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Back to the Non-Western Future: Samantha Culp @ HKU

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In each of the three installments of the Back to the Future movie trilogy, the main character Marty McFly wakes up either in the past or in the future, thinking his previous experiences of time travel has been a dream. In Back to the Future Part III, Marty travels to the United States in 1885, and he wakes up saying ‘I had this horrible nightmare, I dreamed I was in a Western’. As he opens his eyes he realises this was no dream, and he really is in the Old West.

During her lecture at the Utrecht School of the Arts, Samantha Culp, one of the two festival curators, explained how this scene serves as an analogy of what she and co-curator Cher Potter are aiming for with the Impakt Festival 2012; to take a moment to wake up from this dream of the ‘West’, and instead of finding out this dream is a reality, waking up to a post-Western, multipolar world.

Interpreted already as being an anti-cowboy film festival or misunderstood as ‘No More Westerners’, the festival theme sure enough provides food for thought, which is why the packed auditorium happily underwent the introductory class in No More Westerns. The main idea behind the theme, as Samantha explained, is not to investigate a world without Western people, or to investigate the supposed takeover by China or other upcoming economies. Apocalyptic visions of the future, as Samantha put it, are just too boring. Rather than tapping into old fears about the rise of a great enemy or a future in which we all speak Chinese, Cher and Samantha envision the post-Western future as a multipolar world in which America, for example, is just another country.

The curatorial duo captured these and many other threads concerning a post-Western world in this year’s festival program. Though many of the visions presented during the festival may seem fantastic, these imagined futures are less far away then you might think. Take for example Katja Novitskova’s visual essay World Expo 2020 Gbadolite in the essay section of this years festival newspaper, a fictional report of the World Expo to be held in the Republic of Congo in 2020. With tribal women wearing solar tablets and a gorilla holding a partical energy torch, this might seem a far fetched portrayal, but when you look at the Makers Faire Africa in Lagos, you can not help but feel the need to rethink the general image of a West African country as a ‘developing’ or ‘third world’ country, unable to provide for itself.

The need to revise the way the non-Western world is viewed becomes apparent when Samantha shows part of the piece Cheng Zhang De Fan Nao (Growing Pains). The American sitcom Growing Pains was the first American television show to appear on Chinese television, dubbed in Mandarin of course. Asian-American artist Rutherford Chang had his Chinese friends who grew up watching this show redub the show in English. Their heavily accented English gives the piece an estranging feel, since even though the language is understandable, it takes a while for the words to come across. Mainly focussing on the images, which makes the whole experience quite foreign. Seeing something so familiar but so alien at the same time makes you understand the way the United States and the West are imagined by many non-Western cultures, and provides food for thought about how our own visions of non-Western culture are constructed.

It’s about time we wake up from our shared dream and get back to the future. Beware though, it might be a rude awakening.

Cheng Zhang De Fan Nao (Growing Pains) is part of the screening program Fourth Culture Kids, 27 October 2012 @ Theater Kikker.