Jan 1 2011

Up In The Air

Unusually for me, commonly gaming or poking at the internet, 2010 was a year in which I watched a large number of films. The last of these was 2009′s Jason Reitman-directed Up In The Air, starring George Clooney.

The movie is about Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham, who makes a living by being hired out to fire people on behalf of various companies. As such he travels constantly around North America by air, living out of a suitcase. He has perfected this lifestyle to such a degree that he even does motivational speaking on the topic – using the metaphor of a backpack containing all your worldly goods and relationships to suggest how traditional lifestyle trappings weigh you down. When we do see his one-bedroom apartment, it first appears to be another hotel room. His life is in his carry-on wheelie suitcase. He spends most of his time in airport lounges, and in flight. And that’s okay. He loves the system. He is knowledgeable about air travel. He relishes it.

What is interesting about the portrayal of this character is that it is – at least to begin with – almost entirely positive. His life is made easy because of loyalty cards and hotel conveniences, and the collection of points for services has become a game for him. Bingham has a tough, thankless job, but it is one that he handles gently. While the platitudes about the business made to his co-worker seem trite, the truth is that he is skillful at handling people’s feelings and he faultlessly humane in a brutal situation.

Bingham is one of those postmodern characters – people who have rejected traditional norms and “family values” in favour of the professional exile of network society – that are traditionally portrayed as cruel robots, alienated servants, or pretentious jerks. Bingham is none of these: he is personable, reasonable, and kind. And he is enjoying himself.

As the film unfolds the intention is to examine his philosophy by placing it against the context of his co-worker’s struggle to deal with the realities of the job, and the break up of her relationship; to stress it with Bingham’s own migratory relationship with a fellow traveler; and to make it seem alien against the backdrop of the provincial wedding of Bingham’s sister, from whom he is largely estranged, but for whom he does display considerable concern.

What disappointed me about this was that despite the special efforts the film made to show that Bingham had not been dehumanised by his lifestyle – his capacity for solidarity with other people was unhindered, despite his lack of family ties or traditional home, as is demonstrated in the way he handles both the firing and the people he chooses to interact with – the plot still essentially appealed to “family values” as the ultimate arbiter of meaning. All the female characters, in different ways, ultimately sought relationships and families as the fundamental truth of “real life”, and for them meaning was to be derived from those relationships. The implication is that Bingham’s own meaning – that of his points collection, philosophy of weightlessness, and care for his duty of work – could never really be enough.

Now, I am not trying to devalue or deride family life, because I enjoy and value it myself. I do, however, think that film was mistaken in not allowing Bingham the strength of his convictions, or some kind of ultimate vindication. Although the plot eventually okays his lifestyle, it is done almost grudgingly. He is allowed to return to his unlimited travels, but only after his lifestyle has been argued to be somehow less than those of his colleagues and relatives. The story attempts to draw what is missing from his life, and can’t really manage it, since Bingham is actually so well adapted. “I am lonely,” he says, joking but not joking, in the least convincing moment of the movie.

In the particular case of the woman with whom Bingham has a sexual liason, I found myself expecting something less obvious. When Bingham defaults to romantic feelings of wanting something more complicated from the relationship, it was revealed that she had a family, and he was simply an affair, a “parenthesis” as the character described it. This seemed like the point at which the story failed. It would have been bolder, and probably more useful, if she had turned out to be more committed to the weightless philosophy than Bingham, and had then criticised and withdrawn from him for faltering. If that had happened then the film would have not only been a little less predictable in its characterisation of what women need from life, but would also have said something positive about modernity, and about the capacity of smart, humane people to make these kinds of philosophies work on the weird frontiers of modern living. It could have still been about testing Bingham’s philosophy, but without feeling the need to pander to the accepted wisdom of what most of us regard as normal life.

Up In The Air could have been a film about how people who ascribe to philosophies such as Bingham’s can be fine human beings and get on in life as well as anyone else. Instead it chose to make Bingham into a kind of charming abberation. The film rolls to an uneven conclusion, unable to deal with the character it has created: He’s okay, I suppose, but you wouldn’t want to live like that.

The film closes with the “fired” employees talking about how things had actually been fine because they’d had their families. I wasn’t sure what this was intended to do, or what that said about Bingham. Perhaps that he couldn’t afford to be fired, because then he’d have nothing? Or was it meant to show that they were just too earthbound and weak to follow in his footsteps? Maybe it was just a vague stab at dispersing the more bleak elements of the film, which were about people’s total dependency on their work. Either way, it was an awkward end to an otherwise elegant and intelligent movie.


