PastForward Preview: Zenka, Artist and Futurist

By Colleen Danz posted 10-03-2017 15:30


Zenka is an artist and futurist. She is a thought leader in the field of augmented reality technology and exponential change. Her focus is creating meaningful conversations around what is possible in the future using emerging technology and crowd participation. Her work can be seen in the permanent collection of Delta at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Accenture Interactive in Soho, The Museum of Tech and Innovation, and tech startups in the United States and Europe. She has spoken at TEDx and tech conferences around the country about the importance of leveraging our unique place in time. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @hellozenka. We asked her a few questions in preparation for her upcoming TrustLive:Tech presentation at PastForward 2017. Register today!  


You integrate art and technology in order to understand the past and envision possible futures. How does melding the two inspire your work? 

I think that art and technology, much like the past and the future, are inextricably connected. As a futurist, I believe that I can't make any headway until I look back. Some things from the past are not relevant to our strange future, but many lessons or insights are absolutely and urgently important to our impact and survival.  

Change is moving more quickly now. Looking into the past allows me to appreciate what types of things are changing and how quickly—and that is the best measuring stick we can use to understand what to focus on in the future. We either go into a loop and repeat—or we move forward. Futurists and historians must work together to identify what lessons from the past need to be carried forward. 

And I would argue that historians, just like artists, can't move forward without learning about and incorporating new tools and technology. The number of new tech tools available makes even me dizzy. Every month now, it seems that the world is producing interesting tools and advances in creative expression. It does take a little time to learn and understand them, but it is beyond incredible that most of them can be used by non-technical people like you and me—it has the capacity to democratize artistic expression.  

I believe that the same is happening in your industry. Professional historians can act as shepherds and encourage us all to become historians. Technology, finally allows us to examine history from multiple perspectives in an extremely inexpensive way.  

But information is just information until we analyze, compare, and contrast it in order to create theories. And those personal and collaborative hypotheses should evolve and be updated constantly. We have to continue literally inventing new tools to that end, and only historians can truly guide us. This is why everyone in tech today is talking about putting together cross-disciplinary teams. Historians need technologists as much as technologists need historians to forge the road ahead. 

You say that you work on “art for the galactic age.” Can you explain what that means to you?

That is a slogan, and just like all slogans, it is meant to captivate people. But its origin is at the core of who I am. I always thought that space was something only 12-year-old boys cared about—until I talked to my mother about airplanes! 

My mother flew to Europe when airline travel was just coming online, and my aunt was one of the first airline stewardesses in the United States. Did you know that stewardesses had to be beautiful, wear red lipstick, and be legally single(!)? These beautiful women ushered in the jet-set culture, and everyday people dressed up to get on an airplane because it was totally amazing. Today we dress comfortably to board a plane, and we fly around the world and complain about the discomfort and time spent.  

If commercial airplane travel, already so ubiquitous, was only just taking off in my mother's time, doesn't it seem likely that space travel is at our doorstep? I am often met with skepticism when I tell people that we will all probably get to go into orbit, but I base that belief on the same scientific and sociological principle that spurred my obsession with the future in the first place—the "law of accelerating returns." 

In only 100 years, we have gone from Carl Rodgers risking his life to cross the United States on an airplane in 1910—which took 49 days, 30 stops, and 19 crashes—to rich people paying $150,000 to go into orbit. About 550 people from 38 countries have already gone into space—but that number will change drastically in the years to come. That fact is counterintuitive and totally astounding to most people, including myself.  

As people like Buckminster Fuller and Ray Kurzweil started mapping out change over time, they realized that innovation was compounding. We are no longer living in a linear world, but rather in a world of exponential, compound, fast change. Our knowledge and understanding of the world are being shared like never before thanks to the internet, and everyday people are getting smarter. 

What would you like PastForward attendees to consider prior to hearing your TrustLive presentation? 

I very much look forward to connecting at the conference and hope that we can all spend a few moments away from our busy lives to step back and see ourselves from a distance. Only distance can reveal what is important.

I am deeply passionate about history. I am deeply passionate about a positive future. I look forward to telling you about advances in virtual reality (VR) and augmented technology—and about my efforts to create a time machine that will inspire future generations to learn from the past. 

Technology is a powerful part of our toolset as historians and futurists. I encourage everyone to block out 30 to 60 minutes a week to continue learning about emerging technology like VR, augmented reality, mixed reality, big data, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. To bring history to life, we should approach both historical data and crowd participation and engagement in new ways.  

If you are participating in the PastForward Challenge (Gamification) for points and prizes, please enter the following passcode for the "Read About Zenka" challenge: TECHZENKA. 

Colleen Danz is the manager for Forum Marketing at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


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