Into The Unknown: curator Patrick Gyger on his new sci-fi exhibition

A major exhibition at the Barbican explores the history of the sci-fi genre. We catch up with curator Patrick Gyger to tell us more...

Science fiction is now part of the mainstream. No longer confined to the pages of niche pulp magazines or cheap mass-market novels, no longer the preserve of low-budget B-movies, the genre is just about ubiquitous in modern pop culture. From hit films like Interstellar and Guardians Of The Galaxy to such TV shows as Black Mirror and best-selling novels like The Hunger Games, sci-fi has become a vital means of exploring and making sense of the world around us.

For proof, look no further than Into The Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction, a major new exhibition which starts at the Barbican Centre on the 3rd June. As writer, historian and exhibition curator Patrick Gyger points out, that a mainstream cultural institution would stage such an event is a testament to how accepted science fiction has become. 

“The big coup is doing this exhibition at the Barbican,” Gyger says. “For me, that’s the main thing. It’s a major cultural institution, which is quite mainstream, and it’s the biggest cultural centre in Europe – so to do a show on that topic [is a coup].”

Taking in some of the very best examples of sci-fi literature, cinema, art and design, Into The Unknown contains plenty of familiar genre artefacts: Darth Vader’s helmet, spacesuits from Star Trek and Alien, dinosaur models by the legendary Ray Harryhausen. But there’s also concept art, original manuscripts from such writers as Jules Verne, plus original artworks and installations commissioned for the exhibition.

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“It’s not about how science fiction can explore our own reality, or be discursive about politics, or whatever. It’s really about science fiction: the journey it takes us on,” Gyger explains. “The worlds science fiction explores, the artists, the writers, the films, the ideas behind science fiction itself.”

Ahead of Into The Unknown‘s opening, we sat down with Patrick Gyger to talk about the exhibition, what it contains, and how the sci-fi genre’s growing popularity has led to this point…

I’ve been reading about the exhibition and it sounds fantastic. 

Well, if you’re from Den Of Geek! Although I don’t know if you’d describe yourself as a geek. 

Well, there are lots of different kinds of geeks, aren’t there? Computer geeks, superhero geeks, sci-fi geeks.

The geeks are the majority.

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That’s true, isn’t it? There isn’t the stigma attached to being into those things that there once was.

Not only is there not a stigma, there’s now exhibitions at the Barbican!

Yeah, exactly.

I was surprised that science fiction had become so big, so mainstream, in a way. It’s been nothing but niche for most of its existence.

It’s no longer considered low culture in quite the same way. You have mainstream novels up here, and sci-fi novels somewhere down lower. 

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It is still, I think. Some people might say, “What is Margaret Atwood doing in the exhibition? She’s a good, important writer. That’s not science fiction. The Little Prince [by Antoine de Saint-Exupery]? What do you mean, science fiction? Oh yeah, it’s about this kid from another planet. But no, it’s a fairy tale, or it’s a children’s book or whatever.” So there’s a process that is well documented. Once something becomes recognised as good enough, it’s not science fiction anymore.

Like Kurt Vonnegut as well – he’s one of the few writers that has that mainstream respectability.

Right. Absolutely. Or even, eventually, Ray Bradbury, he left that sphere. And [JG] Ballard. Ursula K Le Guin. So it’s interesting. That culture was very French: people reading magazines at the back of the classroom, or reading science fiction novels. They were the prime geeks of the time. But it’s been that for a long time – Jules Verne was trying to be accepted in the academic circle of writers, and he wasn’t. He was only recognised as a writer for children, because he was always marketed by his publisher as a children’s author. 

Yeah, they were adventures, weren’t they? Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

It’s a strange process. If you were interested in role-playing games or Lovecraft, it was hard to imagine that… when I switch on the television now, or watch the news and they’re talking about Game Of Thrones, it’s like, Wow. It’s pretty strange. 

Do you think that, in France and Europe, those geeky things were more readily accepted? I know Philip K Dick always said he was far more respected in France than America.