Nov 27 2010

Death And Infrastructure: Thrilling Wonder Stories II

The two hour delay I faced getting into central London yesterday seemed somehow thematic of the day. A “suspected fatality” somewhere on the Paddington to Swansea rail line had brought things to a standstill. (Surely someone is dead or not? Were they nervously poking the suspected corpse with a stick to see if it was actually a sleeping tramp that would leap up and roar at them? Or was the phrasing designed to not imply definite tragedy, therefore saving us the concern about the loss of a life?) Death and infrastructure: key themes for the Thrilling Wonder Stories II, a sprawling multi-disciplinary event at the Architecture Association.

I arrived with seconds to spare, just as the AA bossman Brett Steele began to talk about the inability of architecture to see through its grand designs for the future. (I sat down in an opened alcove – a peculiar set up that one of the speakers would later point out meant that one half of the audience sat in light, and the other in darkness.) Steele set up the day by observing that visions of the future almost always end up scattered through the layered reality of the past. There is no blank slate, no matter how confidently great thinkers might predict it. The concrete towers that range across London a mark out of that sort of vision – fragments of one future, one way of looking at the future, at the city – and even the building we were in: once an elegant town house, now a bustling educational facility, bears the affect of different ways of understanding its own existence. So the stage was set for some fresh speculations – not necessarily to predict the future, or even say anything credible about it, but to make sure that the idea of the future was entertained, and that it was entertaining.

The day was divided up into small panels, each consisting of a number of individual presentations, illustrated by slides and videos which appeared on a number of screens around the room. The first panel was “Counterfeit Archaeologies”. BLDGBLOG editor Geoff Manaugh started the events proper as a double-act with his wife Nicola Twilley. Their method – one of offbeat or accidental suppositions blossoming into wider speculations – was filled with the kind of material that has made their blogging so interesting. They talked about the titular counterfeit archaeologies (faked fossils, simulated plastic stratification), as well as anti-archaeologies, simulated archaeologies. The myth of a “cow tunnel” into the slaughterhouses of Manhattan, the idea of fabricating fossils to test theories about deep time, and how to build something that would deter archaeology. All themes that percolate through Manaugh’s interests. Manaugh and Twilley raised typically interesting conceits and play-on-ideas from current research: could bees be made to produce concrete in the manner of living 3D-printers? Manaugh outlined the idea of “animal printheads”, speculating that we could engineer social animals to build or modify our buildings by manipulating their natural systems – modified spiders printing out steel for new superstructures. All great stuff.

Next up were “design provocateurs” Dunne & Raby, who were working with similar material, albeit in a way that was presented rather strangely. I think I rather missed the point of their presentation, but they showed a series of designs for externalised digestive tracts for humans – suggesting that people could soon be modified to “forage” rather than relying the traditional modification of land and vegetation that we rely on in farming. A related idea saw them speculating that policing could be handled casually if mind-reading bazookas were deployed by the community at large. They explained how, having designed this stuff, they brought in a writer to fill out the backstories – a writer who humanised ideas that might otherwise have seemed rather alien. These ideas could happen, they seemed to be saying, and would create tensions if they did do. Tensions would create stories. It chimed with the narrative theme of the day, which was something all the speakers seemed to touch on, as if it was the nature of story that somehow connected or delivered their work through to usefulness.

The second panel, Cautionary Tales, consisted of two authors and an artist. The first author was Jeff Vandermeer, who explained how his book Finch – in which his fantasy city “Ambergris” reaches parity with the 20th century real world and is then colonised and occupied by a race of fungal intelligences – acts as a kind of “non-preachy” analogy for failed states and occupations in our own reality. Following him was Will Self, who was typically awesome and droll, grabbing the biggest laugh of the day, and also the most sinister reading. His piece on leaping to his death from the Bay Bridge in San Francisco seemed fine-tuned for the audience, but also for making a point about the ideas of the day. Psychogeography, for Self, is often a consideration of what buildings demand of us – his usual example of the airports demanding calm and boredom, despite the fact that we are about to be hurled across continents at 600mph, was also rolled out to supplement the tall tale from the bridge. Third to this panel was Paul Duffield, the artist on Freakangels, who described his personal project, Signal. This wordless graphic work was inspired by both the cosmic perspectives of Carl Sagan and the ongoing search for life at SETI. Signal is a short story about the last man alive searching for that signal from other life under the light of a “galaxy rise”. Does he find it? Perhaps. His transformation into a crane/heron delivers a cryptic ending. Duffield struggled a bit in the Q&A, but he was so close to making the point that he had presumably intended to make, which was that mathematics, which is the universal language we would probably use as a starting point for contact with extraterrestrial life, was also the thing that underwrites much of graphic art, since it is interwoven into the geometries that Duffield uses on the page.

