top of page

I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE reimagines the New York World’s Fair to subvert the American Century 


Issac Scott

April 2022, New York City


The first thing that hits you in I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE is the preternatural green of the walls, the sickly color of a public school band room or cafeteria. 


“It’s called mint parfait,” artist Johanna Herr explains, “but we call it institutional trauma green.” 


Herr’s show and companion book, in collaboration with Cara Marsh Shefller, satirize the 1964 New York World’s Fair as a vehicle to explore the hidden darkness inherent in American society and foreign policy. The artists subvert the exhibits of the World’s Fair, which attracted some 50 million visitors to Flushing Meadows Park, to get at its ugly interior of propaganda and externalization. 


The fair was in fact not sanctioned by the official international organization of World Fairs, who rejected the bid, but was orchestrated instead by private industry who sought to cement the United States’ hegemony within the supposed “American Century.” 


Beneath the chic veneer of forward-looking optimism we find a disturbing psychological front in the Cold War. Ultimately, the artists depict the fair as a great inculcator of the values of capitalism, a system under threat from the consequences of its own violence and exploitation. 


Behold, the wonder of the Kraft single, the automat, the wiretap, the nuclear weapon.


If we are to imagine an America represented by Coca-Cola, the artists contend, we must also reckon with the iconography of the mushroom cloud. 


On display now through May 21 at Field Projects, the show features seven architectural sculptures, wallpaper, a textile, and a “guide” to this re-imagined fair, created in collaboration with Sheffler. 


The guide will be sold at Printed Matter beginning next month, and will be featured by the store at Frieze Art Fair (alongside Herr and Sheffler’s two previous collaborative book projects, also carried by Printed Matter). 


Herr’s sculptures correspond to the themes of the fair’s pavilions, their whimsically appearance masking sinister meanings.

One sculpture shows a NASA space center, softened by nylon flocking, with a swastika embedded in the top. It took a couple looks for the icon to sink in, and with it the history of the role former Nazi scientists had in establishing the U.S. space program. Through this sick arrangement, the engineers of the of holocaust evaded punishment, instead integrated into the American position against Communism. At first they supercharged the development of rockets and missiles, later of chemical weapons like Agent Orange. A monstrous deal lurking submerged in history, brought forward here through striking vision. 


“Did you know just how many of those NASA eggheads are Nazi noggins?” Shefller writesm, “Ja wohl! Top NASA rocket scientist Wehner von Braun—Dr. Strangelove himself—was just one of 1,600 some odd Nazi scientists brought over to win the Cold War through science!”


Irony and pun prevail.


Along one wall, a large textile dubbed the “Ironic Curtain” matches geopolitical evils by the Soviet Union with parallel atrocities committed by the United States. The Soviets invade Hungary in 1956, the Americans overthrow the democratic government of Syria in 1949. 

Robert Moses, president of the fair, looms large over the exhibition, contextualized within the technological and political impulses of an ideology at war. Perhaps the defining figure of 20th century New York, Moses rewrote the state constitution, installed himself in unelected government positions, and made way for the modern city through the ruthless development of infrastructure. 


Sheffler, a New Jersey native, grew up around a New York warped by Moses’ vision, and a society consumed by American exceptionalism.


Her father was raised in Levittown, in the type of suburban home depicted by The American Home Pavilion (Suburban Jubilee). Her family regularly drove the stretch of the Cross-Bronx Expressway shown in the Transportation Pavilion (Highways of Displacement). That sculpture references an infamous one-mile stretch of a Moses highway project that displaced some 1,500 families, even though a less disruptive route was possible just one block away. The once-thriving community withered in the dust of the expressway, left plagued by poverty, crime, and environmental contamination. Fifteen-hundred families, their lives swept away by the future, by progress. 


As the title suggests, I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE confronts the past from the vantage point of the future. But it also interrogates the present by exploring the past from which our now was conceived. Here, fresh questions simmer. Whose future bares down on us now with the weight of inevitability? What version of progress will these machines usher forth?

bottom of page