Shimmering Horizons

By Laurie White

Marina Roy, Spin (from the series Dirty Clouds), 2017, oil and acrylic on wood, 20 x 16 inches.
Courtesy of the Artist.

Manifest Destruction

Speculative storytelling about the future—also called science fiction—helps us to imagine the outcomes of our actions in the present or, alternatively, to stage dramas unburdened by the material and political restrictions of our own time. In an age defined by anthropogenic environmental change, many narratives about the future take the features of our current ecological crisis to their seemingly inevitable logical conclusion: ecosystem collapse and the ultimate demise of the human species. After the aggressive expansion of colonial and capitalist ideologies across the globe over the past several centuries, settler cultures now find themselves attempting to reconnect with the other-than-human world, albeit framed by the “negative bonds” of a shared threat of extinction. [1]

In response, themes of space exploration and interplanetary colonization appear in the contemporary cultural imaginary with renewed urgency. Yet these narratives contain a number of troubling underlying assumptions. For example, they epitomize what feminist post humanist scholar Donna Haraway describes as “a position that the game is over.” [2] That is, if the cascading effects of ecological disruption are too far gone—and humanity is too slow to react—to turn back the tide, better to start searching for a new home beyond Earth.

While seemingly hopeful, stories of humanity’s technological triumph to accomplish such a feat at best mask a cynical attitude, subtly normalizing the assumption that Earth will, one day, become uninhabitable for humans. At worst, they deflect the responsibility to repair damage in the present by focusing on an idealized technological future. As Haraway argues, “There is a fine line between acknowledging the extent and seriousness of the troubles and succumbing to abstract futurism [with] its affects of sublime despair and its politics of sublime indifference.” [3]

In Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster space exploration movie Interstellar, the protagonist Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) argues for interplanetary colonization using the logic of manifest destiny: “It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are. Explorers, pioneers, not caretakers… We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.”

Interstellar, 2014, Dir. Christopher Nolan, Paramount Pictures

Still more troubling, the “escape the Earth” narrative frequently relies on the problematic myth of manifest destiny to validate its claims. As aeronautics researcher Linda Billings notes, the rhetoric of space advocacy, which arguably includes certain types of science fiction, “exalts those enduring American values of pioneering, progress, enterprise, freedom, and rugged individualism, and it advances the cause of capitalist democracy.” [4] Whenever space advocates or sci-fi stories employ the metaphor of space as a “final frontier,” they conceive of history as “a straight line, a vector of inevitability and manifest destiny linking the westward expansion of Anglo Americans directly to the exploration and colonization of space.” [5] In considering how a shared threat of extinction frames the urgency of contemporary space exploration, it is important to recall the role that extinction narratives have played in the ideology of manifest destiny in the past, used to justify the oppression and genocide of Indigenous Peoples as colonizers moved across the American continent. The idea of inevitable extinction is once again propelling a fascination with new-world colonization while perniciously upholding the destructive ideology of capitalist expansion.

In a feedback loop that could be taken from the pages of a sci-fi novel, the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about the future shape our ideas and actions in the present, ultimately impacting the actual future. The twinned narratives of earthly apocalypse and space exploration demonstrate that the way we imagine the future matters: if our conception of the future remains based on ideologies that are fundamentally racist, patriarchal, and capitalist, we do nothing to change the trajectory that has led to the current ecological crisis. Can science fiction and futurism do more for us than simply confirm our worst fears and offer escapist fantasies? Can new stories address the violence of the past, recognize the urgency of the present, and still offer compelling images of the future.

Other Futures

Rich traditions of creative science fiction exist in the fields of Indigenous Futurisms (in turn inspired by Afrofuturism) and settler-feminist posthumanism. These areas of study and creativity simultaneously critique the colonial violence of mainstream media and offer propositions for more just futures. In “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto,” artist Martine Syms calls for a body of literature that no longer relies on “fantasy bolt-holes” such as interstellar space voyages, alien encounters, and time travel. “The most likely future,” she states, “is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.” Accepting this “chastening but hopefully enlivening” reality, Syms encourages us to rejoice in the “electric feeling that Mundane Afrofuturism is the ultimate laboratory for world building outside of imperialist, capitalist, white patriarchy.” [6] Similarly, writer Lou Cornum describes the importance of science fiction for Indigenous creators: “Our collective refusal of colonial progress (namely, our destruction) means we must chart other ways to the future that lead us and other oppressed peoples to the worlds we deserve.” [7]