(I’ve actually been thinking a lot about SETI recently. I wonder if it should be abandoned because of the potential for melancholy. It seems to me that we’re only ever likely to pick up a signal from some far away, long-dead civilisation, and then have to listen to it, possibly for centuries, without being able to do anything about it. On the one hand it could mean we aren’t “alone” in the universe, but perhaps it would only amplify our isolation. Here we are, trapped in our tower, able to catch glimpses of the living world outside and yet never touch it, never let it know we exist… We could end up stuck here on Earth, in love with a teeming universe that never bothers to acknowledge our existence.)

The third panel was Near Futures. A little closer to home for me – and yet still somehow alien by virtue of being an Xbox game – was the opening demonstration of Child Of Eden by Ubisoft. Visually spectacular, it is nevertheless Rez with motion control. I can see the appeal of it, but this isn’t what is exciting about games for me. Projects like this feel like a hangover from the 1980s, a sort of realised dream of what shoot ‘em ups could be, though the format ends feeling archaic even under the guise of this fresh technology. Also on this panel was the phenomenal Alex Rutterford, a film-maker responsible for videos such as Autechre’s Gantz Graf (below) and many other pioneering electronic works. What was interesting about his work, I felt, was that he used architectural forms without really having an considerations for architecture. It was all about surface for his work, as if he were an architect who worked purely in facades – something that I think is common with a lot of work in videogames, too.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4ZwTUUue1w

Also on this panel was Matt Webb from BERG. This London design firm are rapidly becoming popular outside just the design sector, thanks to their over-arching philosophies, omnivorous interests, and thorough blogging of all the topics surrounding their research. They’re the kind of creative force that is fast making general design more interesting, purely on the level of ideas, than any other sector. Anyone who has been following Webb for a while will be familiar with the themes he touched on here – the inspirational value of 1970s space station illustrations, the idea of the macroscope, and the importance of Hello Little Fella in design. He also looked at “fractional AI”, the idea that AI isn’t turning up in the monolithic intelligences of Wargames or 2001, but instead in things like hamster toys that make “hilarious noises”. It’s not huge and all-encompassing, but cheap, tiny, and handling just a tiny fragment of what we might regard as intelligent. This led to a discussion of ubiquitous computing: what is interesting about technology now is that it is, thanks to be distributed and fractional, “disappearing” into the world around us. The screen is (possibly) become less important as the focus of all things hi-tech, because hi-tech, and the internet, is in everything from kids toys to washing machines.

I’m not sure whether this is a consequence of the last Thrilling Wonder Stories, or simply a factor of me being older and broader, but I was far more familiar with the interests and obsessions of this set of speakers – and, consequently less surprised by their ideas – than I had been at the first event. This is a purely personal observation, of course, but it was interesting to see most of the speakers setting up their obsessions as a kind of pitch stall, staking out their little landscape of ideas and offering up its fruits to others. As a consequence it felt more prosaic than the original Thrilling Wonder Stories, much more about showcasing work than about simply unloading ideas. Vandermeer and Self particularly were reeling off variants of their standard book pitches that I had already seen elsewhere. As beautiful as Vandermeer’s mind is, and as funny as Self remains, they were somehow less useful than last year’s participants, and had neither the same intellectual verve nor the same quotient of take-home ideas as the previous speakers.

Panel four – Apocalyptic Visions – was also largely familiar to me. Anthony Johnston, the author of the Wasteland comics, spoke about how the city in his novel had begun to tell its own stories, pushing him away from his original “wasteland” remit of telling stories out in the desert. The city exhibited so much pull, because buildings automatically tell stories, that he couldn’t – and shouldn’t – steer away from it. For Johnston, the value of buildings is how we understand them, as place that imply things, and ask questions. It is “the locked door”, the thing that instantly creates mystery. What is behind it? Why is it locked? Who locked it? And so on. Johnston handed over to the remarkable Rachel Armstrong. She too a science fiction author, but also a working scientist researching synthetic biology, and particularly metabolic materials for buildings. Armstrong’s work is fascinating – life like systems operating without DNA programming – and she is an extraordinarily vivid and glamorous character. It seems as if she could easily have been written into existence by one of the other speakers. The speculative project she outlined was using cell-like chemical systems to create a kind of reef-like deposit under Venice, and to thereby save it from sinking into the sea. Of all the ideas that were presented at this event, hers was the most extraordinary and – by virtue of her being a working researcher – the most plausible and pragmatic. Amazing, almost fictional, but edging into the real. As Manaugh pointed out, Armstrong’s work was less an apocalyptic vision, and more of an apocalyptic antidote.

