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Cover of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (Allen & Co. Ltd., 1977). From “As If: Alternative Histories from Then to Now.”

Cover of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (Allen & Co. Ltd., 1977). From “As If: Alternative Histories from Then to Now.”

“As If: Alternative Histories from Then to Now”

In his book The Philosophy of “As If” (1911), the Kantian philosopher Hans Vaihinger argued that our collective understanding of reality is built on “scientific fictions” that help us “overcome difficulties of thought,” and thus “the ‘unreal’ is just as important as the world of the so-called real or actual.” In 1929, the term science fiction entered popular media, thanks to the inventor and pioneering advocate of the genre Hugo Gernsback. Esoteric philosophy was the last thing on Gernsback’s mind when he started circulating the phrase—but the speculative literary works he published seem inspired by Vaihinger’s treatise.

The group exhibition “As If: Alternative Histories from Then to Now” at the Drawing Center could also have sprung from Vaihinger’s fictionalist premise. In the bookish zine that accompanies the show, curator Giampaolo Bianconi contends that the writing of history (no matter how institutionalized) is always a form of make-believe. To push that premise to the extreme, he and assistant curator Isabella Kapur assembled a slim collection of sci-fi books and periodicals, ranging from the 1880s to the present, in which authors dramatically rewrite past events in order to envision alternative futures. These were paired with a spare selection of contemporary artworks meditating on similar themes. If “useful fictions,” as Vaihinger called them, construct the substance of our daily lives, then, the curators ask, what if we opened up to an entirely different set of fantasies? Would our world transform?

While sci-fi has long been dismissed as lurid, lowbrow entertainment, it has recently been sanctified by the mainstream art world as a site of critique and resistance and has become a popular subject. Take the keenly political “Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas,” which ran at New York’s Queens Museum concurrently with the Drawing Center’s show, or several recent exhibitions on the East Coast devoted to the work of Huma Bhabha and Cauleen Smith, two artists inspired by sci-fi and technofuturist thought. (Both were included in “As If.”) The Drawing Center’s studiously restrained contribution functioned something like a helpful (if narrow) annotated reading list, providing historical background for the current trend. In a series of dry vitrines, viewers were introduced to novels such as Edward Bellamy’s and William Morris’s competing visions of futuristic socialist utopias, Looking Backward (1888) and News from Nowhere (1891), respectively; Ward Moore’s foundational Bring the Jubilee (1972), which describes with horror what life in the US would be like if the Confederacy had won the Civil War; and Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain (1990), in which John Brown and Harriet Tubman wage a successful slave revolt that ultimately leads to the development of Nova Africa, a revolutionary, egalitarian black republic that is preparing to send astronauts to Mars.

On the walls around these canonical yet kitschy book covers, a tightly curated array of artworks animated the space with verve, from Sun Ra’s thrillingly galactic album covers to St. EOM’s visionary drawings for his elaborately conceived paradise, Pasaquan. Particularly striking was Vivian Caccuri’s A Soul Transplant, 2019, made up of delicate charcoal-and-ink drawings on paper and acetate that depict oversize mosquitoes as vicious despots, terrorizing and controlling their human subjects. Also unsettling was an untitled 2010 photo by Bhabha of a blurry, spectral figure—scratched onto an image of a rocky, fuschia-hued landscape—hovering in the air like some kind of vaporized anthropoid on a barren planet.

These last two works merit particular note for their concern for nature. The curators of “As If” want viewers to try to imagine a better future by reenvisioning the past—but no future is possible unless we stop pretending that human life can survive the ecological devastation wrought by our current economic system. If there’s a vogue for sci-fi right now, perhaps it’s because we realize how dire the need that we fire up our imaginations right now, before human civilization itself becomes nothing but a tale with no readers.