped in leather and wooden cases, with fine brass clasps. This hybridization principle may be extended to all sorts of technologies. The Leviathan series of Scott Westerfeld bestsellers mixes in armies of cyborgs and machines from the future with the trench warfare of the First World War. Artists, graphic artists and fashion designers are now operating in this vein, showing how "Steampunk” is more than just a subgenre of contemporary SF and indeed defines a whole style—the way we talk about art nouveau, pop or art deco styles. From the cinema, we may mention recent adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, or a film like The Rocketeer, recounting the adventures of a stunt pilot amid some art deco scenery, or the TV serial The Wild Wide West and, last but not least, the unforgettable Brazil by Terry Gilliam, released in 1985.
Of course, in practice, the two lines are constantly intermingling. Star Wars, for instance, is to be taken as an archaeo- or palaeo-futuristic film; in it the intergalactic space opera (typical of the first trend, i.e., “retro” futurism) revisits the great themes of mythology from time immemorial (knights, the Grail cycle etc.) in settings that sometimes recall medieval times (a typical trick of the second trend, i.e., “futurized retro”). The two trends are given concrete form in an emblematic item that sums up the whole ambivalent nature of this retro-futurist construction: the famous “lightsabre” or laser sword. Miyazaki’s animated films, such as The Castle in the Sky for instance, follow this same principle, blending “Meiji” retro and machines from the future against a post-apocalyptic backdrop.
This two-folded analytical approach has the advantage of not compartmentalizing the retro-futurist phenomenon too quickly as a decorative effect, a visual code or a question of style. The films of Jacques Tati, Mon Oncle and especially Playtime, serve as a paradigm here. They very literally stage the conjunction and even superimposition of two periods, two states of French society—briefly, the society of the nineteen-fifties, and the one heralded by the building of new towns and business districts at the periphery of the historical Paris during the seventies and eighties. The airport scenes at the beginning of Playtime are of particular interest in this regard, because of all places, the airport is the one that is most obviously a “non-place”, in the meaning of the anthropologist Marc Augé: a non-place hovering between arrivals and departures, between multiple destinations, as well as between various tempos or rhythms of activity. The contemporary airport terminal organizes the peaceful coexistence of the symbols of modern life and of vernacular cultures, of high-tech futurism and anachronistic survivals (Irish pub, Paris bistrot, with baguette sandwiches, postcard and kitschy souvenir stores, plastic Eiffel Towers, foie gras and macaroons…). Airports too have of course changed. But Jacques Tati’s handling of such locations in the late sixties remains perfectly valid today. The operation involves extracting a kind of quintessence that is truly timeless, or which at the very least hints at a non-chronological, floating time. To say that Tati plays out the “contradictions” of French society is to miss the point. In actual fact, Tati is several decades ahead of the amused gaze that contemporaries of the years after 2000 would soon be casting on the pretentious image of modern Paris embodied by La Défense, the business district just west of Paris. And remarkably, Tati’s movement of anticipated retrospection contrives to play two attitudes against one another: the nostalgic attachment for the vernacular Paris—small villages being gradually swallowed up in urban development schemes—and the at once fascinated and distressed view of a dystopian city turned into a huge airport terminal. With this mirage, this simulacrum set in no definable time period—albeit perfectly “contemporary”—the idea is indeed to suspend the course of time to reveal something of its floating nature. The drugstore scene, again in Playtime, is exemplary in this regard: it provides the exact type of what Deleuze called “a pure optical and sound situation”.
Generally speaking, the defining feature of retro-futurism is that it holds together two opposite trends, to the point of making them indiscernible. The archaism as a throwback from the past in a present vision of the future is indeed indistinguishable from the archaism of this same vision of the future itself, insofar as it is produced by the past and we know it has a sell-by date. Retro Futurism and futurized Retro are like the two sides of the same coin. And of course, artists and creative people like to play on this ambivalence when they deliberately latch onto retro-futurist subject matter. Thus, in the fashion register, the garments designed in the sixties by Courrèges, Pierre Cardin and Paco Rabanne belong simultaneously to the visionary projection of a future in which mankind is living in bubble houses (Antti Lovag) and lounging in bubble chairs (Eero Aarnio), and with a playful reappropriation of the already dated theme of the space age, thus preceding by a couple of decades the amused look that contemporaries of the years after 2000 would take at their designs. Haute-couture and avant-garde design added to the anticipation of future lifestyles their ironic commentary denouncing futuristic passion as a pose, an attitude, a mere stylistic effect.