Last up for panel four was Ed Stern from Splash Damage. He talked about the background for designing The Ark, the floating eco-city gone bad that plays host to Brink, their forthcoming shooter. Stern was at his best here, working hard to outline the commercial constraints of modern videogames as well as pointing out how its possible to be creative and provocative even within the tight templates of something as formulaic as a first-person shoot ‘em ups. His closing statement – the game’s trailer – got the biggest cheer of the day. Whatever the crowd, people seem to appreciate men with guns, and Stern had provided an illuminating glimpse of the difficulties that the Men With Guns creators currently face. Brink is particularly ambitious, trying to set itself apart with a mixture of hyper-realism and a scenario that had not been seen before in either games or film. The panel’s subsequent conversation also turned to Minecraft, thanks to Anthony Johnston, as they touched on the idea of whether the indie games scene equates to the same kind of things as Art cinema. Stern argues that it does not, and I agree with him. But more on that another time. A good outing from the videogame fraternity, anyway.

The final panel I recollect through a haze of exhaustion, as we had been going for eight hours at this point. Thoughts were starting to lose their glue. First up were Ant Farm, an “alternative” architecture practice founded in the 1960s and based in San Francisco. These chaps talked about their time capsule projects, ending with a recollection of a dream that one of them had, which didn’t really make much sense to me. This deliriousness might have been a consequence of their presentation being via Skype on a big screen in the room, rather than in person, an event that was simultaneously a super-modern instance of network power and baffling disconnected, or I might have just really needed a cup of tea. Also in the bafflingly disconnected camp was the final presentation from radical artist (and enormously accomplished sculptor) Joep Van Lieshout, who spoke about his speculative “free state” A.V.L.ville, which he had built as a kind of studio-cum-anarchist commune on a piece of land off Rotterdam harbour. Having declared themselves a free state, the AVL inhabitants began to try to operate as such until Van Lieshout made claims about the possibility of dog-fucking to the local press, and the authorities became involved. Having been frustrated in his attempts to build a real society, Van Lieshout moved his architectural art (via his key obsessions of mobile homes and sex) to a new city design: Slave City. This design, fortunately never realised, proposed a 60km2 ideal city, which was self sufficient, given enough slaves. The slaves would work in call centres, generating $8bn a year in revenue, while weak or unsuitable candidates would be butchered for food and biofuel. The audience laughed, astonished at these proposals for organised prostitution and cannibalism, all of which were delivered by Van Lieshout with a dose of good humour. It nevertheless ended up seeming rather sinister. If Roche had closed last year’s event sounding like the mad architect who would build the villain’s volcano base, then Van Lieshout ended this event by sounding like the villian himself. “It’s not my fault,” I imagined him saying, “it was all in the name of art!”

Art probably isn’t a good enough excuse for much of this stuff. Liam Young and Geoff Manaugh are producing a series of events (there’s due to be a third Thrilling Wonder Stories next year) that I suspect some commentators will see as weird or frivolous. Entertaining the notions of fantasy authors and fringe intellectuals seems at odds with some of the tasks that architecture faces, but, as Self pointed out, so many architects will end up having their work prescribed for them by forces beyond their control, ending up building boring airports or safe rail infrastructure, that any chance to push them towards genuine creativity must be snapped up. It isn’t just about art, because even art is never just about art. Nor is architecture just about buildings, or even just about the people who inhabit the buildings. It’s about everything. That seems to be what these events are designed to demonstrate. For the rest of us, particularly those of us in comparatively closed circles of interests, such as the games industry, Thrilling Wonder Stories represents a kind of challenge: to find out where interesting projects intersect with our own, and to see what we can learn from them. Perhaps we’ll learn nothing at all, but it’s worth finding out.


Jan 19 2010

Blade Runner, Butcher Bill, And Multiplicity

I recently found myself chatting to PD Smith about Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Blade Runner. Smith, who is writing a book about cities, had presumably been looking at it in research for his project. It would make sense, of course, because Blade Runner, of all the cinematic visions of the city, is one of the most powerful and compelling. It’s a fantastically complete vision of future Los Angeles. Consequently it’s so influential that I once read about an article about North American city planners in which a majority of planners admitted they took inspiration from the film – also admitting that they ultimately wanted Los Angeles to look like the vision presented by Scott’s designers and cinematographers.

I recall the film having quite a similar influence on me. Blade Runner was profoundly formative for me as a child/adolescent, partly because of the theme of mortality being so starkly laid out for an immature mind, but also because of the weird beauty in the city design. I can actually pinpoint the moment in which I fell in love with the idea of imaginary cities: where you see a canyon vista of the city from Deckard’s apartment, a green-tinted slice of the metropolis beyond. I desperately wanted to explore that. I wanted the videogames I played to actualise it, and set me free down there. They’re still working on that, I guess.

