Ushering in the End Times at London’s Barbican Hall

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Mark Allan / Barbican

Listening to the London Contemporary Orchestra for New Scientist, 1 November 2018

On All Hallow’s Eve this year, at London’s Barbican Hall, the London Contemporary Orchestra, under the baton of their co-artistic director Robert Ames, managed with two symphonic pieces to drown the world and set it ablaze in the space of a single evening.

Giacinto Scelsi’s portentously titled Uaxuctum: The legend of the Maya City, destroyed by the Maya people themselves for religious reasons, evoked the mysterious and violent collapse of that once thriving civilisation; the second piece of the evening, composer and climate activist John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, looked to the future, the rise of the world’s oceans, and good riddance to the lot of us.

Lost Worlds was a typical piece of LCO programming: not content with presenting two very beautiful but undeniably challenging long-ish works, the orchestra had elected to play behind a translucent screen onto which were projected the digital meanderings of an artistically trained neural net. Twists of entoptic colour twisted and cavorted around the half-seen musicians while a well-place spotlight, directly over Ames’s head, sent the conductor’s gestures sprawling across the screen, as though ink were being dashed over all those pretty digitally generated splotches of colour.

Everything, on paper, pointed to an evening that was trying far too hard to be avant garde. In the execution, however, the occasion was a triumph.

The idea of matching colours to sounds is not new. The painter Wassily Kandinsky struggled for years to fuse sound and image and ended up inventing abstract painting, more or less as a by-product. The composer Alexander Scriabin was so desperate to establish his reputation as the founder of a new art of colour-music, he plagiarised other people’s synaesthetic experiences in his writings and invented a clavier à lumières (“keyboard with lights”) for use in his work Prometheus: Poem of Fire. “It is not likely that Scriabin’s experiment will be repeated by other composers,” wrote a reviewer for The Nation after its premiere in New York in 1915: “moving-picture shows offer much better opportunities.” (Walt Disney proved The Nation right: Fantasia was released in 1937.)

Now, as 2018 draws to a close, artificial intelligence is being hurled at the problem. For this occasion the London-based theatrical production company Universal Assembly Unit had got hold of a recursive neural net engineered by Artrendex, a company that uses artificial intelligence to research and predict the art market. According to the concert’s programme note, it took several months to train Artrendex’s algorithm on videos of floods and fires, teaching it the aesthetics of these phenomena so that, come the evening of the performance, it would construct organic imagery in response to the music.

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Mark Allan / Barbican

While never obscuring the orchestra, the light show was dramatic and powerful, sometimes evoking (for those who enjoy their Andrei Tarkovsky) the blurriness of the clouds swamping the ocean planet Solaris in the movie of that name; then at other moments weaving and flickering, not so much like flames, but more like the speeded-up footage from some microbial experiment. Maybe I’ve worked at New Scientist too long, but I got the distinct and discomforting impression that I was looking, not at some dreamy visual evocation of a musical mood, but at the the responses of single-celled life to desperate changes in their tiny environment.

As for the music – which was, after all, the main draw for this evening – it is fair to say that Scelsi’s Uaxuctum would not be everyone’s cup of tea. For a quick steer, recall the waily bits from 2001: A Space Odyssey. That music was by the Hungarian composer György Ligeti, who was born about two decades after Scelsi, and was — both musically and personally — a lot less weird. Scelsi was a Parisian dandy who spent years in a mental institution playing one piano note again and again and Uaxuctum, composed in 1966, was such an incomprehensibly weird and difficult proposition, it didn’t get any performance at all for 21 years, and no UK performance at all before this one.

John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean (2013) is an easier (and more often performed) composition – The New Yorkermusic critic Alex Ross called it “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”. This evening its welling sonorities brought hearts into mouths: rarely has mounting anxiety come wrapped in so beautiful a package.

