Past, Present and Future in Dystopia
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Dystopia, a term first coined by English philosopher, and Member of Parliament, John Stuart Mill, in 1868, to denounce the Liberal Party’s Irish Land policy proposed in the run-up to the UK general election. Used in contradiction to the term “utopia” (meaning “no place”), invented by author Thomas More in his 1551 novel of the same name, Mill had sought to reveal the inconsistencies of the policy, which attempted to safeguard tenants from eviction and “promote progress without endangering social order” as stated by Laura Valladão de Mattos in her 2020 abstract to John Stuart Mill And The Irish Land Question: An Illustration Of His View On Social Institutions. At the time, it was reported that only 3% of Irish farmers owned their own land while 97% were tenants, making this bill seem progressive, fuelled by an aspiration for social reform. Liberal candidate, William Ewart Gladstone, aspired to flatten the steep curve of disparity in Irish land ownership while preventing landowners from unjustly ousting their employees without any financial support. However, Mill argued that the policy “did not fulfill any of these requisites and should be abandoned” as a self-serving model of “transposing to Ireland the “English model” of capitalist agriculture” (de Mattos 2020).
While Gladstone’s proposal may have appeared a move towards financial equity in Ireland - by bolstering the rights of the proletariat farmers, who often were under the employ of rich, English landowners - the policy was later criticised as merely propelling the English Capitalist agenda, failing to ensure economic regulation and instead merely benefitted the middle class of medium farmers. Gladstone’s attempt at answering the question of Irish land ownership - which has since been debated and reformed countless times - had been exposed as a feeble exercise by politicians to quell the rising despondency of Irish farmhands towards their English overlords; offering the illusion of progress as a small premium to impress a false notion of equality. This, in its essence, is our starting point for discussing dystopia, with Mill’s first utterance of the word used to expose the systematic oppression instilled in political rhetoric.
By analysing Mill’s usage of dystopia to describe the misuse of power by a political group, we come to some of the best-known facets of what conveys as dystopian: political suppression, an elite ruling class, and the pursuit of homogeneity under the guise of unification. Moreover, by using it as the antithesis to More’s Utopia - described as a perfect imaginary world in which people share a common culture and way of life - Mill declared that Gladstone’s English-skewing, capitalistic vision for Ireland be the first in a long line of dystopian nightmares: a “bad place” defined by an oppressive government, induced hegemony, social uniformity (or the imposed eradication of the individual), and a lack of moral values. Over the next one hundred years the world would see the first of many dystopian novels arise out of Mill’s sentiment; catalysed by countless wars, political upheavals, and oppressive regimes across Europe to establish dystopia as the endlessly provocative subgenre of fiction we know, love (and obsess over) today.
Works such as Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World (1932) and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) would popularize the political nature of dystopia, expressing anxieties of technological progress and “the notion of the conditioned subject” amid sexless, homogenised societies. Writer George Orwell, in his review of Zamyatin and Huxley’s work, recognised the similarities between the texts, reading the dystopian throughline of each of their respective heroes’ journeys. Huxley’s John and Zamyatin’s D-503 are both free thinkers living amid a restrictive hegemony. John, under the regulations of a globalised, technologically-driven superstate, known as the World State, and D-503 under the voyeuristic regime of We’s One State. He sees both their respective struggles for autonomy as one and the same, a “rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world.”
Inspired by political regimes of the time - Zamyatin being heavily influenced by his experiences in Soviet Russia, and Huxley with the rise of nationalist ideologies in Europe - each text presents a dissident protagonist set to implode an oppressive, state-led, system, that has been augmented by an unfettered upsurge in technological advancement. As Orwell states, “It is in effect a study of the Machine, the genie that man has thoughtlessly let out of its bottle and cannot put back again.” The machine is both the World State of Huxley’s London, where citizens are engineered through artificial wombs and indoctrinated into predetermined classes based on intelligence and labour, and Zamyatin’s One State, a nation constructed almost entirely of glass in which everything is observed by the secret police or Bureau of Guardians.
