In Depth

Into The Unknown: Explore science fiction at the Barbican

Discover strange worlds and new civilisations on film, TV and the printed page as a groundbreaking exhibition blasts off

From the recent TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale to Netflix blockbusters the OA and Stranger Things, our appetite for science fiction is as strong as ever. An expansive new cultural programme at the Barbican will explore this insatiable obsession with the genre, encompassing not only film and literature but music, art, video games and more.

The main part of the Into The Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction exhibition in the centre's Curve Gallery brings together major collections of notable books, manuscripts and artwork for a four-part display that embraces dystopian futures, alien life and artificial intelligence. The first section – Extraordinary Voyages – focuses on humankind's fascination with the unknown corners of the Earth, the subject of some of science fiction's oldest and most enduring tales including Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

Perhaps the area that has captured successive generations' imaginations the most, however, is the concept of life beyond this planet, explored in the largest section of the show, Space Odysseys. Inspiring some of Hollywood's biggest franchises, on display will be the original spacesuits worn by John Hurt in Alien and Leonard Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek, as well as Darth Vader and Stormtrooper helmets from Star Wars. Amongst the interactive displays will be a commission from motion graphics specialists Territory Studio, who have recreated a sequence from Ridley Scott's The Martian, while attention turns to music with a video installation centred around the interstellar-themed jazz of Sun Ra and his philosophy of Afrofuturism.

Popular culture's constant examination of societal constructs and the spaces we create for ourselves informs Brave New Worlds, which sees the subject through the lens of such dystopian literary classics as Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, as well as more recent films such as Ben Wheatley's adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel High Rise.

The final section, and one of the most pertinent to today's constantly evolving understanding of technology, is Final Frontiers. Here, questions of artificial intelligence and the boundaries between the human and the robotic arise, which have provided ample inspiration for such movies as Blade Runner. An auto-encoded version of that film will be shown – attempting to illuminate just how computers remember and reconstruct data – alongside screenings of Sunspring, a short film written entirely by an artificial intelligence bot. The star of Ex Machina, the humanoid robot Ava, will also be at the centre of an exclusive installation created with award-winning VFX company Double Negative.

The influence of science fiction will make its way into other parts of the Barbican too. The exhibition spills out into the main Silk Street reception, which will feature a six-foot installation based on an episode of Charlie Brooker's hit series Black Mirror, while the foyers will feature a new commission by Conrad Shawcross alongside other contemporary art.

Across the centre's diverse cross-cultural programming there will be a dedicated series of talks discussing such issues as whether simulation has become better than actual life, and indeed if we will even need reality at all in the future. Sunday cinema screenings will be given over to showing some of sci-fi's most important films, while the genre will also be reflected in concerts such as those by American techno pioneer Jeff Mills, which sees his unique sound combined with other art forms including documentary and contemporary dance.

Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction is at the Barbican from 3 June to 1 September; barbican.org.uk

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