Contemporary Photography and the Technological Sublime, or, Can There Be a Science Fiction Photography?

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For several years, I have been interested in the idea of the "found" fantastic, in parallel to ideas of found texts in literature or ready-mades in art, the notion that bits and pieces of the world might already be in some ways fantastic and science fictional, or that it would only take a change of framing to render these objects or experiences broadly fantastic. This trend began with the exploration of alien abduction in the 1990s, when the eminent Ivy League psychology professor John Mack pulled out extraordinary experiences with aliens and UFOs from patients during sessions of hypnotherapeutic regression. Because traumatic memory was held to be preserved pristinely and to be truer than malleable everyday memory, the stories of abduction by four-foot tall grey aliens from Zeta Reticuli had to be upheld as literally true and not fantasy elaborations. For advocates like Mack the repetitive accounts confirmed their truth, rather than what might seem obvious to anyone else: their generic status. Some people, it seemed, were beginning to re-describe themselves using moves from the mega-texts of popular genres. Out of context, on the fringes of medical science, science fictions were found, walled off in the dissociated minds of traumatized Americans (see Luckhurst, "Science-Fictionalization").

Since then, I've examined the somewhat paradoxical notion of the "found footage science fiction" film. How can you create an sf film out of the fragments of other films? Surely you could only edit together images from the archive of past cinema, and thus inevitably fail to generate the sense of a future? Yet this montage form is an emergent genre, from the early avant-garde work of Bruce Conner in the 1950s to his student Craig Baldwin, whose delirious films like Tribulation 99 and Spectres of the Spectrum use outmoded science information films, TV nature documentaries, news footage, and stock stolen from 1950s sf and horror B-movies to create new science fictions. Werner Herzog has used the same device more sedately in The Wild Blue Yonder, with two extended sequences of found footage framed by an sf narrative. Recontextualized elements from the film are once again found in the very act of the frame and the edit (see Luckhurst, "Found Footage").

Recent practice in art galleries and museums has also started to explore how curating can re-frame objects through appeals to genre. The major London gallery at the Barbican Centre, for instance, offered "The Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art" in 2008, a sustained conceit that gallery visitors were surveying the confused attempts of Martian anthropologists to grasp human aesthetic practice. The exhibition catalogue continued the deadpan joke, being presented as a rather earnest anthropological documentation of artefacts with commentary by an Alien Affairs Committee. Like the Institute of Contemporary Arts exhibition "Alien Nation" a few years ago in London, the understanding of science fiction was limited to basic notions of estrangement or othering, but these exhibitions foregrounded how the curatorial frame always fashions objects within generic narratives, laying bare museological presumptions of progress or decline, sameness or difference.

It was more in art practice than curating, however, that the "found" aesthetic first emerged. The readymade is associated with the Modernist anti-art practices of Marcel Duchamp; post-war British artists and architects Alison and Peter Smithson first appealed to the "as found" ethos in the 1950s. This essay will investigate a distinct field of contemporary art: I want to suggest that there is a significant strand of contemporary photographic practice that we might usefully frame as science fictional, especially if we route this inquiry through questions of the technological sublime.

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Can there be a science fiction photography? This is not a question critics working in the field of the fantastic have ever asked, as far as I'm aware, even though the conception of the visual cultures of sf has been continually expanding, through comics, cinema, animation, and computer gaming. …