Huxley and Zamyatin pioneered the dystopian notion of an individual that sits outside the dominant society, and fights to be free of political and social subjugation; to live, love and express themselves as they please without fear of institutional suppression. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Orwell’s later 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, would echo both We and Brave New World; presenting the story of a man who fights to break the chains of his political and technological brainwashing by practising free thought and romantic love in a world where each is considered an unlawful betrayal of state loyalty.
Set in a world where England, now known as Air Strip One, is part of the tyrannical super- state, Oceania, in constant war with the other states - Eurasia and Eastasia - Orwell establishes a dystopian nightmare inspired by the rise of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the rubble left in the wake of World War Two. Brainwashed by the government’s manipulative form of language known as “Newspeak”, citizens of Oceania are conditioned to believe that “War is Peace and Freedom is Slavery” (Orwell 1949). Sex and love are illegal, rations are carefully controlled and the dictionary is designed to “narrow the range of thought”, limiting Oceania’s citizens from “subversive” concepts of free will, personal identity and self- expression (Orwell 1949). Orwell takes Huxley and Zamyatin’s notions of the conditioned subject and establishes a sexless world where the Party is everything. Where to dissent from the laws and regulations regarding the most basic of human instincts, to love and to procreate, is to commit treason of the highest order. Pat Wheeler’s puts forth the argument that dystopian societies in fiction are often painted as emotionally repressed, and asexual; writing in her 2005 article Representations of Dystopia in Literature and Film, “through its rationalisation of time and behaviour, [dystopia] portrays [love and imagination] as degenerate.” INGSOC’s fear-tactics and restrictions on language echo Wheeler’s sentiment, as well as both Huxley and Zamyatin’s respective heroes who’re forced into a sexless subservience by social conditioning and imposed uniformity.
Additionally, through Big Brother’s voyeuristic surveillance, INGSOC demonstrates philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon; an institutional building in which a single guard can keep watch of an entire prison from one central rotunda. Thereby making criminal activity, or anything deemed unacceptable by INGSOC’s ThinkPol (Thought Police) - Orwell’s version of the Gestapo - a near-impossible affair.
Furthermore, INGSOC’s panoptic surveillance reflects Zamyatin’s One State in We, which, Wheeler argues, exhibits “the lack of privacy in [dystopian fiction], along with a strictly imposed uniformity of actions, insures that individuals are assimilated into the collectivism in which rebellion is nearly impossible.” And yet rebellion is nearly always the case in dystopian fiction. Whether through Katniss Everdeen’s inadvertent rise as a political revolutionary in Suzanne Collins’s similarly panoptic, 2008 dystopian showcase, The Hunger Games, or as
in Nineteen Eighty-Four, when Winston, a dissident individual of Oceania, seeks to shatter INGSOC’s control over him by nurturing his love for fellow dissenter, Julia. Orwell, as with Collins, Zamyatin and Huxley, establishes a pervading facet of the subgenre, that of the individual’s fight for liberty under an oppressive regime. It comes as no surprise that Everdeen’s Three Finger Salute has become an international symbol of political upheaval, raised by five courageous Thai university students “protesting a speech delivered by General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, self-appointed prime minister and leader of the military junta that seized power” in May of 2014, as reported by film critic, Clarisse Loughrey, of Little White Lies. Unfortunately, as is the case with dystopia, the fiction reflects reality, as the students were purportedly removed and interrogated at a nearby military base, and “threatened with the charge of violating martial law.”
Through Winston and Julia’s rebellious break from their social conditioning, Orwell’s text can be seen as a direct reflection of the growing power of fascist and communist regimes in Europe, exploring the tendency of these political structures to utilise methods of suppression - censorship, propaganda, imposed homogeneity - in service of a powerful social elite.
