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.

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.

Apr 5 2010

Only Four Shuttle Flights Remain

Strikingly sad realisation that manned space-flight is at an all time low point. Those flights that are planned now are maintenance of the ailing space station, and tourism for the super-wealthy. As Ballard pointed out, the true space era lasted just fifteen years, from Gagarin’s journey to 1975, when Apollo’s capsule splashdown was not shown on TV.

“Only intelligent machines may one day grasp the joys of space travel, seeing the motion sculpture of the spaceflights as immense geometric sympohonies.” – The Atrocity Exhibition, 1993 edition, JG Ballard

Jul 10 2009

Book Review: Dirt

William Bryant Logan seems like a name that should be on the cover of a book. It’s a good, earthy name. It’s the name of an author who is a gardener, a scholar, a journalist, a Christian, an ex-oil rigger, and a mountain climber. All these aspects of his life are expressed in the busy pages of Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin Of The Earth. (First published as a paperback in 2007.)

Judging a book by its cover, in part, I bought Dirt on the basis of the fantastic title, and on the report that it contained this fact: “an acre of soil produces one horsepower every day”. The fact came first, via Twitter. Where did the fact come from? Via William Bryant Logan’s Dirt. That was a sale, right there.

A book about dirt. Soil, mud. And one with intriguing facts.

The book is a collection of essays that tie into the many aspects of what is – I now realise – a relatively mysterious medium. Dirt, dust, soil, earth, clay: a set of living systems that ties in any number of processes and materials across the planet. Logan’s writings detail a number of them, rooting around in matters of composting, soil evolution, dung beetles (including a species that hangs at the arse of a monkey, ready to base jump from a tree with its chosen stool), earthquakes, ground water, the theories of clay, molds, the wind, and the relationship between early agrarian presidents of the United States, Jefferson and Adams.

Logan’s book is piecemeal, rather than any kind of systematic natural history or survey. Nevertheless it’s the diversity of thoughts and descriptions that make this book fascinating to a dirt layman such as myself. It also seems to contain a broad thesis about how soil is akin to life, and how it is the foundation of life. The section on the weird nature of clay, and its relationship to the early stages of life, even the sheer complexity of this apparently simply substance, is extraordinary.

“The clay code… is more complex that either genetic code or human language. Only now are we beginning to catch glimpses of its order, and one cannot help thinking that pursuing it will be as fruitful and endless as the cabbalists’ search for that perfect of the Hebrew aleph, by which God created the universe.”

Logan’s writing is elegiac: he seems genuinely sad for eroded and contaminated soils, and laments the waste of bad composting. He offers poetic renditions of lessons in geology, and begins to suggest that soil is interrelated with what it means to be human. Indeed, the book explains, soil itself is a kind of living, self-healing entity, which we can and must understand our relationship with. There’s something beautiful about this that is made all the more intense by our increased understanding of the properties of this substance. Logan exults soil scientist Hans Jenny as one of the greatest minds of the past century, for his contribution to this body of knowledge.

Of course I agree with the ideas about the life of soil, and our need to better understand how we use, make and exhaust it. It’s a characteristic that’s true of much of the natural world, and it only needs stating in this case because soil is so ignored, and abused. It is not, thanks to this book, underwhelming. Logan does a fantastic job of providing the tools necessary for furthering even the slightest interesting in the materials beneath the gardener’s feet.

However, Logan’s Christianity does frame much of how he discusses his topic, and not always beneficially to the neutral reader. For the most part the Bible references are well-judged: splendid allegory. By the last third of the book, however, the pastoralist sermonising tendencies – via Biblical example – had begun to grate, and I almost put the book down.

This is a writer who is, apparently, keenly interested in the wonder that science can evoke from our expanded understanding of the natural world. The book is filled with references to soil science, geology, and even cosmology. And yet it is an uncomfortable position: Logan seems to still be irked by the arrogance of science – a common feeling among believers – which is something I would have sympathy for if it were not for his generalisations against science, and his eccentric defence of the profoundly dubious practice of dowsing for water.

“Science tells us that we are lords of Creation and that we know everything, but it would seem that our mental world is often more impoverished than an ant or a weed.”

Even when reports like this one discuss magnetic sense in animals, the fact remains that dowsing has been repeatedly debunked. There is no case for it. Logan’s belief in this strange behaviour set seems more about his hope and faith in ancient belief, than about any kind of useful understanding of the natural world. Science, far from telling us we are lords of creation, tells us that the world is more complex, and far stranger, than our ancient forebears could have anticipated.

These irrational blips make for uneven reading for even an occasionally magical empiricist like me, and it made me grumble. I was ultimately able to ignore it, and put aside the religious undertones as something like poetic license, but the sense of internal tension remained.

Like a whole bunch of my peers I’ve become increasingly interested in these kinds of topics, with gardening and growth, and with their relationship to how we progress, and it’s hard to find articulate writing on the topic that doesn’t slump into tedium. In part, Dirt serves to colour our knowledge and fuel our excitement and wonder, and I want to recommend it for that reason alone.

Jun 5 2009

A World Without Aeroplanes

Or Reprovincialised Rustic TechnoFuture as possible alternative to Grim Meathook.

I’m not sure where this image is from, but I like how the plane of the far left seems so happy.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the future a great deal recently. Not simply because of reading books like Collapse and The World Without Us, and attending events like Thrilling Wonder Stories, but because I want to write something about it for myself. I’ve been working on a couple of my own projects regarding the future – one about the future of games, and one about the future of progress. I’ll probably start compiling more thoughts about these two topics on here in notepad form, without any proper form: thinking out loud. Starting with this.