But there was something else going on in my response to that film. For a piece about the finitude of life it had an odd effect on my way of thinking. Repeated viewing made me realise that I – somehow – wanted to live lots of different lives, rather than one long life. “The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long,” indeed, but if I have to be a light, then think I want to be one of those fibre-optic plants, where the one light is channelled down a thousand different, parallel routes. Blade Runner didn’t make me want immortality, it made me want multiplicity. For me the story didn’t so much emphasize the brief intensity of the Replicant lives, as emphasize how they had lived other exciting events, off-screen, out there in the wider universe. It made clear how all the Replicants had experiences that would be inaccessible to all the others, because they’d never have time to sit down and write their memoirs.

This “what the fuck is going on off-screen” effect seems to occur a great number of films. Take Gangs Of New York, for example. The fight at the start of that film seems like the culmination of a story far more interesting than the one that the movie actually follows. I want to be able to hit a red button and get the story of the gang war between the preacher and Butcher Bill. The film that never was. (That’s one of the most appealing things about reading about history via Wikipedia. Whatever event or battle you end up reading about, you can explore back – and forward – through the related network of links.)

I also wonder if this desire for multiplicity – as deemed more attainable than immortality by my tiny brain – is one of the reasons I am so comfortable in my escapism today. I don’t think twice about sinking half my life into in the heaps of books I plough through, and in the TV, games and film that I devour. What other placebos for immortality are there? And how else am I going to get a glimpse of all those different lives I want to be living? Not by idling in Second Life, that’s for sure.


Jul 23 2009

Bronson

“I make no bones about it, I really was… a horrible, violent, nasty man. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either… See you at the Oscars.”

I rather envy those people who have been able to reinvent themselves from the name up. Charles Bronson, born Michael Gordon Peterson, is a brutal, British example of the self-mythologising creature. A haywire prototype that exists outside the normal channels, and a brilliant example of what an errant personality can achieve, even under heavy constraint.

Whilst most tall-story personalities are at least given the kind of life we all share as a stage, Charles Bronson has had solitary confinement, and the rooftops of British prisons. He’s managed to become a tea-drinking muscle-monster of British legend (2,500 press-ups a day), while barely spending any time outside the walls of our gaols.

He has also never killed anyone.

That fact appears in the very middle of the recent film, Bronson, for a fleeting moment. I felt as if it wasn’t stressed enough: for all the craziness, the hostage-taking, the riots and fisticuffs, Bronson has never taken a life, which seems to set his myth apart from the other nightmarish denizens of our deepest pits. It’s a vital aspect of the context of Bronson’s thirty-four years of incarceration: that he is violent within self-set boundaries. The working-class gentleman lunatic, with his moustaches, his gladiatorial strength, and his principles.

The film has a special kind of cinematic ugliness to it, and the lead actor, Tom Hardy, does well to fill out the eccentric profile of the man. He juggles both the grinning lunacy, the glee of violence, and the bruising of punishment with extreme care. Hardy, as Bronson, also narrates, via a series of fantasy-stage-set performances, which set the tone of the film as firmly within Bronson’s own bizarre worldview: celebrity-meets-thuggery-as-performance-art. The clown and the circus strongman warped by the invisible force-fields of fame.

The film captures some of the bizarre cruelty of Bronson’s life, his own unpredictability, and the difficulties of the system charged with containing him. Yet it does not seem to express what matters about the actual story of Bronson’s existence, which I would argue is far more interesting than the stylised prison theatre we get to see on screen.

I was waiting for something of Broadmoor and the rooftop protests from Bronson’s perspective, and treated to little more than a slideshow. (I suspect Bronson’s chimney toppling antics were the first time child-me had been notified of the existence of prisons, or of their inhabitants, and so I was awaiting some kind of extra loop of connection with those images.)

Some of Bronson’s more outlandish moments were neglected by this script, and his early life as a circus strongman and bare-knuckle boxer was remixed into a fictional reworking of the few weeks he did spend out of prison in the 1980s and early ’90s. It’s as if the film was mostly interested in its own caricature of Britain’s most violent prisoner – complete with scintillating soundtrack – and that the production had failed to realise what strange, bloody gold awaited them under the skin of the real man and his world.

There was no need for flights of cinematic fancy when the reality is so colourful and disturbing. The movie seems to avoid some of Bronson’s finest lines – such as his absurd demands in hostage situations – and to avoid any real insight into why he performed some of those bizarre acts of violence. Inevitable, I suppose, given that Bronson is the (unreliable?) narrator of its proceedings. This is the film of the “fighting name”, rather than the prisoner.