The phrase “Big Brother Is Watching You”, created by Orwell for the villainous INGSOC, is known throughout the world as a fictional example of the panoptic voyeurism of real-world institutions - America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Russia’s KGB (Committee for State Security), and China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) - that work to seek out and quell aspects of human behaviour deemed either a national security hazard or unfit for society as a whole. An all-seeing, all-knowing, yet unreal entity that has been repurposed, and reshaped endlessly across a range of mediums and media companies, in particular by the globe-spanning reality TV show, Big Brother, originally conceived and aired by the UK’s Channel 4 network, and by artists such as the Bristol-born graffiti, and political satirist, known only as Banksy.
Located on Newman Street in London, Banksy’s 2007 mural, One Nation Under CCTV, is just one of the artist’s many “Orwellian” pieces depicting the anxieties of unchecked, national surveillance. Yet, while Orwell took inspiration from the controlling institutions of wartime Europe - such as the Gestapo, the Nazi’s Secret Police, and the Soviet Union’s NKVD (the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) - Banksy takes his from contemporary security agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA) in America, which have been heavily condemned for the practice of spying on citizens around the world. By placing a mirror up to society, Banksy reveals that the institutions in which Orwell’s - his peers and predecessors’ - allegorised in their dystopian fictions, have far from ceased to exist, merely disappearing behind a barrage of safety and protocol.
Worldwide censorship and state-led surveillance have since developed into a more elusive fare, with the advent of the internet giving rise to information warfare between nations, and
the monitoring of the individual as a prerequisite of that. It was only eight years ago that NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked a series of documents exposing the morally ambiguous practice of the United States’s Department of Defense, to invade the privacy of America’s people through surveillance and data collection; an instance far too close to the practices of Orwell’s Thinkpol. In 2013, Banksy responded to the leak with his eponymous Spy Phone piece, satirising the practice of national surveillance and presenting the dubiousness of such institutions by creating a trio of spies around a phone booth in Cheltenham, UK. Originally located only a few miles from GCHG, the UK’s home for government surveillance operations, the piece has since been taken down to, as averred by The Guardian, in 206, to enable “urgent work” to take place.
Snowden’s whistleblowing has since spurred a ripple of new laws and practices inhibiting agencies such as the NSA from unlawfully invading the privacy of the individual. Policies such as the UK’s Data Protection Act of 2018, a set of data protection principles implemented to complement the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, placing security and transparency at the forefront of data collection, while also giving responsibility back to the individual. Essentially, if you tick that Terms and Conditions box, and don’t read the fine print, it’s your own fault what happens to your data.
This, while seemingly progressive in its conception, much like Gladstone’s Irish Land policy, is arguably just a soft block for data agencies, who continue to collect private information in tandem with these newfound laws. Thereby, making contemporary surveillance agencies,whose practices are not too dissimilar to that of Big Brother, a much more digestible apparatus of control. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't.
Within our world, aspects of dystopia are everywhere and nowhere. Forces of control hidden in plain sight; obscured behind a shroud of financial capital, or political influence. Corporations, such as Meta and Twitter, who see the wanton spread of consumeristic rhetoric, and hateful political ideologies as simply a side effect of expansive business practice, while the rich and powerful break laws and ruin lives, only to get off with a slap on the wrist and a few grovelling months in hibernation.
Villains such as Ghislaine Maxwell, Prince Andrew, Mark Zuckerberg prove that Orwell’s INCSOC, and the amoral misuse of power by the elite classes, is not just a thing of fiction. Moreover, with the exposure of international money laundering schemes like the Panama Papers, instances of political corruption such as the self-reinstatement of Juan Guaidó asthe President of Venezuela, as well as current issues of national and international surveillance; the world of Nineteen eighty-four is eerily similar to our 2021.
