NOTES AND CORRESPONDENCE
Exultant and Cautionary Imaginings at the Interstices of Architecture, Technology and Culture: An Interview with Olalekan Jeyifous.
Olalekan Jeyifous is an artist of many talents. His impressive oeuvre ranges from drawings of shantytowns, to cartographic murals, to Afrofuturistic installations, and his work has been exhibited across Northern America, Europe, and China, appearing not only in museums and galleries but also in commercial venues, including advertisements for high-fashion menswear, as well as in Starbucks in New York and Chicago. On 6 April 2016, Jeyifous delivered a talk entitled “Speculative Future: Imminence and Immanence” for the Sawyer Seminar at the University of California, Riverside, where he discussed the utopian and dystopian impulses in his artwork and architectural designs. Part of the global, metropolitan appeal of his work is its imagination of a future where technology, urbanism, and capitalism are taken to their technologized, highly segregated extremes. Indeed, the future that Jeyifous imagines blurs sf and reality, since the conditions that allow for such futuristic moments to take place are within reach. Perhaps it is this immanent futurity that feels dystopian and at the same time reminds us of our living present that renders his work simultaneously inspirational and cautionary. It is inspirational because it offers a vision for an urbanism that incorporates tradition into technology. And it is cautionary because it portrays the reality of alienation in a future where the wealth gap and physical distance between the rich and the poor are further widened. Jeyifous’s aesthetic, which combines visions of environmental destruction with reappropriations of existing cultural, technological, and political structures, has powerful urgency, because it makes us think about how humanity should configure a sustainable future in the face of population growth and atmospheric crisis.
As he suggests in the following interview, Jeyifous’s peripatetic upbringing has informed his keen attentiveness to transient spaces and objects that emerge out of cultural exchange and combination. At the age of seven, he migrated from Nigeria to New York, which forced him to adapt to different cities and cultures. He received his bachelor’s degree in architecture from Cornell University and is currently an artist in residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California. Jeyifous is the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, including his recent Emerging Artist Fellowship awarded by the Socrates Sculpture Park for 2016. You can see examples of his work on his website at vigilism.com.
1. One of my favorite collections in your oeuvre is Abiku Phenomenon, in which you incorporate inadequate Quick Paint renderings of your architectural plans. I find the collection so compelling because so much of it is about failure—failure in technology and in life (as the word abiku in the title implies, meaning “pre-destined to death” in Yoruba). All of this suggests to me that your work is in dialog with subaltern studies, which theorizes failure as a mode of critiquing the capitalist, heteronormative system as well as a basis for worldbuilding. Could you comment on the role of failure, such as the tropes of dystopia and urban failure, in Abiku Phenomenon and your other designs?
Your question is quite fascinating and I never thought of it that way, but failure is absolutely at the root of Abiku Phenomenon as well as my most recent work, which examines slums, shacks, and other informal settlements.
These settlements frequently arise out of a failure on the part of urban development strategies, whether governmental, commercial, or private, to adequately consider the needs or even the existence of marginalized communities. And in fact, architecture and urban design policies often reproduce and reinforce the repressive aspects of economic deprivation and political marginalization. As a result, these communities materialize in the voids and negative spaces, in the interstices between, or at the periphery of more affluent commercial and private developments—however with far less adequate resources such as running water, access to proper healthcare, and modern communications.
Their response to the failure or non-existence of these urban development strategies is to self-organize around sustainability practices, reuse of materials, and a general resourcefulness that occurs out of necessity. So there is an idea of resilience and triumph of will that emerges out of these fundamentally contentious environments or in spite of them.
In Abiku Phenomenon, a project which marks the origin point of my architecturally-inspired art practice, this same idea of failure is also a motivating agent, however in a more conceptual manner.
The failure of this utterly useless rendering function captures this: Quickpaint is used as a means of generating new architectural forms and spatial hierarchies, much in the same way the Abiku myth has been intentionally misappropriated to reflect a surprisingly positive outcome to fragile and potentially destructive conditions as they relate to Nigeria’s post-colonial evolution.
