Envisioning Astroculture in the American Hemisphere

September 24, 2015   •   By De Witt Douglas Kilgore

SCHOLARSHIP on the mid-20th-century conquest of outer space has focused on the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union. This means that the artistic and literary productions of nations not directly involved in the technoscientific aspects of the Space Race (during the 1950s through the 1970s) have often been overlooked. Recently, however, with the creation of the interdisciplinary field of “astroculture,” historians and critics have cast a broader net, taking into account space-focused cultural productions in countries heretofore seen as mere spectators to the super-power competition. Past Futures: Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas (2015) extends our understanding of astroculture by presenting and examining the work of avant-garde artists from Latin America as well as the United States. The book emerges from a recent exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, curated by its editor, Sarah J. Montross. It includes essays by Montross, Miguel Ángel Fernández Delgado, Rodrigo Alonso, and Rory O’Dea. Their central concern is the way a minority of avant-garde artists explored the utopian futurist potential of science fiction and space exploration from the 1940s through the 1970s.

This book’s most valuable contribution to our understanding of mid-20th-century astroculture is its unwillingness to endorse an overly neat division between fine art and science fiction. Avoiding that trap makes it possible for its essayists to show the traffic between the technological futurism of the genre and the work of artists intrigued by its potential as the herald of the Space Age. These artists created what Montross calls “visual science fictions” that made room for generative creative play between the technoscientific and artistic imaginations.

The critical question raised by Past Futures is why these artists were interested in space programs over which they had no direct control and how they made it relevant to the histories and the imaginations of peoples situated outside an American-style astrofuturism or a Russian-type cosmism. What Montross proposes is that in response to the political and cultural imperatives of the Space Age, they presented human beings and landscapes transformed by the humanization of outer space. In doing so, these artists created works that celebrate but also critique the prospect of new colonialist adventures. We are shown art that seeks escape from terrestrial ways of seeing and being, transmitting hope that the heavy gravity of postcolonial history and the Cold War may be transcended. Coincident with that hope is the fear that a US-led space future will extend American hegemony onto an endless frontier. 

Montross’s framing of these visual science fictions centers on the creation of what she identifies as a “transfigured humanity.” Commonly it is the astronaut — NASA’s “new man” of the Space Age — who represents this evolution. Unfortunately, as our distance from their time increases, astronauts often seem the least free component of the vast, predominantly white, male technological edifice that supported them. The first astronauts were pulled from a small social and professional range and cast as heroes both ideal in their representation of mainstream American values but also unlike the common citizen. The “Right Stuff” ethos, so memorably documented by Tom Wolfe, now seems an overly narrow model for sustainable human civilization on other worlds. The idea of transfiguration opens up the idea that the experience of spaceflight could change what counts as human (a very common idea in science fiction). This invocation of a traditionally religious term guides us into the heart of the sensibilities on display in this book. The astronauts and cosmonauts imagined by Argentine Raquel Forner, Mexican Rufino Tamayo, and Paraguayan Carlos Colombino, for example, are not uniformed and helmeted figures in white but strange creatures mutated into a subtly colorful variety of alien forms. These new people are pictured as unbound by traditional modes of representation as well as terrestrial constraints.

Architect Lebbeus Woods has taught us that new people most often emerge from radically altered environments. In Past Futures this idea is represented by changes in how landscapes are perceived from an outer space perspective. Montross, for example, identifies a distinct break with the European landscape tradition and its American variant. In the former, the land is a well-ordered garden; in the latter it is a frontier, wild and free. In either practice, human beings are customarily owners or workers, pioneers or settlers. While the American tradition does picture a “new man,” made American by contact with the frontier, it also presumes an inevitable domestication. New men and women tame the land; the frontier is transformed into a garden or a mine. By contrast, Montross notes that Space Age travel to worlds beyond the Earth prompted the artistic exploration of vistas that repositioned the human eye. Space-born imaging technologies provided orbital prospects and non-terrestrial landscapes that prompted a new way of seeing. The human figure, whether commanding or abject, disappears in a welter of new features, objects, and colors. Particularly impressive in this regard is the work of Americans Michelle Stuart, Vija Celmins, and Nancy Graves.

The other contributors to Past Futures — Fernández Delgado, Alonso, and O’Dea — fill out the book’s presentation of art triggered by the prospect of utopian renewal in science fictional spaces. These essayists make visible the debts their artists owe to science fiction and how that relationship helped create Space Age astroculture. They are particularly interested in stipulating that science fiction is a complex, utopian practice imbricated in contemporary technoscientific and political events. Thus their artists are figured as active participants in making sense of the promise and peril in new technoscience. 

