Amid the pandemic, when the photographer Daniel Cheong found himself unable to travel, he started building impossible, futuristic composites in Photoshop. The results are breathtaking, combining the neon lights and sky-high architecture of Bangkok, Hong Kong, Dubai, Chongqing, and beyond to create dizzying megacities straight from a dream. Early this year, he released his first collection of cyberpunk NFTs, or non-fungible tokens.
In recent years, we’ve seen photographers, painters, digital artists, and more take fresh approaches to illustrating and imagining the future, and many of them have become players in the emerging cryptocurrency/NFT space. With this trend in mind, we wanted to take a look at how today’s artists are exploring futuristic themes, visuals, and concepts in their work. But first, a trip down memory lane.
To understand depictions of the future in popular culture, perhaps there’s no better place to start than with TV. The Jetsons, the animated sitcom that came to television in 1962, only aired for a season, but it sparked hopes of a 21st century filled with possibility and convenience. While we might still long for flying cars, many of its storylines and details proved prescient, from video phones to talking watches.
That same year, NASA reached out to artists to help them imagine the future of space travel. Among them was Robert T. McCall, who became known as the “Space Artist.” He imagined a future filled with floating shopping malls and astronauts in shiny spacesuits. Artists, along with scientists, have always been the best trend forecasters.
Star Trek came in 1966, foreshadowing a future filled with tablets, universal translators, and flip phones. McCall, the Space Artist, would go on to work on films, including Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. He also created promotional artwork for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
At the same time, filmmakers were exploring their own vision for the future of human society. In 1982, Ridley Scott presented a more uneasy view of mankind’s future with Blade Runner. Set in 2019, the film envisioned a technological dystopia, taking place in the rugged streets of Los Angeles. Along with 1988’s Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo, it’s largely credited with pioneering the cyberpunk genre, a movement that continues to inform art and culture in 2022.
Syd Mead, a designer who worked on Blade Runner, Tron, and Aliens, did extensive research on emerging technologies to create worlds that felt both real and impossibly futuristic. His illustrations were the stuff of dreams, though many of his visions came true, at least in part; his handheld devices, for instance, look a lot like smartphones. Though he worked on Blade Runner, his work as a whole is understood as largely hopeful about our technological future.
When it comes to imagining the future, the worlds of cinema, gaming, and photography often intersect and overlap. The Scottish-born photographer Liam Wong, who was once the youngest director at the video game company Ubisoft, also earned a name for himself as a photographer; by 2019, his book, composed of nighttime photographs made in Tokyo, made history as the largest crowdfunded book in the United Kingdom.
Also in Tokyo, photographers like Peter Stewart have captured awe-inspiring views that instantly evoke memories of those early cyberpunk films. “For me, this is about as close as it gets to simulating the world of Blade Runner in real life,” he shared after a recent shoot. These movements aren’t limited to visual art, either; on the heels of cyberpunk, we’ve even seen sub-genres such as synthwave and vaporwave cross over into the music industry.
Elsewhere, Tyler McKay’s Sleepless Streets, a collection of 83 sci-fi-inspired photographs, provides a glimpse into the creative potential of the cyberpunk theme in photography NFTs. Shot late at night, the images feature many of the trademark motifs of the cyberpunk art movement—neon lights, rain-slick streets, towering skyscrapers. As of this writing, the floor price is 0.999 ETH, or approximately $3,018.02.
In more ways than one, NFTs are the perfect fit for futuristic art, in part because the blockchain itself is a new technology. The idea of the metaverse, a 3D space where we can interact with friends, go to work, and buy art, also has historical ties with the cyberpunk genre. As it happens, the phrase “metaverse” was coined in 1992 by Neal Stephenson as part of his dystopian novel Snow Crash.
“NFTs themselves represent a massive leap forward in technology and how we use the internet,” the 500px team explains. “In many ways, collecting NFTs can be seen as collecting a piece of the future.” As the space grows, the meanings behind these works will also shift and evolve. Some artists articulate and visualize our anxieties and fears about the future, while others illustrate the power of hope and innovation.
One prominent photographer exploring futuristic themes in the NFT space is Karen Jerzyk, whose series The Lonely Astronaut became a smash hit. To make the photographs, the artist bought a vintage spacesuit, creating surreal tableaux that imagine life on Earth after humans are gone–or have been forced to evacuate. The project is by turns haunting and hopeful, post-apocalyptic and wonder-filled.
Influential photography projects in the NFT community also include Cyber Streets by the street photographer illkoncept, who was inspired to imagine a dystopian future in the age of climate change, and Neon Noir Tokyo by the street photographer and visual artist TOKYOLUV.
The way artists imagine the future—and respond to the present—is constantly evolving in real-time, with some exploring the climate and water crises, urban expansion, inequality, and environmental degradation through their work. In recent years, we’ve also seen the rise of solarpunk, an art movement that imagines a future where nature and technology peacefully coexist, thanks to renewable energy. Whereas cyperpunk explores a dystopia, solarpunk provides a glimpse at a better world. And it’s not the only movement to advocate for and illustrate a more just and sustainable tomorrow.
The term “Afrofuturism” has been around since 1993, when it was coined by Mark Dery, though the movement has existed for far longer and came into the global spotlight once again in 2018 with the release of Black Panther. Afrofuturist art looks through a Black lens to explore the intersections of the African Diaspora, science, and technology. The movement draws from African traditions, art, and mythology, science fiction and fantasy, and more to reimagine a better future for humanity.
In the relatively short history of NFTs, Afrofuturism has already played an important—and essential—role. Last year, Diana Sinclair curated the crypto art exhibition Digital Diaspora: Liberating Black Creativity, hosted by Superchief Gallery NFT and centered around the theme of Afrofuturism. 18 Black artists from around the world participated. Elsewhere, the African Museum of the Metaverse has dedicated the second floor of their Cryptovoxels space to an exhibition of Afrofuturist art.
With these new iterations of forward-thinking art, we’re seeing NFT creators not only predict the future but also help create it. For some, it means looking to cinematic history for inspiration. For others, that means bringing photography into a new era through meticulous composites. And for many, it means confronting the inequities of the past to redefine the future of art for the better, both in the physical world and far beyond it in the metaverse.
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