Vincent Fournier is a photographer of the future—both the one that’s actually happened, and the science-fiction future that we hoped would come to be. In his earlier work, the French artist plucked robots out of laboratories and staged portraits of artificial life forms like Sony’s Asimo going about their business in the human world, drinking from a water fountain or playing basketball. In his sprawling “Space Project,” Fournier—who used to visit the Paris museum of science as a child—traveled to world’s centers of space exploration, places like the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Russia and NASA’s venerable Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Fournier’s photographs make the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah look like the forbidding alien landscape it was meant to stand in for, while his shots of technicians in bubble-helmeted space suits are mined from the same visual vein as Stanley Kubricks’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. These are glimpses of Tomorrowland, the space age that never quite took off. Even his work on Brasilia—the custom-built capital of Brazil, that perpetual “country of the future”—show an obsession with classic visions of tomorrow, with humankind’s effort to bring the universe to heel. “I love machines, the ones that fly, speak, count or observe,” Fournier has written. “I’m fascinated by the magical aspect of science, which seems to reduce the complexity of the world to a few mathematical formulae.”
In his new work, Fournier is still looking to the future—to the hard lines of the man-made—but he’s moved to things that are living. Or at least, things that may live. In his “Engineered Species” project, part of his recently released book Past Forward, Fournier explores how life itself tinkers with its own design, changing DNA to make species better, faster and stronger. Fournier took pictures of taxidermy specimens—stuffed and pinned animals—and brought them to animal geneticists to find how these species were evolving in real time as the environment, thanks largely to human action, keeps changing.
The result are new engineered species like a global warming-tolerant pangolin, a rodent-like Asian mammal with a tougher keratin skin that enables it to maintain a constant body temperature, even in a hotter climate. An ibis—a long-legged wading bird—evolves longer, stronger claws that help make it more resistant to both drought and frost. A rabbit—one that stares at the viewer with expressive blue eyes—is engineered for higher intelligence thanks to neural stem cell treatment.
None of these species are real yet, and like Fournier’s earlier space-age work, they may turn out to be a vision of a future that does not come to pass. But I doubt it. We’re already on our way to engineering new life forms, to tinkering with the DNA of the species around us—and eventually ours as well. We may have no other choice—the environment is changing more rapidly than wildlife can adapt to, and the result is a wave of extinction happening faster than any this planet has witnessed for millions of years. For nature to survive, it may have to become artificial—though even Fournier, who says he loves machines, has his doubts about our ability to control these metamorphoses. “The universe is not as well ordered as our machines,” he writes. “It acts in an irrational, chaotic, violent and mysterious way, and even though there are computers that can design our forests, the control remains artificial.” Our engineering, after all, can exceed our wisdom.
Vincent Fournier’s limited edition monograph Past Forward was recently released by IDEA BOOKS.
Additionally, Fournier’s photographic work will be on display as part of the Les Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in France through September.