The year is 2115, and the internet is finite. In a futuristic Lagos, Nigeria, everything requires a legal online presence, from going to the doctor to running for political office. Data is the most valuable commodity. One day, a woman discovers an illegal botanical garden in the back of a warehouse, where she and others pay to disconnect from the internet.
This is “Offline,” a video by Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based artist Olalekan Jeyifous and Lagos-based writer/editor Wale Lawal — one of 74 projects in the ambitious new exhibition “Designs for Different Futures,” at Walker Art Center.
A collaboration by the Walker, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, the show premiered last October in Philadelphia. Because of scheduling conflicts caused by the pandemic, it will not travel to Chicago, instead getting an extended stay here through April 11.
The huge show, which includes the work of 155 designers or design groups, is divided into 11 sections, spanning such topics as “bodies,” “intimacies,” “foods” and “cities.”
“We started by mapping out types of futures — apocalyptic, technological, optimistic — and getting detailed in that way,” said Emmet Byrne, the Walker’s director of design. “Then we started mapping out technological trends, looking for projects that had a really good story at the core.”
Laid out in four galleries, the exhibit induces sensory overload at times, with videos and sounds filling the space. The pandemic is partly to blame: There can be no headphones or touch screens, which allowed viewers in Philadelphia to have a more intimate experience. (If you don’t feel comfortable watching films in the galleries, you can do it at home via walkerart.org/magazine/films-for-different-futures.)
“The future feels like it’s happening faster than it used to,” said Byrne. “We used to have a much more consolidated consensus about our vision for the future. If you think back to the  World’s Fair and its Futurama display” — a large-scale model envisioning the “City of 1960” filled with highways — “we used to, as a culture or society, agree on visions of the future. Those have been sort of fragmented year by year by year.”
Dutch artist Mark Henning originally planned to show “Normaal” (2017), a frame made of a mirror with a hole in the middle to highlight how “abnormal” behavior (like being unfamiliar with the Western tradition of a handshake) could incite suspicion in increasingly nationalistic countries. Then the pandemic hit, and he updated it as “Normaal (N-003).” A handshake-risk-assessment graphic covers the floor, while a sheet of plexiglass with a hole has taken the place of the mirror, as a reference to the ubiquitous sneeze guards.
“In previous pandemics, handshakes were also canceled,” Byrne noted.
Architect Andrés Jacque’s “Intimate Strangers” investigates the present-day futurism of Grindr, the location-based gay dating app that creates a space that “is urban but it is not a city,” according to the project. It tracks Grindr’s myriad uses, from helping gay Syrian asylum-seekers to warning against malevolent users. Twenty percent of Grindr’s servers are located in countries where gay sex is banned, but governments also use Grindr to surveil and track.
Joy Buolamwini, known as “a poet of code,” created the video “AI, Ain’t I a Woman?” It looks at how artificial intelligence can misgender Black women, including Shirley Chisholm and Serena Williams. The title connects past, present and future, referencing abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s famous speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention.
Martine Syms’ “Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto” is a text-only silk-screened mural on a single wall that mixes Afrofuturism themes (“faster-than-light travel,” Sun Ra, an end to racism and white supremacy) with a line-by-line reconsideration of the 2004 “Mundane Manifesto,” written by sci-fi writers who argued that the future belonged on Earth. The result is a future here on Earth that harnesses the Black imagination and wonderment of everyday life. One part of the manifesto reads: “We did not originate in the cosmos. The connection between the Middle Passage and space travel is tenuous at best.”
Other projects in the show imagine products that could exist. The nine-minute documentary “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck/Make Family Leave Not Suck Hackathons” investigates how breastmilk pumps could be improved.
Some products in the show already exist, like one from Lucy Jones’ company FFORA, which serves the “disability community,” with the tagline “disability first — made adaptable for all.” Products like the FFORA Attachment System for wheelchairs with installation key, cupholder and bag ask why the built environment and the design community assume that able-bodied people are the norm.
Another gallery is focused on possible food futures. Orkan Telhan’s “Simit Diet” is a selection of eight mini-doughnut-looking simit (aka “the Turkish bagel”) inside a plastic case. Each has a recreational probiotic in it, grown on demand using a portable incubator (also part of the exhibition). “Simit 6” contains organisms that can naturally synthesize gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that is known to calm us. Telhan imagines how food could be made on demand, to cure disease or alter moods.
With the election coming up and the pandemic in full swing, thinking about the future can feel scary. The curators considered that while installing the exhibition.
“We could have made a very dark version of this show,” said Byrne. “Many projects in the show are dystopian and point toward dark extrapolations of the present, but we were really trying to go for a more hopeful show, to look at the diversity of how many futures are possible.”