The Smoke: an interview

The Smoke went through the usual chaotic process of reinvention as I got more and more interested in why I wanted to do this project in the first place. And it can be best summed up by a WhatsApp message I sent to someone the other day as I came out of King’s Cross Station: IT’S THE FUTURE AND I DON’T UNDERSTAND…

Talking about The Smoke and others to Jonathan Thornton for Fantasy Hive, March 27 2018

Plastered

Stereo recordings, Imax movies, Steam-generated games: for over a century we’ve relied on innovations in media to deliver us a taste of the sublime. As the pioneering pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”

But even if that was true in 1939, I’m not sure it’s true any longer — not now we live enmired in media, and, indeed, have to make special efforts to escape them.

For me, 2017 ended with a couple of little disappointments both involving virtual reality.
Having wandered disembodied around Amedeo Modigliani’s “Ochre Atelier“ (an international curatorial effort which took five months to construct) I left London’s Tate Modern feeling as though I’d been transported, not to Paris, but to some Pixar-driven studio circa 1995. Virtual environments can actually render grit, dirt and water stains to a high creepiness level — but not on the sort of budget the Tate can command. The Ochre Atelier was a cartoon.

Not long after, I was prevented from wandering around Yinka Shonibare’s reconfigured, virtual version of the “Townley Venus” at the Royal Academy. The invigilator had saved me from walking into a wall, but I stalked out of that overclean, over-smooth virtual interior convinced that current museum technology can only insulate us from the sublime and the beautiful.
The technologies of digital reproduction are doing to objects exactly what they have done for books and music. They’re are making everything simultaneously accessible and boring.

A misplaced compulsion to entertain is only part of this story, and not the most interesting part. For cultural institutions, the chief promise of digital is its ability to reproduce and preserve. The effort to copy and disseminate objects of antiquity is both venerable and important. Indeed Mari Lending’s new book, Plaster Monuments: Architecture and the Power of Reproduction, reveals the role of casting in preserving entire architectural epochs. She recounts how in 1857 and on a visit to the Paris International Exhibition, the V&A’s first director Henry Cole persuaded 15 European princes to sign up to an ‘International Convention of promoting universally Reproductions of Works of Art’.

In Cole’s day, the technologies of reproduction consisted of photography, electrotyping and plastercasting. Casting, alas, proved far more damaging than was at first realised. Giovanni Battista Belzoni, the former circus strongman who conveyed the 7-ton bust of Pharaoh Ramesses II out of Luxor (it’s now in the British Museum) was no vandal, but he still managed to to take all the paint off when he cast the figure of Anubis in the tomb of Seti I, in the Valley of the Kings.

Worse followed: Belzoni’s facsimile of Seti’s tomb, shown at the Egyptian Halls in London in 1821, was one of several events that led Thomas Cook to form his travel agency. This in turn triggered arguably history’s greatest cultural catastrophe, since tourism is predicated on the idea that original objects, buildings and places can be made more or less universally accessible. Suddenly the traces of past ages were fixed in place, and people travelled to them. The damage Belzoni did to the tomb of Seti I pales in comparison to the wholesale dilapidation visitors have visited upon the entire complex at Luxor.

Many heritage sites are now permanently closed. Those wanting to explore Seti’s 3,300-year-old tomb will have to make do with a trip to Basel and a 100-micron-resolution facsimile of two chambers, courtesy of the Theban Necropolis Preservation Initiative. This project, run by Factum Foundation in collaboration with the University of Basel and under contract to the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, is embarked on nothing less than the wholesale recreation of the treasures of the Valley of the Kings.

Multi-spectral composite photography; 3D scanning; additive 3D printing; high-resolution CNC routing: the technologies employed and built from scratch by the technicians and artisans of “digital mediators” Factum Arte allow us to copy originals without ever touching them. But there is something kitschy about Seti’s immaculate new e-tomb: what it has gained in freshness, it has lost in dignity.

