Future Cities

Also available in:  Chinese

Urban dispatches from five artists and writers in 2050.

9 August 2050, Singapore

By Heman Chong

Dearest Elaine,

I am writing to you from the year 2050. I don’t know what you will make of this letter from the future, appearing out of nowhere on your desk in wong chuk hang in 2018. I had suggested that we build a clone that looks like arnold schwarzenegger from The Terminator and have it walk into the office to hand deliver the letter, but everyone from the future told me that it would be total overkill and would send you into shock.

Don’t worry. You are still alive in 2050. (You are very healthy and you look great, even if you are very old and very wise). By this time, we have known each other for 43 years. I constantly apologize to the you of 2050; we don’t see each other often enough. I fear everything you’ve suspected about me has become true. I am more reclusive than I’ve ever been. But I have never stopped making art. Not for a second. You’re not going to get rid of me that easily.

I digress. Look, I’m not going to lie to you. Things are pretty bleak in 2050.

Illustration by Tiffany Tam, based on HEMAN CHONG’s Foreign Affairs #36, 2018, UV print on unprimed canvas, 130 × 200 × 5 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

Since the cataclysmic events of 2039, when we depleted the world’s petroleum reserves, it has been revealed that environmental policies have displaced every other political agenda as the top concern of the People’s Action Party (PAP). This has actually been their priority since 2001.

The most disruptive effect that surfaced from these policies was the invention of a fiber in 2021 that was developed from the cross-cultivation of a certain species of algae that can be woven into all kinds of material—from concrete to cotton—and that can effectively transform the surfaces of objects into a solar panel, allowing electricity to be extracted easily from these fibers, which act as energy-storage cells.

By 2024, while the world was still drunk on burning fossil fuel to produce energy, the PAP had already secretly enacted policies to have these fibers woven into everything—buildings, roads, bridges, vehicles, clothes—to allow all the structures of our city to generate abundant and clean energy, which can be wirelessly streamed from the fibers into an electrical cloud.

The PAP also attempted to commodify this technology by offering it to all nations around the world, but there were few who picked it up in time to avoid the widespread suffering.

Elaine, I’m talking millions and millions of people. First starving, then dead. Obliterated. Because of the devastating lack of fuel and power that began in 2039.

Today is the 85th anniversary of the independence of Singapore. And what would a 73-year-old man do on the birth of his nation? He wants, to paraphrase William Gibson, to “spread out the future a little more evenly.”

I will not know the repercussions of this package and how it will affect the time-space fabric.

Like many of you, I have watched many films about people or an object from the future that arrives in the past and changes everything, but I never thought I would become one of these tortured characters, like the man in Chris Marker’s La Jetée or Marty McFly from Back to the Future, or, you know, Doctor Strange.

Listen, I need you to take my archive of the end of the world here in 2050 and show it not only to politicians but to everyone. Tell them they need to adopt the fibers from Singapore. It’s the only way out. Take this letter and the SD cards containing all the images of the future and begin a campaign to force every nation to adopt this technology that the labs in Singapore have created. The proof that you need to convince the heads of state is also in the SD cards. I’m sure you’ll know what I mean when you see it.

The algae needs a certain amount of time to be cultivated, and the fibers cannot be created quickly enough to supply all demand in 2050. We need the algae production to begin as early as 2024 or 2025—the earlier the better. There are numerous other clean-energy technologies that the world is considering in 2018, but believe me, we need to put all our chips on the algae.

By the way, this entire time-travel mail-delivery technology was your idea—from the you in 2050. So if this all goes south, or if a big tear in space appears from a space-time-continuum fuck-up, just remember, it’s all your fault.

I wish you all well. And please send my love to Fabio and Massimo.

Very best,

x x Heman 

Bangalore 1/5k!

By Tallur LN

Souvenir Maker: Designed in America, Conceptualized in India, Made in China, Sponsored by Korea, Yes we are conditioned to think under flag . . . is the title of a work I made in 2008. I may have to revisit this statement in 50 years, when I might operate as a real-estate and travel agent, as well as a seller of space suits!

