Finding futures for Hawaii
Imagine Hawaiʻi in the year 3017. Most likely, segments of the Big Island will have fallen into the ocean; other parts will be underwater. But the seamount Lōʻihi will not yet have joined with the island's mass. According to geologists, that will take another 150,000 years. Depending on how you look at it, a thousand years can seem like a significantly long period of time, or just a passing moment in the geologic record.
In terms of human civilization, a thousand years is an entirely plausible length of time to imagine a Hawai'i independent of America or any other future empire, with a fully sustainable and independent food and energy system. It's equally plausible to imagine the islands as a station along some Muskian, global hyperloop in which food and people are conveyed across the Pacific in a matter of hours.
This kind of diverse contemplation about possible futures in Hawai'i forms the core for artistic experimentation on display in the 2017 CONTACT show at the Honolulu Museum of Art's Linekona Gallery, on view April 1 through April 16. CONTACT is an annual juried art show presented by Puʻuhonua Society. This year will be CONTACT's fourth iteration. The previous three have had themes focused on the ramifications of Hawaiʻi's pre- and post-contact past as a way to “recalibrate historic legacies.” In each, there has been an emphasis on navigating the intersection between indigenous, kamaʻāina and settler cultures in Hawaiʻi. These iterations have set an important precedent in the Honolulu arts community by inviting all artists to take on potentially difficult cross-cultural conversations about colonization, migration and cultural belonging.
The call this year was for artists to envision and make work about Hawaiʻi in a thousand years or Hawaiʻi 3017, offering a space for imagining how these difficult conversations about Hawaiʻi's past and present will help build a shared future.
Paradise Cove, a Hawaiʻi-based collective of young artists who fluidly move between art, design and creative industry, is curating and jurying the show this year. The collective has a reputation for making critical pop-up interventions into Hawaiʻi's tourist and consumer culture. Hawaiʻi 3017 is their first curatorial endeavor; it is both exciting and appropriate to see millennials taking the lead on facilitating the conversation about Hawaiʻi's future.
“We don't necessarily want to propose a single concept about the future,” say the members of Paradise Cove, who wanted to be quoted as a group. “Rather, we see our job as helping artists to express their own futures.”
The submissions received each offer radically different approaches to the task of imaging so far ahead. Some artists, such as Sean Connelly, present visionary architecture of the future. Some artists emphasize Hawaiian concepts of time. I ka wā ma mua, ka wā ma hope (The future is in the past). Solomon Enos, for instance, cultivates possible indigenous futures as a way to demonstrate how important ancestral knowledge about the land and ocean will be to human flourishing.
Others, like Kosta Kulundzic, are interested in directly translating certain concerns in the present into the distant future. What would happen, for instance, if Hawaiʻi becomes completely isolated from the rest of the world? Kulundzic has created a huge triptych painting in his hallmark contemporary Baroque-illustrational style. He points out all of the intricate details that indicate a future in which inhabitants of the islands have created tribes with forts made out of shipping containers, tourist paraphernalia and more. It is an open-ended, post-apocalyptic narrative which some will see an utopia and others a dystopia.
In the end, the Paradise Cove collective admits that the premise of “Hawaiʻi in 3017” was, perhaps, just a bit absurd. What to do with an overwhelming diversity of imaginary futures that could each have their own sci-fi genre label: salvage-punk futures, indigenous futures, techno-futures, afro-futures, even futures where humans aren't in the picture at all? Interestingly, there are fewer futures portending contact between humans and extraterrestrials, breaking radically from the dominant trend in the mainstream sci-fi film industry and pop culture.
To mix things up a bit, the curators are taking some liberties by also featuring a few “cultural artifacts” or older, futures-contemplating artwork that might be described as retro-futurism: Hawaiʻi now as imagined in the past. Sort of like the way Disney imagined the future looking in its conceptualization of Tomorrowland, built in 1955, which looks rather ridiculous to us now.
One such retro future is presented in a painting by Charles Valoroso, made for a 1987 Hawaiian Tel ad campaign. A huge city floats next to the verdant and pristine Hawaiian Islands. Projected above the city are a few telescreens and in one of them is an image of a boy holding a conch shell to his ear. The image of the boy seems anachronistic in relation to the high tech buildings and begs the question of whether Valoroso was already thinking about the “future primal” (to quote the title of Louis Herman's 2013 book) in which we have returned to a more earth-centered kind of knowledge. The image as a whole is contradictory, and re-enforces the sense that “the future” will most likely be a confusing mixture of all of these artists' visions. Just like the present is now.
The members of Paradise Cove wanted to support and cultivate the varied depictions of the future coming in through the open call process and, in the end, what they discovered was that, “The future is dependent on how we each see our world(s) today, and we often only see the future we want to see, not necessarily the future that anyone else sees, least of all the future that will be.” That is, we have no idea what the future will hold and we shouldn't take any of these depictions as literal projections but, rather, revel in the fact that we have so many possible futures. Perhaps, yes, this is all a bit of an absurdist exercise but not a futile one.
Speaking with Paradise Cove about the CONTACT show is reminiscent of Jim Dator's “alternative futures” method. Dator is a pioneer in futures thinking and just recently retired from heading the Research Center on Futures Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa's Political Science Department. (The Center is now in good hands with Jarius Grove, Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua and others at the helm.)
The alternative futures approach that Dator envisioned, to radically simplify, has prided itself on futures not forecasts. Forecasts are based on probability models, statistical analyses, surveys and Artificial Intelligence—useful in creating information about projected trends within set parameters or known systems. While many futures studies programs are based on forecasts, Dator has specialized in the more radical imaginative branch of futures studies—potential narratives that break from our present systems and values to create new ones. Two terms he used to describe these are “decolonized futures” and “anticipatory democracies.” The importance of imagining potential futures, especially in a thousand years (instead of 20 years or a hundred), is that it exercises our ability to narrate and fictionalize our own present in relation to vast scales and intensities of time.
Dator's theories about futures, though coming from a totally different angle, resonate well with the arts not just as a visionary enterprise, but as a practice in living in narrative—the ability to cultivate story into reality. This idea comes up in conversation with Maile Meyer, the Executive Director of Puʻuhonua Society, who took part in shaping the theme of Hawaiʻi 3017. She sees its potential to reconnect us with moʻolelo, with genealogical narratives that endure. She says, "Everyone has a story to tell, from their context. The absurdity of a thousand years offers artists permission to ‘go public,’ to add to the commons while exploring their own version of a perceived reality. Art offers a pathway to collective compassion, if we are able to experience others, and actually make contact.”
Each story we tell ourselves now, each decision we make today, each situation we initiate in our daily lives, each habit we cultivate in the now can potentiate radically different futures. What is most interesting about the show is not necessarily the different future forecasts, but the way the artists together are cultivating an artistic situation in which as many pathways to the future as possible are opened.