Between Worlds, Bodies and Breath:
The Artist as Purveyor of Science Fiction
My gateway drug to science fiction was Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. I read this book after an artist that I followed listed it as one of his top ten reads, at a time when I had decided that I wasn’t interested in fiction. The story revolves around a psychologist sent to a space station on a distant planet, which is revealed to have a sentient ocean that slowly takes precedence and control over the human characters. There was something about that ocean that stuck to me.
I was fascinated by the idea that sentience could take form vastly outside the scale of a human or animal body, with a type of intelligence that we can barely comprehend: one that has its own system of interpretation, creation, and manipulation. Within something that I had only thought of as passive, Lem created an alternate consciousness that could embed deep into the psychology of its human visitors. It was an idea so beautiful that it had legs far beyond the limits of the story.
A large part of creating a work of science or speculative fiction is world building. Part of the richness of Solaris is filtering through a stream of dry, textbook data while contending with the intimacy of a physically manifested psychological disturbance. Lem brings us with him to the space station’s library and re-reads letters and firsthand accounts of other scientists’ experiences with the ocean as a way to bolster and texture our understanding of the planet’s cumulative research. To build a world in this sense is in part to devise a system or systems of logic to convince a public to trust the creation. It is an anthropological nuance that employs evidence—sometimes tethered to our genuine existence—to support the laws, the norms, and the technological, physical, political, and motivational limits of a society and setting.
Science fiction isn’t easily summed up in a single definition, and creating cohesiveness isn’t my goal. The description that resonates with me was coined by author Pamela Sargent, who said that science fiction is the literature of ideas. It is the ideas themselves who can be protagonists, while characters are confronted, conflicted, and adjusted in relation to the idea. It is an excuse to talk about the bigger picture, to incorporate philosophy and visions of the future, and not be weighed down by the mundane. More than anything, science fiction exists to create ways for us to step back and see what is already in front of us, the things that are coded into the background of our lives, by following those things into a future or divergent reality.
To me this framework is precisely why I am drawn to visual art. The more time I spend with the speculative universes in science fiction, the more I see the speculative realities emerging in the work of visual artists. When we view art, just like in science fiction, we have to suspend a certain amount disbelief in order to participate. We abide by a set of rules that an artist puts forth. Artists build worlds, often non-narratively and to varying levels of explicitness, and within those worlds they define the limits of possibility. Some artists use tools particular to science and technology, while others rely on the familiar to construct a fiction that bleeds into our reality. Much of the visual art that I see is science fiction.
I recently read Robert Smithson’s 1972 essay "The Spiral Jetty", named after the artist’s eponymous work, which, in itself reads like short science fiction. He narrates the discovery of the site, and all of the steps leading to the work’s creation, comparable to Naomi Mitchison’s anecdotes in Memoirs of a Spacewoman. Mitcheson narrates the episodic exploits of a female scientist sent to gather research and communicate with alien species through intimate first-person anecdotes, filled with desire and a deep understanding of human limitations. Similarly, Smithson treats Utah’s red salt lake as a specimen, selected because of its incomprehensibility inside of most people’s vocabulary of earthly experience. Building this spiral land extension was in part his way of calling attention to the utter alienness of this terrestrial area, which is somehow a product of the same universal building blocks that created you and me. He unveils a piece of earthly geography through the lens of an explorer.
Instead of offering us scientific data to support its existence, Smithson has offered us physical evidence—the jetty itself. It inserts an additional element into our understanding of earthly landscape, suggesting a divergent reality that supports the creation of such a landmass. It is not a character, but an emergence. It appears inexplicable, but because it’s there, we are left to believe it. It breaks with our reality in the way that crop circles and suspended gravity would. He further constructs the world around this work with the accompanying essay and equally surreal film, which act as tools in enhancing the aura of the thing itself. I’ve never seen the Spiral Jetty, and I’m not sure that I ever will, as it requires such a durational journey to even experience it in person. To me, it exists as a supported myth—one established in consensus reality and backed by text and film and image, one that I wholeheartedly trust.