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Yeah. That always comes up. Science fiction fans always say, “Oh, we invited Philip K Dick over in 1977, and he was accepted here before he was accepted in the US.” 

Well, possibly, because his books were translated and published [in France], but I think there was less stigma because there was also less fandom – the fandom in France is very small and the geeks were less organised. Whereas in the US, what created science fiction as a genre, and defined it as a genre, was the fandom. The letters people were sending to the editors of the pulp magazines. Those were published there, and a sense of community started, and then the conventions started, and writers emerged from those conventions. So it was very much a close relationship between the readers, the publishers, the writers – the fan base was very strong, and is still very strong.

Whereas in France, the conventions were very small. I was involved, for instance, in the science fiction festival Utopiales, which was really the biggest of its kind in Europe. I was the director of that for a few years, and it has 16,000 people now, over five or six days. But it’s mainstream – it’s a mainstream audience. When we decided to go mainstream, and bring science fiction to wider audiences, the fans weren’t too happy about this. Because 15, 20 years ago, it was still [niche]. But there was no way to do a festival only for them – there were, like, 200 of them. 

What do you think about France’s contribution to sci-fi cinema? You have Méliès, who made A Trip To The Moon, so…

Yeah, obviously there has been some amazing stuff. There’s Méliès, but it’s also Godard with Alphaville, and Savage Planet, for instance, which is amazing. In the fringes, sometimes, it’s more interesting than in the mainstream. I’m sorry, but [Luc Besson’s] Lucy is a disaster [Laughs]. Or, I’m not a big of The Fifth Element, either.

That’s one of those films that has a big cult following now. But it’s so noisy, visually and aurally. 

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Yeah. And they’re also very derivative of French science fiction, which was in comic books – the whole Metal Hurlant scene, Moebius, Philip Druillet – they all created this massive visual culture that infected, of course, Hollywood, and was recycled in The Fifth Element, for instance. The Valerian film will be out soon, so that’ll be interesting. It’s the most expensive movie ever made in France.

Is it about $150m?

More like $250m.

Woah.

It’ll be interesting. I don’t think a lot of people outside of France are going get it.

I haven’t read the comics I must say.

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They’re good, but they’re from the 70s, you know? So I don’t know if that’s translated very well. But of course, we know that a lot of science fiction as we know it today comes from Jodorowsky’s Dune. This tale, which was a geek tale, is now a bit more mainstream because of the film – you know, the Frank Pavich documentary. 

Jodorowsky’s Dune, yeah. It was amazing.

So for the exhibition, this is one thing I wasn’t successful in getting. I was trying to get the book…

Oh yeah, the storyboards. It’s about this thick, isn’t it [indicates something the width of a telephone directory]? 

Yeah. So for rights reasons, I had to go to Jodorowsky. And Jodorowsky wrote, saying, “These should be protected as a treasure for all time,” or whatever. Something random like that – it was very funny [Laughs]. But Giger was involved, and Moebius – and that storyboard, of course, was heavily influential on Alien and Star Wars and all this. 

Even the beginning of Contact, the first shot of Contact is that fly-through of planets and stars – straight from Jodorowsky.

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Yeah. 

What’s the process of gathering all these materials been like? Because it’s an eclectic exhibition, to say the least. What’s your focus been?

Hmm. The focus has been, you have to work on what you can get hold of financially, and what you get hold of for three to five years. Because the exhibition’s on tour, so you need people who are willing to loan for that long. Even though it’s an admission exhibition, you don’t have unlimited funds, so you need enthusiasts to do the exhibition. So we got some great artists who were willing to loan, or people like the Paul G Allen Family Collection. Individuals, museums… so gathering hundreds of documents, really, to make something that is quite ambitious. 

Because I didn’t want to do an exhibition which was anything else but science fiction – it’s not about the science of science fiction. It’s not about how science fiction can explore our own reality, or be discursive about politics, or whatever. It’s really about science fiction: the journey it takes us on. The worlds science fiction explores, the artists, the writers, the films, the ideas behind science fiction itself. Because it’s very tempting, and very easy, and it’s been done a lot of times, to say that science fiction is a mirror that shows you what the real world is at the time of writing or whatever. Of course all that is true, and also the technology behind science fiction, but we wanted to stick to that one thing. 