Bangalore, at present, has a population of 12.34 million people; that is, 17,404 people per square kilometer. In the next 50 years, this could increase thirtyfold. To put this into perspective: imagine more than 40 people living in one house, a situation that is practically impossible and unimaginable for the contemporary mind-set.

According to the Bureau of Indian Standards, a person needs a minimum of around 135 liters of water per day. But, at the moment, Bangaloreans are being provided with only 88 liters of water per day. In the next 50 years, this may go down to seven or eight liters per day.

In 2050, drinking water might not even be available in Bangalore. The same for electricity, clean air and other basic necessities. Such conditions might force people to leave the city. We have performed this migration exercise throughout history and we have always been outsiders to the city we live in. This is true in most cases.

I have a solution for this situation.

Illustration by Tiffany Tam, based on Tallur LN’s How… Cow… Wow… !, 2016, stone and water, 107 × 152 × 152 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Bangalore 1/5K! 

Out of the 300 million acres of legally available land on the moon, we Bangaloreans should buy, at the very least, 100 million acres. We can build a Bangalore galaxy town (instead of good old satellite towns). I will soon be forming the “Lunar Bangalore,” with the help of Lunar Land, an official celestial real-estate agency.

As premier authorized agents of the Bangalore Association of Human Planetary Exploration (BAOHPE), my team of professionals is driven to make your purchase of Lunar Bangalore property the most pleasant and rewarding experience. I am dedicated to staying up to date with the latest information concerning your purchase. All records of Lunar Bangalore land registry will be stored with BAOHPE.

(While the United Nations Outer space treaty of 1967 stipulates that no government can own extraterrestrial property, it neglects to mention individuals and corporations. Therefore, under laws dating back to early United States settlers, it is possible to stake a claim in land that has been surveyed, by registering with the US Office of Claim Registries.)

Lunar Bangalore will begin registration soon to cater to the needs of Bangalore—people can register for land available in several categories, according to caste, religion and other variables, such as property for Kannadigas. Rest assured, this galaxy town will also include Brahmins-only apartments, Muslims-only apartments, Lingayaths-only temples, Christians- only schools, vegetarian Hindus-only hospitals, non-vegetarian-Hindu clubs, and so on.

(Beware of other dubious companies, which too may start selling moon property. many of them seem legitimate, but the Lunar Bangalore company is THE MOST RECOGNIZED CELESTIAL REAL ESTATE AGENCY to possess legal trademark and copyright for the sale of extraterrestrial property within the confines of our solar system!)

Travel agency

India’s low-cost space technology is certainly something to admire; last year india launched its own space probe to orbit mars at a total cost of USD 75 million, a fraction of NASA’s USD 671 million Mars Orbiter Mission. The operation costs of India’s Mangalyaan was cheaper than the USD 100 million budget of the box-office-hit film Gravity. So it is certain that traveling to the galaxy town will be relatively cost-effective.

Once Lunar Bangalore is licensed to sell occupancy, I will launch my travel agency that will issue tickets to those who want to visit the galaxy town. We will operate a fleet of spacecraft to suit every taste and budget.

Why will Bangaloreans need space suits in 2050?

Once current-day automobiles die their natural death due to lack of petroleum, spacecrafts will become the name of the game. A space suit is a garment worn to keep humans alive in harsh environments. Personal or chartered spacecrafts would make it mandatory for Bangalore citizens to wear fully equipped space suits.

