Up, up and away?

“Homo sapiens is likely to upgrade itself step by step, merging with robots and computers in the process, until our descendants will look back and realize that they are no longer the kind of animal that wrote the Bible, built the Great Wall of China and laughed at Charlie Chaplin's antics.”(From Homo Deus, byYuval Noah Harari)

Whether it’s the rise of robotics or the demise of antibiotics, travelling to Mars or the arrival of 3D-printed food: science is changing the world at an extraordinary pace. The programme Curtain Call does not seek to direct our attention to any one particular problem or topic, but rather to focus on the medium behind these messages: the human mind that drives these and the worldview generated by them. Where is our commitment to science and its implicit ideology of progress leading us?

From climate catastrophe to military risk-taking, from scientific breakthroughs to economic upheaval and from the deep web to deep learning, every day the media channel enough alarmist news to incite any type of citizen to become seriously worried about the future. When in the course of 2017 Stephen Hawking started to warn us time and again that we had better prepare to leave this planet within the next century, this raised fundamental questions about the risks mankind is willing to take. Deep space it will be? Obviously not for everybody. Maybe not for bodies at all, as perhaps our sole ambassadors will be our brains – our best algorithms. What if we soon will be able not only to upgrade our bodies, but also to upload our minds? Where does that leave those who are not able or willing to blend with technology to such an extent?

As we outsource ourselves further and further, when will we reach the point of making ourselves largely superfluous? Is the impact of science on society leading us further and further away from humanism? Does Hawking really expect that the future is only guaranteed for an elite on board space ships? Behind all these kinds of developments, from ecological to sociological disruption, hides the polemic between the humanist and the deist worldviews – the anthropocentric society versus an indifferent cosmos.

Curtain Call is above all a programme about human hubris; about how we are groping for applause, while at the same time banishing ourselves from this stage called planet Earth. Touching upon such issues as artificial intelligence, robotics and ecological exhaustion, the programme hopes to raise questions about our inherent human ambitions. Curtain Call does not intend to be an activist programme, but rather a reflective one. It neither condemns nor prioritises any futurological scenario. Its tone is elegiac rather than militant, meditative rather than provocative. Let’s confront ourselves with this question: are we prepared to leave it all behind and confront the silence of the universe? Or will Google’s DeepDream and other VR worlds suffice to replace our natural habitat? Space or cyberspace?

On the threshold between these futurological scenarios, Curtain Call seeks to incite a reflection that is not merely focused on ecology or politics, but on mankind’s relentless ambition and how this is shaping your future (if any). During the festival, space exploration can take the shape of a walk in the darkness of the Curtain Call exhibition, a submersion in the anechoic stillness of Silent Room or an evening of staring at the stars on the widest screen in town – quite literally so with Johann Lurf’s film ★. . Several experimental shorts take us even a level further with their phantasmagorical, desolate landscapes or trippy abstractions, reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s “Star Gate” sequence, that transport us from our familiar surroundings into the unknown. Leaving all narrative and human psychology behind, can we abandon the anthropocentric perspective? Or will such sensory deprivation inevitably confront us even more intensely with our human self-consciousness? When will our memories start to fade?

Space exploration is also the theme of the one-day Piet Zwart Symposium: Over the Moon, where artists and filmmakers involved in the programme are joined by film historians, media theorists, a representative from CERN and a leading biologist/artist who has performed research on survival tactics for NASA. More than merely speculative or escapist thought experiments, the questions raised in Curtain Call are a way of addressing the overriding impact science has today and how it is changing peoples’ lives, rewriting the future of work, reshaping the world while at the same time diverting our attention with escapist scenarios about space travel. Up, up and away it will be?

Text: Edwin Carels