So I hope it takes nothing away from the LCO’s brave and accomplished playing to say that the visual component was the evening’s greatest triumph. The dream of “colour music” has ended in bathos and silliness for so many brilliant and ambitious musicians. Now, with the judicious application of some basic neural networking, we may at last be on the brink of fusing tone and colour into an art that’s genuinely new, and undeniably beautiful.

Shobana Jeyasingh: Shaping Contagion

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Discussing Jeyasingh’s 14-18 NOW dance commission for New Scientist, 11 October 2018

It still sounds mad – 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, commissioned a dance piece about the global flu pandemic. Why did you take this tragedy on – and how on earth did you shape it?

Shobana Jeyasingh    I began by looking at the smallest element of the story, H1N1, the virus responsible for the Spanish flu. The mechanics of virology appealed to me from the moment I began my reading and research. I spoke to two experts at length: Wendy Barclay, at Imperial College, and John Oxford at Queen Mary College, both in London.

All the strategies the flu virus has for penetrating the cell fascinated me. How it battles past the cilia on the cell’s wall is only the beginning. Once inside the cell it has to find the nucleus, and because it has no motive power of its own, it must hitch rides on transport proteins which themselves are unidirectional, so the virus must leap from one protein to another in search of its target like someone leaping on and off trams.

It’s a strange and amazing narrative, even before the virus starts harnessing the cell’s machinery to churn out copies of itself, which is surely the strangest twist of all.

This is an incredibly dark subject to tackle

That’s what I said to John Oxford, who was part of the team that researched the shape of the H1N1 virus. But his work had made him feel very differently. He’d embarked on this huge archaeological project, looking for the best-preserved tissue that might be infected with the virus. Tissue from people buried in lead coffins, or in Alaskan permafrost.

And he found the families of these victims still recalling how their dying had been cared for. People knew they were in danger, if they nursed somebody with the flu. But, regardless, people gave that care to their family, their spouse, their child. And their everyday heroism was being remembered, even now. It’s a dark story, yes, but Oxford showed me that story in an incredible, wonderful light.

The way your dancers personify the virus is frankly terrifying. They’re not “robotic” but at one time they move like nightmare quadripeds – columns of flesh armed with four extrusions of equal power and length, like RNA strands

At this point, they’re not portraying living things. A virus is a sinister code more than a lifeform in its own right. It’s a strategy, playing itself out in opposition to the body, by recruiting the body’s own forces. It’s not “attacking” anything. It’s far more subtle, far more insidious than that. What killed you, once you were infected with H1N1, was not the virus itself, but the violence of your own immune response. Just the drama of it was fascinating for me.

The medical profession doesn’t get much of a look-in here?

Doctors recognised what kind of disease the Spanish Flu was from its symptoms, but they had no idea that viruses even existed. How could they? Viruses are so small, without an electron microscope you can’t even see them. Several suspected, rightly, that the disease was airborne, but of course filters that can screen out bacteria are no defence against viruses.

So the work of helping people fell, not on the medical profession, who were powerless against what they couldn’t understand, but onto the women – nurses, mothers, wives, carers – who risked their own lives to look after the sick. The last section of the work, “Everyday Heroes”, is about nursing: the irony that while men were either winning or losing on the battlefield, women at home were fighting what was mostly a losing battle against a far more serious threat.

Why was this threat not properly recognised at the time?

Nobody knew what caused the flu, or why the youngest and the fittest seemed most prone to die. The onset was so sudden and dramatic, people would fall sick and die within a few hours.  Someone perfectly healthy at lunchtime might be dead at teatime.

In Manchester, the man who was in charge of public health, James Niven, woke up quite early to the fact that flu transmission shot up when people were gathered together. He tried to ban the Armistice Day celebrations in his city, but of course he was overruled. There was a huge spike in flu cases soon after. There are so many fascinating stories, but in 20 minutes, there’s a limit to what we can explore.

Contagion is not a long piece, but you’ve split it into distinct acts. Why?

