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PONDERING OUR FUTURE – Nostalgia as a Method of Display

As explored in the exhibition HUMAN +: The Future of Our Species, 2015-16.

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Pondering Our Future – Nostalgia as a Method of Display
As explored in the exhibition HUMAN +: The Future of Our Species, 2015-16

Exhibitions like HUMAN + that intend to shed light upon the complications that arise in the face of human enhancement carry with them a twofold consequence. On the one hand, they lift the curtain on perhaps archaic facets of current society, whose values rely on an already present abstention from nature and the natural, and whose comforts were made possible by the augmentation of it. On the other, it brings forth feelings of unease and the uncanny through its striking artworks that trigger, amongst many other emotions, one that is of interest to this analysis in particular: nostalgia. The exhibition serves in a sense as a tool for the contextualization of technological potentialities, and relates it directly to the processes of remembering and reflecting upon our own trajectories. I argue that the notion of nostalgia is inextricably tied to notions of identity and belonging, aspects that lie at the heart of the ‘HUMAN +’ discussion. This paper will take the focus of nostalgia as a method of display as a potentially beneficial tactic in the exhibition of art that deals with the future of our species, concluding that by inducing a state of personal reflection through nostalgia, artworks and exhibits can achieve greater reflections regarding the ‘future of our species.’

Future Potentialities and its Debates

«HUMAN + explores possible future paths for our species by considering both historical and emerging technologies, as well as their cultural and ethical context. What does it mean to be human today? From assisted reproductive technologies to human digital remains, our lives are mediated and defined by our tools and scientific discoveries. HUMAN+ is not a blind celebration of technology, but explores a range of imagined and real possibilities, allowing visitors to make up their own mind about the preferred future of the human species.» (Science Gallery, sciencegallery.com, 2015).


To ponder the future of our species is not an activity left untouched within academic or popular discourse. Visual arts and literature that tackle the potentialities of our progression as a species however, can touch a nerve that other mediums cannot. In order to tackle the aspects of this paper, I will first introduce integral aspects of the discourse related to human technological advancement and its uses (Post and Transhumanism) before attempting to situate the complex treatments of the concept ‘Nostalgia’ in relation to my use of it, in order to finally come to a discussion regarding the potential use of nostalgia as an effective tool in investigating ‘The Future of Our Species’ through exhibitions such as HUMAN +.

As humanity moves closer to the realization of genetic modification, human enhancement and technological advances that will stretch notions of what it means to be human to the very extreme, artists have become key creators of exploratory narratives. The value of art in discussing and presenting scientific discovery is one that revolves around the examination of our potential trajectories, and the intended and un-intended consequences of our quest for progression. Theorizing what might lie beyond the realm of current ‘humanness’, the rise of the ‘Homo evolutis’ (Enriquez, 2010) will further debates regarding the larger philosophical issues at stake as our attempts to control our biological destiny and its outcomes become increasingly relevant. Within the discourse of Posthumanism, and in particular the Transhumanism movement, which seeks to utilize technologies to eliminate the limitations of the body and mind and considerably enhance capacities, there is a flurry of opinion as to which trajectory one should pursue, if even it is something humanity should pursue at all. At the forefront of this divide are the scholars Francis Fukuyama and Nicolas Bostrom. Championing the skeptics, Fukuyama brings into question our ability to progress without it leading to a great divide between the enhanced and the un-enhanced. The pursuit of Transhumanism is in essence an affront to equality and his conception of what constitutes the human, our dignity, even calling it «the most dangerous idea in the world» in his 2004 essay ‘Transhumanism’. Shortly after, Nicolas Bostrom published ‘In Defense of Postman Dignity’, who takes the view that humans have always been using available technologies to enhance ourselves, and that our identity has been and will continue to be fluid. Nevertheless, the issues at stake in this discourse is of great importance as technology continues to advance, and public involvement regarding the ethics, morality, practice, policy making and their consequences remain perhaps surprisingly contained and unaddressed. It is in these areas that the making of an exhibition such as HUMAN + confirms its value. By presenting «the fragile and contingent nature of human futures», the exhibition invites the public to «ponder the different dimensions, costs and unintended consequences of enhancement» (Adelman et al, 2016).