I’m sure Bronson really is proud of the film, because it is a broad extension to his personal reinvention. To be genuinely faithful to the man, rather than the alter-ego, would have meant creating a film that reflected the decades of solitude, and the astonishing loneliness that so many years must have wrought. Unimaginable boredom and silence punctuated by moments of incredible, outlandish violence. The first part of that, at least, is something film doesn’t articulate all that well: deliberately so in this case. And Bronson, the movie, is all the worse for it.


Jun 13 2009

Input/Output

Having spent a couple of weeks working in an office for a magazine, I’m relishing the chance to gorge myself on research for my own projects. I hope I’ll never take for granted the incredible freedom that being a freelance creature has given me. And I also quietly pray that I never have to give it up.

I’m now busy trying to focus my curiosity and gather together ideas from a selection of fresh sources. In the months since This Gaming Life was released I’ve spent plenty of time developing some of the more interesting ideas that the book touched on: the significance of boredom, the value and values of escapism, generative systems in videogames, gamers in videogames, videogames as a new science fiction frontier, biography, philosophy and the future. All that means lots of dredging for data, spotting connections, and figuring out what needs to be said next.

A writer is a machine for turning tea into descriptions. And this writer’s head needs other materials to combine with the caffeine. I suppose some folks are more spontaneous and original, but I need to remix and recombine foreign elements to produce anything useful. So, as a set of notes and explanations, here’s a cross section of my current research materials. I’m thinking of the following as a kind of map of where my projects are in idea-space, which is actually what this blog has largely been about, over the years.

[Everything mentioned here is set to a soundtrack composed of Lustmord, Brian Eno, Tim Hecker, Belong, and, for a touch of energy, Lightning Bolt.]

Headthinks at the end of last year were dominated by reading and re-reading three books. The first two of these were Collapse and The World Without Us, which make up a kind of End Of The World documentary duo. They are both imaginative and well-researched, and constitute a strange kind of anxiety (the calmly compiled list of how we are fucked, in Collapse) and a release of tension (the realisation that human beings aren’t the only life on Earth, and that the writhing blue green would actually be a lovely place without us, in The World Without Us.) They’ve ended up defining a lot of what I want to do in the next few years, which is about redescribing progress, and trying inject some optimism into the world around me.

The other book was Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. Celebrity literary neurologist Oliver Sacks is consistently incredible, but this book hit me much harder than his others. There was something deeply inspiring about the fundamental nature of music in the brain, which made the stories of music and brain malfunctioning even more horrifying. I found myself putting the book down from time to time, too moved and disturbed by horrible possible fates of music-haywire brains to continue. What Musicophilia reminded me, however, was how much interest I used to have in the brain, and consciousness.

Subsequently I’ve been leafing through a bunch of older brain books, and have picked up this more recent work on the plasticity of the brain, Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself. I’m only part way through it, but the notion of senses filling in for each other, and the brain adapting, or being adapted, to deal with tasks aside from those expected of it, is fascinating. And optimistic. Brains can do more than we believed. That aside, I’ve long been interested in the idea of what games might end up doing to rewire the human brain, particularly as we adapt to use various unusual interfaces, and I hope this book will lead me in the direction of more such research.

Thinking back, this reminds me how I became a consciousness studies junkie at university. I was so entrenched in the stuff that I ended up writing a squalid and stupid dissertation on consciousness, even though we’d not had any philosophy of mind or related materials featured in the three year course. Perhaps if I’d paid attention to what we’d actually been studying, I might have got more out of it. But anyway, the one person who did inspire me at that time is also on my current research reading list. He’s a professor called Ray Monk, and I’ve been reading a bit of his work – aside from the books he’s written – specifically a paper entitled “Biography as an Exemplar of Philosophical Understanding”.

Monk’s thought is, I think, an example of an anti-philosophy of the kind that Wittgenstein wrote about, and that interests me enormously. Monk says that biography is a model of “the kind of understanding that consists in seeing connections,” as opposed to theoretical understanding, which consists in explaining something via a fundamental theory, and the attended methods, frameworks, and jargon. I spend quite a lot of time reading various philosophy and critical theory blogs, and I’m often astounded by the impracticality and complexity of the writing produced for them. Finding philosophy that exhibits genuine clarity can be a difficult task in itself, but it’s often necessary for me to get a new and useful perspective of the things I want to write about.

(Kieron and I were wondering about the motivation and purpose behind that entire high falutin’ philosophy scene the other day. He suggested it was some kind of metagame, in which the exponents of various theories scored depending on how much their descriptions and redescriptions stirred intellectual arousal on their peers. I suggested it might be explained via Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada, who observes that snorting at high fashion’s impracticality and obsession with detail is foolish, because ultimately those motifs, colours, and designs will still filter down to street level and influence how people dress, whether we like it or not. The same might be said of philosophical theory.)

