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Serious Play 2008

Bruce McCall: What is retro-futurism?

May 12, 2008

Bruce McCall paints a retro-future that never happened -- full of flying cars, polo-playing tanks and the RMS Tyrannic, "The Biggest Thing in All the World." At Serious Play '08, he narrates a brisk and funny slideshow of his faux-nostalgic art.

Bruce McCall - Humorist
Illustrator and humorist Bruce McCall paints our imagined future -- a supercharged, streamlined fantasyland that teeters on the edge of hysteria. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I don't know what the hell I'm doing here.
00:16
I was born in a Scots Presbyterian ghetto in Canada,
00:19
and dropped out of high school. I don't own a cell phone,
00:22
and I paint on paper using gouache, which hasn't changed in 600 years.
00:26
But about three years ago I had an art show in New York,
00:32
and I titled it "Serious Nonsense."
00:37
So I think I'm actually the first one here -- I lead.
00:40
I called it "Serious Nonsense" because on the serious side,
00:44
I use a technique of painstaking realism of editorial illustration
00:47
from when I was a kid. I copied it and I never unlearned it --
00:53
it's the only style I know. And it's very kind of staid and formal.
00:56
And meanwhile, I use nonsense, as you can see.
01:01
This is a Scottish castle where people are playing golf indoors,
01:05
and the trick was to bang the golf ball off of suits of armor --
01:09
which you can't see there.
01:13
This was one of a series called "Zany Afternoons," which became a book.
01:14
This is a home-built rocket-propelled car. That's a 1953 Henry J --
01:18
I'm a bug for authenticity -- in a quiet neighborhood in Toledo.
01:22
This is my submission for the L.A. Museum of Film.
01:26
You can probably tell Frank Gehry and I come from the same town.
01:31
My work is so personal and so strange
01:34
that I have to invent my own lexicon for it.
01:38
And I work a lot in what I call "retrofuturism,"
01:40
which is looking back to see how yesterday viewed tomorrow.
01:44
And they're always wrong, always hilariously, optimistically wrong.
01:48
And the peak time for that was the 30s,
01:53
because the Depression was so dismal
01:56
that anything to get away from the present into the future ...
01:58
and technology was going to carry us along.
02:01
This is Popular Workbench. Popular science magazines in those days --
02:04
I had a huge collection of them from the '30s --
02:07
all they are is just poor people being asked to make sunglasses
02:09
out of wire coat hangers and everything improvised
02:13
and dreaming about these wonderful giant radio robots
02:16
playing ice hockey at 300 miles an hour --
02:19
it's all going to happen, it's all going to be wonderful.
02:21
Automotive retrofuturism is one of my specialties.
02:24
I was both an automobile illustrator and an advertising automobile copywriter,
02:28
so I have a lot of revenge to take on the subject.
02:33
Detroit has always been halfway into the future -- the advertising half.
02:38
This is the '58 Bulgemobile: so new, they make tomorrow look like yesterday.
02:41
This is a chain gang of guys admiring the car.
02:46
That's from a whole catalog -- it's 18 pages or so --
02:50
ran back in the days of the Lampoon, where I cut my teeth.
02:52
Techno-archaeology is digging back and finding past miracles that never happened --
02:56
for good reason, usually.
03:04
The zeppelin -- this was from a brochure about the zeppelin
03:06
based, obviously, on the Hindenburg.
03:10
But the zeppelin was the biggest thing that ever moved made by man.
03:12
And it carried 56 people at the speed of a Buick at an altitude you could hear dogs bark,
03:17
and it cost twice as much as a first-class cabin on the Normandie to fly it.
03:23
So the Hindenburg wasn't, you know, it was inevitable it was going to go.
03:27
This is auto-gyro jousting in Malibu in the 30s.
03:30
The auto-gyro couldn't wait for the invention of the helicopter,
03:36
but it should have -- it wasn't a big success.
03:40
It's the only Spanish innovation, technologically, of the 20th century, by the way.
03:42
You needed to know that.
03:47