The Concept of Nostalgia

Initially believed to be a disease, curable by medicine, the concept of nostalgia came into being through medicine. The concept has been broadly defined across disciplines and by various scholars: as a pathological disorder (Starobinski, 1966), as the manifestation of personal preference (Holbrook 1993, Goulding 2001), or as «history without guilt» (Kammen, 1991). Amongst many other iterations, the study of nostalgia is one of ambiguity and nuance, having perplexed and frustrated philosophers, literary theorists, psychologists and sociologists amongst others (Boym, 2007:11). Yet, the nostalgic concept, that imperceptible feeling of longing, has been utilized to some degree in areas such as the entertainment industry and politics. The essence of nostalgia, as an overarching concept, is that of a certain sentimentality for the past, triggered and felt spatially or ideationally. It is a concept that has most widely been investigated and defined in Memory studies as a force which binds memory, place and emotion together (Grist, 60), based on the articulation of nostalgia as nostos – the return home; and algae – longing, derived from its Greek origins (Boym, 2007:7). Svetlana Boym argues in her revised article Nostalgia and its Discontents (2007) that nostalgia is a feature of global culture, closely related to the notions of progress, modernity and now even virtual reality, and is at least in part, integral to the constitution of our lived experience. Nostalgia, in the way that the concept of the sublime is an interaction between object and spectator, comes into existence when memory and identity are put into perspective by alternative potentialities. Exemplifying this could be the confrontational experience of moving to another country, where suddenly life is put into perspective by new contextualizations. This environment of insecurity, newness, foreignness and the unfamiliar evokes in a person a retreat (sometimes overtly, other times barely noticeable), to what is known and familiar to them. Nostalgia has therefore suffered from negative connotations, seen as a malady of hesitation or trepidation for what is to come next, for progress, for the future. The recognition of such a psychological phenomena has been documented throughout history, perhaps most poignantly in relation to soldiers who would suffer from a dichotomous patriotism – longing for home ahead of battle, yet wanting to fight. Indeed, Boym refers to nostalgia as a defense mechanism «in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals» (Boym, 2007: 10), and quotes the French doctor Jourdain Le Cointe, who suggested that «nostalgia had to be cured by inciting pain and terror» (Boym, 2007:11), who referred to the soldiers during the French Revolution of 1789. Other iterations of nostalgic ‘epidemics’ in warfare have also been documented in Russia (Starobinski, 96).

Most pertinent to this paper however, is Boym’s argument that the diminished role of art in Western societies, and «the self-conscious exploration of longing» it inspires, has drastically tapered off (Boym, 2007: 11). This self-conscious exploration of longing I relate on the whole, to an exploration into not only individual preference or merely as a psychological phenomena related to experience, but as an attempt to conceive of or comprehend our own notions of what it means to be us. With regards to the exhibition HUMAN + and the connotations of human enhancement it presents, the utilization of the nostalgic idea can be of interest as it seems to occupy an ambiguous space that artworks often seek to explore – the space between past, present and potential futures. Much like the sublime has been utilized across political arenas and the arts, so can nostalgia be evoked as a method of personal and public reflection. In a sense, nostalgia as a concept can be utilized as an «existential resource» (Routledge et al, 2011) or a «resource for the self» (Vess et al, 2012), and in this case expressly applied within the locus of the art world. According to Gregory & Witcomb (2007), nostalgia is valuable in its elicitation of affect in the spectator. Meaning making then, comes through an embodied manner, where knowledge is imparted between the object or work of art to the spectator through the senses rather than through analytical processes (Gregory & Witcomb, 263). This is of particular use when applied to artworks that tackle notions of the enhanced human. Nostalgic narratives are evoked by states of mind, particularly dysphoric ones. Ideas of the post or trans-human, technology and tampering with the natural order of things has been widely explored in popular culture, and what arises from depictions of modification and going beyond ‘human’ are often rooted in a particular unease. The theory of the ‘uncanny valley’, coined by the roboticist Masahiro Moti in the 1970s (Kunz, 74), argues that the higher the likeness of a robot is to a human, the greater the unease. The artist Stelarc poignantly raises the question in relation to the HUMAN + exhibition that being human perhaps may come to mean not remaining human at all (Aldman et al, 17). The prospect of such a future would seem to most an inherently daunting if not unnerving idea. Despite the many interpretations of the concept nostalgia, I aim to use the term as it has been posited by literary scholar and media artist Svetlana Boym in her book The Future of Nostalgia (2001) as a sentiment of displacement, a longing for a home, place or time that no longer or has never existed (or might never exist), that arises when confronted with newness or otherness. Boym distinguishes between two types of nostalgia: the restorative and the reflective, I argue that it is in the reflective that the benefits of nostalgia as exhibitionary tactic arises. However, before addressing the use of the nostalgic, it is useful to outline its connection to art historical discourse and its relation to works of art.

