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Rewriting The Future: New Site show takes feminist fiction to outer space

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A still from ATOM SPIRIT by Ursula Mayer. Rewriting The Future runs from 27 September to 26 January at Site Gallery.

Rewriting The Future is a multi-artist exhibition at Site Gallery that seeks to re-imagine classic visions of space travel and alien worlds from black and feminist perspectives. We spoke to Site Gallery curator Angelica Sule about the ideas behind the new show.

Tell us a bit about the exhibition.

We've been talking about the show as being feminist visions of the future. I've been interested in science fiction, especially writing, for quite a long time. About a year and a half ago I went into a book shop, trying to find a book by Joanna Russ, and I couldn't find it anywhere. I looked around and it was just male authored science fiction everywhere I turned, and there was a tiny little section of Margaret Atwood and a tiny bit of Octavia Butler, but nothing else.

It's a way of bringing those ideas back into our language

It occurred to me that it's not a space that has been given to feminist writers. A lot of the artists that I'm really interested in work through science and speculative fiction. So the show started with that grain of an idea, and it developed through something Ursula Le Guin wrote called the 'carrier bag theory' of fiction. She talks about stories written and authored by women - but we can expand that to non-binary and trans and queer perspectives - being a gathering of things that are around you. Rather than mainstream science fiction which is all about a sole hero saving the planet, or a goal that we're trying to reach which is the end point.

What Ursula Le Guin talks about is stories building on themselves, and being this continuous form of narrative. Something really interesting that I think the artists in this show and a lot of feminist sci-fi or speculative fiction writers do is that they imagine new ways of us living. They imagine ways outside of the patriarchal models that we're in.

It was put really well in something Walidah Imarisha wrote, saying "whenever we envision a world without war, without prisons, without capitalism, we are producing speculative fiction". She is a writer and edited an anthology of speculative fiction where she talks about how it expands lots of narratives and ways of living that are starting now, but extrapolates them to their ends. One really lovely thing that Octavia Butler has always talked about is how equality - equal rights in terms of race - would have been thought of as science fiction at a certain point, so what we have to do is imagine ourselves into the future. That is what a lot of the artists here, and a lot of the writing that has been researched for this show, are doing. It imagines minorities and narratives that are not really spoken about being given space, and being presented as the centre of something rather than around the periphery.

It's partly a way of looking at social injustices in the present?

Totally, and there's a real strong lean in the show towards looking at ecological representations. So Sophia Al Maria's piece A Magical State takes as its starting point this ancient demon goddess who's been evoked through the mining of crude oil. It's shot and based in Colombia, and the demon goddess speaks through this woman who is a part of the Wayuu tribe which is indigenous to Colombia.

It's a space for black stories and black mythologies to exist and be given a platform

So through that they talk about the ravages we've made on the earth, and it's a warning of what could happen if we continue. There's a part of a show which is a warning of what's to come if we carry on. But there are other parts saying: what if we do something differently?

Does the work link into ideas around at the moment like the Green New Deal?

Yeah, exactly. The works aren't really apocalyptic. I think they're less dramatic, and it's more looking at the things we are starting to pay attention to now. So the environment, the Green New Deal, all these kind of things that are coming up now but have been written into a lot of these feminist science fiction stories for decades. It's highlighting some of that. A lot of the work is narrative - it's imagining things that will probably never happen in their actuality, but it's metaphors and ways of thinking, which is what speculative fiction does really well. So it might not be the exact blue aliens on a planet, but it's a way of talking about race, and a way of talking about gender. It's a way of bringing those ideas back into our language.

Some of the work explores intersectionality as well.

Absolutely. Sonya Dyer is an artist that we've worked with at Site before, maybe four or five years ago now. We've commissioned a new piece of work from her called Hailing Frequencies Open. It's quite a large body of work, so we produced a section of it. That looks at three intersecting stories. The first one is about HeLa cells, which are cells taken from a woman named Henrietta Lacks. She was a black woman who lived in the fifties, and they found that her cells were essentially immortal. She had cancer, and the doctor who was treating her took her cells without her knowledge or consent. Those cells are still being used to test cancer treatments. The HeLa cells were the first genetic material that were sent into space.

The other axis is the story of Andromeda, who was an Ethiopian princess and was thought to be the most beautiful woman in the land, so the gods kidnapped her and smited her. This story when it's pictured now is with white bodies, but obviously it was in Ethiopia so it wouldn't have been. The third section that comes into this is the space programme started by Nichelle Nichols, the first black actress on Star Trek. She started an astronaut programme with NASA for people of colour and women. As part of the programme, the first black man and the first woman were able to go into space.

Hailing Frequencies Open takes these things as points of departure and it imagines that the HeLa cells have got into this vessel, gone into space and collided with the Andromeda galaxy, and have started to replicate and form new bodies and energies. It's a space for black stories and black mythologies to exist and be given a platform.

It's a form of Afrofuturism.

Exactly. There's something really nice about the chronology of the show as well. Ursula Mayer's film ATOM SPIRIT is set in a very near future, with this idea that we're on the brink of apocalypse and collapse. And there's this LGBTQIA+ community of people who are collecting specimens and experimenting to prop up what might happen next. Then moving to Sonya's, which is projecting far into the future and into space, this idea that something is replicating and building new life somewhere else.

Is science fiction a way that people can explore ideas of gender and queerness in a way that you couldn't in fiction set now?

Totally, and a lot of the really prominent writers in science and speculative fiction talk about it in that way. They talk about it as a useful tool for explaining things to people, of explaining differences in gender and race in a way that's very clear, and that is separate to the things that we understand now. Talk about blue aliens and green aliens living on a planet and speaking to each other - that seems totally mad that they wouldn't get on, but it's a way of illustrating race. It's entrenched in a lot of our thinking now, but if you separate the stories from where we are now it makes it a lot easier.

Sam Gregory

Rewriting The Future runs from 27 September to 26 January at Site Gallery. Entry is free. You can attend a preview of the show on 26 September from 6 to 8pm.

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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