What’s the big coup, do you think? What’s the thing you’re most pleased you managed to get hold of?

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The big coup is doing this exhibition at the Barbican! [Laughs] For me, that’s the main thing. It’s a major cultural institution, which is quite mainstream, and I think it’s the biggest cultural centre in Europe – so to do a show on that topic [is a coup]. And agreeing to do the show without having a very big artist involved. It’s not a contemporary art show, it’s really a show about science fiction, and the artists are using science fiction directly. They’re not using science fiction as a disguise, they’re not being ironic – they’re showing their interest and love for the field. So that’s a very big thing.

And of course we have the helmet of Darth Vader, the Harkonnen Chair by HR Giger [produced for Jodorowsky’s Dune], and all kinds of different items that people can relate to, and I’m very happy to have them. The space suit from this film, or that film – Star Trek or whatever. All these create a narrative, and that narrative is in this major institution. That’s already something in itself.

Do you think one of the reasons why science fiction has become more mainstream is not just because of geek culture, but because we’re living in a sci-fi world now? If you think about the way we’re connected, the things we take for granted.

I really don’t think so. I started my essay like that. I said, we live in a world of science fiction, but not a science fiction world. There is science fiction all around us, as a cultural force, but the world is nothing like science fiction said it could be. There are no flying cars, there are no Martians trying to kill us. I mean, there are thousands of scenarios out there. Some of them have happened, in a way, but science fiction has nothing to do with prediction, as you know very well.

In a way, there’s a suspension of disbelief. You know, I use my phone, and I think, oh my God, I can connect to someone far away. But I’m more surprised about the reality than the science itself – I’m more surprised that there’s Trump as a president, but there’s not much relation to science fiction there, in a way. Do you see what I mean?

I think so.

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I think the interesting science fiction comes and goes in waves. That’s for sure – publishing, for sure, goes from science fiction to fantasy, and then fantasy goes away again. In the 2000s it was Harry Potter and all kinds of other things. But the reason science fiction is strong now, is one, escapism – how we can not be in our own world. Then science fiction helps us read the world we’re in. It doesn’t shape the world we’re in, but it helps us read the world we’re in. And we’re in a world where there doesn’t seem to be many alternatives. You know, we’re in a neo-liberal, capitalist world – and I’m not judging – but it’s very hard not to be in that world. It’s hard to be in a commune somewhere, and kind of…

Go off the grid.

Yeah, exactly. Not be on the grid, not living with money. If you want something else for yourself, what is the image of the future you can come up with? It’s very hard to imagine one. Most people will say, “It’s good. In the future, I’ll have a better phone. Or there’s this new line of clothes” or something like that. So science fiction is useful now, because it opens up new perspectives. That’s my view on why it’s so popular. Also, people who are in their 40s are now commanding the world, and those people were raised on Star Wars and Close Encounters. Those guys in the 70s, doing those films, they were raised on pop, pulp culture. Indiana Jones is completely referential to pulp, H Rider Haggard and so on. So maybe every 40 years or something – the generation who’s 10 now, maybe in 30 years they’ll revive science fiction again. In 2045, or 2049, there’ll be a big science fiction thing. That’s my prediction! 

You’ve hit on what I meant, I think. That science fiction is a good way of describing the world, and through a glass darkly, I suppose. Captain America: Winter Soldier describes drone strikes, for example, or surveillance. It’s more palatable.

Oh, I agree with you. It’s a very strong tool to approach reality. And science fiction is a strong one, because it takes one perspective, and transforms it in an exaggerated manner. It puts it in the future or the near future to see what happens when you’re dependent on your phone. Or it can record what you see, like in Black Mirror. That’s why Black Mirror is such an important show. It doesn’t say, “This is what is going to happen”, of course – it talks about the present. So that’s what science fiction does today. 

I suppose that we’re such a technological world, that’s probably a more accurate way for me to put it. Like, to get here, without even thinking I used my phone to figure out the directions.