For sci-fi writers and thinkers willing to embrace the challenges described in Syms’s manifesto, the possibilities abound. As Cornum elaborates, “Instead of imaging a future in bleak cities made from steel and glass teeming with alienated white masses shuffling under an inescapable electronic glow, indigenous futurists think of earthen space crafts helmed by black and brown women with advanced knowledge of land, plants, and language.” [8] These speculative projects have the potential to meaningfully alter the disastrous trajectory set out by colonization on Turtle Island by validating ways of being that prioritize relationships, accountability, and traditional ecological knowledge. They ask: “Might our collective visions of the cosmos forge better relationships here on earth and in the present than colonial visions of a final frontier?” [9]

(above) Tania Willard, Gut Instincts (detail), 2018, Digital mural. Courtesy of the Artist.

(left) Meagan Musseau, a language embedded in our hands (from the series Intergalactic L’nu Baskets), 2018, Vinyl, flagging tape, 33.5 x 16 x 16 cm. Courtesy of the Artist.

Shimmering Horizons

As a limit of visibility separating the predictable from the unknowable, the figure of the horizon is frequently called upon to represent the future and an implied trajectory toward it. [10] However, reconsidering this spatial metaphor as a temporal concept reveals a future that rather encircles the present, with possibility radiating in all directions. If we refuse to accept the “straight line” of progress, a movement toward the future may simultaneously be an engagement with the past.

According to Cornum, Indigenous conceptions of time “reject the notion that all tradition is regressive by narrating futures intimately connected to the past.” [11] Conversely, they note how many of the ideas presented as strange or futuristic in mainstream science fiction come naturally to cultures outside a Western paradigm: “The animism and agency of cyborgs, AI systems, and other non-human people. Alternate dimensions and understandings of non-linear time … This is not the future but historical knowledge.” Rather than accelerating apocalyptic predictions to their inevitable conclusions, this approach honours the cumulative knowledge of past generations situated within the fullness of evolutionary time.

Elizabeth Zvonar, Visionary Feminist, after Jill Soloway and bell hooks, 2017, Digital print of hand-cut collage, 19 x 25 inches / 48.25 x 63.5 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Daniel Faria Gallery.

Writer and anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose calls this fullness “shimmer.” To experience shimmer is both to witness ecological complexity and to recognize this brilliance as ancestral power. Rose’s articulation of shimmer is based upon an Aboriginal aesthetic found in many parts of Australia in which concepts of nature and culture are inseparable. “Ecological pulses,” she writes, “come from and enable ancestral power.” [12] Shimmer is simultaneously a joyful, sensuous experience and the recognition of the deeply complex relationships that sustain the living world. Shimmer moves across the landscape in pulses as seasonal cycles cause changes in the environment and it is present in symbiotic relationships between living things. Significantly, shimmer involves human agents, and art is an important way to make it palpable, along with ceremony, dance, and many other aspects of cultural life. Art that communicates the experience of shimmer “allows you, or brings you, into the experience of being part of a vibrant and vibrating world.” [13]

Asinnajaq, Three Thousand (video still), 2017, Video with sound, 14 min 04 s, produced by the National Film Board of Canada.
Courtesy of the Artist and National Film Board of Canada

Shimmering Horizons brings the concept of shimmer into productive alignment with the idea of the horizon. Many phenomena can cause skies and horizons to shimmer, such as mirages, the Milky Way, and even the setting sun refracted through urban pollution. In this exhibition, horizons shimmer both literally and figuratively. The glimmer of stars and the aurora borealis make palpable the potency of ancestral and ecological inheritance—the future enfolded by the past. Framed by the ecological precarity of the current moment, the artists in Shimmering Horizons offer alternative visions of the future that prioritize continuity, adaptation, and resilience. If shimmer “may help us better to notice and care for those around us who are in peril,” [14] and if the realm of outer space beyond the horizon offers us the “imaginative room to envision political and cultural relationships and the future decolonizing movements they might nourish,” [15] then the shimmering horizon beckons us toward it, calling on us to continue building worlds full of ecological brilliance.