Art historian Rory O’Dea’s essay on Robert Smithson, arguably the best known of the artists shown in this volume, presents him as a “voracious reader of science fiction.” O’Dea argues that Smithson’s knowledge of the genre was comprehensive and had a strong influence on the experimental land art he produced. This connection begs a definition of the genre that can explain it, one that O’Dea duly supplies: 

Yoking science and fiction to create a new term, sci-fi distinguishes itself from the other art forms through its complex interplay of seemingly antithetical systems of knowledge and representation. The genre is built upon the tension that arises from our desire to objectively know and subjectively create the world, and it thus blurs the boundary between what we understand to be fact and what we presume is fiction.

This definition helps us understand how the knowledge created by science and spaceflight may be used to inspire imaginative art that seeks critical distance from what Smithson called “false reality.” It also allows us to consider the unexpected ways that travel to unearthly places might change us. Leveraging the history of New World “discovery,” Smithson’s Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1969) is presented as a work in which the dislocations of exotic travel casts artist and audience into “alternate worlds” that seem truer than their own. Linking Smithson with the apocalyptic imagery of New Age SF writer J. G. Ballard, O’Dea argues that in their work “the objective picture of the world gives way to a quasi-mystical, science-fictional utopia — a literal ‘nowhere’ — that is revealed rather than created.” 

Historian Miguel Fernández Delgado recovers a modern Latin American utopian science fiction tradition that emerges in the opening years of the 20th century. During a politically tumultuous century, writers and artists watched the skies, discovering in cosmic phenomena — such as Halley’s Comet — a perspective that made notions about utopia and cosmic unity conceivable. He sees in Spanish-language science fiction an independent astronomical speculation predating the astronomical scenarios that supported the superpower space programs. Fernández Delgado uses this historical background to argue for a substantive difference between astrofuturist visions produced in Latin America and those that sprang from the United States. What is at stake is the nature of the future and what shape we desire it to take.

He illustrates this with the story of Mexican Diego Rivera’s fresco Man at the Crossroads (1932–’34). The mural was created and destroyed at New York’s Rockefeller Center after the tale it told about capitalism and socialism and their future became controversial. It was remade in Mexico City as Man, Controller of the Universe (1934). The latter title not only endorses socialism as the way forward but is also of a progressive scientism that would become mainstream a generation later. For Fernández Delgado the Rio Grande becomes the dividing line between what kinds of futures may be freely championed. 

This insight into the national politics of the future establishes a productive tension in the work of the artists on show. Fernández Delgado’s position is that the science fictional tradition of some Latin American artists represents a desire for change that is neither conservative nor uncritically capitalist. He argues that “they are affiliated with another conception, the utopia, which can be both an evasion and an alternative to established power.” They “celebrated the space race because they thought that it represented not only an unprecedented opportunity to discover and to enter into harmony with the universe but also the first step toward cooperation and worldwide peace.” This sentiment is at odds with the ideological combat that made the Space Race a sensational and politically viable story in the United States. 

Rodrigo Alonso focuses particular attention on how the Space Age inspired the visual science fiction of Argentine artists in the 1960s. He notes that they

followed the space race with admiration, not primarily for the benefits that its achievements signified for humanity but out of the longing to participate in the most current moments of contemporary life. The paraphernalia of space travel — rockets, metallic suits, sophisticated machinery, satellites, extraterrestrial beings, zero-gravity atmospheres — inspired them, and they delighted in the ways it confounded their view of the world.

This position signals the excitement of a project that made science fiction seem only another side of realism. Along with the prospect of utopian renewal on new worlds, we get a feel for the faith of a generation inspired by a grand collective project. Alonso traces how this faith reflected the ebb and flow of Argentine politics in the 1960s and 1970s: from its open, vibrant early years to the period’s repressive conclusion. Delia Cancela and Pablo Mesejean’s Ticket to Ride (1965) represents early utopian hope while Antonio Berni’s Juanito Laguna and the spaceship (1978) offers a critical pessimism. 

Past Futures is a bold exercise in remembering an exuberant, experimental current of artistic production that practiced a deep engagement with a global astroculture. It exposes us to the traffic in ideas and images between artists and writers who found in science fiction a way of speaking for the present and imagining the future. The wide range of work presented displays both the international nature of 20th-century astroculture in the Western hemisphere and its appearance in every available medium. These artists remind us that what American SF writer Robert A. Heinlein called “the wonderful dream” was always more than a spectacular extension of the American/Soviet Cold War. Their visual science fictions reveal an outer space where human beings exceed their roles as subjects of modern nation-states. The art that Montross and her colleagues exhibit gives us access to an imaginary in which outer space seems to be truly “for all mankind.”


De Witt Douglas Kilgore is Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Indiana University.