Back to the Future

'The Imaginary 20th Century' takes us forward into the past

We are living in the future. Maybe it's not the future of flying cars we were promised, but it's still a sci-fi wonderland (or dystopia, depending on your mood). We have hand-held, Star Trek-type computer phones we can use to check up on our dogs at home; we drive around in silver, egg-shaped Jetsons cars with flip-down TVs in the back seat for the kids to watch DVDs of Jimmy Neutronand shows starring characters made out of zeroes and ones; Blade Runner video billboards wink and blink at us, trying to interest us in reality shows right out of The Running Man. People have T-rex robots around the house, for chrissakes! Everything changed so gradually that we barely noticed. Here we are in the 21st Century, surrounded by impossible gizmos straight out of the pages of Amazing Stories, and we just sit around and bitch about how our iPhone screen keeps getting smudgy and our YouTube videos take way too long to load and our robot T-rexes eat up batteries like nobody's business.

Nothing makes you appreciate all that we've achieved-or resent all that we've failed to achieve—like looking back at yesterday's predictions for the great, big, beautiful tomorrow we were all supposed to be living in by now. Remember those AT&T commercials from the early '90s, in which they would offer prophesies of coming technological wonders? "Ever send a fax from the beach?" Tom Selleck would ask, only to then promise, in that reassuring, Tom Selleck-y way, "You will." Recently, somebody posted those old ads on YouTube, and they're striking in how they managed to get a lot of the details right (even when you're vacationing on the white sands of Jamaica, you can't go 20 minutes without having to fire off a quick reply to some naggy e-mail from work) while getting the big picture rather amazingly wrong. (Seriously, a fax? On the beach?) One is tempted to laugh at the mistakes . . . but then, how was Selleck supposed to predict the Internet when even Max Headroom didn't see it coming?

Looking at yesterday's version of today can be a fascinating experience. But "The Imaginary 20th Century," a new exhibit at the Orange Lounge-the Orange County Museum of Art's adjunct gallery at South Coast Plaza-is something else again: today's version of yesterday's version of today. If that sentence made your head spin, better gulp down some Dramamine before you tackle the rest of this paragraph. Co-created by writer Norman Klein, media artist Andreas Kratky and curator Margo Bistis, "The Imaginary 20th Century" is an interactive video "novel" set at the dawn of the 20th Century and featuring more than 2,000 images from various media of the era—quack medicine ads, post cards, caricatures, etc. Over it, we hear warring voices, ostensibly four fellows who are all in love with the same mopey girl. They hope to win her heart by spewing their peculiar predictions about the future at her. (If it seems a strange seduction technique, remember that men have done far stranger things in pursuit of a lady fair.)

Life magazine illustration (1905) by James Montgomery Flagg
Courtesy OCMA
Life magazine illustration (1905) by James Montgomery Flagg

In practice, it's a noisy, impressive mess, the sort of thing you'll either take to instantly, or want to smash into little bits of sputtering circuitry. It would probably take more than one trip to grasp what the hell the story is all about, or if it's about much of anything. We're never led to truly care about these four guys, and it's tough to know what we're to make of their predictions of a future that never came.

Maybe it's best to just think of it all like a kind of steampunk-ish theme-park attraction. It's undeniably impressive on a technical level, and it's lots of fun to fiddle with and see what brave new vistas of Never Was open up before you. Maybe we still don't have those goddamn flying cars, but this kind of thing is nice, too.

Have you ever gone to a gallery, played with some gizmos and made the people in old-timey engravings hop around like the characters in a Monty Python cartoon? You will.


"The Imaginary 20th Century" at the Orange Lounge, South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bear St., Ste. 303, Costa Mesa, (949) 759-1122, ext. 272; www.ocma.net/orangelounge. Call for hours. Through April 27. Free.

 
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