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.
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.