Daughters and sons of cyberpunks visit La Gaîté Lyrique, with Capitaine futur on their little shoulders

by Sophie Pène

This article explores the role of the future in contemporary education through the lens of the Capitaine futur and Supernature exhibition held at La Gaîté Lyrique from April to July 2018.

La Gaîté Lyrique invited the CRI to offer its perspective on the Les Voyages de Capitaine futur project and several unique aspects of the exhibition. One of the inventive elements of the European cooperation project underpinning the initiative is how it focuses on the intersection of art and science to paint a broader picture of what the future could hold. “Future” meaning the everyday reality that the artists would like to see emerge, conveyed in the form of objects and scenes that could become commonplace in daily life if objects reacted to us. The artists created installations for children that enable us to interact with poetic objects. This magic, futuristic interaction with objects seemingly living a life of their own stimulates the young visitors to explore. The curating philosophy at La Gaîté Lyrique is rooted in the idea that children need to be invested in the future, not only their own subjective future, but also that of technology. They need to imagine it in their own way, seek to shape it, and set in motion an inner narrative from which dreams and plans can flow. Capitaine futur serves as an imaginary friend with whom children can identify and entrust their ideas and little secrets. This discreet hero fulfils an underappreciated yet huge need: to dream of the future and approach it with confidence and curiosity.

When children dreamt of technical progress

The generations born in the 1950s and 1960s, and even in the early 1970s, grew up amidst an abundance of futuristic images in science fiction, the educational press and television news. In the year 2000, we were predicted to have solved traffic problems with flying cars. Famine was to be a thing of the past, even in Biafra and India. We would eat plankton in underwater cities. In the year 2000, an interstellar voyage would be as simple as taking the train, and schools would be housed in space cities. This despite the Cold War, post-colonial wars, the irreparable tragedy of the Holocaust, and the intractable conflict between Egypt and Israel. The allure of progress was more powerful than anything that might terrify a silent child watching TV, haunt his or her dreams, or cause a fright during the walk to school. Scientific and technical progress offered a solution to everything, including human morality. We would have to try our hardest, by becoming an astronaut, to take flight, or a biochemist, to invent the perfect meal in pill form. 2001: A Space Odyssey sent a few shivers down our spine. But things were going to get a whole lot better.

1990-2000: Boum and Badaboom!

In Coming of Age at the End of History, Camille de Toledo, born in 1976, recounts the moral burden that stifled his peers. At 26, Paul Nizan wrote in Aden, Arabie (1932): “People my age, prevented from catching their breath, oppressed like victims whose head is held below water, wondered if there was any air left.” de Toledo, also 26 at the time of publication, opened his 2002 work thusly: “My soul has asthma. I mean that the atmosphere of these times causes me severe respiratory distress.” He describes how his generation is caught between two violent, intense, contradictory images. The first is the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which he calls the “Boom”. The second is the fall of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, which is dubbed the “Badaboom”. He even employs the dates to playful effect, opening with 11/9 in 1989 for the fall of the wall and closing with 9/11 in 2001 for the fall of the twin towers. This historically uptight generation, which describes as cyberpunks practicing “mass dandyism” who have the “sly little smile of voluntary slaves”. The 90s did not deliver adolescents of the era from this “emerging from it all and going nowhere”. No future, the phantasmagoria is over, science will not cure our ills.

La Gaîté Lyrique looks forward, to 2020-2050…

What can be said about the 2000s and 2010s, the decades of the great threat, which will be told to children as scary stories – a time when the end of the world loomed, surveillance was omnipresent, elites irresponsible, and inequality still deemed acceptable. Enough to leave you shaking, disabused of any hope for the future. It’s hard to conjure up a positive image of the future untainted by transhumanism. Undeterred, La Gaîté Lyrique is determined to move forward. The centre ensures that art and creativity, which fuel the imagination, play a part in building an ideal future, rooted in a wonderful phantasmagoria heretofore unseen. There is a strong vision of the role of museums and cultural venues, which, now more than ever, are the places where we can find images that make us talk, think, dream and act. We need aesthetic emotions to transform ourselves and spring to action. In reality, young adults are not at all disenchanted. They take the world for what it is; they are determined to change it and have faith in their ability to do so. It now seems that, against all odds, the greater the challenges young people face, they more motivated they are to tackle them with resolve and objectivity.
What about the children who visit the exhibition with their family, school, or community centre? Science and technology forecasts predict that in ten years, ingestible nanobots will drift through our bodies repairing organic impairments. In 15 years, we are told, home 3D printers will enable the masses to produce their own furniture, food and medication. Around the same time, we will wear smart clothing that adjusts to the temperature and changes colour based on our mood. Meanwhile, self-healing biomimetic materials will be found in everything from outfits to buildings. And it all will be secured by a hack-proof Internet. That should sustain us until 2050, when our neocortexes and cognitive capacity will be augmented via genetic engineering, which will orchestrate evolution. Of course there are alternative scenarios. Of course technology predictions never come true. But we need these types of scenarios, in part to thwart them. I should point out that you have to dig a bit to find them. Nothing like the good old days of science fiction, from the 1950s to the 1980s. And I can’t think of many positive, welcoming, poetic messages about the future of technology. Not that we should turn a blind eye, by any means.

Everyone should take part in thinking about the future, especially children. Who will shape the future? They will. What needs to be done to have a say in scientific decisions and policy? They will have to find out. What knowledge and skills are needed to design these types of systems? They will have to work it out. What role will science and creativity play in the transformation? They can strike the right balance.
Capitaine futur clearly aims to arouse children’s interest in these issues, along with that of their parents, the former cyberpunks and dandies who are preparing to follow their children into the land of connected objects.

Sophie Pène, Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity (CRI), Paris Descartes, and Dicen IdF, Cham.


  • Camille de Toledo, Coming to Age at the End of History, Soft Skull Press, 2008 (originally published in French in 2002).
  • Jeff Desjardins, Infographic: A Timeline of Future Technology, Juin 2017, Site Visual Capitalist.