The Imaginary 20th Century: Re-Constructing Imagination

The Imaginary 20th Century: Re-Constructing Imagination

Andreas Kratky (USC School of Cinematic Arts, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-763-3.ch010
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To understand historic developments of the past the authors normally turn to facts: Archival records, testimonies or remains from the past – they are looking for tangible evidence to reconstruct the past. In particular in respect to the technological development that originated at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century the role of deterministic interpretations has been very strong. The focus is on technologies and how they improved along an inevitable time line towards technical perfection (Marvin, 1988). Another historic perspective that takes the social aspects into account mainly traces how people negotiated the old and the new and how technologies changed the social fabric. What stays out of the focus of most research is what people in the past felt and thought and how their imagination of what is possible and desirable influenced the development of technologies and the society. The following will use the example of the interactive media art piece The Imaginary 20th Century to discuss an approach to turn the attention to the re-construction of historical imagination with a particular focus on the imaginative processes and their communication to a current audience.
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The Imaginary 20th Century explores how the twentieth century was imagined at the end of the 19th. It is a collaboration of the writer Norman M. Klein, the historian and curator Margo Bistis, and the media artist Andreas Kratky.

The Imaginary 20th Century is an interactive experience that can be navigated by the viewer. The piece is a hybrid of a novel and a research database containing a vast archive of items of the popular culture from the time between 1895 and 1926. In the attempt to reconstruct the contemporary imagination our piece in part leaves the realm of historically warranted factual “evidence” and crosses over to fiction. Drawing from information circulating in contemporary magazines, newspapers, books, films etc. we try to reconstruct how people imagined the future inspired by these sources. Accompanied by a fictional story told by its author Norman M. Klein, the viewer sorts through a database of items that potentially fueled the imagination of the people at the turn of the century. The objects are presented in loose association with the story according to a poetic keyword-system that connects each item on one hand to its historical context and on the other hand to the story.

The turn of the century was a period of fundamental transformations in all areas of life. Growing cities, dense traffic, new technologies of communication, production, consumption, and warfare, new scientific inventions, a wealth of new utopian ideas – as a sum effect the futuristic vision of the coming century was dazzling and a strong challenge for the traditional experiential background.

The project raises multiple questions about how we can communicate the particular mood of the time that framed those visions. How can we address aspects of historic imagination with a focus on the transient every-day phenomena rather than on the elaborate formulations that are transmitted to us in utopian texts? How can we voice our assumptions, which inevitably contain elements of both fiction as well as factual information in a responsible and informative way?


Challenges Of The Project

The project aims at reconstructing what people living around the turn from the 19th century to the 20th expected from the future. An attempt to trace these expectations cannot only work with existing historical materials but rather has to address the imaginary formulations that circulated during that time. There is no shortage of literature ranging from science fiction to social utopia. But the questions we are raising in our project are targeted at the everyday culture and how signs of the future are woven into the fabric of the normal day-to-day life. In this sense the project is trying to locate the material that informed both the literary creations as well as the average people’s expectations and fears: The raw material for the construction of the imagination of the future before it is shaped into literature.

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