Brave New World, revisited
Shakespeare’s words of praise in The Tempest – “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in ’t!” – were intended to be ironic. Aldous Huxley used them in the title of his anti-utopian novel about a ‘beautiful’ new world. His book raised the question what this future might look like, what a ‘civilised’, modern world in fact would entail. Like a futurist, he showed his readers a world in which scientific, technological progress increasingly influences the human individual, and this decidedly not always in a positive way. Huxley evoked a dystopian picture of the future, a world of modified people, hostages to a totalitarian system dominated by a few World Controllers. Even though Huxley wrote his book in 1931, nearly a century later the theme has in fact only become more recognisable and familiar, and several of its predictions have become a reality. Genetic modification, human microchip implants, computers who can beat even the most talented go players, inescapable social media, ubiquitous security cameras that record and check one’s every movement, up to and including a new generation of power-hungry ‘dictators’ who dominate the global stage: Brave New World, a social topic that has lost none of its relevance.
One problem is that technological innovations and developments often taken place in isolation from democratic, political, philosophical, cultural, and scientific debates that are frequently conducted ineffectively on the side. Everything that is possible is eventually realised: babies can now be genetically modified, and autonomous combat drones are already in operation. Anyone who follows the news will be astonished at the power of science and technology to change or improve the world. At the same time, the news tells of contradictions that divide society. Robotisation and biotechnology may seem to be new utopias, but they also have a destructive and dystopian side. Biological manipulation and control technology that conceals who exercises the controls arouse ethical doubts and fear. Will human beings become part of the forms of mass reproduction they have themselves created? The fear of clones and far-reaching robotisation and artificial intelligence, perhaps ultimately leading to domination of humanity, summons up a doomsday scenario that is not beyond imagination: “whatever is possible will happen”.
Discussions about this and about fears induced by such scenarios have had an impact on society. Millenarian movements, sects, and prepper culture thrive on these ideas and feelings. Popular culture eagerly feeds off these doomsday scenarios, and films and games have proven to be particularly suited for evocative representations, as the success of The Matrix, Blade Runner and Netflix series such as Black Mirror testify. Literary culture has seen its own expressions, ranging from Huxley to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Many painters are familiar with utopian visions of the future and fear of technocratic domination. Thus the apocalyptic paintings of the German artist Anselm Kiefer derive their historical inspiration from a totalitarian technocratic regime.
Technological humans in a post-human era, the subject of this contribution, is the central theme in the work of the Hungarian-Dutch painter Szilvia Mondel. She is fascinated by the technological utopianism of modern humans, the application and intrusion of technology in daily life, and by the cultural adaptations of this technology. These form the inspiration for the great, powerful, and intriguing canvases which she paints in an innovative style, and which continue to fascinate viewers.
Szilvia Mondel lived through the final years of totalitarian communism in Hungary, and ever since she has reflected on how she can relate to modern technological utopianism and its regimes. As if carrying out a visual ethnological and psychological study of humans in a future post-human environment, she intuitively renders this world on canvas; a world in which people attempt to create a better, but also a frightening version of themselves. In this intriguing and ominous vision of the future, engineerable humans and their artificially created environment take centre stage. In her work, Mondel articulates the collective fear that the technological trend towards a robot-man induces, and the fear that this ‘new being’ will ultimately begin to live its own life and dominate human beings. Robots who use artificial intelligence can develop themselves further and organise into a closely knit web of intelligent machines, a creation that will increasingly look like a living organism. This organism can grow, learn, and evolve into super-intelligent, self-conscious machines. As a result, humanity will become extinct, leaving fossil imprints as its only traces in the future.
Painting in a technological world
Viewers can roam the evocative images that Mondel’s canvases present: fascinating images that continue to challenge viewers both visually and reflectively. Her paintings constitute a series of futuristic impressions of utopian worlds and dystopian industrial landscapes. Her images are often inspired by high-tech visualisation technology such as CT scans and MRI scans. Mondel’s subjects are situated in the domain of futurism and technological innovation. At the same time, her work is conspicuous for combining techno-futurist themes with the application of an ancient medium, painting. This is a deliberate choice. For Mondel, the medium of painting represents the human person and their perspective on a future post-human era. With her work, Mondel innovatively focuses attention on oil paintings by implicitly questioning the place that this traditional medium occupies in a high-tech society.
Mondel: “Painting is one of the oldest ways of expressing human creativity. People give meaning to paintings by making and interpreting them from their own intrinsic human needs. I believe that robots cannot have use of painting in the same way that humans do. In my opinion, this is why painting and viewing art are utterly and irreducibly human. For my own paintings, I use both my intuition and my creativity, both my human mind and my hands, all this without using any electronic tools. I do regularly use technologically produced images and scans as sources of inspiration. What appears on canvas is a reflection on human beings, nature, and society, in a tense transitional phase from organic to artificial, virtual, and inorganic. These paintings register the spirit of the times and the collective religion of technological progress, in which utopias and dystopias exist alongside each other.”
“According to futurists, we are facing a future in which humanity will be replaced by a new, technological ‘species’. Humankind as we know it will possibly have disappeared, leaving nothing but fossil remains. Future generations will study our remains in CT and MRI scans and will possibly revive us through DNA research and genetic cloning. These are the issues that I raise in my work, in the hope that it will give observers pause for thought as well as aesthetic enjoyment.”
Peter Jan Margry is Professor of Ethnology at the Meertens Instituut (KNAW) and the University of Amsterdam. Website: http://www.uva.nl/profiel/m/a/p.j.j.margry/p.j.j.margry.html
Szilvia Mondel (1974) is an artist. After attending the photo academy in Miskolc (H), she studied painting at art school in Utrecht. She also studied Media and Culture and obtained an RMA in Artistic Research from the University of Amsterdam. Website: www.smondel.nl