It seemed the only way to contain such a complex story. The first section is called “Falling Like Flies”, which was the expression one Indian man used to describe how he lost his entire family in the blink of an eye: his little daughter, his wife, his brother, his nephews.  This section is simply about the enormity of death.  The second, “Viral Moves”, explores the dynamics of the virus. The third section, “Cold Delirium”, is about, well, exactly that.

What is “cold delirium”?

It’s a name that’s sometimes given to the virus’s neurological effects. One of the things we’ve begun to appreciate more and more – and this is why the official death count for the 1918 pandemic has risen recently – is that Spanish flu packs a huge psychological punch.

A lot of people who committed suicide in this period were most likely suffering the neurological effects of the virus. It triggered huge mental problems: screaming, fits, anxiety, episodes of aimless wandering.

And this wasn’t fully recognised then?

People noticed. But there was no means of reporting these cases to give people an idea of the shape and scale of the problem. Flu was not a reportable illness, like typhoid or plague. At the turn of the 20th century in Mumbai they had a plague that was fully documented and shaped the provision of public health. But in the case of flu, milder forms were so familiar, people didn’t really take much notice until the sheer numbers of the dead became unignorable.

And remember, in 1918 communication was not so effective. In Alaska, 90 per cent of a village community died, but there wasn’t any way to connect this episode to 20 million deaths in India. The connected global map that we carry around in our heads simply did not exist.

Contagion‘s set is a series of white boxes, arranged neatly at one end, and at the other end rising up into the air chaotically. Do they represent blood cells or grave markers? 

You’re on the right track, though the idea first came from looking at pictures of hospital beds. Hospital beds tend to be ordered and in lines, and then this huge event comes along to disrupt everything, and sweep everything before it.

York Mediale 2018: Playing with shadows

Visiting York Mediale 2018 for New Scientist, 19 October 2018

The dancers performing Strange Stranger at this year’s inaugural York Mediale (tagline: “Art, Meet the Future”) weren’t just moving about in the shadows. They were leaving shadows behind them, thanks to wrist-worn tracking devices and a complex, computer-driven LED-lit set. And over the course of the festival, which ran from 27 September to 6 October this year, visitors were able to explore the set and leave their own shadows in the air.

Alexander Whitley and his dance company have caught our eye before with 8 Minutes, a visceral and surprisingly true-to-fact dance about the internal processes of the sun. Their new piece is a play on the concept of the “data shadow” – a digital profile formed from all the information we unintentionally leave behind through our routine use of technology. That Whitley has turned to the dark for Strange Stranger says something about the eeriness that’s been slipping into contemporary art for some while.

It’s a mordant piece, and perhaps technically not quite there yet, because the dancers aren’t just leaving shadows; they’re actually getting lost in shadows. The net effect of all this energetic movement, then, is a sense of creeping powerlessness.

The same mood – part melancholy, part anxious – also marks Strata Rock Dust Stars, the flagship exhibition at this new media arts festival, which, it’s just been announced, is due to return in 2020.

Curated by Mike Stubbs, director of Liverpool’s FACT gallery, the exhibition runs until 25 November. Melancholy notes are struck by David Jacques, whose installation Oil is the Devil’s Excrement (2017) reveals by degrees that we have never been in control of the oil that powers our civilisation: it’s oil that has been in control of us. (You don’t have to take his word for it, either: the title of the piece is actually a quote Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo, the founder of OPEC.)

Isaac Julien’s Stones Against Diamonds is another powerful hymn to our fatal misreading of our own values. Shot in a remote region of south-east Iceland in 2015, it juxtaposes luxury goods with jewel-like icescapes and ice blocks and advertisement-shiny waterfalls. Ice, it transpires, is the ultimate luxury good being celebrated (or mourned) among these multiple video panels, by a glamorous isolated figure (Vanessa Myrie) who, we can only suppose, has consumed everything else there is to consume.