Selected Works From HUMAN + and The Application of Nostalgia

In order to more clearly illustrate the use of nostalgia, whether intentional or not, in the works displayed at HUMAN +, a selection of a few works included in the exhibition should be reviewed. The experience of an enhanced environment can in ways be said to depend on the cultural values and preconceptions one finds oneself in. Nostalgia, if applied as a universal psychological phenomena, can be used to evoke reflections regarding our own ‘traditional dichotomies’ as expressed by Anne Cranny-Francis in her essay Cyborgs and Wet-Ware (1995), that constitutes a given society’s paradigm. Since nostalgia can be seen as the meeting point between memory, place and emotion – that can be taken to be universal to all – it could well be used as an exhibitionary tactic. The evocation of the ‘uncanny’ in art that depicts human modification, non-human ‘humanity’, indeed that which questions what being human really means or can mean can make great use of this embodied manner of knowledge transfers. As one stands before an artwork that questions individual preconceptions, the unifying power of the nostalgic is an interesting starting point for a larger, even global debate regarding the future of our species.

[Fig. 2 & 3.] Yves Gellie, Human Version 2.0

Taking the example of Yves Gellie’s work Human Version 2.0, the photographs that comprise his series provide a glimpse into the genesis of robotics. By juxtaposing his humanoid subjects, the researchers and creators, with their creations, he aims to portray the integration of robotic entities as part of our daily lives. The evocation of Moti’s ‘uncanny valley’ is evident in these photographs. What happens when someone experiences unease in the face of these realities is explored in his work through his simultaneous exploration of a future where robotic environments are the norm, yet he also explores the differences in the relations between humans and robots across cultures. In this case, between the eastern and western worlds (Gellie, 2016).

If Not Now Then When by John Isaacs is a personal meditation on the «physical memory of the body as its own landscape, as a place of inner emotional conflict, and not merely a depiction of obesity» (Isaacs in Adelman et al, 27). The 300 kg fiberglass figure evokes an immediate reaction of the way in which our contemporary condition and environment has affected the human body, putting into perspective and use the feeling of guilt. At first glance, it could be difficult to presume that nostalgia has any impact in the viewing of this sculpture. I posit however, that instead of evoking a nostalgia as conceived by most to be inferred from the past, a bridging of the present and the past, nostalgia can have also have a bridging affect between the present and the future. Daniel Palmer discusses the notion of nostalgia for the future in relation to futuristic fiction, in particular popular films (Blade Runner, Fifth Element, Gattaca), and explains it as such: the viewer is actively encouraged to «revel in identifying extrapolated features and concerns of the present» (Palmer, 2), which is often expressed through an aesthetic nostalgia of the future. In Isaac’s case, the figure is a reflection of present day consumption, the limitations of our bodies and the obscenities and perhaps even ‘unnaturalness’ that occurs because of the modern condition. Obesity is an epidemic and the illnesses we suffer as a result of our food production practices, allowing for excess in availability, gene-modified crops, additives and so on has created a paradox in which we have utilized and integrated technology both to our advantage and our complete detriment. Indeed, as stated by Isaacs, «this figure could well be a future monument to our own apathy and concealed guilt. Certainly it is a scapegoat» (Adelman et al, 27).

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[Fig. 4.] John Isaacs, If Not Now Then When

The future potentiality of this figure is principally an unromantic one – it is a sedentary future, where the trajectory of accessibility and non-responsibility has been allowed to propagate, unchallenged. This is where future nostalgia finds its place, in the conceptualization or ideation of a future where obesity no longer exists, or at least the longing for a greater control of our bodily functions, might become a reality. Rather than wasting away, we might begin to reflect upon our uses of technology, like Palmer suggests, which in turn conjures up not only a ‘present past’ but a ‘present future’ in our minds as we reflect upon these trajectories. Nostalgic feelings can in this sense sway both towards a utopian romanticism of the future (where bodily illness is non-existent) and a dystopian aversion (what would happen should we use technology ‘mistakenly’) at once. Developing further the thoughts of Palmer on a ‘nostalgia of the future’, Alison Landsberg postulated in her 2004 book Prosthetic Memory: The transformation of American remembrance in the age of mass culture, that people are able to identify with and even incorporate nostalgic feelings of events, places and people that they have encountered. The notion that nostalgia is a purely personal emotion has also been challenged by Goulding (2001), who stated that literature, films, heritage attractions, media and other narratives can lead to the creation of Landberg’s ‘prosthetic memory’. This is also reflected in Palmer and Boym, who sees nostalgia as occupying the space between past, present, future and our relation to it. Taking Boym’s position that nostalgia can be utilized within the museum in the construction of a «space for the revisit of time» (Boym, 2007: 7) a little further, I postulate that in combination with Landberg’s theory of appropriated nostalgia and Palmer’s aesthetic nostalgia, we have a very interesting intersection between the qualities of post or transhumanist artworks and the mechanisms of nostalgic thinking. Nostalgia then, is a concept that can be inextricably linked to the investigation of future human realities.