Let us look at the features of the suits:

The suits will contain facilities for the occupant to breathe pure oxygen and eliminate carbon dioxide.
Temperature regulation. The suits will be heavily insulated, with an air temperature maintenance facility. (In Bangalore, the present 35- to 40-degrees celsuis temperature will increase to somewhere around 60-degrees celsuis within the next 50 years.)
Mobility will be achieved by years of dedicated and careful studies of theories of design.
A 25-gigabyte home-entertainment smartphone, with an extra lens for viewing videos, will come free with the suit.
The suit will be attached to a portable life support system in case of emergency.
It will contain storage for water and alcoholic drinks, which will be easily accessible via an inbuilt pipe drinking system.
It will collect and evaporate solid and liquid bodily wastes.
It will be the perfect protection shield against pollution.
The suit will contain a DIY puncture kit.
The suit will be available in various models: US hard shell; Chinese skintight; Indian hybrid; and more.
I will somehow arrange for a dealership or distributorship in order to make the suits available in Bangalore.
The moral of this plan is: if the country is in real shambles, the share market index will rise accordingly. 

NEOM 2050

By Ahmed Mater

By 2050, hundreds of new economic cities will stand across Asia, sprung from empty lands in half a century of building. so many of these tech-driven, future-facing metropolises are being master-planned (some estimate 285 in China alone) that there is a sand shortage in the greener parts of the world; ambitious urban-inspired governments have even banned exports of this precious skyscraper-producing resource. Some of these cities already have residents; as industry arrives, so do people. All have ambitious master plans and elegantly crafted brand identities, positionings developed to “cut through the noise,” ensuring they become links in the chains of new trade routes, jostling for space amid legions of other imagined, sketched and rendered urban megalopolises.

In Saudi Arabia, we have sand and master plans in abundance. By the middle of this century, the desert that makes up more than half of the kingdom will be urbanized by our own flourishing cluster of economic cities. In 2050, the new city of Neom will emerge. The facts and figures of the project provide little in terms of envisioning life in the future: USD 500 billion in investment from the Saudi investment fund as well as other private, foreign investors; 26,500 square kilometers; eight key investment areas: energy and water, mobility, biotech, food, technological and digital sciences, advanced manufacturing, media, and entertainment; all services and processes in the city will be 100 percent automated; and, if the estimates of the newspapers proves true, half of the inhabitants will be robots.

The foundation of such new cities is totally unprecedented; never in human history have civilizations been planned, branded and consulted upon in this way. What these statistics cannot predict or define is the life of the place—its numbers and ambitions conjure the same smooth kind of living seen in renderings, where daily inconveniences are minimized, given uniform facades and the semblances of privacy and order, as whole cities are streamlined for perpetual innovation.

Searching these meticulously rendered futurescapes to find artistic communities, an optimist might say their absence rests on inevitability—that anywhere people come together, culture happens. A pessimist might say that artists are just not as important as innovation and technology, that their existence will be elsewhere, untroubling to the immaculate glass and shining awe of this new world.

These are extreme perspectives. It’s easy to feel unaccounted for. But in reality, who would accept a cultural future that is master-planned and rendered? Even if our environments in the future are not planned, the future demands engagement from our community, as it is artists who can shape these future cities into livable places. To better understand the artist’s place in these newly dreamed locations—to dream of how Saudi cultural communities can engage with these futures—it is important to consider the past and the present.

*            *            *

I was born in Tabuk, the capital city of the province where Neom will appear, in the most dramatic year in a decade of seismic change. Petrodollars were flooding the kingdom, reconfiguring everything known until that point. As cities were born and towns sprawled haphazardly into metropolises, the social landscape was also redrawn. Questions and conflict arose over how life should be lived, what could be kept and what made anew. Those questions and the actions some took to assert their views on the matter influenced yet more substantial shifts. For four decades, life in Saudi was cloaked by the repercussions of that decade. Still, art was made—we are not the first creative community to work through adversity.

Then, in the past 12 months, the tide of change came again. As global headlines have traced the rise of this “new” Saudi, the announcement of Neom was one clue; women being allowed to drive has become another signifier of social transformation. So far-reaching are the changes that some are heralding the rise of the fourth Saudi state (the third began with the foundation of the country in 1932). Such a dramatic break with the past suggests that innovation can take place at all levels of society, not only in the rules of the road or the megacities that rise from the sands.