What interests me about Monk’s suggestions is that – by interpreting the old German chap – they offer a sense of the value of the kind of writing that is more biographical than theoretical. In writing about videogames I find myself interested more in those kinds of descriptions than in theory that tries to explain games in some way. In terms of the kinds of ideas I’m interested in, seeing connections is a lot more useful that coming up with theories that explain play, fun, or whatever. What I want to write isn’t, say, a theory that sums up and defines gaming in some practical way, but something more like London Orbital, where I’m reporting back with descriptions of the jungle.

The other thing I’m beginning to look at more seriously is a pet topic of one of my closest friends, who blogs regularly on science here. It’s the topic of automata. The history of artificial animals and people goes back centuries, and I suspect that the motivations of automata creators are tied to, or are analogous to, much of what videogame creators are trying to do right now. Finding out a little more about automata will, I hope, enable me to clarify and expand the kinds of thoughts that I’ve already jotted down for Offworld, about artificial life and the future of entertainment tech.

Brain dump energies exhausted. More later.


Jun 13 2009

Ramshackle Architecture Futures: Danube Waterways

Assuming the world does end up flooding, thanks to defrosted polar regions, then we’re unlikely to be taking to the seas. We’re more likely to just cluster along the new coastlines, dealing with the flooding and building our new homes around it. Bruce Sterling looks at such things happening right now in this Serbian documentary, where people living on uninsurable land, or regularly flooded sections of the Danube. They are building piecemeal dwellings that either float, or are on stilts, and repurpose and reuse materials from other dwellings.

I felt like this was perhaps a glimpse of how a flooded Europe might end up living, as we enjoyed our Mediterranean climate, and scrabbled for space to live amid the newly flooded valleys. A pretty tranquil kind of dystopia.


May 31 2009

Thrilling Wonder Stories

Last Friday, at the Architectural Association in central London, I attended a symposium called Thrilling Wonder Stories. It was a series of talks arranged by Liam Young and Geoff Manaugh, and attended by a whole bunch of people from a range of disciplines. (I was listed on the billing, but didn’t actually have a presentation and contributed little of interest. Not that my tiny mind was needed, because there was a colossal array of speaking talent in attendance.) Brief impressions follow.

Introduction by the director of the Architectural Association, then Liam Young, and then Geoff Manaugh. The BLDGBLOG author instantly started connecting science fiction, speculation and narrative with architecture, leaping from one idea to the next. He values this kind of collision of ideas, and wants everyone else to. I suspect we could all have listened to this for another hour or two, but it was onward to the first speaker.

Peter Cook, seventy-something Archigram founder and working architect, was full of energy. He stood up to talk about “Weird Shit International” as a much-needed movement in architecture across the decades. He cast off layers of t-shirts, each one seeming to show his association with weird shit in building design across forty years, while narrating a series of architectural pictures – near-abstract things that connected disparate ideas from robotics to kitchenware. He lamented “up and down” building design philosophy, and laughed that the Oslo school of architecture was pumping out such boring graduates of that philosophy, when a solar-powered autonomous robot was mowing the grass-lawn roof above their heads. A situational joke that they did not seem to get.

Viktor Antonov was next. The Citadel from Half-Life 2 is probably the most famed of his creations, at least among my people, and he discussed some of his angles on design production. He talked about rendering impressionistic, low-detail cities to bring forward psychological aspects – the most intense the situation, the less of the environment you see – as will be demonstrated in the forthcoming animated film, The Prodigies. Calm scenes mean painterly but detailed environments, and action reduces the rendering to mere pencil-form sketchiness. Then he showed us how altering a couple of architectural parameters – increasing the height of the ground floors of Paris, and the monumental size of the smokestacks – could instantly render a real city in a science fiction oeuvre. It’s fascinating to see some one as artistically accomplished as Antonov precisely pinpointing the theory that underlies how he goes about creating stuff. The Paris he was designing looked phenomenal, but will never likely be unveiled, as it was for The Crossing. The game was recently frozen by its developers, Arkane Studios.

Lunch was weird: a side room full of speakers eating roasted vegetables and creme caramel, discussing the importance of JG Ballard. “Do you have to be dead to be taken seriously?” asked one of the speakers. Visions of undead lich-architects taking the podium. What do architecture commentators talk about when confined to lunch? Tombs, death, other writers.