Like every other living thing on this planet, humans are destined to expand to exploit all resources available to them, at which point they’ll plunge off a demographic cliff. There’s no tragedy in this. The tragedy is that we know it’s happening. We know the destruction we’re causing. We know what the consequences will be.

Strata Rock Dust Stars offers the visitor various coping mechanisms by which we might deal with this realisation. Liz Orton’s The Longest and Darkest of Recollections (2016) fuses geology, photography and memoir in a museum-like display that captures perfectly our poignant struggle to assign meaning to a world far older and bigger and dumber than ourselves. Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s on-going obsession with moon-dwelling geese (the conceit of the 17th-century bishop and proto-sf author Francis Godwin) offers fancy and absurdity as a palliative for our tragic condition. In a delicious parody of all those Anthropocene maunderings, her latest venture, Moon Core (2018), asks whether the droppings and egg-shells of moon geese might not have entered the lunar geological record.

When fancy and imagination collide with the real world, however, the result is not always charming. Worlds in the Making, an early video work by Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, who make work under the name Semiconductor, creates, if you can picture such a thing, a sort of paranoid geology, perfectly false and perfectly believable, and a dreadful reminder of how much we rely on trust for our understanding of the world.

Another way of coping with the tragedy of the human condition is to laugh at it. Away from the flagship exhibition, I stumbled across a new work by Rodrigo Lebrun, a young Brazilian-born artist who has very little patience with the seriousness of much contemporary art. “It’s just another way of ostracising the public,” he told me, as he unlocked the shipping container where his barely finished video installation, Green (Screen) Dreams, advertises the apocalyptic charm of Sunthorpe — think grim Humber Valley Scunthorpe rebranded as a tropical holiday destination minutes before a collapsed ice shelf-triggered tsunami arrives, coincident with the entire planet bursting into flame.

Hijacking the hyperbolic visuals of television advertising, Lebrun has created an advertisement for the future: a world in which the vagiaries of environmental collapse afford us little pockets of tremendous commercial opportunity in the seconds before Armageddon, and where all the difficult questions about population and pollution, environmental integrity and resource depletion, are breezily crammed into an eyeblink-fast on-screen reminder that “Terms and Conditions Apply”.

“Instead of creating solutions, we’ve been creating these weird alternate realities,” Lebrun says, “CGI-driven entertainments to numb the senses.” His installation blows the gaffe on this confidence trick. It’s frightening, and funny, and above all it’s energising. Commissioned by Invisible Dust, an environmental arts charity we last encountered driving a gigantic mobile cinema around the Scottish coastGreen (Screen) Dreams gets its next outing At North Lincolnshire Museum from 19 January next year. But that’s surely only the beginning for the piece and for Lebrun himself, whose combination of wit and savagery seems as rare, these days, as a moon-goose’s teeth.

When science becomes performance art

The great storehouses of our culture are now, for good and ill, in the cloud. Good: a museum can print an archival-grade sculpture or painting to inform an exhibition. Bad: no one can remember the password.

Watching David Morton’s play The Wider Earth at London’s Natural History Museum for the Financial Times, 19 October 2018

The physics of dance

Visiting a rehearsal of 8 Minutes, Alexander Whitley’s Sadler’s Wells main-stage debut, for New Scientist, 17 June 2017

IN A basement studio in south London, seven dancers are interpreting some recent solar research from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire. They are tackling the electromagnetic properties of the sun’s surface, and have got themselves, literally, into a knot. “Something about your grip here is stopping her moving,” frets choreographer Alexander Whitley. “Can we get his hips to go the other way?”

Bit by bit, a roiling form emerges. Imagine a chain, folded in on itself, stretching and reforming. Its movements are coherent and precise, but wildly asymmetrical. This is no tidy, courtly dance. At one point the chain abruptly unwinds. The relief is palpable as the dancers exploit their few seconds of freedom. Very quickly, the chain kinks and folds in on itself again: a folding problem intensely claustrophobic to watch, never mind perform.