An FT interview with economist Jeff Rubin discusses what kind of role the increase in oil prices had on the recession. Rubin says: “Once we get into triple digit prices, what we find is it’s no longer compatible with a global economy… distance costs money and things that we thought made a lot of sense like importing food or steel from China cease making sense.” And so the conversation goes on about how that will cause globalisation to slow down, and a wider, deeper recession to occur.

Oil is already the most important economic factor in the health of global money, and the implications of it getting more expensive are enormous. While peak oil might be a long, long way off (up to a century, by some optimistic estimates), and there’s little reason to believe that the slowdown will necessarily cause an energy-led Malthusian catastrophe, it is going to run out.

And of course the assumption is that the slow death of oil use via expense and scarcity won’t matter – or at least won’t be dangerous to a current way of life – because we’ll have flipped over to a hydrogen economy, and that will ease the burden. (Biofuels are already proving to be impossible as a wide-scale solution, because if we grow them on a colossal scale we rapidly begin run out of space for food.) A hydrogen economy nevertheless remains a total fiction, a fabrication to make the future seem shinier: not even a tiny fraction of the oil-consuming world is ready to be retrofitted to use gas a fuel. People are already thinking about other alternatives: the methanol economy as alternative, or a stopgap. It’s much easier to refit generators, cars, and powerstations to use methanol, which is a liquid rather than a gas.

The bigger problem is that there’s never likely to be a single approach to dealing with the coming change. Solutions will be piecemeal, iterative. This death of oil isn’t likely to be dealt with in any systematic way by the governments and corporate organisations that remain ready and willing to choke on rising oil prices for years to come. Reading Jared Diamond’s theories about how civilisations ignore or fail to perceive their problems in Collapse makes me realise just how little likelihood there is of us dealing with the disappearance of oil in a useful way. And what if we can’t really come up with a replacement for oil in a time-frame that makes sense?

Well, we’ll probably have that recession that Rubin is talking about. At the very least the convenience of global trade and transport will become highly inconvenient. Assuming that doesn’t simply land us in some kind of Mad Max death-tribe apocalypse it’s likely we’ll be faced with a far less accessible world. A Reprovincialised Rustic TechnoFuture, where greenhouses are going suddenly become rather more important to life. We’ll probably find ways to generate electricity – bring on the solar age! – and therefore have access to light, power, trams/streetcars, trains, and even electric cars, but the nature of distance travel will be very different. Vast fleets of oil-guzzling ships will be dead. Thousands of aircraft will rust. A few methanol biplanes and solar gliders might ply the skies, but the sky-bus megatransit will fall silent. Global trade will be reduce to small, easily freighted items, and global travel will eventually seem like an enormous luxury.

We’re already in a post-space age, but what will our world look like in a post commercial-airline age? Suddenly the other side of the world isn’t twelve hours away anymore. My Australian relatives will be painfully remote, and exotic fruit will once again be exotic. The invention of the internet seems infinitely more fortuitous. And we’ll be building new gamepads using extruded plastic from a homemade 3D printer. If we can find a bio-plastic that works with it, anyway.

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.

Jan 31 2009

“mineral consciousness”

Geoff Manaugh knows how to write:

The earth would become a kind of spherical harddrive, with information stored in those moving webs of magnetic energy that both surround and penetrate its surface.
This extends yet further into an idea that perhaps whole planets out there, turning in space, are actually the harddrives of an intelligent species we otherwise have yet to encounter – like mnemonic Death Stars, they are spherical data-storage facilities made of content-rich bedrock – or, perhaps more interestingly, we might even yet discover, in some weird version of the future directed by James Cameron from a screenplay by Jules Verne, that the earth itself is already encoded with someone else’s data, and that, down there in crustal formations of rock, crystalline archives shimmer.
I’m reminded of a line from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Ticket That Exploded, in which we read that beneath all of this, hidden in the surface of the earth, is “a vast mineral consciousness near absolute zero thinking in slow formations of crystal.”

From the post Planet Harddrive on the peerless Bldgblog.

Jan 31 2009

The Victoria crater

From these Mars images.

Jan 26 2009

Ornithopter Flight

Dec 6 2008

Tubular Pressurized Tank

The NYT on the tasks involved in fixing New York’s water system:

The most immediate tasks are to fix a valve at the bottom of a 700-foot shaft in Dutchess County so pumps will eventually be able to drain the tunnel, and to ensure that the tunnel does not crack or collapse while it is empty.

For this, the city has enlisted six deep-sea divers who are living for more than a month in a sealed 24-foot tubular pressurized tank complete with showers, a television and a Nerf basketball hoop, breathing air that is 97.5 percent helium and 2.5 percent oxygen, so their high-pitched squeals are all but unintelligible. They leave the tank only to transfer to a diving bell that is lowered 70 stories into the earth, where they work 12-hour shifts, with each man taking a four-hour turn hacking away at concrete to expose the valve.

Nov 21 2008

“Extinct” Primate Bites Woman

New Scientist:

On a misty mountaintop on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, scientists have observed a living pygmy tarsier – one of the planet’s smallest and rarest primates – for the first time in more than 80 years.

“I’m the only person in the world to ever be bitten by a pygmy tarsier,” says Gursky-Doyen.

Now all we need is a giant sloth to be found chewing on a woodsman in the Black Forest and a few mammoths to plod their way out of Siberia and crush a Moscovite.