“And it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth…”

Visiting Raw Materials: Plastics at the Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts, for the Spectator, 1 June 2019

Plastics — even venerable, historically eloquent plastics — hardly draw the eye. As this show’s insightful accompanying publication (a snip at £3) would have it, ‘Plastics have no intrinsic form or texture, thus they are not materials that can be true to themselves.’ They exist within inverted commas. They can be shell-like, horn-like, stony, metallic — they do not really exist on their own behalf.

Mind you, the first vitrine in Raw Materials: Plastics at the Nunnery Gallery in east London contains an object of rare beauty: a small, mottled, crazed, discoloured sphere that looks for all the world like the planet Venus, reduced to handy scale.

It’s a billiard ball, made of the first plastic: cellulose nitrate. Its manufacture had been keenly anticipated. In the US, a $10,000 prize had been offered for anything that could replace ivory in the manufacture of billiard balls (and no wonder: a single tusk yields only three balls).

Under various brand names (Celluloid, Parkesine, Xylonite), and in spite of its tendency to catch fire (colliding snooker balls would occasionally explode), cellulose nitrate saved the elephant. And not just the elephant: plastics pioneer John Wesley Hyatt reckoned that ‘Celluloid [has] given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.’

The whole point of plastic is that it has no characteristics of its own, only properties engineered for specific uses. Cheaper than jade. Less brittle than bone. It’s the natural material of the future, always more becoming than being. Hence the names: Xylonite. Bexoid. Halex. Lactoid.

Unable to nail the material in words, one writes instead about its history, sociology, industrial archaeology or ecological impact. On remote islands in the Pacific, thousands of albatross chicks are starving because the parents mistake floating plastic debris for food. Stories like this conjure up a vision of vast islands of discarded plastic coagulating in the Pacific Ocean, but there aren’t any. Instead, plastics eventually fragment into ever smaller pieces that are ingested by marine animals and carried to the sea bottom. In the Mariana Trench, all crustaceans tested had plastics in their guts. So plastics rise and fall through the food chain, creating havoc as they go — a bitter irony for a material that saved the elephant and the turtle, made fresh food conveyable and modern medicine possible, and all for less than 15 per cent of global oil consumption.

What can be gained from looking at the stuff itself? Raw Materials: Plastics transcends the limitations of its material by means of a good story. The first plastics were made in the Lea Valley, not from crude oil, but from plant materials, in a risky, artisanal fashion that bore, for a while, the hallmarks of older crafts including baking, woodcutting and metalwork. Fast-forward 140 years or so and, under the umbrella term ‘bioplastics’, plant-based and biodegradable synthetic products promise to turn the wheel of development full circle, returning plastics to their organic roots. (Designer Peter Marigold’s FORMCard plastic, used here in an excellent school art project, is a starch-based bioplastic made from potato skins.) Then, perhaps, we can break the bind in which we currently find ourselves: the one in which we’re poisoning the planet with plastic in our efforts not to further despoil it.

This is the third and for my money the most ambitious of the gallery’s ongoing series of small, thoughtful exhibitions about the materials, processes and industries that have shaped London’s Lea Valley. (Raw Materials: Wood ran in 2017; Raw Materials: Textiles last year.) The show is more chronicle than catalogue, but the art, scant as it is, punches above its weight.

I was struck, in particular, by France Scott’s ‘PHX [X is for Xylonite]’, a 13-minute collage of photogrammetry, laser scanning and 16mm film. It ought, by all logic, to be a complete mess and I still haven’t been able to work out why it’s so compelling. Is it because digital artefacts, like their plastic forebears, are themselves prisoners of contingency, aping the forms of others while stubbornly refusing to acquire forms of their own?

Bringing London’s buried rivers to light

Could things have turned out differently for London’s lost rivers? Probably not, but it’s fun to tinker. In 1992 a group of artist-activists called Platform set up a mock Effra Redevelopment Agency to consult the residents of Brixton about their plans to open up the local river. A sylvan wonderland awaited those who didn’t mind losing their houses.

Exploring London’s hidden rivers for the Financial Times, 8 June 2019

In the realm of mind games

By the end of the show, I was left less impressed by artificial intelligence and more depressed that it had reduced my human worth to base matter. Had it, though? Or had it simply made me aware of how much I wanted to be base matter, shaped into being by something greater than myself? I was reminded of something that Benjamin Bratton, author of the cyber-bible The Stack, said in a recent lecture: “We seem only to be able to approach AI theologically.”

Visiting AI: More Than Human at London’s Barbican Centre for the Financial Times, 15 May 2019.