Whitley formed his dance company in 2014, and 8 Minutes will be its debut on London’s Sadler’s Wells main stage at the end of June. It is named after the time it takes for light from the sun to reach Earth. “If you imagine travelling this distance at the speed of light, and you subtract all the relativistic effects, it’s quite bizarre,” muses Hugh Mortimer, Whitley’s collaborator and a researcher at Rutherford.

Mortimer designed climate change-detecting spectrometers for the Sentinel-3 satellite, and a sea-surface temperature monitor currently operating from the Queen Mary 2 liner. He hopes to build space-based instruments that analyse the atmospheres of exoplanets. But quite another fascination drew him into collaboration with Whitley’s dance company: the way the most abstruse science can be explained through ordinary experience.

He continues his thought experiment: “For 6 minutes, you’d be sitting in darkness. By the 7th minute you would notice a point of light looming larger: that’s the Earth. You’d arrive at the moon, pass by Earth, and a few seconds later you’d pass the orbit of the moon again. And the point is, passing the moon and the Earth and the moon again a few seconds later would feel intuitively right. It would feel ordinary.”

However difficult an idea, someone, somewhere must be able to grasp it, or it’s not an “idea” in any real sense. How, then, are we to grasp concepts as alien to our day-to-day experience as electromagnetism and the speed of light? It’s a question that has cropped up before in these pages, although seldom through the medium of dance. In 1988, for example, computer scientist Tony Hey wrote about his lunch with US physicist Richard Feynman, who explained particle spin “using the belt from his trousers” (New Scientist, 30 June 1988, p 75).

As for Whitley, he says: “We grasp quite advanced concepts first and foremost through movement. That forms a semantic template for the complex thinking we develop when we acquire language. Right, left, up, down, front, back – also the idea of containment, the concept of an inside and an outside – these ideas come through our bodies.”

This is especially true in children, he argues, because they don’t yet have fully developed rational capabilities. “I think there’s strong potential for using movement to give them a different understanding of and engagement with scientific ideas,” Whitley says.

Mortimer discovered the truth of this idea for himself quite recently: “Alexander runs a creative learning project for 9 and 10-year-olds based on our collaboration. Sitting in on some sessions, I found myself thinking about solar-dynamic processes in a new and clearer way.”

Will the audience at the work’s premiere leave understanding more about the sun? From what I saw, I’m optimistic. They won’t have words, or figures, for what they’ll have seen, but they will have been afforded a glimpse into the sheer dynamism and complexity of our nearest star.

Shakespeare and the machines

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Here’s a review of the RSC’s production of The Tempest with Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Through a combination of editorial tightening and big claims (I’m saying Shakespeare’s last play was a masque, not a drama) I make it appear here as though two fully grown polar bears once starred in its production. Please no one correct me: with a following wind this nonsense could become canonical.
for New Scientist, 21 November 2016 

Forced entry

 

Michelle Terry in Privacy. Image swiped from The Times

Michelle Terry in Privacy. Image swiped from The Times.

James Graham (@mrJamesGraham) writes plays for fringe venues that quickly transfer to huge auditoriums. This House, which began life in 2012 in the Cottesloe Theatre in London, sold out the flagship Olivier when it moved. Will something similar happen to Privacy, James’s almost-autobiographical journey through the internet? Probably. The version I saw at London’s Donmar Warehouse was witty, very accessible (ideal for school trips and citizenship classes), and turns the internet in general – and social media in particular – into a sort of politically chilling stage magic act. Right now the core of the piece – the disintegration of a personality when it’s continually second-guessed by all-seeing but unthinking machines – lies buried under a lot of stage business. (Much is made of a super-secret dramatic reversal that does not work at all.) But James means to keep the play abreast of current events so there’ll be plenty of time to iron out the wrinkles. Here’s the booking page, if you’re tempted: Privacy deserves a public.