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Katie Torn by Marisa Olson 2014
Katie Torn, “Breathe Deep”, Single channel animation, 2014Courtesy of the artist and XPO Gallery

Marisa Olson takes us to a parallel universe with new show

The NY polymath curates a selection of her favourite female artists to explore the realms of sci-fi, uncharted galaxies and unknown alien species

The tropes that science fiction throws up are endless. Endless and fun, experimental, scary, confusing, empowering – you couldn’t really ask for more from the genre that has cinematically spawned everything from Scar-Jo’s freaky alien dalliance in Under the Skin to cult classic Back to the Future. Perhaps these are all very good reasons as to why curator, artist, writer and media theorist Marisa Olson has pulled a bunch of her favourite artists together for the international group exhibition Les Oracles. The ten artists – all female, a deliberate choice – includes Dazed contributor Jeanette Hayes alongside Julieta Aranda, Juliette Bonneviot, Caroline Delieutraz, Aleksandra Domanović, Kristin Lucas, Brenna Murphy, Katja Novitskova, Katie Torn and Saya Woolfalk, with their works spanning media like sculpture, painting, photography, installation and digital art. Says self-confessed tech obsessive Olson: “I’m intrigued by what I imagine to be the opportunities that science fiction offers for engaging with the past, present, and future at the same time; for fantasising about a better world; and for simultaneously participating in and parodying the real in a way that allows for productive failure, risk-taking and social critique.” Below, we geek out with the multidisciplinary artist ahead of the show’s opening.

Could you tell us about the exhibition?

Marisa Olson: Les Oracles is an international group exhibition of ten female artists whose work includes sculpture, painting, photography, installation, video, and computer animation. Each of their projects engage with science fiction, whether by responding to classic narratives and conventions of the genre, or creating unique worlds of their own.

Some of the artists critique the gender roles and stereotypes seemingly endemic to the field, some plunder the genre for representational techniques germane to addressing contemporary digital visual culture, some address sci-fi as a sort of cypher for dominant narratives or pseudo-historical artefacts, and their works range from fun pop-cultural takes to deeper political commentary.

What is it about science fiction that fascinates you?

Marisa Olson: As an artist obsessed with the cultural history of technology, I particularly enjoy plots revolving around new inventions or time travel. I feel like the story of technological development also tells the story of a culture’s fears and fantasies about the future, an ethos that gets infused into the objects we craft, covet, upgrade, discard, etc. Like so many classic genre-types (e.g. westerns, noirs, horrors, religious epics), there tend to be overarching science fiction tropes that persist from story to story, but even to the degree that these narratives vary or touch on far-out topics, they so often speak to basic larger metaphors for our perceptions of our culture and the role of the individual within it.

I’m especially interested in the persistent theme of ‘searching’. To my mind, we are all constantly engaged in the act of searching in our lives – not only searching the web, searching for ‘the one’, searching for the next level in a video game or the game of life, but truly searching for answers to the questions ‘How did we get here?’ or ‘What are we doing here?’ Different people choose to conduct this search in different languages. Some look to theology, some to astronomy, others to the humanities and social sciences, and of course, some write stories or make films about searching for uncharted galaxies and unknown alien species!

What was behind the decision to put these artists together? Was it a conscious choice to use only female artists?

Marisa Olson: I absolutely chose to include all female artists; in fact, I would love to believe that this decision was infinitesimally more conscious than the unfortunate glut of all-male shows we all too often see these days. I’ve long had a historical interest in the ways that mainstream science fiction has represented women, and over the years I’ve noticed more and more amazing female artists engaging with sci-fi. When I finally decided to curate something on the topic of women and sci-fi, I decided I was less interested in spinning my wheels harping on the longstanding objectification of women by male auteurs and much more interested in giving a platform to female voices. In fact, I should really highlight the thriving, diverse community of artists engaging with science fiction right now. I could easily name dozens more artists I’d love to include in sequels, zooming in on Afrofuturism, cyberfeminism and other parallel genres.

Could you explain the relationship that art has with sci-fi and why you've decided to focus on that pairing?

Marisa Olson: I think one of the most basic yet profound ways that we could define art is to look at it as the picturing of new ways to see the world. I’d like to believe that, if we can do this as viewers or practitioners, we can begin to foster empathy, cultural exchange and engagement, and the kinds of radical thinking that lead to positive growth and being.

My interest in organising this exhibition and selecting these artists was influenced by my interest in many feminist theorists that have called for a disavowal of the kind of patriarchal thinking sci-fi often entrenches and a de-essentialising of sex and gender dyads that also manifest in additional forms of black-and-white or binary thinking – which we see in science fiction as utopia/dystopia, self/other, civilised/barbaric oppositions. I believe that the work of the artists in Les Oracles demonstrates the possibility of speaking polyvalent or in flipped grammars, of embracing the aesthetics of failure and disorder, of the positive representation of female subjectivity and desire, and of speaking wishfully or informatively about the future without invoking oppressive models of authoritative pronouncement. New worlds, indeed!

Les Oracles is on at XPO Gallery in Paris until April 4. For more, click here