So while failure is the catalyst for these speculative and “dystopian” projects, there is also an aspirational aspect to them as well.
2. I am captivated by the topographies in Settlements and City Strategies, some of which, as you mentioned, are emulations of microscopic cell images. Can you talk about how this collection and your body of work engage with nature? /p>
I found the self-organizing behavior of these liquids interacting on the microscopic level to be very interesting when comparing them to urban development on a macro scale. There appeared to be a fluid logic and organic hierarchy of space and proximity developing out of an initially disordered system that I could imagine being applied to new ways of determining the boundaries of public, private, commercial, and civic spaces. With this is mind, I developed a series of very abstracted planametric aerials that referenced a variety of potential urban growth strategies.
In this collection, as with projects like the Shanty Mega-Structures, I was interested in this idea of self-assembly and order derived from chaos as a spatial condition or a political one.
Architecture has always had a relationship with nature in terms of traditional guiding principles like the Golden Ratio, which occurs in the spiral arrangement of leaves and so many other natural patterns. This relationship to nature has further evolved into practices like bio-mimicry, which has been enhanced through newer processes like 3D printing. I think the way my work engages with nature is just one variation on this tradition that has always been a part of architecture and design.
3. Your imaginings of megacities are so intriguing because they seem futuristic, on the one hand, but look very much like the cities of the present, on the other. For instance, the pointed skyscrapers in Lagos 2081 AD remind me of the Dubai City Tower. This blurring of past and future, ethereal and concrete, makes me wonder what you consider the aim of your work. Do you see your designs as practical, speculative, or some combination of both? What do you hope to achieve through your work?
I definitely see my work as both a combination of practical and speculative design strategies. This is an adherence to my background in architecture and its confrontation with my current trajectory as an artist; my work is an attempt to create art that challenges or critiques ideas rooted in contemporary cultural and geopolitical narratives. However, I am not trying to produce architectural solutions for them.
So while the work may be “futuristic” and speculative, it is very much grounded in dialogue from history as well as the present.
4. Can you speak about how your identity and background shape your aesthetic vision and how it influences your work in imagining, manipulating, and partitioning space? I know you’ve created an installation called Farther-Faster, which, to quote your artist statement, is “an inquiry into the historical and philosophical implications of the concept of Afro-Futurism.” Can you say more about how you use space and why you incorporate audio-visual collage as well as the catalogue of gold teeth and platinum grills in the installation?
I was born in Nigeria and lived there until I was about 6-7 years old and I moved to the US. My formative years were marked by moving and perpetually adapting to new places. As a result, much of my work responds to either the anxiety or potential of these spaces and how one navigates, maps, and perceives them.
My discursive upbringing and lack of a clear and distinct sense of home has made it inevitable that my constructions of urban utopias or dystopias—which deal with the interstices of architecture, emerging technologies, and culture—would be wrought in a manner that communicates their participation in, and alienation from, the larger world.
In Farther-Faster,an installation I created for the Afro-Futurism exhibit at The Soap Factory in Minneapolis, I was reflecting on this idea of participation/alienation in a 30-second video loop of gold teeth and platinum grills. The video shows a series of gold and platinum teeth, one after the other in a silent loop. They have been completely decontextualized and stripped of any cultural significance, much in the same way that African antiquities, which were functionally and inextricably connected to everyday life, are displayed and presented in the West. I was interested in this display strategy of spectacle and clinical detachment from everyday items in the context of Afro-Futurism, which is generally viewed as a boisterous, frenetic, and fantastical departure from the present.
So in my contribution to the exhibit I wanted to undermine that perception to a certain degree, and present a banal archeological catalogue of an item with a tremendous amount of cultural significance to the present.