A series of apparently impossible events

Exploring Smoke and Mirrors at Wellcome Collection for New Scientist, 1 May 2019

ACCORDING to John Nevil Maskelyne, “a bad conjurer will make a good medium any day”. He meant that, as a stage magician in 19th-century London, he had to produce successful effects night after night, while rivals who claimed their illusions were powered by the spirit world could simply blame a bad set on “unhelpful spirits”, or even on the audience’s own scepticism.

A gaffe-ridden performance in the UK by one set of spiritualists, the US Davenport Brothers, drove Maskelyne to invent his own act. With his friend, the cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, he created an “anti-spiritualist” entertainment, at once replicating and debunking the spiritualist movement’s stock-in-trade effects.

Matthew Tompkins teases out the historical implications of Maskelyne’s story in The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the paranormal and the complicity of the mind (Thames & Hudson). It is a lavishly illustrated history to accompany Smoke and Mirrors, a new and intriguing exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.

Historical accident was partly responsible. In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi sent long-wave radio signals over a distance of a couple of kilometres, and, for decades after, hardly a year passed in which some researcher didn’t announce a new type of invisible ray. The world turned out to have aspects hidden from unaided human perception. Was it so unreasonable of people to speculate about what, or who, might lurk in those hidden corners of reality? Were they so gullible, reeling as they were from the mass killings of the first world war, to populate these invisible realms with their dead?

In 1924, the magazine Scientific American offered $2500 to any medium who could demonstrate their powers under scientific controls. The medium Mina “Margery” Crandon decided to try her hand, but she reckoned without the efforts of one Harry “Handcuff” Houdini, who eventually exposed her as a fraud.

Yet spiritualism persisted, shading off into parapsychology, quantum speculation and any number of cults. Understanding why is more the purview of a psychologist such as Gustav Kuhn, who, as well as being a major contributor to the show, offers insight into magic and magical belief in his own new book, Experiencing the Impossible (MIT Press).

Kuhn, a member of the Magic Circle, finds Maskelyne’s “anti-spiritualist” form of stage magic alive in the hands of illusionist Derren Brown. He suggests that Brown is more of a traditional magician than he lets on, dismissing the occult while he endorses mysterious psychological phenomena, mostly to do with “subconscious priming”, that, at root, are non-scientific.

Kuhn defines magic as “the experience of wonder that results from perceiving an apparently impossible event”. Definitions of what is impossible differ, and different illusions work for different people. You can even design it for animals, as a torrent of YouTube videos, based largely on Finnish magician Jose Ahonen’s “Magic for Dogs”, attest.

Tricking dogs is one thing, but why do our minds fall for magic? It was the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, who argued that there is no metaphysical glue binding events, and that we only ever infer causal relationships, be they real or illusory.

Twinned with our susceptibility to wrongly infer relationships between events in the world is our ability to fool ourselves at an even deeper level. Numerous studies, including one by researcher and former magician Jay Olson and clinician Amir Raz which sits at the exit to the Wellcome show, conclude that our feeling of free will may be an essential trick of the mind.

Inferring connections makes us confident in ourselves and our abilities, and it is this confidence, this necessary delusion about the brilliance of our cognitive abilities, that lets us function… and be tricked. Even after reading both books, I defy you to see through the illusions and wonders in store at the exhibition.

Writing (or, How the dead lord it over the living)

Visiting Writing: Making Your Mark, an exhibition at the British Library, for New Scientist, 26 April 2019

Writing is dark magic. Because the written, or even better, carved, word can effortlessly outlive the human span, it enables the dead to lord it over the living.

There are advantages to this, of course. It’s handy not to have to reinvent the wheel generation after generation.

But let’s be clear who wields the power here – much as the ancient Egyptians, who used to channel the divine power of words into spells that would animate carved servants, or shabti, ready to do their bidding after their death. “Here I am,” reads the inscription on one poor put-upon shabti, ready “when called to work, cultivate fields or irrigate the riverbanks.”

Poetry be damned: writing is first and foremost about control.

This is very apparent in a new exhibition at the British Library, London, called Writing: Making your mark. It’s been launched to celebrate a technology that’s a bit under five millennia old, so you’ll find everything from carved stone slabs to the first ever use of an italic typeface, to (my favourite) an eye-wateringly vituperative telegram (in four parts) from the 20th century British playwright John Osborne to a hostile critic.

It’s comprehensive, thoughtful and eye-catching, with a design that has you wandering through what looks like some peculiar 3D cuneiform from the future. Best of all, the show makes narrative sense: we learn how various writing and printing forms evolved independently at different times and places, to fulfil changing social and cultural functions.

