We live in a period of growing uncertainty. Facing the gradual dampening of once salient hopes and a constant need to renegotiate expectations, we have to reimagine the future with a certain urgency. While works of fiction immediately come to mind for their ability to provide compelling visions of the future, artists are far from being the only ones colonizing imaginings of the time to come. Technology companies and political parties, among others, also push forward competing visions of our future. In this context, it appears more important than ever to reflect on how future visions emerge and effectively contribute to shaping what is ahead of us.
Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs are among the artists convincingly dealing with the future. In their work, which spans photography, film, and installations, the Zurich-based duo offers unexpected visions, but also invites its viewers to reflect on our ambivalent emotional relations to the time to come. During the pandemic, Onorato and Krebs started working with a high-precision laser, cutting—or, so to speak, destroying—material from their archive to create striking images of the future. “We find the seeds of future images in material from the past,” as the duo explains its central approach to Future Memories, the first in a series of five to six books called Future published by Edition Patrick Frey.
At the outset of 2022, in a period of doubt and anxiety that not only challenges our expectations and hopes for the future but also our assumptions about the state of our present, curator and writer Danaé Panchaud met Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs to discuss their work.
DANAÉ PANCHAUD: Could you please walk us through the origin of Future Memories, which was published last year—how it came to be, and what your process was for the first installment of the project?
TAIYO ONORATO & NICO KREBS: We started thinking about the project about a year before the outbreak of the pandemic. We became interested in the way the future was imagined and how it has evolved. Growing up in the eighties, everything about the future appeared so promising. Retrospectively, it feels like a very optimistic period. We realized that this has changed a lot, especially for younger generations. To say it plainly: things are not looking so bright anymore. We initially wanted to investigate the fields that sustained our hopes for the future, such as science, and examine how major issues—plastic waste or agricultural production for instance—were being tackled around the world. We first intended to produce images related to how the future might look in this context. We made these first photographs at the end of 2019: we travelled to China for an exhibition, and we had the opportunity to photograph in Guangzhou and Shanghai for two weeks.
Then the pandemic struck. We were stuck and had to rethink the whole project, which is how we turned to our archive. We had images from the trip to China, but, most importantly, we had the archives of previous projects. We started working with these images as raw material, dissecting and combining them. In a way, we were travelling through our photographic past, looking back to construct images about the future, which makes sense given that we can only ever build our visions of the future based on the past. As we put in the book: “The imagination of the future is always made from parts from the past. The area in our brain that imagines and the area which remembers is the same.”
We started combining images, drawing from our archive of the last 20 years. We made collages by cutting negatives with a high precision laser cutter. We often work with large-format negatives—4×5″ or 8×10″—which allows us to play with that material. This is a very committed process: once a negative is cut, there is no going back, no correction—unlike when we play with digital images on a computer. We quickly realized that we very much enjoyed working that way and that the process, conceptually, made complete sense. We construct the future, or a future, from fragments of the past. Furthermore, the process is conceptually embedded in the very foundation of analogue photography: light hits the negative and leaves a trace that becomes an image.
DP: The irreversibility in the process you describe echoes how we build the future from the present, how a road taken implies many roads that cannot be taken anymore. How do you feel about this process?
TONK: No regrets at all! First, we have really a lot of images in our archive, many of which would never have been used otherwise. We think many people working with photography take it very seriously, but for us the images we take are raw material. The finished photograph doesn’t have to be the end of the matter. Negatives can be recycled or used again to make new prints or something completely new. It’s just one step of the process. In the archive, we find the seeds of future images in material from the past.
DP: Your work was directly affected by the pandemic. While the project is not about the pandemic per se, the latter had a strong and direct impact on how you could and wanted to work. It also significantly impacted the conceptual framework of the project.
TONK: The beginning of the pandemic was hard in many ways—emotionally, professionally, and financially. The most difficult for us was the cancellation of most of the upcoming exhibitions. In this context, it was extremely important for us to keep on working but also to create our own structure, our own schedule and deadlines, in order to stay productive and positive. We needed short-term goals rather than the perspective of an exhibition or a book in five years, which is why we decided to create a series of books, where one book is published as soon as one body of work is ready and where one series of images organically leads to the next one. The first book, Future Memories, was published in October 2021 by Edition Patrick Frey, who will publish the whole series. Once the outline and the structure of the project were established, it was in a way a very nice time: we had a lot of time to focus on the project, and the goals we had set up for ourselves were clear and achievable.
DP: I understand that there was also a broader reflection on the sustainability of art practices prompted by the pandemic?