5. Your recent talk at the University of California, Riverside, was entitled “Imminence and Immanence.” Can you talk about the rationale behind the title? I ask because I find it to be a fascinating title that encapsulates your aesthetic of transcending environmental and technological impasses via creative re-construction, a concept that is evident in such collections as Improvised Shanty-Megastructures, where you envision a sustainable future as one that reconciles technology with the environment. Is it fair to say, then, that your aesthetic is one of the appropriations of ruins and the aftermath of upheaval? If not, how do you define your aesthetic? How do you conceive of a utopic future?
It is not so much “ruin” and “upheaval” that is being mined in my work but rather a reappropriation and reconfiguring of existing structures, whether architectural, mechanical, political, or cultural. Destruction is not always a necessary condition of my work even though sometimes that is the narrative that I will employ.
So I would say my visions of a utopic future are not one where the world first needs to burn itself to the ground but rather where a mash-up culture emerges as a natural progression of our inter-connectedness in lieu of the more affluent further distancing and isolating themselves from the rest of us. It is simultaneously an exultant and cautionary imagining of intensifying and impending extremes.
6. Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon imagines a future where aliens descend into Nigeria and become the country’s “agents of change” (207). How is your vision of the future Lagos (dis)similar to Okorafor’s?
In a sense my vision of the future of Lagos is similar to Nnedi’s, with the exception being that my “aliens” are multinational corporations in the oil and gas industry, foreign investors, and venture capitalists.
When development that caters more favorably to the will of these individuals is combined with a population explosion, forced and unlawful evictions and destruction of shanty settlements, rampant corruption, and a lack of enforced building regulations, change in one way or the other becomes inevitable.
7. How do fiction and popular cultures influence your designs?
Fiction and popular culture figure heavily in my work when it comes to developing visual, conceptual, and political narratives. For example, China Miéville’s The City and the City (2009) as well as Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti (2015) were influential in how I conceptualized my Shanty Mega-Structures project.
Although the differences for the inhabitants of Besźel and Ul Qoma in Miéville’s book were not extreme, it compelled me to consider the experiential differences of individuals of different classes or races who occupy the same space.
In Okarofor’s Binti, the presentation of the Himba people of Namibia as techno-mathematical salvage experts against the backdrop of a space adventure provided visual and conceptual inspiration for how I view the inhabitants of my Shanty Mega-structures and the technologically advanced yet informal market culture that defines their governing ideology.
This discussion with artist Olalekan Jeyifous shows one of the many ways we can continue to expand our concepts of sf as we begin to think about the genre in dialogue with a number of art forms, including architecture.—Kai Hang Cheang, University of California, Riverside.
Diverse Futurisms. As the Sawyer Seminar in Alternative Futurisms enters its third and final quarter, the sf happenings at UC Riverside continue to generate new perspectives on our field. This most recent quarter has seen talks by John Jennings (“The Cipher Back to Here: Process, Pedagogy, Research and Practice in Visual Culture” on 4 April 2016), Olalekan Jeyifous (“Speculative Futures: Immanence and Imminence”; see above), and Lysa Rivera (“The Novel Ecologies of Chicano 1990s Cyberpunk” on 21 April 2016), as well as a panel discussion with writers Ted Chiang and Charles Yu on 11 April 2016.
Jennings walked us through some of his recent and current projects, emphasizing the importance of collaboration, as well as of developing a sophisticated visual literacy in an increasingly screen-dominated world. “Cipher,” Jennings explained, is a reference to MCs rapping with/against each other in various informal contexts and an appropriate term to tie together his extensive body of work. He connects what he calls “critical race design studies” and “critical making” to his Afrofuturist art and black comics work (alas, the obvious pun, “cipherpunk,” did not come up). Jeyifous, an artist trained as an architect, gave a fascinating lecture on his approach to speculative design, culminating in his latest project, a visualization of vertical “shanty town” structures interpolated on promotional footage from a Lagos housing development (the video is available on youtube; search for “Lagos Video Final 2 x 264 001”). Lysa Rivera’s talk brought us into the archives, sharing some of her work on science-fictional imagery in Chicano art, with a discussion of its relationship to Chicano cyberpunk.