A world in science fiction begins to come into further focus through bodily encounters with texture, emotion, and sensation. It is how the future feels on our bodies. It is the grit and high-strung exhaustion that we experience in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, walking along a highway with Lauren Olamina in apocalyptic California, amidst brush fires and a sea of desperate travelers, while inside of the body of an 18-year-old woman disguised as a man. For contemporary artist Amanda Turner Pohan, the body’s complicated relationship to technology is her source material. Pohan creates physical installations that explore what it is to have a body, often using technology and devices that emulate its very basic functions. Through tubes, scent, emission devices, and medical foam, the work attempts to approximate empathy though the most intimate of bodily experience: breath, orgasms, saliva, and fluctuations of voice.
Compared to Smithson, Pohan’s work exists on a very different end of the spectrum of artist as purveyor of science fiction. Her suggestion is cyborgian. If devices can do what we do, how much of our bodies do we really need? She also doesn’t narrate us through this conundrum, but she lets us feel it. For Orgasmic Exhalation Device for Body Spray #11 (2014), Pohan recorded her CO₂ emissions during orgasm and used the data collected to algorithmically compose a formula for scent—a perfume that is wafted into a space periodically through an atomizer. She used the same data to plot out a physical form using a CNC router in Orgasmic Exhalation Form #01, allowing this intangible measurement to occupy space as a physical body might. She brings us nose-to-nose with the world that we actually live in by using products that play invisible roles in making the underappreciated parts of our lives possible. Integral to the texture of her world are the names of the materials: EconoFlex™ C55 Medium-Firm Foam, Artificial Sebum ASTM D4264-14, synthetic human pheromone, and HVAC systems. The world that Pohan builds for us is cold but yearning. All of its parts want so badly to be one of us, and it is precisely within this disconnect that her speculative universe thrives.
A more narrative example of her work embodying science fiction is a project that will unfold over the course of five exhibitions, centering around recorded performances of Linqox Criss—a female presenting Second Life avatar created in 2005 by a queer, cis-male user. Pohan has allowed this character to diverge from her original user to follow a course unbound from a single human baseline. Criss’ own backstory involves going into bitcoin debt, and resorting to work in BDSM cyber-sex, while continuing to inhabit Second Life’s online world, where avatars can be created, but never die. Pohan created a scent specific to Linqox Criss, derived from information in her HTML code, which is emitted into the space while viewers watch her on screen, further bridging a subtle gap between digital and real.
We need both logic and tactile characteristics working in tandem to extend our imaginations into the territory of the unknown—alien planets, time travel, abstraction—but also to help us make smaller mental leaps into stylistic choices in names, colors, and materials. Even when hard science is not present to support these speculations, we rely on what we understand to be part of reality.
I used to think of visual art as studies in thwarting the archaeologists of the future, which is possibly a kernel of my own science fiction narrative. Once our hard drives crash, and we discover the physical limitations of the cloud, and material entropy seeps into our archives, what will be left? What would someone, or some sentient being so far removed from the 20th and 21st centuries see in Donald Judd’s Marfa, or Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll, Anicka Yi’s specimens, or Pope.L’s constructions?
Part of what draws me to both science fiction and art is my inability to define or encapsulate either one. I continue to read science fiction because of how it expands my art viewing practice, and vice versa. Seeing art through the framework of science fiction is not definitive or confining, because often we are not equipped with tools to completely capture ideas larger than us. For art viewing purposes, it is a nuanced understanding.
Amanda Turner Pohan lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She received her MFA in Combined Media from Hunter College and she is the founder of the TWOFORTY collective. Recent solo exhibitions include SOHO20 Gallery , A.I.R. Gallery, and Five Myles Gallery in Brooklyn, and City Limits Gallery in Oakland.
Rachel Steinberg is a curator, organizer, and arts administrator based in Brooklyn, NY. She holds a BFA from Pratt Institute and is the Director at SOHO20 Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. She is currently a Co-Coordinator of The Feminist Art Project (TFAP)’s NYC chapter.