The flying car which never got off the ground -- it was a post-war dream.
03:49
My old man used to tell me we were going to get a flying car.
03:53
This is pitched into the future from 1946,
03:56
looking at the day all American families have them.
03:58
"There's Moscow, Shirley. Hope they speak Esperanto!"
04:01
Faux-nostalgia, which I'm sort of -- not, say, famous for, but I work an awful lot in it.
04:06
It's the achingly sentimental yearning for times that never happened.
04:11
Somebody once said that nostalgia is the one utterly most useless human emotion --
04:16
so I think that’s a case for serious play.
04:23
This is emblematic of it -- this is wing dining,
04:26
recalling those balmy summer days somewhere over France in the 20s,
04:30
dining on the wing of a plane. You can't see it very well here,
04:35
but that's Hemingway reading some pages from his new novel
04:38
to Fitzgerald and Ford Madox Ford until the slipstream blows him away.
04:41
This is tank polo in the South Hamptons.
04:45
The brainless rich are more fun to make fun of than anybody. I do a lot of that.
04:52
And authenticity is a major part of my serious nonsense.
04:58
I think it adds a huge amount.
05:03
Those, for example, are Mark IV British tanks from 1916.
05:05
They had two machine guns and a cannon,
05:09
and they had 90 horsepower Ricardo engines.
05:11
They went five miles an hour and inside it was 105 degrees in the pitch dark.
05:14
And they had a canary hung inside the thing
05:19
to make sure the Germans weren't going to use gas.
05:22
Happy little story, isn't it?
05:26
This is Motor Ritz Towers in Manhattan in the 30s,
05:27
where you drove up to your front door, if you had the guts.
05:30
Anybody who was anybody had an apartment there.
05:34
I managed to stick in both the zeppelin and an ocean liner out of sheer enthusiasm.
05:38
And I love cigars -- there's a cigar billboard down there.
05:41
And faux-nostalgia works even in serious subjects like war.
05:44
This is those wonderful days of the Battle of Britain in 1940,
05:49
when a Messerschmitt ME109 bursts into the House of Commons
05:53
and buzzes around, just to piss off Churchill, who's down there somewhere.
05:56
It's a fond memory of times past.
06:01
Hyperbolic overkill is a way of taking exaggeration to the absolute ultimate limit,
06:04
just for the fun of it. This was a piece I did -- a brochure again --
06:11
"RMS Tyrannic: The Biggest Thing in All the World."
06:17
The copy, which you can't see because it goes on and on for several pages,
06:20
says that steerage passengers can't get their to bunks before the voyage is over,
06:24
and it's so safe it carries no insurance.
06:31
It's obviously modeled on the Titanic.
06:34
But it's not a cri de coeur about man's hubris in the face of the elements.
06:37
It's just a sick, silly joke.
06:41
Shamelessly cheap is something, I think -- this will wake you up.
06:44
It has no meaning, just -- Desoto discovers the Mississippi,
06:47
and it's a Desoto discovering the Mississippi.
06:51
I did that as a quick back page -- I had like four hours to do a back page
06:55
for an issue of the Lampoon, and I did that,
07:01
and I thought, "Well, I'm ashamed. I hope nobody knows it."
07:03
People wrote in for reprints of that thing.
07:05
Urban absurdism -- that's what the New Yorker really calls for.
07:09
I try to make life in New York look even weirder than it is with those covers.
07:13
I've done about 40 of them, and I'd say 30 of them are based on that concept.
07:18
I was driving down 7th Avenue one night at 3 a.m.,
07:23
and this steam pouring out of the street, and I thought, "What causes that?" And that --
07:26
who’s to say?
07:34
The Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan in New York -- it's a very somber place.
07:36
I thought I could jazz it up a bit, have a little fun with it.
07:41
This is a very un-PC cover. Not in New York.
07:43
I couldn't resist, and I got a nasty email from some environmental group saying,
07:49
"This is too serious and solemn to make fun of. You should be ashamed,
07:54
please apologize on our website."
07:58
Haven't got around to it yet but -- I may.
08:00
This is the word side of my brain.