Granted, the story does not and cannot start with much of a bang. As the wall information concedes, the act of writing is just a recreational by-product of accounting. The first written records were tallies, calendars and contracts. Set aside their great age and the earliest objects in the exhibition (among them the oldest in the Library’s collection, an Egyptian stela (carved stone) from around 1600 BC) make for dull reading.

But amazingly early, suspicion, and even downright hatred, of the written word crept in – to run like a secret history beneath the course of Western culture. In the dialogue Phaedrus, composed around 370 BC, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates complains that writing things down will “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves… they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing”.

Plato, Socrates’ pupil, listened to his master’s diatribe intently. Indeed, he took down every word. Plato’s obtuse disobedience has paid huge dividends. For one thing, it means that Socrates’ wisdom is available to us all. Millennia hence, we are still reading Phaedrus, and smiling at the quaint bits.

But a few of us (we meet in dank basement rooms: check your pens and smartphones at the door) agree with Socrates. We reckon that putting pen (stylus, chisel or moveable type…) to paper (stone, slate, clay, or peeled bark) has set the lot of us on the road to everlasting perdition.

Our current all-too-well founded panics around trust, authority, truth and fake news feed the gloomy suspicion that the written word makes us lazy and shallow, that for all our modern, information-driven wonders, our space rockets and our antibiotics, it makes us less than we might be: a people earnestly conversing with themselves.

Writing: Making your mark does its best to win us round to the cause of literacy and preserved thought.

Who knew that the story of written forms would prove so epic? Or, indeed, so touching? There’s a sandstone sphinx sporting a prototype letter “A”, and a Greek child’s second-century homework scratched, laboriously, on a clay tablet.

But with their final room, about the future of writing, I feel the curators may finally have woken to doubt. A black box, and virtually empty, this space whether new media may undercut our surprisingly resilient written culture.

I’m surprised the curators’ confidence should have been so shaken. After all, written and printed forms continue to proliferate: emoji have provided us with a whole new writing system to combine with our alphabetic language. Instagram, once the home of unadorned selfie snaps, now wobbles and sparkles with photos smothered in animated annotations and one-liners in a form that’s so new it hasn’t really got a name yet. Writing continues to be one of our most plastic and fast-changing forms of self-expression.

Though with each innovation, we retreat, chattering, ever further from Socrates’ dinner party ideal of society driven by good conversation.

Stanley Kubrick at the Design Museum

The celebrated film director Stanley Kubrick never took the future for granted. In films as diverse as Dr. Strangelove: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick’s focus was always savagely humane, unpicking the way the places we inhabit make us think and feel. At the opening of a new exhibition at the London Design Museum in Holland Park, David Stock and I spoke to co-curator Adriënne Groen about Kubrick’s most scientifically inflected film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and how Kubrick masterminded a global effort to imagine one possible future: part technological utopia, part sterile limbo, and, more than 50 years since its release, as gripping as hell.

You can see the interview here.

How Stanley Kubrick‘s collaboration with science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke led to 2001 is well known. “The ‘really good’ science-fiction movie is a great many years overdue,” Clarke enthused, as the men began their work on a project with the working title Journey Beyond the Stars.

For those who want a broader understanding of how Kubrick gathered, enthused and sometimes (let’s be brutally frank, here) exploited the visionary talent available to him, The Design Museum’s current exhibition is essential viewing. There are prototypes of the pornographic furniture from the opening dolly shot of A Clockwork Orange, inspired by the work of artist Allen Jones but fashioned by assistant production designer Liz Moore when Jones decided not to hitch his cart – and reputation – to Kubrick’s controversial vision.

But it’s the names that recur again and again, from film to film, over decades of creative endeavour, that draw one in. The costume designer Milena Canonero was a Kubrick regular and, far from being swamped, immeasurably enriched Kubrick’s vision. (There’s a wonderful production photograph here of actor Malcolm McDowell trying on some of her differently styled droog hats.)

Kubrick was fascinated by the way people respond to being regimented – by the architectural brutalism of the Thamesmead estate in A Clockwork Orange, or by a savage gunnery sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, or by their own fetishism in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s fascination with how people think and behave is well served by this show, which will give anyone of a psychological bent much food for thought.

