#18 Science fiction

On 25 November Photoworks activated its 2022 Festival in a Box, an open-access exhibition inspired by Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower. First published in 1993, Butler’s novel charts an America falling into chaos 30 years into the future, and the dogged determination of the narrator as she searches for a new place to call home; with themes of community, tolerance, and the environment, and created as a piece of speculative fiction, it’s the perfect starting point to consider our own fractured present, and imagine a more sustainable future. This issue of Photography+ is inspired by the Festival in a Box.

It includes an interview with Johny Pitts, for example, whose work Home Is Not A Place was commissioned by Photoworks, and who has contributed an image to the Festival in a Box. His series portrays an alternative vision of the UK, a Black Britain too often written out of narratives around the country and its people. This issue also includes an interview with Anshika Varma, who is showing images from her project The Wall in the Festival in a Box; The Wall is a look at the urban forest contained within New Delhi, but Varma is also an experienced publisher and curator, whose activities aim to open up the Western-centric photography industry. Photoworks’ current Writer in Residence Sabrina Citra interviews Varma about both aspects of her practice.

Elswhere Photoworks curators Julia Bunneman and Raquel Villar-Perez discuss the current resurgence of interest in science and speculative fiction, alongside three other curators who have created exhibitions inspired by this work – Alexandra Muller from Le Centre Pompidou-Metz; Rebecca Edwards from Arebyte Gallery; and Ekow Eshun, curator of Hayward Gallery’s In the Black Fantastic. For Eshun, speculative fiction has allowed artists from the African diaspora to think through their experiences and envisage alternatives, as well as allowing all Westerners to try to think up better futures. ‘In the Western world we are all being collectively forced to confront a whole range of existential crises,’ he tells Photography+. ‘Climate change is the most acknowledged but also cases like George Floyd, which showed that racial inequality is real, rather than something that exists purely in the heads of people of colour.’

In the final two articles in Photography+ we pursue Eshun’s insights, and take advantage of the magazine’s digital format to include audio-visual works. Photoworks curator Ricardo Reveron Blanco contributes an essay on Indian duo Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya’s Remakes series, for example, specifically their 2020 re-imagining of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, which sets the science fiction film’s soundtrack against the backdrop of India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, legislation which provides citizenship for immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, but excludes Muslims. We also interview Polish artist duo Ewa and Jacek Doroszenko on their Bodyfulness project, which considers transhumanism and technology, and how it is changing even our most intimate environments and relationships.

Finally we present our chosen Community Submission. For this issue, readers were asked to send images based around the idea of The Unhomely, the conception of an estranged experience of home proposed by Sigmund Freud and later developed by postcolonial writer Homi Bhabha. We’re proud to be able to show the image Money Blindness by Accra-based creative Ikon Shepherd. We hope you enjoy this issue.

Diane Smyth


Text by Ricardo Reverón Blanco

Science fiction is often an explorative journey in search of truth. After all, as the saying goes, the truth is often stranger than fiction. This is very much the case in Escape From Alphaville, a 2020 ‘remake’ of Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic 1965 film Alphaville by Indian artist-duo Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya. Escape From Alphaville draws out dystopian science-fiction elements of the cinematic classic to create an allegory of totalitarian society very much set in the present day.

Escape from Alphaville was produced against the backdrop of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, a bill that provides a pathway to Indian citizenship for many migrants but explicitly excludes Muslims. In creating the film, Mitra and Bhattacharya were making ‘a direct but poetic response to what is happening around us’ [photoink.net]. Appropriating the original soundtrack for Alphaville, the duo generated new images, displacing and expanding the movie by translocating Godard’s ominous vision of 1960s Paris to the urban nightscape of contemporary Kolkata. 

Escape From Alphaville offers a figurative and structural response to the source film rather than a direct visual echo of it. Akin to a sort of space-age tourism, it helps viewers to question the present by imagining an alternative way of looking at our current reality. In this regard, it follows the spirit of Godard’s film which, shot in real locations, used the then-new glass and concrete architecture of Paris to project a futuristic vision of the world, thereby suggesting that the future is made up of fragments of the present. This notion should inspire us to fight against complacency and give us the agency and power to enact change in our world.


Escape from Alphaville is part of a wider, ongoing series by Mitra and Bhattacharya, which includes remakes of other seminal such as Aleksei German’s 2013 movie Hard to Be a God. Their films are made with a mobile phone during other work or travel, a minimalist, guerrilla form of image-making that undermines the traditional capitalist mode of cultural production. It’s an approach that puts the emphasis on the individual and the DIY, on the possibility that each of us might somehow reshape our ways of seeing.

Mitra and Bhattacharya’s Remakes takes their lead from science fiction, a genre that ostensibly transports audiences to otherworldly or faraway locations, but often deals with very real societal issues. For some, such as Godard, science fiction is a tool to shake viewers out of their everyday assumptions; for others, science-fiction narratives simply transpose accepted notions into fantastic environments. Either way, the genre represents a route into our present reality not an escape from it.

Take a contemporary example soon to return to the cinemas, James Cameron’s Avatar franchise. The first film in the series, which was released in 2009, is set in the 22nd century, when humans are colonising the planet Pandora to procure valuable minerals. The film thus depicts the reality of the West’s colonial history – that’s to say, plundering, enslavement, and genocide. The aliens are the ‘othered’ species, feared and consequently conquered, though the film’s narrative arc works to rehabilitate them. Avatar thus taps into idea of the ‘alien’ often played out in science fiction, whether sympathetically or not. Etymologically, the word ‘alien’ derives from the Latin ‘alienus’, meaning  ‘belonging to another’, which reinforces notions of control and exploitation. 

Escape from Alphaville/Science City Flyover (After Jean-Luc Godard), 2020. From the series, Remakes, 2018-ongoing. Video still. Photograph courtesy Madhuban Mitra & Manas Bhattacharya and PHOTOINK

The idea of the ‘alien’ is also integral to nationalism, whether in India or anywhere else. As a ‘conejero’ or ‘rabbit’, born in Lanzarote and now based in the UK, migration and cultural dissonance are part of my DNA. I am often confronted with the liminality of my heritage, and it is often in tension with the place in which I reside, wherever I am in the world. To navigate through discovering, translating, reconciling, and not belonging is to play out an ode to the experience of the diaspora. It’s an experience that often results in an incomplete sense of homeliness, I also see that lack of homeliness play out in science fiction, especially in its aesthetic. As Escape From Alphaville states in its reappropriated opening line, ‘Sometimes reality is too complex for oral communication.’

To feel at home is to recognise and replicate the often heteronormative and white supremacist narrative that has been sold and continuously perpetuated around the world. This hegemonic cultural heritage is reiterated, consolidated, and broadcasted into reality’s narrative. Science fiction can be a place in which those narratives are replicated, or it can offer an alternative – a refuge in which it is possible to mobilise different identities and ways of living. It’s a place in which an ‘alien-eye view’ can become a position of strength.

Science fiction can help us to see reality through another lens, to question, reassess and reconfigure societal structures. To see a possible future is a way to establish, for better or worse, what must change in our present.

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