TONK: Yes. We think, for instance, the extensive travelling for shooting, exhibitions, or even sometimes just a talk is now being questioned across the board. Other things as well, such as the heavy-duty art books or printing and framing just for one show. This is not to say that we will no longer travel for our work as artists, but we probably won’t go back to the same ways of working now as a lot of restrictions are being lifted.
DP: Diving more directly into the topic of images of the future: Do you think that these images, or images in general, have the potential to become performative? That is, can they shape our future in some way and offer more than a reflection or commentary on how our visions of the future are changing?
TONK: We would say that science fiction movies or books have an influence on our future. We think that there is some truth to such works, but, more broadly, having these visions of the future is very inspiring, regardless of whether they become reality. With Future Memories, we want to offer a visual reflection on the future that alternates between moments of optimism and explorations of the darker thoughts we have about the future. We try to stay in an in-between space, to go back and forth between these perspectives. It reflects equally the ambivalence we feel about the future and how we actually expect it to turn out.
DP: We can make out what appear to be natural history museums or zoos in many of the images, things like displays and dioramas presenting slices of environments that nowadays are common and, to a degree, unremarkable. They indicate the preservation of something, which in turn implies its disappearance or rarefaction, as well as a heightened value, historical or symbolic. Can you elaborate on this recurring motive in the project?
TONK: When we started to work with collages, we realized that facades, windows, and vitrines were working particularly well. They offer a look into another image and open up a liminal space between two different images. We photographed museums and zoos in the area of Zurich, while observing how their purpose is evolving. Zoos used to show unendangered animals living on the planet, but now they also preserve animals that have become extinct in the wild. This meaning of rarefaction or threat of extinction is embedded in the images and transferred to the environment that now appears “preserved.”
DP: Different spaces meeting within one image—how can we interpret that?
TONK: While the different images of the collage are relatively contemporary to each other, and visibly so, their combination gives the impression of two distinct temporalities. There is a foreground, which you read as the present, and a second space and temporality that can be interpreted as a past or future.
DP: Many images also contain ruins—or implied ruins—of human-made structures. While this is a common figure in art history, its functions have been different over time. Sophie Lacroix, a specialist of the philosophy of ruins in art history, argues that the ruin can be critical of the present rather than nostalgic of the past, and that it can be, for instance, a prefiguration or a forewarning of the crisis to come. Do you see a similar function of ruins in this body of work?
TONK: The ruins are foremost a reminder of how fragile everything is. We often photograph ruins, in particular modern ruins of concrete structures. It is a motif that has always followed us. More broadly, we would say that architecture is a recurring and central element in our work, understood as a trace left by humankind. We could indeed interpret the ruins of this body of work as a hint of the catastrophe to come.
DP: Ruins and museums also often indicate a certain longing for the past or nostalgia. Like ruins, nostalgia has been rethought in recent years for its critical potential—beyond the original meaning of the longing for home. For instance, the cultural theorist Svetlana Boym explored questions how can nostalgia be prospective and how can we feel nostalgic for something we never knew. Is there a nostalgic facet to your work, for instance, for a certain optimism about the future that we have lost and for the future we have imagined but will not experience?
TONK: We think a good example of this is space exploration. When we were kids, it was something very positive and beautiful, with the amazing perspective of extraterrestrial life. Now we are left with the feeling that people like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos are just trying to find a way out for when everything is gone…
In Future Memories, there definitely is a sense of what the future could have been. We are here and now, and we just have to try to make the best of it, and to learn to live with this broken planet. However, a message that is very important to us is, first, to not give up, and second, that a half-damaged planet can still be very beautiful.
One thing we would like to underline is that we do not work with analogue photography out of nostalgia. We try to be radical with it and to develop new techniques. For instance, the laser is not only used to cut the negatives in this series. In an image such as “W31,” what you see is an animation laser, which is used for instance in light shows. We used it to “paint” directly on the photography paper. It leaves a trace of itself—but also a trace of how the image was made. It is not perfect, you have these little imperfections on the image, but this is also charming in a way, and we embraced this aspect of working with the lasers.
DP: On the other hand, some photographs, as the one referenced above, seem infused with optimism. The laser cuts and burns some images, but it also “repairs” others by building new structures in bright but soft tones that typically read as positive. How do you balance these two seemingly opposite takes on the future?
TONK: This is representative of how we feel at the moment: it could go in either direction, and we actually think it will go in both directions at the same time. Things may look bleak right now, but there are also things that have never been as good as now. We think it’s important not to forget this—otherwise it becomes very frustrating.