 

The most blatantly artificial landscape in Europe

Why do the Lakes generate such strong feeling? Because they’re endangered? Or because they’re already spoiled? Spoiled how? By afforestation, by sheep, by the clumsy application of preservationist aspic? They’re not what they were, on this we can agree. But what were they? At Windermere Jetty, alongside elements of familiar Lakeland lore — steam kettles, childhood boating holidays, Beatrix Potter’s rowing boat mounted on one wall — other, more disconcerting aspects of the region are revealed: the Lakes as mining region, as testbed for new technologies, as strenuously guarded zone of wartime production…

Mucking about on Windermere for FT Magazine, 31 March 2019

The three-dimensional page

Visiting Thinking 3D: Leonardo to the present at Oxford’s Weston Library for the Financial Times, 20 March 2019

Exhibitions hitch themselves to the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci at their peril. How do you do justice to a man whose life’s work provides the soundtrack to your entire culture? Leonardo dabbled his way into every corner of intellectual endeavour, and carved out several tasty new corners into the bargain. For heaven’s sake, he dreamt up a glass vessel to demonstrate the dynamics of fluid flow in the aortic valve of the human heart: modern confirmation that he was right (did you doubt it?) had to wait for the cardiologist Robin Choudhury and a paper written in 2014.

Daryl Green and Laura Moretti, curators of Thinking 3D at Oxford’s Weston Library, are wise to park this particular story at the far end of their delicate, nuanced, spiderweb of an exhibition into how artists and scientists, from Leonardo to now, have learned to convey three-dimensional objects on the page.

Indeed they do very good job of keeping You Know Who contained. This is a show made up of books, mostly, and Leonardo came too soon to take full advantage of print. He was, anyway, far too jealous of his own work to consign it to the relatively crude reproductive technologies of his day. Only one of his drawings exists in printed form — a stellated dodecahedron, drawn for his friend Luca Pacioli’s De Divina Proportione of 1509. It’s here for the viewing, alongside other contemporary attempts at geometrical drawing. Next to Leonardo, they are hardly more than doodles.

A few of Leonardo’s actual drawings — the revolving series here is drawn from the Royal Collection and the British Library — served to provoke, more than to inspire, the advances in 3D visualisation that followed. In a couple of months the aortic valve story will be pulled from the show, its place taken by astrophysicist Steven Balbus’s attempts to visualise black holes. (There’s a lot of ground to cover, and very little room, so the exhibition will be changing some elements regularly during the run.) When that happens, will Leonardo’s presence in this exhibition begin to feel gratuitous? Probably not: Leonardo is the ultimate Man Who Came to Dinner: once put inside your head there’s no getting rid of him.

Thinking 3D is more than just this exhibition: the year-long project promises events, talks, conferences and workshops, not to mention satellite shows. (Under the skin: illustrating the human body, which just ended at the Royal College of Physicians in London, was one of these.) The more one learns about the project, the more it resembles Stephen Leacock’s Lord Ronald, who flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions — and the more impressive the coherence Green and Moretti have achieved here.

There are some carefully selected geegaws. A stereoscope through which one can study Arthur Thomson stereographic Anatomy of the Human Eye, published in 1912. The nation’s first look at Bill Gates’s Codescope, an interactive kiosk with a touch screen that lets you explore the Codex Leicester, a notebook of Leonardo’s that Gates bought in 1994. Even a shelf full of 3D-printed objects you are welcome to fondle, like Linus with his security blanket, as you wander around the exhibition. This last jape works better than you’d think: by relating vision to touch, it makes us properly aware of all the mental tricks we have to perform, in order to to realise 3D forms in pictures.

But books are the meat of the matter: arranged chronologically along one wall, and under glass in displays that show how the same theme has been handled at different times. Start at the clean, complex lines of the dodecahedron and pass, via architecture (the coliseum) and astronomy (the Moon) to the fleshy ghastliness of the human eyeball.

Conveying depth by drawing makes geometry comprehensible. It also, and in particular, transforms three areas of fundamental intellectual enquiry: anatomy, architecture, and astronomy.

Today, when we think of 3D visualisation, we think first of architecture. (It’s an association forged, in large part, in the toils of countless videogames: never mind the plot, gawp at all that visionary pixelcrete!). But because architecture operates at a more-or-less human-scale, it’s actually been rather slow to pick up on the power of 3D visualisation. With intuition and craft skill to draw upon, who needs axonometry? The builders of the great Mediaeval cathedrals managed quite happily without any such hifalutin drawing techniques, and it wasn’t until Auguste Choisy’s Histoire de l’architecture of 1899 that a drawing style that had already transformed carpentry, machinery, and military architecture finally found favour with architects. (Arguably, the profession has yet to come down off the high this occasioned. Witness the number of large buildings that look, for all their bulk, like scale models, their shapes making sense only from the most arbitrary angles.)

Where the scale is too small or too large for intuition and common sense to work, 3D visualisation has been most useful, and most beautiful. Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome (1543) stands here for an entire genre of “fugitive sheets” — compendiums of exquisite anatomical drawings with layered flaps, peeled back by the reader to reveal the layers of the body as one might discover them during a dissection. Because these documents were practical surgical guides, they received rough treatment, and hardly any survive. Those that do (though not the one here, thank God) are often covered with mysterious stains.