My own new role, as head of Misk Art Institute, has its own kind of symbolism—the artist invited into the dreaming, an acknowledgment of a creative outlook for a changing country, the edge becomes the center. That the grassroots artistic energy of the last four decades sets the kingdom apart from some of its neighbors provides an opportunity for the artist and for the country. Beyond the cultural-diplomacy efforts, the ceremony and excitement of art exhibitions and museums, Saudi Arabia can be truly innovative with a creative outlook informing urban environments, an unpredictable counterpoint to the meticulous master plan.

*            *            *

Illustration by Tiffany Tam. 

History teaches us the essential relationships between environments and artists: that there are certain circumstances that nurture culture and that, in turn, creativity shapes societies for the better. I do not mean the product of artistic endeavor—monuments in town squares, or artworks lining the walls of a museum—but as a state of mind. If we study what makes cities livable for everyone, we observe places that inherently resemble the artist and their capricious way of being. Cultural history is characterized by collaborative living and working—collectives and shared studios, the innovation that emerges through connection, the coffee shop as a place of congregation and exchange. In contrast, cities can be isolating; suburbs sprawl and lives pass in private rooms and apartments. In Saudi especially, cities were built for cars, not people—innovation and happiness both demand spaces of inclusion, not privacy and isolation. To see and connect to the life of the city, we want to be able to read the places we live. The movements and workings of technology can be aesthetically engaging—like the artist’s hand seen in the paintings of the abstract expressionists, cities should reveal their making. Beautiful and livable cities embrace order with some chaos—giving a sense of variety that feels composed but nevertheless inspired.

In the past, Saudi cities have largely been propelled by oil and built for the car; the risk of the future is that they are built by master plan, incubating the economy and shaped for technology. There is a precedent for better communities and better design. In Riyadh, Hai al-Safarat was master-planned, yet, though the product of the oil boom, it looks different from anywhere else in the kingdom. With community gardens, kilometers of winding pedestrian routes and human-scale architecture, it is a neighborhood that is aware of people and built for living. As a result, when it was first established, it was a haven for artists, architects and photographers from all over the world.

We now have an opportunity again: a set of social and cultural circumstances have emerged that could shape a truly innovative future. To imagine cities that are livable demands that artists (and our creative cousins—architects and designers) participate in the dreaming. It would be easy to occupy our places elsewhere, off-plan and thriving in the organic and established. By 2050, we will flourish in Abha, Jeddah, Riyadh and other artistic capitals across the Gulf, but we have a responsibility to shape new cities too. The artistic communities might not be rendered into the master plans, but we must ensure those places are influenced by the currents of creative thinking. For the sake of futures that are livable, artists must teach city planners to dream of places that incubate not only economies, but also life itself. 

Shenzhen: Special Economic Zone 2050

By Liu Chuang and Zian Chen

The old glass facade of the SEG Plaza in Huaqiangbei, Shenzhen, reflects a sky full of burning, flare-like clouds at sunset—in the same way that the vitrines in its shops reflect hundreds of LED lights. Transactions within the plaza’s electronics market are not much different from 40 years ago. On each of the more than 10,000 days, people have gathered at the stores to discuss small orders of the latest products. Nothing has changed except for the products and the sellers. The cheap versions of ræntenna sold here are mostly used for voice tagging video-to-audio conversions.

In 2050, Huaqiangbei’s glories have faded. the building that rose in 1997 is now at best a model for government propaganda. A few years ago, tech insiders found and isolated the most important element of the ræntenna technology: an electronic cochlear implant that synchronizes the ear with the optic nerve, translating noise into visual data. Aiming to monopolize production of this implant, Transsion Holdings—formerly suppliers of smartphones to third-world countries, and now a mega synesthetic technology company—acquired land in the Shenzhen Bay Area from the district government. Shenzhen’s tech hub thus relocated to this area. Quite a few technology firms took over former private museum buildings in the Bay Area as their headquarters, since the trend of establishing private museums had long faded into history with the depression of contemporary art and real estate. Museum culture as we knew it is mostly obsolete, yet lately, there has been a revival in oral culture and artisans. All this began with a sound exhibition, “The Rhythmic Disquiet,” held seven years ago at Shenzhen Folk Museum (SFM) by Transsion Holdings.