Then we returned to hear from Iain MacLeod, the science fiction author. He spoke, somewhat distressingly, of the way in which British schoolchildren writing science fiction almost inevitably write about dark futures. The rocketship wonder of earlier decades is gone, and our children write dystopias by default: a fascinating, terrifying realisation. He seemed rather earthy and upbeat, and talked of how problems mean invention, and creativity, but I couldn’t help think about a generation of kids for whom there is no bright imagined future: only Bladerunner, eco-death, the Drowned World, apocalypse. MacLeod talked about the problems for idealistic sci-fi now, and I wonder if there was something about the hip nihilism of modern fantasy, combined with relentless terror-cancer newsmedia shit, that really will stop future generations bothering to climb out of their doomed shrug. I wondered whether we needed to send some idealists into schools, give Chris Anderson’s essay on optimism an outing. “Percentage of males who died in violence in the 20th century complete with two world wars and a couple of nukes? Approximately 1%. Trends for violent deaths so far in the 21st century? Falling. Sharply.” And so on.

Next up: Nic Clear. A lecturer at The Bartlett School of Architecture, Clear was focused on discussing how cross media influences of a kind that weren’t given the nod by the core architectural profession could be valuable. Film making, novels, were important to architectural education too, he claimed. I felt like his message got a bit lost. It was basically: JG Ballard should be on reading lists, and architects are educated people who don’t have one clear portfolio. That rather got swamped by oppressive student films that he played as the second part of his presentation. Clear wanted architects to step back and think, and not to buy into pre-packaged positive thinking of capitalist sales speak, something like that. Big downers are good for you, it seems.

Then a design firm called Squint Opera took the stage. They were a fun kind of antidote to the proceedings up this point, playing a glossy, colourful show reel in which giant pins fell from the sky into microcosm living-blueprints, and UFO-stadiums hovered amid blizzards of ticker-tape – these were the staple of their architectural energy. Before that they showed slides of “Flooded London“, which presented the submerged, ruined capital as actually rather playful: an opportunity to turn the city into a watery paradise. They seemed to have a kind of cut-and-paste notion of how architecture should be sold and discussed, and they mentioned later that how they pictured the Olympic stadium, and how it turned out, were rather different. There was some kind of antagonism between their angle and that of Clear: they were operating on the kind of bright optimism of epic cashflows that Clear was unhappy about, prescribing to some coffee-on-the-terrace decadence that he saw as unrealistic. Nevertheless they were at the heart of the symposium: science fiction as part the real, day-to-day business of making buildings.

Then the most extraordinary storm of science-madness came from Francois Roche (of architects R&Sie) whose thick accent masked incredible phrases: “strategies of sickness”, “protocolising the witch in the forest”, “the necrosis of the building”, “the penis of the wall”… he talked about feeding death and traditional fairy tales into design, and about creating a machine that would build an un-navigable glass maze in the courtyard between buildings, into which people would wander, and then die, unable to escape without GPS. “They die to become part of the building,” he said, grinning, and propping expensive sunglasses on his styled bonce. He talked about a building in which would be constructed from vast, moulded versions of bullet holes on wet clay, covered in rotting vegetation collected from the Korean de-militarized zone by a purpose-built “witch” robot, referencing Tarkovsky’s Stalker on the way. Oh and this electrified hairy skyscraper that would suck pollution from the Thai atmosphere, and only be a little bit dangerous. Roche’s firm seems like one of the world’s most valuable imaginative resources: technically accomplished, with a healthy streak of insanity. He would be the guy the evil genius would go to for the Volcano base plans. “Ten billion in blood money, what can you build me?” “A death-maze constructed from recycled local materials and plutonium!” Something like that.

Finally Warren Ellis took the stage and told the audience that science fiction wasn’t – and had never been – about predicting the future. He explained, in no uncertain terms, that it was – from War of the Worlds to Transmetropolitan – always about dealing with the present. Then he shouted at a passing ice-cream van and quoted Heinlein creating context for the new and unknown: “SF operates language differently than most other forms of literature. What SF does, which annoys most people, is subvert the sentence. Changing one word can put you in a new place. The usual example is from Robert Heinlein: ‘As the door dilated…’ Suddenly you’re in an entirely different place.” He also revealed a new project, which he called Electrograd. A city which had been a testbed for futures of the past, and is now being torn down to make way for futures of the present. And murder, of course, because it needs a good story. I can’t wait to see how that one unfolds.

In retrospect the entire event reminded me of a rather more lively version of the kinds of things my lecturers were trying to arrange during my philosophy degree: a cross pollination of ideas that told the students that what they were doing was about education, not vocation, and that mad, beautiful ideas were worth pursuing for their own sakes, because – damn! – all the people up on that stage were living them.

The whole thing was stamped, perhaps imperceptibly to everyone else, with a motto I come back to – paraphrasing Richard Rorty – which is: “anything can be redescribed”. Sometimes a new description is all you need.


Mar 11 2009

PeeWee Herman vs Crack addiction


Jan 26 2009

Evolution


Jan 2 2009

A Year In 40 Seconds


One year in 40 seconds from Eirik Solheim on Vimeo.