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For sure. We are in a technological world, of course. And the fact that some of it works without us makes science fiction more relevant. The markets are controlled by algorithms and so forth.

That’s something else, too: there’s so much that we don’t understand. My parents’ generation, they could still take a car to pieces and put it back together, at least in theory. Few of us could take a phone to pieces and fix it.

I don’t know. Some people could take their car apart. I wouldn’t have been able to. But for sure, technology has become more pervasive, and invisible, I think. It’s everywhere but we don’t really see it. Generally, knowledge has branched out in many forms, and there are many sub-cultures, in a way. You need to be very good at precise things – like repairing a phone. There are so many components in there. So in that sense, you’re right – science fiction is maybe of interesting because it makes sense of that world. For sure, we’ve lost touch with the things around us.

Through your research in this exhibition, then, how have you seen science fiction evolve over the last century? Is that even possible to sum up?

I think it has evolved in its discourse. The genre itself has become more popular. It has very much followed mainstream pop culture. So it went from the pages of magazines to paperbacks to comics to film. It’s very linked to the media. And it has generated a huge amount of images that have influenced us generally. So it has become a very strong force in pop culture. That’s the first thing. But I think it’s less a genre than a state of mind, science fiction. It’s the will to go beyond what you know already, in a rational way.

Trying to expand your knowledge rationally, and going to some kind of horizon. It’s the what if. It’s the what-if element, and the sense of wonder element. Those are two very strong elements in science fiction, and they’ve been there for a while. In that sense, it hasn’t really evolved that much, because that drive is still there. The realms of exploration have changed; it went from exploring our world to space, and then once space was conquered, going back to ourselves, and what we can control. 

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Now, maybe science fiction is mixing with other genres a bit more than it used to. The new weird, and the horror elements – I’m not sure that’s so new, but at least it claims to be a bit different. It’s always hard, of course, to examine something that’s happening at the moment. I don’t know, as a reader of science fiction, do you see any trends? 

What I was leading into was, I spoke to the director of Life, and he said something really interesting. I asked him why it was set in the present when he could have set it in the future and have anti-gravity drives and things. He said, “I think we’re finding it harder and harder to envision the future. We can’t see any further forward than tomorrow.” So I said, is that why so many visions of the future look so similar? We haven’t moved beyond the visions we saw in Blade Runner.

That is something that is really striking. Actually in my day job, I’m trying to reflect on the visions of the future from the past. This exhibition is very much about that. What, as a study, we come up with as visions of the future. It links to what I was saying beforehand – we don’t have utopian visions anymore. It’s more money, new iPhone. In a sense, the director was right. But I think it’s the role of science fiction to do that, you know? I mean, nobody else is going to do it!

It’s true that a lot of science fiction, the people doing it now, are very much referring to things they liked in the 70s, and in turn, they were referring to things the liked in the 20s and 30s. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, they were referring to things from the pulps. Star Wars was very much like those old serials – Flash Gordon and things like that. If you go with Midnight Special – that’s very Carpenter, very Spielberg. I like the film, but that city that comes up at the end – it’s not anything new. If you take Avatar, it’s Roger Dean. I don’t think Valerian is going to bring up new images, because it’s also going back to the 70s. So we’ll see what Blade Runner 2049 does, but I think they’re going to stick to the 80s [look]. Arrival wasn’t bringing new, crazy things. But it happens now. The big TV series, Stranger Things, was also reverential to The Goonies and whatnot, those 80s things.

There’s a lot of nostalgia about.

There is, but we’ve seen some good attempts… have you seen The OA, for instance?

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I’ve seen the first two.

It gets better.

The things is, there’s so much pop culture now. It’s vast! You can’t possibly imbibe it all.

No. I mean, if you look at what is released in science fiction or fantasy, it’s completely crazy. A lot of it’s not very good – thankfully, because we can have some time to do something else! [Laughs]

Patrick Gyger, thank you very much. 

Into The Unknown runs from the 3rd June to the 1st September at London’s Barbican Centre. You can find out more information and book tickets at the Barbican’s website.