Less gruesome, but at the same time less immediately communicative, are the various attempts here to render the cosmos on paper. Robert Fludd’s black square from his Utriusque Cosmi (1617-21), depicts the void immediately prior to creation. Et sic in infinitum (“And so on to infinity”) run the words on each side of this eloquent blank.

Thinking 3D explores territories where words tangle incoherently and only pictures will suffice — then leaps giggling into a void where rational enquiry collapses and only artworks and acts of mischief like Fludd’s manage to convey anything at all. All this in a space hardly bigger than two average living rooms. It’s a show that repays — indeed, demands — patience. Put in the requisite effort, though, and you’ll find it full of wonders.

Teeth and feathers

Visiting T. rex: The ultimate predator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, for New Scientist, 13 March 2019

PALAEONTOLOGY was never this easy. Reach into a bin and pick up a weightless fossil bone hardly smaller than you are. Fling it into the air, in roughly the direction indicated by the glowing orange light. It fixes in place above you with a satisfying click. Add more bones. You are recreating the head of the most fearsome predator known to natural history: Tyrannosaurus rex. Once it is complete, the skull you have made makes this point nicely – by coming after you.

The American Museum of Natural History is 150 years old this year. One of its collectors, Barnum Brown, discovered the first fossil remains of the predator in Montana in 1902. So the museum has made T. rex the subject of its first exhibition celebrating the big anniversary.

The game I was playing, T. rex: Skeleton crew, is also the museum’s first foray into virtual reality. It is a short, sweet, multiplayer game that, if it doesn’t convey much scientific detail, nonetheless gives the viewer a glimpse of the first great puzzle palaeontologists confront: how to put scattered remains together. It also gives a real sense of the beast’s size: a fully grown T. rex (and they could live into their late 20s) was more than 12 metres long and weighed 15 tonnes.

An extended version of this game, for home use, will feature a full virtual gallery tour. It has been put together by the Vive arm of tech firm HTC. Early on, in its project to establish a name in the cultural sector, the company decided not to compete with the digital realm’s top dog, Google Arts & Culture. Google, at least until recently, has tended to brand its efforts quite heavily because it brings a wealth of big data to its projects.

HTC Vive, by contrast, works behind the scenes with museums, cultural organisations and artists to realise relatively modest projects. By letting the client take the lead, it is learning faster than most what the VR medium can do. It cut its teeth on an explorable 3D rendering of Modigliani’s studio in the Tate Modern in London in 2017 and created an immersive exploration of Claude Monet’s approach to painting in The Water Lily Obsession, now a permanent feature at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

The trick, it seems, is to focus, to make immersion and physical sensation the point of each piece. Above all, the idea is to slow down. VR isn’t a traditional teaching aid. The Monet project in particular revealed how good VR is at conveying craft knowledge.

But if, instead, a VR installation delivers a brief, memorable, even magical experience, this, too, has value. Skeleton crew is a powerful prompt to the imagination. It isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, the star of this show. The models are the real draw here. Traditionally fashioned life-size renderings of tyrannosaurs big and small, scaled, tufted and sometimes fully feathered, their variety reflecting the explosion of palaeobiological research that has transformed our understanding of millions of years of Mesozoic fauna over the past 20 years. We can now track trace chemicals in the material surrounding a fossil so precisely that we even know the colour of some species’ eggs.

T. rex: The ultimate predator certainly delivers on its brash, child-friendly title. Terrifying facts abound. T. rex‘s jaws had a maximum bite force 10 times that of an alligator – enough not just to break bone, but to burst it into swallowable splinters.

But the really impressive thing about the show are the questions it uses to convey the sheer breadth of palaeontology. What did T. rex sound like? No one knows, but here are a mixing desk and some observations about how animals vocalise: go figure. Is this fossil a juvenile T. rex or a separate species? Here is a summary of the arguments: have a think.

Staged in a huge cavern-like hall, with shadow-puppet predators and prey battling for dear life, T. rex: The ultimate predator will wow families. Thankfully, it is also a show that credits their intelligence.

“The best cities are the ones that don’t leave ruins”

Suspended from four wires, this digitally controlled cable robot is building something out of hand-size wooden blocks. It’s a slow beast. Hours must pass before its construction becomes recognisable: a dome, of the sort that John Soane produced for the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Polibot does not look like a game changer. But according to Arthur Mamou-Mani, whose architectural practice built it, Polibot’s children are going to change the world.

Talking to Arthur Mamou-Mani for the Financial Times, 22 December 2018