S.W.A.M.P, the collaborative effort of artists Douglas Easterly and Matt Kenyon’s Improvised Empathetic Device (I.E.D.) plays on another source of nostalgic stimuli by invoking an «immediate attention to reality» (Adelman et al, 59). The software application monitors the website icasualties.org, which updates the details of slain US soldiers. This data is then sent wirelessly to the I.E.D armband, which then displays the soldier’s name, rank, cause of death and location before triggering an electric response which drives a needle into the wearer’s arm, drawing blood (Adelman et al, 59). 

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[Fig. 5.] S.W.A.M.P., Improvised Empathetic Device (I.E.D.)

The work gives presence to real world events, yet hovers between the past and immediate present. It tells us something about the way we connect with information, and how technology might be used to manipulate the perception of world events. In this case, the death of a soldier thousands of miles away impacts you physically, leading to a greater internalization, and in turn, a greater sense of empathy. The pervading notion of messaging systems and information systems in the contemporary world is one of duality. It is seen, as with the example of food production technology, as both advantageous and detrimental. With the internet and social media came a wider degree of connectivity, yet at the same time, our highly solitary interaction with them has heralded an age of the «Me-centered society», the process of individuation and some argue, a loss of traditional human relationships (Castells, 12).

Beyond shedding light on the mechanisms of socio-cultural change that occur with the development of technology, this particular artwork challenges the perception of technology as a loss of human connection and the retrospective nostalgic feeling of ‘returning to how it was before the internet’ by offering an alternative – in this case, a real possibility for technology to bring us (even physically) closer to one another. Of course, this I.E.D is perhaps not exactly what one would envision when thinking of human relationships, with its assailant nature, yet it is itself a commentary on the current uses of technology. It is perhaps no secret that its likeness to the Improvised Explosive Device (IED), the bomb which has notoriously been devastatingly and effectively used throughout the US military campaign in the middle east, is a poignant critique of our weaponization of technology. Improvised Empathetic Device encompasses in contrast, the qualities of Boym’s reflective nostalgia, which interrogates the ambivalences of human longing, calls it into doubt, presents ethical and creative challenges and «reveals that longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another» (Boym, 2016), but can be used to constructively reflect upon what we long for, why we long for it, and how we react to that knowledge.


Nostalgia as Method

The value of these works in an exhibitionary manner lie particularly in its oppositional and comparative uses. Indeed, the Science Gallery declared the absolution of the exhibition to be its ability to force the viewer to not only contemplate the possibilities, but to actively make a choice in the face of grave consequences, «the value in speculation is not prediction, but reflection» (Science Gallery, 2015). Nostalgia had been utilized in the 1970s through simulation or reconstruction (Gregory & Witcomb, 265), whilst in its contemporary iteration, the concept is more often applied in the pursuit of evocation or through suggestion. The strength of the HUMAN + exhibition lies with the combination of a selection of works that are capable of bouncing ideas and feelings affect off one another – from Howard Schatz’ triumphant, celebratory Portraits of Aimee Mullins to the trigger of uncanny valley by Louis-Phillippe Demers’ Area V5. The script of the exhibition leads visitors through five categories, designed to trigger the conflicting emotions and illustrate the core of the human enhancement dilemma: how do we decide what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’?