Yet, to fully understand the implications of dystopian fiction as a mirror to society, one must attempt to include all of its artistic representations. Take film, for example, the centre of pop culture for over a century, and a leading medium to explore the rudiments of a dystopian society.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 sequel film, Blade Runner 2049, explore, much like Huxley and Zamyatin, the ramifications of technological progress in a futuristic, dystopian setting. Artificial humans, known as replicants, are built by corporations to shoulder the bulk of working-class labour. Those same corporations control the ebb and flow of a society based on consumption and capitalist gain. While real humans
are either off-world or dirt poor. Already, we have some of the fundamentals of dystopian fiction: a destitute world; a society ruled by corporations; a steep class divide; and the erection of a subservient workforce - led to follow specific regulations, and to obey the elite ruling class (in this case, humans).
Dr Eldon Tyrell, the manufacturer of replicants in the first film, is the CEO of a massive corporation whose primary goal is to create perfect human representations known as “replicants”. Originally written as “androids” by author Philip K. Dick’s in his 1968 source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Scott’s replicants are either put to use in battle across the galaxy, made into sex workers, or forced into slave labour. They’re a race of bioengineered beings made solely for the purpose of service; “a disposable workforce” as explained by Tyrell’s successor, Niander Wallace, of 2049. Like many other dystopian texts, namely The Matrix (1999), Planet of the Apes (1968), and recently in Netflix’s Altered Carbon (2018), the suppression and consumption (either literal or figurative) of a homogenized, slave class is central to Blade Runner and its sequel. As aptly discerned by Kate Erbland of Vanity Fair, “If it’s not evil governments oppressing people, it’s monkeys or machines or random dudes in suits.”
In Blade Runner, replicants are but a means to many of humanity’s ends, and if they step out of line, are destroyed or “retired” by the titular Blade Runners. Through the control and subservience of replicants as an allegory for a slave class, the film reiterates many of the notions put forth in previous dystopian texts - such as the homogenisation of a people, and the controlling power of the ruling elite. Yet, by doing so, the film also examines the morality of androids and what it truly means to be human.
For example, Ryan Gosling’s K is a replicant blade runner, meaning that, while being aware of his artificiality, his primary job is to seek out and kill his fellow replicants (those that have either gone rogue or fail to adhere to society’s whims). He is a walking contradiction, a “skin job”, as per the colloquial slur, forced to kill other “skin jobs” who don’t obey their masters. Through K’s willing subjugation and profession as a replicant hunter, the film demonstrates the dystopian notion of spying on one’s neighbours. A notion uttered ceaselessly in otherdystopian texts - namely Orwell’s Thinkpol, the Agents in The Matrix - as well as mirroring many real-world instruments of political and social repression i.e. China’s Re-Education camps, Nazi concentration camps and the Russian Gulag to name a few.
In the world of Blade Runner, replicants are coded with real human memories as a “cushion or pillow for their emotions”; a way to “control them better” as described by Tyrell. This, again, mirrors the manipulative rhetoric of Thinkpol and indeed many other dystopian narratives such as Mamoru Oshii’s, 1995, cyberpunk opus, Ghost in the Shell. Wherein the central protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi is thrust on a journey of self-discovery after the film’s antagonist, the hacker, known as “The Puppet Master”, plants a seed of doubt as to the truth of her identity before being assembled as the gun-toting cyborg. This spark of curiosity is what propels the central theme of the piece, the search for identity amid a uniform and predetermined existence. It is the titular ghost in Kusinagi’s shell that eats away at her like Winston with his love for Julia, Neo with his search for the Matrix, or Douglas Quaid’s search for identity in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990).
Identity and self-discovery are key to K’s story in 2049. A single moment of doubt, when he discovers one of his memories to be real, sends him, like Kusanagi, Neo and Quaid, down a path of discovery wherein he finds out that his existence might hold more significance than his hitherto unreal memories have foretold. K starts to believe that he might be human, that he might be more than the homogenized slave machine that society deems him to be. This gives K a semblance of hope, an inkling of dissent that propels him towards self-discovery and out of the regulations placed upon him by his replicant status.
