Sunday, 26 October 2014

Structures of Soviet Science Fiction (II)

While the art-work of Ilya Kabakov (discussed in Part I) documents the decline of the Soviet Space Age, further evidence of this ongoing process is abundant in modern-day Russia. A visit to the Space Museum in Moscow in the early years of the twenty-first century confirmed the distance between the heroic feats of Gagarin and his fellow cosmic pioneers, mythologised in Soviet propaganda, and the true state of affairs in the post-Communist era. The dingy gallery of space junk had its own charm, with its obsolete hardware and the space-suited dogs Belka and Strelka who fell to earth, alive, complete with their clear spherical helmets. Signs of neglect were evident in this main gallery; though perhaps the dim illumination of the gloomy chamber was for conservation purposes, rather than cost-cutting, the Museum offered little in the way of either customer service or exhibition interpretation. It all seemed very distant from the smiling Cosmonauts gazing skyward, in anticipation of conquering the heavens.

On the paved space above the Museum-bunker stands the imposing metallic Space Monument, thrusting toward the stars; it is surrounded by the Pavilions of the VDNKh – the former All-Union Exhibition of Economic Achievements – a showcase of planned-economy productivity. In the vast interior spaces where once the achievements of the mighty State in all spheres of science and industry were proudly displayed, the void is now filled by market stalls selling competitively-priced consumer goods; as in the Museum, rockets, satellites and even space capsules are mere theme-park sideshows. Thus the vanished Soviet utopian dream, a gleaming, technologically-advanced future, has left behind a faded splendour. The derelict worlds of futuristic entropy portrayed in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1970s films Solaris and especially Stalker (both based on sf novels by eastern European authors), documents from the years of stagnation before Communism’s terminal collapse, begin to look painfully prophetic. The whole Exhibition complex, evidently still a popular attraction, appeared run-down to western eyes, in a state of decay and dilapidation, slowly becoming overgrown; the subsequent refurbishment of the Space Museum was, in truth, long overdue.

Above: Belka & Strelka in the Space Museum
Right: The Space Monument

Artists Jane and Louise Wilson, sisters from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, are among those to have investigated the relics of the Soviet Space Age, notably with their installation piece, Star City (2000), filmed at the formerly secret Cosmonaut training base outside Moscow, Zvyozdny Gorodok (translated literally as ‘Starry Town’). Once a source of Soviet pride, the facility has only survived into the twenty-first century by embracing space tourism and western capital. The Wilson sisters have also engaged with another, grimmer aspect of the Soviet legacy in their 2012 film The Toxic Camera. Taking as its subject the nuclear reactor explosion at Chernobyl in 1986, and the subsequent deadly toxic fall-out, it utilises contemporary footage taken at the scene by Soviet film-maker Vladimir Shevchenko, who later died due to the radiation he was exposed to there. In the Wilsons’ photographic series, Atomgrad, haunting images of the city of Pripyat, abandoned in the wake of the disaster, evoke the wider damage of state-sponsored environmental pollution and the dystopian high-rise collective housing estates which dominate the urban landscape, from the suburbs of the capital to the towns of the provinces.

The central concept of the novel Roadside Picnic by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Soviet science fiction writers, which was filmed as Stalker, is ‘The Zone’; in book and film this is a sealed-off area once visited by extra-terrestrial life, where earth’s physical laws no longer apply and strange things occur. Later the term was also applied to another zone of exclusion – the irradiated region around Chernobyl, marking the limits of human habitation after the disaster. The parallels between the fictional post-apocalyptic ‘Zone’ and the all-too-real one between Belarus and Ukraine are reflected in the growth of ‘anti-tourism’, with increased visitors to the area in recent years. This has also given rise to its further use as a set for a virtual gaming environment, with scenes based on photography taken in the actual physical location. 

Hotel Cosmos
The superficial brilliance of contemporary Moscow, represented as a resurgent, shiny megalopolis of gangsters, oligarchs and pop stars in the blockbuster films Night and Day Watch (2004 and 2006, both based loosely on Sergei Lukyanenko’s novel The Night Watch) suggests another (science-) fictional world, embodied by their use of the strikingly futuristic Hotel Cosmos, itself overlooking the Exhibition grounds and Space Museum, as a pivotal location. Where those films echoed a popular image of the capital’s prosperity, rapid development and regeneration – capturing a narrative that President Putin’s regime is also keen to present to the West – much of post-Communist Russia is broken-down, worn-out, and facing an uncertain future. The past continues to cast a long shadow, even if the revolutionary rhetoric of a technologically-enabled utopia, embedded in the Soviet Union from its inception with its egalitarian society, space-flight complexes and optimistic dreams of conquering the cosmos, now belongs to a vanished world, and its monuments to the glorious future have long since become rusting remnants of that distant era.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Leeds Transported into the Next Century: Light Night 2014

The Leeds Civic Hall on Light Night 2014
Light Night is a cultural event that takes place in Leeds every October. First launched in 2005 and based on the European model of Nuit Blanche, Light Night sees venues accross the city opening late into the night and inviting the public to experience free performances, installations and other unusual (often light-based) cultural events.

Last week, on the 3 October 2014, the festival celebrated its tenth year, and there was something of a science fictional theme. From the hi-tech Hackspace Cube installation at the City Museum to the re-imagining of Leeds post-zombie invasion in the Trinity Centre, many of the events played with alternative scenarios or reflected on what the city would be like in years to come. None more so than the Theatre of Illumination, a special light performance projected onto Leeds Civic Hall, created by OMNI Pictures. The design used 3D optical illusions and projection mapping, combined with surround sound, to create what was described as 'a futuristic journey through time and space', propelling 'the architecture of Leeds Civic Hall into the next century with the explosive energy of a firework display'.

Having seen the projection myself, the effect was certainly spectacular. The neoclassical architecture of the building, designed by Vincent Harris, was transformed by the light and music, swirling with geometric shapes and a Dr Who-style vortex. The idea seemed to be that The Civic Hall represented the history of Leeds, while the light show evoked possible futures. In that respect, this spectacle put me in mind of a very different but nevertheless Leeds-based fiction:- Leeds Beatified (see my earlier post on the obscure pamphlet from 1900), which features a Wellsian time traveller who journeys to a transformed future Yorkshire. The association with light has echoes in this passage when the traveller finds himself in 1951:

There was no longer the darkness which shrouded my first departure from Leeds in 1900. Every village and road was lighted by lamps which by combining electricity and compressed gas gave a brilliance otherwise unattainable. There were ingenious and artistic devices for such lamps. Illuminated Owls seemed to be in favour, for though an ill omen to others, the bird of night had brought prosperity if not wisdom to Leeds.

Likewise, the owls that flank the outside of The Civic Hall are, in 2014, still emblematic of the city. The Light Night performance, then, was not first foray into the future of Leeds, and it is very unlikely to be the last.