“To progress by moving backwards”

I was walking down the street the other day and saw someone pushing a Bugaboo Cameleon stroller. Bugaboo is one of the hippest brands of stroller, largely (I think) because it is the most expensive brand. Personally I prefer both Stokke and Quinny strollers. (Both are only slightly less outrageously priced than the Bagaboo. We were lucky enough to get a gently used Quinny for Maggie at half the list price.) But if I had to buy a Bugaboo, I’d go for the “Cameleon” model. In one of its configurations it transforms into an old-school British-style pram. (The Cameleon is pictured to the left, and an antique pram is pictured to the right.)

This is great example of retrofuturistic design. I discussed retrofuturism in my earlier post on the movie Steamboy. By the way, the current Wikipedia article on retrofuturism has got it wrong. That article limits the use of the term “retrofuturism” to nostalgic representations of what past eras thought the future would look like. For example, if Old Navy started selling silver jump suits, that would be retrofuturistic. And that is definitely one common use of the term. But, as Wikipedia itself notes, the term was originally coined by conceptual artist Lloyd Dunn who used it to mean “the act or tendency of an artist to progress by moving backwards.” Dunn was an early practicioner of what has come to be called mashup in which parts of several existing artworks are combined to form a new artwork. Here is an excellent article about the history of the term, written by people who worked with Dunn. The article explains that:

Retrofuturism is an idiom in which expressions are constructed, as in any natural language, out of pre-existing conventional elements. The machine arts (photography, xerox, audiotape, video, etc.), like the work of the contemporary language poets, coin new “words” like no other media in history. Because they are mechanistically reproductive, they also conventionalize and codify information. Conventionalized material, like the cliché (a form of verbal shorthand which collapses entire narratives, often into a few syllables) becomes the raw material for for the construction of new metalogic expressions. Artworks are also complex, like real words, which have an internal syntax all their own. Retrofuturist artworks do them one better by being like sentences, recursive collections of (themselves) recursive words; all parts of which exhibit syntactic structure (and play with it) to express new thoughts (and old ones in novel juxtapositions).

So in its broadest use “retrofuturism” is just another name for “mashup”. In its more common use, retrofuturism means the use of design conventions and clichés from past artistic periods to present something that looks modern, even futuristic. This is the way the Museum of Contemporary Art used the term when it applied it to a show of car designs by J Mays (the artist who designed the new VW Beetle, Ford Mustang, and Ford Thunderbird). (You can read more about the show and see some pictures here. And you can get a good sense of what Mays is doing if you compare the 1955 Thunderbird seen here with the 2002 Thunderbird seen here.) And this is what the Bugaboo pram is doing.

Seeing this retrofuturistic pram also made me realize that this is what the emerging church is doing, too. (See my earlier post on the emerging church and/as avant garde.) Having realized that the church’s links to philosophical modernism has left it theologically bankrupt, emerging theologians are attempting to return to premodern ancient and medieval theology for resources in constructing a postmodern theology. (Hence such formulations as “ancient-future faith“.) In other words, they are looking to the past to find a way to move forward. In still other words, the emerging church is retrofuturistic religion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s