This is mirrored in Scott’s original film, in which Batty, a rogue replicant and the film’s antagonist, comes to Earth in search of his father, Tyrell, to extend his four-year lifespan. He essentially wants to become more human; to break from the predefined restrictions of his artificial being and live a long, unimposed life. The film explains that if a Nexus 6 replicant lives longer than four years, they can develop empathic abilities, thereby making them harder to detect in the series fictional Voight-Kampff test; a test aimed at differentiating humans from replicants. In Batty’s case, his empathic abilities come in the form of a kiss for his father, Tyrell and his reluctance to kill Harrison Ford’s Deckard at the end of the film, while in 2049, K discovers a deep yearning to discover the truth of his existence.
Batty and K are both artificial humans who yearn to be human, and who discover what it means to be human better than the humans themselves. Love. To feel for someone or something so strongly that you’d sacrifice anything to protect them, and yet the society they exist in seeks to quell this notion. To keep them neutral, to keep them perfect, and subjugated with the rest of the sexless world.
What’s interesting about K is that, as the film pans out, he finds out that he is, in fact, a replicant, and that his curious memories belong to Ana, Deckard’s daughter. He discovers the debilitating truth that he is no more human than every other replicant in existence, gifted with someone else’s memories as a pillow of emotion to fall back on, to be controlled better. Yet, instead of allowing that pillow to control him, instead of allowing the powers that be to retire him, or for the realisation of his artificiality to send him spiralling, he decides to save
Deckard and help him find his daughter. Proving that even within the dystopian world of Blade Runner, where replicants are prohibited even the notion that they could achieve something more, that he has free will. This demonstrates one of the most endearing facets of dystopian fiction: that the bonds of a regulated society can be shattered if the individual wills it so. K breaks away from the dominant structures of power, not to fight for the resistance or because he discovers that he’s somehow more special than any of the other replicants, but because he chooses to. K proves to be more human than human by choosing his own path, his own role, his own story.
Another way in which one can explore the myriad interpretations of dystopia is through architecture, which has played a key role in many dystopian films, animes and mangas.
Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corporation - headquartered in a pyramid-esque building on the outskirts of Los Angeles - with its industrial sheen, and monolithic structure, towering above all of Los Angeles, is typical of what Kate Wagner of design and architecture show, 99% Invisible, in her article, The Architecture of Evil: Dystopian Megacorps in Speculative Fiction Films, as “brooding Late Modernist”.
A mix of two distinct styles of architecture; with elements from Late Modernist architects, Kevin Roche and Philip Johnson, and the High-tech movement spearheaded by Richard Rodgers. Wagner describes it as a “futuristic temple of evil”, appearing to take inspiration from both the aptly named, Pyramids, a complex of futuristic buildings in Indianapolis designed by Roche and built in 1972, and Rodger’s 1971 Pompidou Centre in France, which was designed to express the interior of a machine.
The combination of these two designs to create the centre of replicant manufacturing in Blade Runner suggests the film’s theme of artificiality and uniformity. The flat surface of the Pyramids, and the use of glass to play with mass and scale, convey the homogeneity of Scott’s vision of the future, while Pompidou’s exposed innards explore the propulsion of technology, and the role of the replicants as the building blocks of society. Additionally, Roche’s use of glass implies a sense of fragility, that to break one window of the monumental Pyramids would take down the entire building. It could be argued that these
architectural qualities are utilized for the Tyrell headquarters to both expose the machine-like qualities of the replicants, and to suggest that if one replicant, one cog in the machine, were to be displaced, it would bring the entire ship. As Wagner writes, “High-tech architecture literally put the building’s “innards” on the outside, giving the hidden mechanisms of a structure their own expression.” The design of the Tyrell headquarters both establishes humanity’s reliance on machine technology, while exposing that those machines, the replicants, are capable of their own expression, able to bring down an entire society at the realisation of their own individuality.