Charles Yu read from some of his recent work; his story “Re: re: Microwave in the break room doing weird things to fabric of spacetime” was especially well-received in the room full of academics, amply living up to its wonderful title. Ted Chiang discussed the relationship between technology and memory in a lecture on “life-logging,” the vaguely terrifying practice of recording most or all aspects of one’s life—Facebook with live-video upload, basically. The ensuing discussion touched on various issues of sf writing, technological change, and the relationship between race and writing sf.
Other events planned for the remainder of this year, that will have concluded by the time this Note sees print, include a talk by artist, activist, and writer Pepe Rojo entitled “You can see the future from here: experiential futures at the border” (25 May 2016), a panel on Indigenous cyberpunk with Misha Nogha and Brian K. Hudson (2 June 2016), and a Skype discussion with Samuel R. Delany in conjunction with Dr. Fred Moten’s graduate class on the Alternative in Delany’s work (6 June 2016). UCR’s English Department will sponsor a one-day conference on Queer Futurities (20 May 2016), a fitting complement to our year of study dedicated to imagining alternative futures. Last but not least, the Sawyer Seminar will conclude with a conference featuring scholar Mel Y. Chen, filmmaker Alex Rivera, and the work of the graduate and postdoctoral fellows funded by the grant, Brian K. Hudson, Stina Attebery, Kai Hang Cheang, and me.—Taylor Evans, University of California, Riverside.
International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts 37. This year’s ICFA was held from 16-20 March 2016 at the Airport Marriott in Orlando, Florida. The guests of honor were Terri Windling, whose presentation on fairy tales and the fantastic was read in absentia, and author Holly Black, whose reading from The Cruel Prince delighted readers with a wondrous trip into the darker recesses of Faerie. The Guest Scholar was Cristina Bacchilega, professor of fairy tale, folklore, literature, and cultural studies at the University of Hawai’i-Mānoa. Her talk on “Where Can Wonder Take Us?” offered a salient definition of the wonder tale as a trans-cultural kind of literature that has the ability to imagine a future where fantasy and Faerie move from commodified magic to pure wonder, allowing counter-hegemonic futures to be situated in wonder. Noteworthy attendees who are working in the fantasy genre (though rarely exclusively) included Stephen R. Donaldson, Steven Erickson, Theodora Goss, Patricia McKillip, and Sarah Pinborough, as well as an array of international scholars, readers, and fans experiencing varying degrees of enthusiasm, jet lag, and hyperthermia.
Topics and panels ranged far and wide to cover facets of wonder as experienced in everything from music (8-bit chiptunes to goth) and drama (Shakespeare to Mad Max) to oral and written traditions (nineteenth-century feminist utopias to the Malazan Book of the Fallen; indigenous art and folklore to “Epic Pooh”; C.M. Kornbluth to Boullosa) across more than 150 academic panels. As expected, wonder and magic featured prominently in papers and panels, with a rekindled focus on the “work” of wonder within fantasy texts and on theoretical vocabulary and paradigms to promote scholarship in fantasy literature. The renewed focus on expanding existing paradigms for fantasy literature seems to indicate a move within the field that will be something to watch in the coming years.
A summary of this year’s ICFA would not be complete without special mention of the emptiness that was felt among longtime attendees for the loss of the beloved editor David G. Hartwell, whose encyclopedic knowledge, fashion sense, infectious smile, and camera were greatly missed this year. A special memorial edition of Locus was given to attendees at the conference, memorial t-shirts were created and offered for a donation, and many questionable jacket or tie choices were worn in homage. A memorial panel on “Believing in Science Fiction” was also held in his honor.