08:06
(Laughter)
08:09
I love the word "Eurotrash."
08:10
(Laughter)
08:12
That's all the Eurotrash coming through JFK customs.
08:17
This was the New York bike messenger meeting the Tour de France.
08:22
If you live in New York, you know how the bike messengers move.
08:27
Except that he's carrying a tube for blueprints and stuff -- they all do --
08:30
and a lot of people thought that meant it was a terrorist
08:34
about to shoot rockets at the Tour de France --
08:37
sign of our times, I guess.
08:39
This is the only fashion cover I've ever done.
08:42
It's the little old lady that lives in a shoe, and then this thing --
08:44
the title of that was, "There Goes the Neighborhood."
08:47
I don't know a hell of a lot about fashion --
08:50
I was told to do what they call a Mary Jane,
08:54
and then I got into this terrible fight between the art director and the editor saying:
08:56
"Put a strap on it" -- "No, don't put a strap on it" -- "Put a strap on it -- "Don't put a strap on it" --
09:01
because it obscures the logo and looks terrible and it's bad and --
09:05
I finally chickened out and did it for the sake of the authenticity of the shoe.
09:08
This is a tiny joke -- E-ZR pass. One letter makes an idea.
09:12
This is a big joke.
09:22
This is the audition for "King Kong."
09:26
(Laughter)
09:29
People always ask me, where do you get your ideas, how do your ideas come?
09:35
Truth about that one is I had a horrible red wine hangover,
09:38
in the middle of the night, this came to me like a Xerox -- all I had to do was write it down.
09:42
It was perfectly clear. I didn't do any thinking about it.
09:45
And then when it ran, a lovely lady, an old lady named Mrs. Edgar Rosenberg --
09:49
if you know that name -- called me and said she loved the cover, it was so sweet.
09:54
Her former name was Fay Wray, and so that was --
09:58
I didn't have the wit to say, "Take the painting."
10:03
Finally, this was a three-page cover, never done before,
10:05
and I don't think it will ever be done again --
10:09
successive pages in the front of the magazine.
10:10
It's the ascent of man using an escalator, and it's in three parts.
10:13
You can't see it all together, unfortunately, but if you look at it enough,
10:20
you can sort of start to see how it actually starts to move.
10:23
(Applause)
12:17
Pretty elegant. Nothing like a crash to end a joke. That completes my oeuvre.
12:21
I would just like to add a crass commercial --
12:33
I have a kids' book coming out in the fall called "Marvel Sandwiches,"
12:36
a compendium of all the serious play that ever was,
12:40
and it’s going to be available in fine bookstores, crummy bookstores,
12:44
tables on the street in October.
12:46
So thank you very much.
12:49

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Bruce McCall - Humorist
Illustrator and humorist Bruce McCall paints our imagined future -- a supercharged, streamlined fantasyland that teeters on the edge of hysteria.

Why you should listen

A longtime contributor to the New Yorker, Bruce McCall is a humorist and illustrator whose best-known work draws on the big-shouldered hubris of the middle 1920s and the early 1950s to create a future paradise where the skies are fllled with zeppelins and every car has wings. He's a wry observer of contemporary life and a witty writer.

McCall began his career as an illustrator for car ads -- by his own account not a very good illustrator. He'd left the field and became a copywriter when, on a whim, he and a friend sent some humorous drawings to Playboy (at that time, 1970, it was a legit career move). He soon connected with the founders of the National Lampoon, a pioneering humor magazine, and went on to create some of their most enduring images -- finding in the 1970s countercultural media a rich audience for his satirical take on the Atomic Age. He's now working the same magic at the New Yorker.

His latest book is called Marveltown, and is exactly what it sounds like. According to Amazon, McCall's next book is called 50 Things to Do with a Book: (Now That Reading Is Dead).

The original video is available on TED.com
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