The woman in stealth Han Solo cosplay stops before the reflective glass framing Robert Longo's charcoal rendering of Saturn. Her body floats superimposed against the inky shadow the planet casts over its own rings. She snaps a selfie. Behind her, others queue to do the same. It's human nature to want the universe to both reflect and revolve around us, and that's one of the hallmarks of the funky, nostalgia-tinged exhibit Imagined Futures at Pivot Art + Culture.
Imagined Futures is a kaleidoscopic mishmash of space-themed ephemera owned by Paul Allen, running the gamut from awe-inspiring to snicker-inducing. Eccentric Hollywood memorabilia sits beside a genuine, gorgeously coruscating IBM spaceflight computer. Meticulous blueprints of never-were satellites by Wernher von Braun hang by vivid, wildly implausible paintings commissioned as science-fiction book covers. Chesley Bonestell's eerily accurate paintings of planetary surfaces from the 1940s, which helped inspire the US space program, conduct stilted conversations with hallucinatory works by Max Ernst and René Magritte. It's enough to induce whiplash—the fun kind you get from riding Space Mountain.
All good sci-fi is commentary on the present, and this collection is a porthole into the fears and hopes of the American mid-century. Illustrations by Bonestell and Fred Freeman from the 1950s Collier's magazine series "Man Will Conquer Space Soon!" gamely assumed that space was white, male, and American—and how! (There is only one woman depicted in the show: a scientist polishing a ridged, engorged test tube as her fellow scientist bites his pencil in distracted sexual agony.)
There are lantern-jawed pilots testing flight craft for Uncle Sam, and Martian landers proudly flying Stars and Stripes. These are visions of a future of endless resources and boundless progress, missives of jingoistic science fueled by nuclear fears and saber-rattling.
But that funding spike had to come to an end, lending these bright speculative futures a wistful tinge. The prognosticators couldn't know that NASA would go moribund, that space might ultimately belong not to nations and militaries but to ambitious private corporations, and that focus would shift inward to microcomputing and telecommunications. That, for now, the human element would be removed and replaced by finer telescopes and brave anthropomorphic surface-bumping robot buddies. The gleaming smiles, granite chins, and beef-fed muscles of American spaceflight need no longer apply. (At least until SpaceX sends its first meat-shot to Mars.)
Segregated from the rest of the exhibit is the show's only contemporary piece, an installation called voyager one by David Bowen and Kristina Estell. It's a dark, stifling closet lit by a harsh purple-blue LED, the color output based on positional data from the still-functioning space probe launched back in 1977. It's supposed to make us consider how inconceivably far Voyager has traveled, and the fact that it's still going. But, faced with a dangling bulb in a dark, airless room, all I can think of is how we're stuck in the same spot, watching its taillights dim as we fall further behind.