The Smithsonian Institution has been a bastion of groundbreaking research, world-changing innovation and awe-inspiring art for 175 years. This history is precisely what makes Smithsonian an obvious venue to speculate on the future.
Beginning this November, the iconic Smithsonian Arts + Industries Building (AIB) will temporarily re-open to host a radical exhibition that peers into the realm of what could be.
Described as part exhibition, part festival, the AIB is transforming into 32,000 square feet of new site-specific installations which include uniquely commissioned art, design works and films, as well as pieces from the collections of 23 Smithsonian museums, centers and initiatives.
But relics of futures’ past is only one element of “FUTURES,” which endeavors to be art, science and technology in action and conversation. “FUTURES” also invites people to bring and share their own experiences, thoughts and hopes — and to help the exhibition continue to evolve throughout its run.
Curator Ashley Molese says by encouraging such engagement, she acknowledges “FUTURES” asks a lot of visitors. She points to the Bakelizer, a steam pressure vessel used by chemist-entrepreneur Leo Hendrik, as just one example of technology she hopes will spark conversations and new ideas.
“We’re connecting to the legacy of this building and wanted to foreground some moments in history from the Smithsonian’s own collection,” Molese says. “Because we also know you really can’t understand your future until you understand your past — and we’ve had some missteps.”
In the center hall, light artist Suchi Reddy’s massive, pulsing, machine-learning AI installation “me + you” is the hub that “speaks to our imperative as humans to envision our relationship with technology as a positive dialogue.” A 360-degree experience, “me + you” is both conceptual light art and a generative time-based media piece that will evolve as visitors engage and whisper their deepest thoughts into any one of its hundreds of microphones.
“FUTURES” spreads illuminated tentacles across the AIB, with each hall hosting a unique environment: Past Futures, Futures that Inspire, Futures that Unite and Futures that Work. In some cases, as with a living garden, the environment will literally grow and change over the course of the exhibition. In others, augmented reality offers a different vision of the future, such as in Tamiko Thiel’s ReWildAR, which explores how D.C. can be rewilded to create a thriving, sustainable environment for nature. And in yet another feature, visitors are presented with research on the possibilities of same-sex reproduction.
“FUTURES” is a carefully woven crescendo of curatorial and intellectual ambition that begs the public to pull on its strings and imagine a tapestry we can’t yet see. Fittingly, Smithsonian is planning a multifaceted celebration for the exhibition’s opening weekend, including live music performances, celebrity Q&As, a call-and-response concert, a world premiere tour with Bill Nye, a roundtable of “Unexpected Conversations” with preeminent innovators and inventors, and more.
Among those who will be “in conversation” during the opening festivities is queer environmentalist drag queen Pattie Gonia, who has used her growing fame to spread a more inclusive vision of environmental advocacy.
“The future of conservation and advocacy looks like one built on radical inclusivity, acts of allyship for diversity in all its forms, and a deep connection to nature and to each other,” Gonia says.
D.C.-based drummer and America’s Got Talent semi-finalist Malik DOPE (Malik Stewart) will perform during the opening weekend’s free indoor/outdoor “concert turned sonic exploration,” along with D.C. pop trio SHAED.
“I see the future of the arts in D.C. taking off in multiple ways,” Stewart says, “[and I] not only get to witness the future of the Smithsonian but I get to help usher it in, as well.”
Stewart, who grew up in the District and recalls field trips to the Smithsonian during his youth, is a performer who brings a unique perspective to the “FUTURES” festival.
“Percussion is one of the first instruments of communication,” he says. “The beat of life won’t stop and will be here for millions of years to come because everything moves to a rhythm — and always will.”
“FUTURES” exhibition opens November 20 and will remain on view at the Smithsonian’s AIB through July 2022. AIB will also host “FUTURES on the Move” teaser events with other local luminaries like Erik Bruner-Yang and Trap Bob throughout the city during the month of November leading up to the exhibition. For more information, visit here.
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