Predicting the Future With UMMA: How one U-M Course Is Using Art to Explore Dystopias in Technological Utopias

“Draw a line that represents progress.” That was the first prompt for students when Cameron Gibelyou’s Applied Liberal Arts class Predicting the Future met with UMMA this fall. Curator for University Learning and Programs David Choberka introduced this simple art-making prompt as a way to start students thinking about how progress and the future can be visually represented.

Gibelyou’s class is a fascinating exploration of the ways in which different disciplines forecast the future, from utopian and dystopian fiction to predictive mathematical modeling of complex systems like climate. UMMA designed its engagement with the class to help students think beyond literal artistic representations of the future and look at formal visual elements that often plot narratives of progress and visions of the future in images.

There’s surprising uniformity in the lines that students draw in response to the initial prompt. Most people draw some variation of a diagonal line that goes up from left to right. The reasons for this are multiple: left-to-right reading orientation; the predominance of x-y graphical representations in modern thinking; and, Choberka speculates, the increasing visibility over the last couple centuries of railroads and roads which provide linear sight lines into and beyond increasingly built and developed space.

The class considers how this “line of progress” functions to employ a narrative about the future in a variety of artworks in UMMA’s collection, including works like Jakob Kolding’s When was the Future? where we find the line employed to ironic effect.

Not to be neglected for an art museum visit by a class considering dystopian visions of the future are the many ways that artists have explored the negative effects of many of the technological progress narratives that have predominated in modern culture. After considering the “line of progress,” the class had a lively discussion of the critiques of technology, mass media, and commercialism in this set of art.

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