Nowadays a photographer like Ben Sandler produces for the fashion magazines scenes from domestic life that bear the heavy stamp of American sixties design and fashions. There is something undecidable though about an impression produced by the glossy pictures of the Tomorrowland series, in the setting of an Alvar Aalto villa. This intimist yet perfectly artificial world, set off with a smattering of science-fiction, is amazingly contemporary, as the design critics are wont to put it. We have the vague feeling that it is trying to express something of our future; of a future that could have been, that could be ours, but that is sent back to us here like a distant echo of the past. No doubt the craze for the TV serial Mad Men is partly due to a feeling of this kind. Despite extreme care taken over realism and historical accuracy in rendering the texture of a period—up to and including the choice of watches and pens—the pleasure derived from following the members of an advertising agency in central Manhattan during the sixties in fact shows a similar fascination for the unreal nature of this past that we readily imagined in black and white or in the remoteness of the cliché, the stereotype set in the “chromo” style of Life magazine illustrations, and that we rediscover as a surprisingly plausible version of our present. For this past, this flight of futurism in the sixties, combining economic growth and liberated lifestyles, is here brought back to us without patina: it has the colour and taste of the present, like an alternative present that ends up doubling up with ours to the point of covering it over. The world of Mad Men, its past conditional so to speak, is actually a proposition made to our present time, and the trend setters are not going to disagree with that. We also find here the typical affect of the historical reconstruction film or the “nostalgia movie” analysed by Jameson with reference to the emblematic case of Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat. In this film released in 1980, the action takes place in a small town in Florida, a few hours outside Miami, in the late seventies, yet everything is done to “eschew most of the signals that normally convey the contemporaneity of the United States […] everything conspires […] to make it possible for the viewer to receive the narrative as though it were set in some eternal thirties, beyond real historical time”; this approach thus “endows present reality […] with the spell and distance of a glossy mirage.” (Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Poetics of Social Forms), 1991, p. 20-1).
According to Jameson, this expresses the “waning of our historicity, of our lived possibility of experiencing history in some active way”. But the “language of the simulacrum” is interesting chiefly for the way in which it contrives to make the embedding of different periods almost seamless, the better to intensify the nostalgia felt for a present overrun with the effluvia of the past, a present which strangely recollects itself in the form of retrospection. This is somewhat similar to the “memory of the present” described by Bergson: the immediate covering of the present perception by its own memory, the remembrance of the present as a past—as the past that it already is (see Henri Bergson, “Memory of the Present and False Recognition,” in Mind-Energy, 1920). A concrete analogue for the formation of this virtual image is provided by software for processing digital photographs such as Hipstamatic or Instagram, when they instantly give a photograph the quality or tone of a vintage picture, yellow with age, like the old Polaroid snaps. The Instagram effect involves producing on the spot an ersatz time capsule, a pseudo-archive of the present. Instant vintage. Already the conventional Polaroid used analogue means to obtain a photographic inscription of the memory of the present. But Instagram takes the edge straight off the photographic punctum dear to Barthes, or to be more precise it removes its point, leaving it to float in a temporality with no bearings. The affect specific to the photographic “that-has-been”—the idea that what allows itself to be pictured is irretrievably a bygone, a thing of the past—is watered down in a blurred duration that cannot be pinpointed and that expands the present by adhering to it. It is an immediately transfigured present, not in the misty distance of memory, but in its perceptual equivalent, materialized here by the Polaroid style, with its typical patina: poor quality, faded colours, saturation or solarization effects and so on. Irreversible distancing, the memory decanting process, all this is given to us outright in the form of an instant pictorial time capsule, instant as in “instant coffee”, cutting out the slow work of percolation required to squeeze out a tasty espresso. Accelerated aging, anticipated retrospection. Instagram puts in the place of the “that-has-been”, or its transposed future perfect version (“that-shall-have-been”), something like a present imperfect: “it was now”. It is a diffuse but obvious quality that now attaches itself to the present. What we want to fix is the part of the present that can be immediately taken over in the form of a memory-image; so, it is a souvenir from the present—the way we talk about a souvenir from Paris, a souvenir from New York.