As always, the Saturday evening banquet, awards, and designated afterparty was well attended and filled with dynamic conversations about literature, proper liquor pouring/spilling techniques, networking and chats among friends new and old, and the dreaded long wait for the next gathering. ICFA 38 (22-26 March 2017) will focus on “Fantastic Epics” and will feature writers Steven Erickson and N.K. Jemison as guests of honor, and Edward James as guest scholar. More information about the previous and upcoming conference can be found on the association’s website.—Daniel Creed, Florida Atlantic University
Easy-to-Request Science Fiction Research Collections at UC Riverside. Many of you may be familiar with the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy at Special Collections and University Archives in the UCR Library at the University of California, Riverside. The new Special Collections Request System makes this collection easier than ever to access. Create your account at aeon.library.ucr.edu and you can place items on hold for use in the Library reading room. If you are unable to make the trip to Riverside, you can also submit a reproduction request for scans of collection materials and the scans will be electronically delivered to your Request System account. Once you have a Request System account, simply click the “Request” button when you are browsing the library catalog or looking at the online finding aids (which describe archival collections). For questions about the collections or how to use them, you can contact the Eaton Collection at firstname.lastname@example.org or 951-827-3233.—JJ Jacobson, University of California, Riverside
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS
Cameron Awkward-Rich is a PhD candidate in Modern Thought and Liter-ature at Stanford University. Also a poet, she is the author of Sympathetic Little Monster (2016) and the chapbook Transit (2015).
Gerry Canavan is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Marquette University, where he teaches literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He is an editor at Extrapolation and Science Fiction Film and Television, and the author of Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Octavia E. Butler (2016).
Kai Hang Cheang is a PhD candidate in English at the University of California, Riverside. He is currently a graduate fellow with the Sawyer Seminar on Alternative Futurisms. His research focuses on how techno- orientalism, play, and pleasure intersect in the age of neoliberalism. He has published on the influence of Chinese myths on Asian-American speculative fiction and culture, as well as on interracial queer intimacy in neo-slave narratives.
Paweł Frelik is an associate professor in the Department of American Literature and Culture and serves as the director of the Video Game Research Center at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. He has published on science-fiction visualities, video-games, cross-media storytelling, and experimental literature, and is a member of the editorial boards of Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds.
Rachel Haywood Ferreira is associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Iowa State University. She is a co-editor of the journal Extrapolation and of the Palgrave Macmillan book series Studies in Global Science Fiction. Her first book is The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction (2011); her next book project is on Latin American science fiction in the era of the global space age.
David M. Higgins teaches literature and composition at Inver Hills College in Minnesota. He is the speculative-fiction editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books and a specialist in twentieth-century American literature and culture. His research explores transformations in imperial fantasy that occur within science fiction during the Cold War period and beyond. His article “Toward a Cosmopolitan Science Fiction” (American Literature, 2011) won the 2012 SFRA Pioneer Award. He has also published in SFS, Science Fiction Film and Television, and SFRA Review, and his work has appeared in edited volumes such as Parabolas of Science Fiction (2013) and The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction (2015).
Paul Mountfort is chair of the Auckland University of Technology Centre for Creative Writing and vice-president and chair of the Comics, Manga, and Anime area of Popular Culture Australia, Asia, and New Zealand (PopCAANZ). He sits on the editorial boards of The Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of Asian Studies, and The Journal of Creative Technologies. His books Ogam (2001) and Nordic Runes (2003) have been translated into two European languages, and his recent publications cover oracle-texts in popular culture, transmedia franchises, Tintin, Tolkien, and science-fictional doubles.
Andrew Rose is a lecturer in the English Department of Christopher Newport University in Virginia, where he teaches courses in environmental literature, science writing, and rhetoric and composition. He received his PhD from the University of Washington in 2013. His current book project investigates representations of post-anthropocentric agency and knowledge-formation practices in twentieth-century and contemporary US fiction, with a particular attention to their significance for contemporary political subjectivity and environmentalism as a social movement.
Patrick Whitmarsh is a fourth-year Graduate Teaching Fellow in Boston University’s Department of English. He focuses on science fiction and modernism, especially science fiction’s adaptive relationship with modernist and postmodernist fiction.