The exhibition offered very little by way of physical, aesthetically pleasing objects. It contained a set of instruments analyzing Eurasian ethnic minorities’ phonetic pronunciations using the museum’s rætina-mapping facilities. Visitors’ eyes were engaged to activate the ear-to-eye translation, which revealed visual information that would have otherwise been understood simply as noise.

A quote taken from a voice recording by the museum’s curator explains how to optimize user experience of the electronic cochlea, using the Muya language, a Tibetan-Burmese dialect, as an example:

“The tone of Muya language’s modal particle ‘wowo’ is similar to the birdcalls of the alpine white-eared pheasant when it is hunting. The birdcall and ‘wowo’ translates, through the electronic cochlear implant, as similar shades of white. However, if one adds a recording of a Kawagarbo drinking ritual chant to the mix, the eye’s image transforms from the original white on white to a green tone…”

According to visitors, the show was powerful because of this rhythmic perfection between phonological recognition and its visual offerings. The unique voice pattern recognition equipment in the show is one of the earliest uses of the technology in a public forum.

Further analysis of the show reveals political, social and economic consequences. It was reported that one of the invited artists, from a Lebanese radical sound archive, “politicized the museum’s almost techno- fetish agenda into a tool for revolution.” What really happened was, at the time of the exhibition, the Lebanese artist hacked into their work, which had been commissioned by SFM, to extract the technology. They then uploaded it to servers in Kyrgyzstan. Technicians in Bishkek, upon receiving the files, came up with a new way to use the technology: to encrypt classified information. Specifically, it could be used within communities in Central Asia to compete in cyber-hacking wars with the United States or Europe. This Shanzhai competition unexpectedly initiated the revival of many distinct oral languages. Historical dialects of different ethnicities are the best weapons in an encryption battle, which can last for several months since the decoding of these languages relies on people who are ethnically, geographically and phonetically connected to that language.

As a result of this revival, Hong Kong and Taiwan have become major phonology incubation sites for Austro-Asiatic, Austronesian, Tai-Kadai and Sino-Tibetan languages. Shenzhen still plays a significant role owing to its potential language reserves. As a city with an entirely migrant population, Shenzhen has the largest number of ethnic minorities among all the first-tier cities in China and possesses archives of voice data—collected by Tecno, Vivo and Huawei—from communities in third-world countries. In 2043, after SFM’s technology leak, Shenzhen reinstated its physical border, and installed voice-controlled checkpoints that could only be unlocked by speaking in a Hakka dialect from the time of Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in the 19th century.

Illustration by Tiffany Tam, based on a digital image of Splendid China Folk Village, Shenzhen, 2018, by LIU CHUANG and ZIAN CHEN. Courtesy the artists.

Along with the return of the Old Ones, this ethnic sonic boom has led to renewed interest in oral artisans and a restructuring of the existing cultural framework. SFM has investigated this field by canonizing and highlighting leading artists. A 2049 exhibition featured the practices of historically significant oral artists, such as Amanda Baggs from the US and Tuva’s Sainkho Namtchylak, whose works are now being considered for the museum’s permanent collection. A new generation of oral artisans is now collaborating with transsion Holdings to launch a biennial on the art form, scheduled for 2055. 