The architecture of Blade Runner evokes the destruction of the natural world and the rise of technology in its place. It provides a vision of the future; one that is mechanical, inorganic and sown from the morally bereft cesspit of consumerism, establishing the symbolic fall of civilization under the guise of technological progress. This is a returning theme of dystopian fiction and it comes through in its aesthetic.
Setting plays a significant role in dystopian fiction, taking influence and influencing man- made structures from around the world. In Ghost in the Shell, the futuristic, cyberpunk city of Niihama, echoes the upsurge of modern megalopolises such as Hong Kong and Tokyo, while the ruins of Fist of the North Star (1986) by Toyoo Ashida, are a terrible reminder of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs during World War Two.
The modernist architecture of movies like Verhoeven’s Total Recall, and Robocop, have undoubtedly inspired the urban jungle of Taipei, while Tokyo’s Shinjuku City, feels straight out of Blade Runner’s neo-futuristic environments, or Katsuhiro Otomo’s oppressive, cityscapes of Akira. Like a mirror to society, dystopian fiction both reflects and absorbs current architectural and stylistic devices to create worlds that are both familiar and foreign all in one neon-blasted package. They allow us to peek into prospective futures, alternate realities, to break out of simulations, to either revel in the magnitude of human achievement or to warn us of our propensity for excess.
While extravagant, glittered with bright lights and cyberpunkian flair, dystopian fiction also has the aptness to caution us about the ramifications of unchecked power, rampant technological advancement, and our willful consumption of the Earth’s environments. In films such as George Miller’s Mad Max series and Akira, civilizations are brought to their knees by technology. In the former, a world is made barren by an apocalyptic war for oil, while in the latter, the neon-drenched city of Neo-Tokyo is rebuilt upon the ruins of its predecessor,
which seemingly was obliterated by an atomic bomb at the beginning of Akira’s fictional World War Three. It is later revealed that the titular, Akira, was the real source behind Tokyo’s destruction; a child, forced to develop psychic powers by the government’s secret parapsychology project, and, as a result of losing control of his psychic powers, wipes out Tokyo, inadvertently kicking off the all-consuming nuclear war. In each example, humanity’s overreliance on technology, and the oppression of corrupt institutions (both political and corporate) has led to the destruction of the Earth’s environments, ushering new, dystopian societies built upon the remnants of the old.
These characteristics encapsulate the cautionary implications of dystopian fiction: that these worlds, while fantastical, are cemented within a terrifyingly real plausibility, and that to avoid these futures is to act against the causes of their destruction. Perhaps this is best exhibited in Hayao Miyazaki’s 1984 anime masterpiece, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, in which humanity has caused some, if not all, of Earth’s habitats to become uninhabitable by pollution and war.
In Nausicaä, civilization has been destroyed by an apocalyptic event known as the Seven Days of Fire, which has left in its wake, a vast Toxic Jungle where monstrous bugs lie and to breathe is to die. It’s no doubt that the film’s setting is an allegory for nuclear warfare, and how humanity’s use of such weapons of mass destruction would result in a barren world of death, where even to survive such an event would mean a life of radiation poisoning and infertility. In this stead, Miyazaki holds a mirror up to society and predicts a destitute future in which all life has failed due to humanity’s negligence and wanton excuse for war. To quote the BBC documentary Orwell: A Life in Pictures, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever. The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: don’t let it happen. It depends on you.” While about Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the sentiment can be attributed to Miyazaki’s anime film in tandem; the boot being the nuclear atrocities committed during the Seven Days of Fire, and the dangerous nightmare being the resulting wasteland of the Toxic Jungle.