An interesting study that interprets nostalgia as integral in the production of greater visitor engagement is Wilks & Kelly’s 2008 investigation into British living museums. In terms of two separate case studies regarding the exhibition of ‘folk life’ in Britain, researchers found that by stimulating feelings of nostalgia, visitors experienced a greater level of interactivity with the exhibition. Nostalgia can be discussed, according to Wilks & Kelly, as regressive, progressive and sympathetic all at once. It is an emotion «capable of evoking a desire for the past and a desire for the future, whilst also promoting feelings of empathy» (Wilks & Kelly, 137). Furthermore, their research concludes that such feelings of nostalgia leads the visitor to «believe in the reality of their experience, therefore achieving individualised-authenticity» (Wilks & Kelly, 138). This draws many parallels to the affective nature of nostalgia mentioned by Witcomb (2007) that the selected artworks by Gellie, Isaacs and S.W.A.M.P elicits from its viewers. Nostalgia offers, in Wilks & Kelly’s opinion, the opportunity to «assess our historical past and either use it as a resource to contemplate change and development as a society, or to go back to a past that feels safe, comfortable and unchallenging» (Wilks & Kelly, 138). Nevertheless, they re-iterate the limitations of thinking about nostalgia as method, and its inevitable existence in an imagined temporal space by stating that nostalgia «merely fosters the conditions for an ‘experience’, and whether that experience feels authentic or not rests with the individual» (Wilks & Kelly, 138). Many scholars have emphasized the importance of the museological narrative that is created within the space of an exhibition such as Suzanne Macleod (2005), Gregory & Witcomb (2007) and many others. The latter in particular suggests that these narratives both «create and are the result of ‘possible worlds’» (Gregory & Witcomb, 265).

In a more radical treatment, the artist and philosopher Koert van Mensfoort argued in his paper Real Nature Is Not Green (2006), that the boundaries between nature and culture are disappearing. As we are coming into a position of power over nature, control over that which we could not control, we must leave nostalgia for the past behind. He suggests that the «inconsistency between the desired progressiveness should not be removed, but actually made into a force» (Van Mensfoort, 2014). Speaking in relation to design, he coins this method innovative nostalgia. In this vein, he is reflecting the views of Boym and Palmer in the belief of a nostalgia that can be progressive, wherein a nostalgic longing can be deployed not simply «reactively, but indeed proactively: nostalgia as a strategy by which to make the strangeness of new technology understandable» (Van Mensfoort, 2014). Compounding the views of Van Mensfoort with that of Wilks & Kelly’s, designer Tim Ebbers views nostalgia to be an active method with which one can create new relationships with the environment. According to Ebbers, «innovative nostalgia expresses a desire to reconnect with something essential that appears to be missing from our lives, an authenticity that looks and feels real» (Ebbers, 20). If we take nostalgia to operate at the intersections between past, present, future and memory, the evocation of it can make it a useful resource for the investigation of potential futures, whether through design, art or science.


Nevertheless, there are limitations to the nostalgic approach. When Jean Baudrillard famously presented his theories on simulacra in 1981, regarding the construction of perceived reality by significations and symbolisms of culture and media, he very explicitly associated nostalgia with a retrograde point of departure – «when the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning» (Baudrillard, 6).  In contrast to the notion of a progressive, reflective nostalgia as presented by Svetlana Boym, the nostalgic is in essence always rooted in past experiences, and is not constructive but reproductive. This notion is given further credence by scholar Gregory Ashworth who points out that the past and the future are imagined entities, and that it is only the immediate present that is real. Veritably, nostalgia’s crux is its intrinsic relation to humans’ propensity to wish for things. The longing for things we did not know we longed for that we experience when faced with unfamiliarity might come upon you like the sublime unto a visitor of the sistine chapel, or it might be simmering at the back of your mind, only coming to fruition when prompted by works like Isaac’s If Not Now Then When. These artworks elicit imaginative worlds that are rooted in our wishes and wants, and do little to constitute anything but an evocation of perspective and feeling. Nostalgia operates in an imagined temporal space, and cannot necessarily shed a true light on either the past or the future as much as it sheds light on the present. Nostalgia thereby functions not as a means to explain, but as a means to uncover.

In closing, the HUMAN + exhibition effectively evokes nostalgia in its treatment of future potentialities. The poignant subject matter of the forefront of human progression, enhancement and all that it entails is abridged by a recognizable feeling of nostalgia, in a longing for both the past and the future. I posit that potential futures might be understood in a more inclusive context by applying the concept of nostalgia in the analysis of artworks.  The evocation of nostalgic emotions in an exhibition – not only reactively but proactively – can access and investigate both individual and public cross-cultural pasts and presents. In this way, the acknowledgement of nostalgia and its application in art exhibitions provides a lattice for which we can begin to make sense of the disjunctions of the ‘post-human’ debate. In reflecting upon the nostalgic state, we might come to better understand why we feel or react longingly towards something, and how that might constitute what we would like the future to be.

Written for an MA course entitled ‘Science, Ethics, Design & Art’ – one of the most interesting and stimulating courses I’ve ever taken. Thanks Mirjam & Robert! 

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