Review – Art Matter: The Sci-Fi Effect

The Sci-Fi Effect

Review by Karlyn Meyer

On May 23, Chicago Nerd Social Club was invited to Art Matter: The Sci-Fi Effect, offered by Design Cloud in conjunction with Chicago Ideas Week. Described as “a panel discussion about science fiction’s impact on science, design, art, and culture,” the program centered around the book Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction. Gallery Creative Director Angela Bryant said the interested audience of Chicago Nerds was discovered by Googling those two words (which is how this writer found the group, as well).

Signup for the event set the evening’s tone. A required field on Eventbrite asked registrants to name the sci-fi character with whom they most identified. Mentally flipping through my fandoms, I added three: Charles Gunn, a la Angel Season 5; Martha Jones of Doctor Who; and Alyx Vance of Half-Life 2. I then panicked that none qualified as science fiction–what would be done with this information?

Design Cloud held the event in its West Loop loft space, concurrent with the Art Matter gallery group exhibition. Upon arriving, guests could browse the gallery while mingling over free Powell Brew House beer and light hors d’oeuvres. Each wore a name tag bearing both their name and the name and photo of the character they’d chosen; I was Martha Jones and noticed multiple Spocks. Before the panel began, all were encouraged to think about their characters, consider the artwork in the gallery, and move toward the piece that resonated most.

I found an organic-looking sculpture that incorporated a clock. My Martha Jones was joined at this piece with an EMH from Voyager, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a Yip Yip from Sesame Street. I became less nervous about whether my character was sufficiently “sci-fi” and more interested in the thought experiments to follow. As icebreakers, we were asked to discuss the following from our characters’ perspectives: Why did the piece speak to us; what would we do with it? Where would it fit, physically, in our world? Then, focusing more for the discussion to follow, what piece of technology–sci-fi or existing–would we most appreciate? And finally, in Matrix terms, red pill or blue pill? (Our group reached a well-reasoned consensus that Buffy would opt for the red pill.)

The panel itself extended the theme of openness to ideas and discussion, beginning with a truce: There would be no competition or disparagement between fandoms tonight. Star Trek and Star Wars fans would coexist, and TOS would be equal with TNG.

Deftly moderated by Julian Jackson, Director of Experience Design at the Adler Planetarium, the panel featured insightful, passionate individuals across several disciplines. The initial question for each was how sci-fi influenced their approach to their profession. Panelists included Adler astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase, PhD; author, actress, and puppeteer Mary Robinette Kowal; art historian, lecturer, and doctoral candidate Tiffany Funk; artist and art educator Adam Benjamin Fung; and Design Cloud designer Josh Frank. This prompt led to a lively and exciting discussion, all sharing how their geeky loves inspired and bled into their areas of expertise. For example, Dr. Wolf-Chase discussed how her love of Star Trek and interest in the night sky inspired her to pursue astronomy despite having no family in STEM fields or academia.

As the projector cycled images of technology in films such as Prometheus, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Iron Man, the discussion centered around how sci-fi technology found its way into our homes and vocabularies. From Star Trek influencing the Motorola StarTAC to “Minority Report” becoming shorthand for any touch-free interface, the impact was clear. Jackson recognized when the conversation was flowing and organic, going offscript to let audience questions spark further discourse. In a room of several dozen interested geeks, this led to a focused yet diverse and robust talk. Another recurring theme was how the exponential advancement of technology created challenges in creating and consuming sci-fi, as the fictional became feasible, if not existent. On this note, Kowal shared the frustration of developing a story involving virtual reality glasses shortly before the announcement of Google Glass.

Panelists agreed that a key difference between fantasy and sci-fi lies in the tendency for the former to embrace imagined possibilities, while the latter remains more rooted in scientific possibility. The panel ended with excitement over how now, existing technology can be used to stoke the next generation’s interest in science fiction.

Photos from the event are posted on Design Cloud’s Facebook page, and the promo code DESIGNCLOUD will score interested readers 20% off their purchase of Make it So.

2 Responses to Review – Art Matter: The Sci-Fi Effect

  1. Jesse Lex says:

    I can relate to the frustration of writing about VR glasses and Google coming out with them. I came up with them in my story 12 years ago and haven’t finished the story yet, though. D’oh!

  2. Josh Frank says:

    Thanks for the great review! I had a great time participating as a panel member and really enjoyed the conversation.

    I think I pointed Angela toward a Google search for the Chicago Nerds after stumbling across a group of you while attending the Adler’s January After Hours, which also had a sci-fi theme! I’m so glad the connection was made.

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