Dystopias can be pretty futile existences. With oppressive governments surveying your every move, individuals forced into uniformity by fear-mongering, censorship and brainwashing, and worlds left desolate by war and industry. Yet, what Miyazaki, Scott, Villeneuve and Orwell instil, is that these nightmares can be avoided, and there is always a way back from the brink of death. In Nineteen eighty-four, Winston is brainwashed to believe that love doesn’t exist, yet in the end, he triumphs in his realisation that he loves Big Brother. While this, at face value, could be considered pessimistic, it is also sprinkled with a semblance of hope, as Winston proves that, despite his torturous indoctrination by INGSOC, love does exist. Thereby detracting from his torture-induced homogenization and revelling in his freedom of expression. In Blade Runner and its sequel, both Batty and K free themselves from their programming and learn to express human emotions hitherto disallowed to them by society’s strict regime. Again, breaking away from their uniform state and proving that freewill is a choice, not a strictly human inheritance.
Finally, in Nausicaä, amidst fire and desolation, the titular heroine discovers, in the depths of the very jungle deemed the source of the monstrous pollution, the truth that the earth is healing.
Nausicaä unearths that the giant insects, known as Ohmu, who humanity have feared for so long, are in fact, feasting on and purifying the polluted forests; gifting them with the opportunity for rebirth. It is also revealed that Nausicaä herself is the catalyst for the purification, advocating for peace against the Ohmu, and between the warring human factions. In the manga, this goes even further as Nausicaä, in the book’s climax, orders a God Warrior (the tools of humanity’s self-destruction) to destroy the technology left over by old society’s ancient scientists and forcing humanity to live or die without the influence of their progenitors' destructive weaponry.
Dystopian societies, while fuelled by destruction, corruption, desolation, and regulations, are best served when instilled with a sense of hope. A dream of freedom, rebirth, of individuality under a conformist regime; transposing the futility of existence into a morsel of pure, unadulterated optimism. Mutoid Waste Company, a performance troupe founded in 1984, in London, by artist Joe Rush, are the perfect reflection of this pursuit of individuality.
Formed out of a dream to maintain their individuality during the Cold War, and the encroaching regulations of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative Britain, the Mutoids are a collective of like-minded individuals, who create sculptures, design costumes, and produce shows made out of repurposed junk and scrap metal. They take what is about to be thrown out, and repurpose material to bolster a dream of living, as stated by Rush, simply “for the fun of it.”
In the 2021 BBC documentary, I Am A Mutoid: A Glastonbury Hero, by Letmiya Sztalryd, Rush explains that the idea for his first mutation (the act of sculpting, or designing a new outfit) came from the anxiety he felt after shaving his head, reluctant to step outside out of fear of that he might be judged or laughed at. To counteract this, Rush glued a rabbit skin to his head, as a Mohican, and left his house feeling free to express himself in any way he pleased. The effect was reactionary, and Rush devoured it, as people stared in shock and amusement: “Whatever I was doing, I was getting a reaction” (Sztalryd). This feeling of uniqueness spurred Rush to pursue a dream of absolute freedom in art and performance, establishing the Mutoids initially as a group of party people, putting on illegal raves across London in the 1980s and promoting an epithet of constant change in an otherwise regulated Britain. Their goal was to “mutate Britain”, taking inspiration from comics such as 2000 AD and Judge Dredd, and movies like Mad Max, and creating “a mechanical world of mutant- creatures and sculptures built on the military and industrial remains of our consumer society” (Sztalryd).
Initially barraged by police and the public, Rush and company have since established themselves as an official performance art group, playing at Glastonbury year after year and showing the world what it means to be free in a largely uniform, capitalist society. From counterculture to part of national history, the group have performed at the remains of the Berlin Wall, the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic games, all to promote an agenda for freedom of expression and individuality.
They evoke the same semblance of hope as all other dystopian heroes; that to fight back against the machine is paramount to achieving personal liberty and to feel coerced by the whims of consumerism is to subject yourself to society’s regulations. As with the Mutoids - with K and Batty, Winston and Julia, Nausicaä and Major Kusanagi - the fight is within you to go out and create, express your individuality, discover your inner truth and have fun with it. In the words of Joe Rush: “what about if we live for the love of living and not just for the fear of dying?” (Sztalryd).
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