There's an aphorism, popular with history teachers, that goes, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But sometimes, taking a close look at history can be just as unsettling as it is illuminating. With their augmented reality project Future Past News, artists Andrea Wolf and Karolina Ziulkoski explore parallels between current events and news stories circa 1937, when the world was on the brink of massive, global conflict.
Wolf and Ziulkoski met working next to each other at NEW INC, the New Museum's incubator for art, design, and technology. While vacationing in Mexico City, Wolf came across black-and-white American newsreels from 1937. Future Past News displays that found-footage on a browser, while an accompanying app, developed by Ziulkoski, unlocks second-screen AR content contrasting the 1937 news with modern-day headlines.
Footage of the Spanish Civil War from the 1930s morphs into a headline about the ongoing Syrian Civil War and resulting refugee crisis. Early-20th century industrial labor strikes are mirrored by modern workplace protests, securing a minimum wage hike in NYC and California in the coming years. Benito Mussolini’s 1937 meeting with Adolf Hitler transforms into challenges faced at the most recent NATO summit, such as terrorism, Brexit, and Russian aggression.
Wolf found the 1937 newsreels a couple of years ago, and the idea of creating a historically comparative narrative developed gradually. “I knew I wanted to do something with this film, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to use it. And then the election season began, and things started to get really crazy,” Wolf tells The Creators Project.
“But also, [there are so many other news stories] and events, like the Syrian conflict and its millions of refugees, the Black Lives Matter movement, the fight for a decent minimum wage, Brexit, the Paris Attacks, nationalistic movements and leaders gaining momentum … we could go on. These are very effervescent times," she says.
“It feels like we are starting to catch up with the effects of fast-paced technological progress and its social and cultural impact, and not all our responses are in line with the openness, fluidity, and connectedness that [technology] enables and promotes, but rather the opposite: nationalism, xenophobia, racism, closed borders, and so on,” Wolf says. “Talking with Karolina, it was clear that we both shared this feeling.”
At the end of Future Past News, a headline on the browser reads, “In the Hands of these Five Men Rests the Destiny of the World,” before screening footage of Hideki Tojo, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hinting at their modern-day counterparts, the AR app shows, in turn, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Charles and David Koch. The lineup is an allusion to numerous Hitler-Trump comparisons made in response to the candidate’s nationalistic ideology.
Despite Future Past News’ plethora of parallels, the artists say they’re not implying that the modern-day political environment exactly mirrors that pre-WWII. “We are not saying that we are on the brink of another World War, but the animus is dense and edgy,” Ziulkoski says. “And we get this presidential candidate who is a known racist, who believes some citizens to be second class to his heritage, who relies on fear and paranoia, and who promises to protect his nation from the threats of outsiders, whom he believes are criminal and will lower the standards of his beloved country. It feels a bit like déjà vu.”
Check out the Future Past News website, where you'll find both the 1937 footage and a download link for the iOS app.