To tell the truth, it is even more complicated than that. The memory of the present described by Bergson does not just mobilize the pure form of the past, a generic past indicating the pure memory contemporary with the perception. In the case of the instant vintage, we are not talking about just any old past. The past is perfectly datable: it corresponds precisely to the golden age of the Polaroid. The relevant milestone lies somewhere between the nineteen-sixties and the eighties. Thus, from this standpoint, it is not the image that flows back towards the indefinite past to make an early linkup with the relics of the past (yellowed paper, faded colours); it is rather, on the contrary, the specific era with which we associate this photographic quality, it is the Polaroid years that are flowing back onto the present, which thereby appears as the future—one possible future—of that past. So, what is accomplished by the magic of the digital medium is a strange conversion, an imperceptible exchange of temporal perspectives whereby the present is doubled up with a kind of virtual future. The overall tone and patina of the image open up a fictitious temporality that targets our present as a future, following a movement of futurition that is grounded directly in the element of the past, in that past’s ability to target us, as it were from behind our backs—to target our present as its future, a future that would still have the taste and colour of that past. This is no longer the present seen as a past (the present imperfect); it is the present seen as a future, through the eyes of a particular past that insists and is strangely extended right into the heart of our contemporaneity.
With these examples, straightaway we can pinpoint an intuition. The ambivalence of retro-futurism, as we saw, is due to the two-way circuit that it sets up: both from the past to the future and from the future to the past. The future is “pastified”, the past is futurized. However, these two movements, seemingly so clearly distinguishable, since they go in opposite directions, in actual fact may well be one and the same / may well constitute a single temporal wave. Or, which amounts to the same thing, these movements are possibly no more than effects of perspective upon a more basic phenomenon which has the peculiarity of disrupting the familiar sequence of time planes (past, present, future) that gives our historical situation its bearings. This would be the formula for retro-futurism, as we surmise from its most exemplary and yet familiar embodiments.
To put it another way, “retro-futures” do not belong to the past, they are not reducible to “dated” futures. They have to be thought of in the present, although how they are activated is always a problem. This is the sense in which we can speak of a retro-futurism in the present tense: this present retro-futurism is on the horizon of all temporal embedding involved in “retro-futurism” in the broad sense. It is identifiable by the present’s ability to carry an image of itself as a future; but also, simultaneously, as a past: the past of this future that it carries and has fallen behind; a past that doubtless refers back to a deeper time, to an immemorial past of which our present would be like a projection or a waking dream.
Through an odd twisting movement of the present on itself, it sometimes happens that awareness leans up against the past so as to produce a circuit parallel to historic time. It projects onto the present a ghost of the future that is truly Unheimlich, uncanny. These words will no doubt recall Freud, as well as Derrida’s meditation on the topic of haunting in Spectres of Marx. Despite the analogies possibly suggested by the words “ghost” or “spectre”, however, the ontology of the future mobilized here seems will not be easily reconciled with the theory of the immaterial trace as a spectral survival (the eery persistence of the communist promise of emancipation, in the case discussed by Derrida). What is at stake with retrofuturism is something at once more simple and more obscure. It is all as if at every moment there were a past future doubling up the present perception. This is not exactly the memory of the present described by Bergson as an immediate recollection virtually doubling up each perception. It is, rather, the present doubled up by the projection of a past future. Or if one prefers, a damp echo of the future, as if perceived in hindsight. An after-image of the past floats before us in the generic form of the future; a future is projected, as it were behind our backs, like the final glimmers of a bygone time… In the end, these two opposite movements amount to the same. They may well have no other content beyond this reverberation of the present upon itself.
The artistic imagination occasionally strives to intercept such retro-futures, catapulted from the past in the manner of little metal Zeppelins (“From the beautiful Earth to the future”…)? Placed in their wake, it may gain velocity and propel itself a bit further ahead. It is a question of reconfiguring time itself, of literally giving time a form that will render thinkable—and finally possible—this strange turning back on itself of the present, this helical movement that allows the artist, the videographer and the architect to divert to their advantage the projective force of the past and thus to mark an inflection in the course of things, a subtle modification of the regime of speeds.