Abexist-ence: the Galaxy of Presence in 21st-century Seoul

By Kang Sumi

1. Now-time 

This article is written in 2018, with the assumption that I’m writing in 2049 and that it would be read by you around 2050. Therefore my text confuses past, present and future tenses. For example, the present of 2018 is the past, the future of 2049 is the present and/or the past, and the future of 2050 is the present. What is the reason for this? The purpose is to illustrate the possibility of time overlapping and mixing in one’s mind. Tenses are considered interconnected and relative, like the sculpture Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius (1618–19) by the master of Baroque art, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The sculpture depicts a scene from Virgil’s epic poem, in which Aeneas, the legendary founder of rome, leads his old, blind father Anchises and his young, innocent son Ascanius away from burning Troy. They represent the coexistence of times that have different temporal qualities and their presence creates a parallax view. According to Walter Benjamin’s concept of historical philosophy, from his essay “On the concept of History,” we could call this an instance of “now-time” (Jetztzeit), a term Benjamin devised to claim that every single moment of history has the potentiality of temporal synthesis within it and requires its awakening by the people. 

The philosopher JME McTaggart argued in his book The Unreality of Time (1908) that time is unreal because the conceptions of time are contradictory, circular or relational. His argument is reasonable. However, rather than thinking that time is unreal, it is more likely that time is relatively articulated and its components influence each other in terms of past, present and future. Francesco Petrarch, the 14th-century Italian Renaissance humanist and poet, said, “Walk forward in the radiance of the past.” He meant that the progressive future could be created based on the glory and support of the past. And Benjamin, who criticized the acedia (sloth or laziness) of historicism, wrote in the middle of the 20th century: “Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it.” I intend to interpret his claim as meaning that people should not passively embrace the traditions made in the vested position, but instead should try to invent new ones from the past.

Illustration by Tiffany Tam. 

2. Abexist-ence 

The future is unknown. We don’t know how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the future can be imagined and/or invented only as a vision derived from our recognition of realities that interact with time, space and human beings. In that case, we strive to distinguish correctly between now and here, and then and there. Assuming now is the year 2050, the fact of the past that has had the greatest influence here is the development of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, declared in 2016 at the World Economic Forum. Since then, almost all fields and many professionals in global society have analyzed and described the future based on technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, 3D printing, internet of things (IoT), blockchain, nanotechnology, quantum computing, autonomous vehicles and biotechnology. In short, our future was characterized by a fusion of technologies that was blurring the lines between the physical, the digital and the biological spheres. Today, 34 years later, we have become a hybrid of physical, digital, biological, material and cybernetic—not just a fusion of technologies. Therefore I would like to suggest a concept of “Abexist- ence.” the questions, then, are as follows: what is this Abexist-ence? If our reality has changed sharply, if our presence is revolutionized by AI and robotics during that time, how does a human being exist in that situation? Or is it characterized by an absence?

A compound of “absence” and “existence,” “Abexist-ence” describes both Seoul in the 2050s and how we exist now. This means our physical existence and technological absence, biological presence and cybernetic presence are exchanged, and their borders are obscured in the field of life. In particular, Seoul is a kind of galaxy where the overlap and convergence of such presences is most significant. It is because of the following reasons: 

3. Being in seoul, Living in Now-time

1. Unlike Rome, Seoul has never learned the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts. Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future.
2. Augmented reality has become extremely developed and has become a normal condition in our lives. Thus, as time overlaps—and these mixtures are embodied physically and virtually, organically and computationally—people can exist in a way of absence and also be absent as a way of existence, or by choosing any crossing of these forms of presence.
3. With Korean reunification in 2025, Seoul became the capital of socially engaged art and political culture in the 21st century. The successful completion of the Inter-Korean Summit and North Korea–United States Summit in 2018 had resulted in increased explosive cultural exchanges and creative communications between South Korea, North Korea, the US and other global countries. In the process, various artists used Seoul as a heterotopia where ideology, discourse, word, object, practice, aesthetics, technology, desire, psychology, perception, the material and the immaterial, all intermixed. 
4. Being in Seoul is, in its most imagined sense, to experience the omnipresence of everything by information and communication technology and IoT, which collectively make digital identity and trans-connectivity possible.

* I intentionally appropriate the sentence from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (University of California Press, 1988), 91. 

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