What does Italian Futurism have to do with Cyberpunk?

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"Battle of Lights, Coney Island", by Joseph Stella
“Battle of Lights, Coney Island”, by Joseph Stella

Think about an artistic movement that praised the machine, technology, and speculated about the future: that saw in those the beginning of a new era, so to speak, the aesthetics of which would be colorful and neon. It sounds a lot like cyberpunk — doesn’t it? And it’s not entirely unusual to put both side by side, mainly when citing Futurism as an aesthetical and thematic influence. But is that connection well founded? And if so, in which way?

To try and understand that connection, let’s first travel to the past. The twentieth century had just begun. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and technology was ever more important and present. Art itself was about to go through its first instance of self-criticism (or so says German theorist Peter Bürger), operated by the avant-garde. It is in this setting that we encounter arguably the first movement to set the avant-garde in motion, and one that had big ideas for itself and for the future: the Italian Futurism.

"Skyscrapers and Tunnels", by Fortunato Depero
“Skyscrapers and Tunnels”, by Fortunato Depero

The Futurist Manifesto published in Le Figaro in 1909 and written by F. T. Marinetti had eleven topics, each more outrageous than the previous one. In them, amongst other things, he praised war (“the only hygiene of the world”), depreciated women, and professed his love to the machine, to violence, to speed, and to the epitome of it all: automobiles.

Futurists were serious about their art, but they were just as serious about reality: the avant-garde proposed that art should not be distant from the praxis of life, and Futurism did so as well. They were true to their ideas of how the world should be — and Italy, more specifically—, and not only did they somewhat foreshadow the rise of fascism in Italy as they also heavily supported it — which probably surprised the total amount of zero people.

"Housing with external lifts and connection systems to different street levels", from La Città Nuova, by Antonio Sant'Elia
“Housing with external lifts and connection systems to different street levels”, from La Città Nuova, by Antonio Sant’Elia

Futurism made its way not only to literature, visual arts, music, but it also theorized about the practical aspects of life. Technology was to eclipse anything else, even the individual: machines were much more important than men. Marinetti’s manifesto for Futurist literature and his own poems focus on machines and technology rather than on human beings, and he advocated the abolishment of the “I” in literature. Fortunato Depero wrote a manifesto in 1931 about advertising art and how it was to be the art of the future and of Futurism, for its aesthetic and practical purposes: for its connection to what’s truly important, that is, industries and corporations.

Sure, the future as seen by Futurists in the first half of the twentieth century will most likely sound and look retro-futuristic right now. And while cyberpunk is still alive and evolving, Futurism didn’t have the same fate: it is dead, as a movement. Still, it has left its mark in history, and not only art history. It inspired many others, in matters of ideology and mainly aesthetics — you can get that just from the Futurist works shown here. The generations to come and their renewed insights on technology would most certainly take from that movement: and it seems likely that cyberpunk inherited some of it as well. For instance, Blade Runner‘s architecture is influenced by a Futurist architect, Antonio Sant’Elia.

But cyberpunk isn’t authoritarian, it’s not oppressive, nor is it segregative. It’s not fascist. In fact, it is the very opposite of that. So in which way are they similar?

"Cityscape", by Tullio Crali
“Cityscape”, by Tullio Crali

Even though the future has developed in different ways in cyberpunk narratives (and reality) than what futurists imagined, many aspects seem to present themselves in ways akin to their liking. Think of “Burning Chrome”, for instance. The characters are presented as an interesting and viable amalgam of man and machine. Advertisement is far-reaching and a defining part of the way people “choose” to live, and they live in enormous and polluted cities, filled with vehicles and tall buildings and bright colored neon. What’s not to like? Corporations play the role once imagined for the nation — and we’re set. But that is precisely the plot we find ourselves rooting against.

And while Futurism dreams of an utopian society where technology has taken over, cyberpunk sees the materialization of that utopia, and it doesn’t look good. It criticizes the very idea that technology is the answer to humanities problems, in a world where those optimistic dreams are seen for the illusion they were, and for the harm they could do.

"Fascist Synthesis", by Alessandro Bruschetti
“Fascist Synthesis”, by Alessandro Bruschetti

We all know all too well how technology could be used for harmful purposes: in fiction and in real life. But are we also aware of the impact fiction could have, and indeed has had in real life?

"Nose dive on the city", by Tullio Crali
“Nose dive on the city”, by Tullio Crali

Of course, we live in different times. It’s the twentieth-first century and we would very much like to think we would not be as silly as to condone a movement that promoted such damaging ideals. We could think that even if a movement like that existed — and it could exist: after all, there is such a thing as free speech —, it would not have as many supporters and as much visibility.

But wouldn’t it? If we take a look at the current state of things, it sounds highly possible.

The good news is that a hundred years from now, if cyberpunk is not alive and kicking, it will at the very least be a more positive influence on future generations of artists and people than Futurism is. And that is just one more reason to keep cyberpunk alive and well, breathing on its own, imagining a world that could be and that is. If we ever left those speculations for others, who knows what they might come up with? We must never underestimate the power of art and fiction.

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