Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Retro-Futurism 9: Looking Back at the Past, With the Past Looking Forward at Us

Villemard (1910) - En L'An 2000 - At School.

A few days ago, I picked up on an I09 review of the Millennial Web comic Tozo - The Public Servant (see my post here).  To better grasp Retro-Futurism, I want to compare Tozo to a collection of postcards from 1910, in which the French artist Villemard envisioned the year 2000. In this case, a fin-de-siècle Futurist closely resembles the work of a turn-of-the-Millennium Retro-Futurist. Villemard's collection has been making the rounds on the Web for about two years. It is housed at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF; French National Library); but it has been carried on - among other sites - Flickr, The Pursuitist, We are Replicants, The Society Pages, The UtopianistSelectismBoing Boing, BldgBlog, and A Cultivated Mindset, (many thanks to J. for the reference).  These sites all picked up on the charm of an outdated futurist.  But they did not explain why those images resonate so much now and why they are so popular on temporally-oriented Websites like How to be a Retronaut.

 Villemard (1910) - En L'An 2000 - Chantier de construction électrique.

Two things strike me about this 1910 collection.  First, Villemard's understanding of the future shows us just how impossible it is for us to accurately predict what things will be like, even one short century from now. That means we should look at current claims, such as those from Boomer futurist Ray Kurzweil and other wild hypotheses regarding the Technological Singularity, with some skepticism.  For a recent Transhumanist critique of Millennial Futurists, go here.

Villemard (1910) - En L'An 2000 - Air Firemen.

Second, while Villemard's 1910 predictions were eerily correct in some respects and wildly off in others as far as our daily reality in 2000 went, his pictures accurately predicted the Millennial taste for Retro-Futurism.  Villemard's images closely match our illustrations of the future as we gaze back toward the past The past looks toward the future; the present looks toward the past (with an eye on the future!); and the two views overlap almost exactly.

Villemard (1910) - En L'An 2000 - Correspondance Cinéma - Phono - Télégraphique.

I've written several posts in this series on Retro-Futurism on our desire to grab images and artifacts from the past and fling them into the future. I believe this impulse toward anachronism and antiquarianism results from a chronal disconnect created by the Tech Revolution.  The flood of information from different time periods, suddenly made equally and randomly accessible thorugh the use of the Internet and Information Technology, is now mashed together without regard to historical context.  This phenomenon is shaping our values and our perception.

Villemard (1910) - En L'An 2000 - Madame à sa Toilette.

Tozo - The Public Servant (6 January 2008). By David O'Connell.

Some critics of Facebook argue that the social network works at cross-purposes with our normal process of organically growing apart from people and forgetting them.  It falsely forces the past into the present.  This is inspiring deep-seated anxieties. There are many cultural examples that implicitly suggest that when the future is defined by the presence of the revived past, we may confront some catastrophic crisis of perception and understanding that will change everything.  We will suffer a moral inversion, where truth becomes fiction and good becomes evil.  Many of these concerns are, according to some (especially those engaged in ever-more-heated political debates), already upon us.  Some believe this sea-change in perspective constitutes the apocalypse.

Villemard (1910) - En L'An 2000 - Le train électrique Paris Pekin.

Tozo - The Public Servant (1 April 2007). By David O'Connell.

Consider any typical Millennial Retro-Futuristic example, from Howl's Moving Castle, to Steampunk, to Burning Man, to Slavonic Gothic, to Urbex.  They all involve catapulting the past into the future. Our past and present perceptions of the future are lining up.  In this case, Villemard's conception of society is less sinister, although he did depict winged policemen chasing an airborne robber.
 Villemard (1910) - En L'An 2000 - Hearing of the Newspaper.

Tozo - The Public Servant (22 November 2009). By David O'Connell.

The main features past Futurist and present Retro-Futurist visions share are antiquated ornamentation and clothing.  As far as clothing goes, Villemard did not anticipate the liberation of women.  Computers have made our instinctive return to the pastel colour palette of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries easier. Ochres, mustards, pale lemon and butter yellows, washed-out salmons, cobalt blue dilutes, aquamarines, seafoams, foggy lavenders, moss greens, and the occasional, rare dab of strawberry pink and cream.  The reds, which you can see used with brilliant effect in the Tozo strip banner here, are not the Coca-cola red that we are used to, but a burnt russet or ceramic brick red. This is a collection of colours which you can commonly see in prints from about 1890 up to the late 1920s, often posted over at The Pictorial Arts blog run by Thom Buchanan (for good examples, go herehere, here and here; Buchanan covered Villemard's collection here; see his other post on nineteenth century futuristic predictions here).  The colours of the new Millennium are not often discussed on tech-savvy Websites and blogs; nor is there much speculation regarding the origins of our Millennial colour palette.  It's based on our knowledge of an earlier era, probably grounded in our sense of old children's book illustrations and advertisements.  There's a chronal kinship: similar Zeitgeists (Zeitgeiste).  That earlier period was noted for its mechanical advancements.  The irony is that the earlier palette depended not just on fashion and tastes, but also on historic technical limitations of dye, inking and printing techniques.

Villemard (1910) - En L'An 2000 - One for the road.

 Tozo - The Public Servant (4 March 2007). By David O'Connell.

Another similarity between the fin-de-siècle Futurist and the Millennial Retro-Futurist is the technology, a tech-ed up version of early-to-mid twentieth century innovations.  The tech depicted is not clean-lined, slick and transparent, but rather burdened with Steampunk-like curley-cues. Tech in these images has an Old School tangibility that we normally associate with objects from the Industrial era. This is due to Villemard's inability to imagine that turn-of-the-century craftsmanship would fall by the wayside in the face of mass production. In the case of Tozo artist and writer, David O'Connell, the ornamentation reflects our nostalgia for the Belle Époque.

Villemard (1910) - En L'An 2000 - Sentinel advanced in the Helicopter.

Tozo - The Public Servant (24 June 2007). By David O'Connell.

Villemard (1910) - En L'An 2000 - The Agent Aviator.

Tozo - The Public Servant (3 January 2010). By David O'Connell. 

Villemard (1910) - En L'An 2000 - The avenue of the Opera.

Tozo - The Public Servant (27 June 2010). By David O'Connell.

Tozo is a Web comic with French and Italian references, unlike most Steampunk imagery, which draws from lingering memories of Victorian industry.  One could easily find Anglo-American Steampunk images that lined up with Villemard's ideas, although the cultural context would be slightly different.  The love of big machines, flying cars, and airships persisted, then and now, as being synonymous with the future.

Villemard (1910) - En L'An 2000 - Aeronat with the long course.

Tozo - The Public Servant (11 November 2007). By David O'Connell.

All images from Tozo - The Public Servant are © 2007-2011 by David O'Connell and are reproduced here solely for the purposes of discussion and review.


  1. Very interesting. Seems that the future can not be easy to foresee. The Tazo drawings are obviously inspired in Herge's artwork from Tintin, up to the fonts.