Similarly when I visited the RA, though I enjoyed the way Shonibare had repurposed the Roman Venus statue, I found its VR setting (based on a Gavin Hamilton painting) profoundly dispiriting. he hadn’t just brought an old painting to life. He’d done something far worse. He’d cleaned it up. He’d made it good as new.

The eighteenth-century culture in which Belzoni operated – doing an honest but far from perfect job of reproducing the treasures of his day — can, I think, point us in a healthier direction.

Belzoni’s was a world where no one worried much when a nose or a leg fell off an old statue. They simply patched them up. This honourable practice goes back at least as far as the 16th-century sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, who argued that the ravaged sculptures of antiquity ”were screaming for his help”.

The poster-child of that era (at least for Londoners, who can visit the museum he made of his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields) is the architect Sir John Soane. Soane, born 1753, once grubbed up the garden of Pitzhanger, his country manor, to plant imaginary ruins. This was not (or not entirely) a Romantic indulgence. He used them mostly to tease antiquarians. He would take shards and fashion them into whole items, not willy-nilly, but on the basis of diligent study and educated taste. He knew the past was gone, and approximations were necessary. Lacking today’s precision instruments and the over-weaning, millennial rhetoric that accompanies them, he never once imagined that the past could be entirely recouped, or that the present moment might be made to last forever. One design for his Bank of England (a masterpiece now largely destroyed) showed how it would look in ruins.

Soane was rather fond of imagining what posterity might make of his museum. In 1812, and in the voice of an archaeologist of the future, he wrote:

“It is difficult to determine for what purposes such a strange and mixed assemblage of ancient works or rather [plaster] copies of them, for many are not of stone or marble, have been brought together…”

Not every young man could afford a Grand Tour of Europe. Soane considered his collection of copies the next best thing. He was right.

It was the stubborn whiteness of plastercasts, perhaps, the lack of an accurate means of coloration, not to mention a growing awareness of the damage being done by even the most careful copying — that saved Soane and his generation from imagining that they could render objects as they had been at their moment of completion.

Today we are armed with technology that can copy the surface appearance and even some of the structural elements of originals to perfection, or as close to perfection as makes no odds. This inadvertently puts us in the position of Lord Duveen, the British art dealer who, believing that authenticity was but a bathtime away, saw to the scrubbing of the Elgin Marbles. Nor was he the first restorer to kill through kindness. Writers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt were already complaining about this sort of thing in 1851, after seeing a newly cleaned Rubens: “It is,” they wrote, “like a piece of music from which all the half-tones have been removed: everything screams and bellows like earthenware gone mad.”

Nothing material will be damaged by today’s digital scrubbing — indeed, much valuable information will be uncovered and saved. But if we think that returning objects to their pristine state brings us closer to an authentic view of the past, then we are seriously short-changing our imaginations.

Soane and his fellows knew what we affect to deny: that time is real, and that everything ages and crumbles and dies. That’s why they considered art even more important than artworks.

As he reflected on the potential of scanning and 3D printing, Tristram Hunt, the current director of the V&A, pointed out in a recent article that “the lost artefacts of the ancient past have never felt more tangible, and less controllable.” Factum Arte founder Adam Lowe goes further. In the future, he says, we will handle each object “like an interpretation of a musical score. There will be different performances of the same object. They can be compared, discussed and understood.”

I would like to think the future will be full of John Soanes as, with a clear conscience, we start patching together bits of the past into new objects: not at random, not out of mischief, but as Soane and his contemporaries did — out of an imaginative engagement with a past we accept is irretrievably lost.

I know why the caged bird sings, so nuts to you

Prince Hamlet of Denmark is out to revenge his father – at least, that’s the idea. But William Shakespeare has saddled him with a girlfriend, Ophelia, and her father Polonius, an interfering old fool. A Pantalone, in other words: a man (by tradition, but the gender’s immaterial) who is losing his grip on affairs of which he was once the master. With age, the Pantalone’s sphere of action and influence becomes comically reduced. What was once a voice of authority has become a bark of comic impotence.

I’m at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Steven Moffat’s Sherlock) is playing the prince, but it’s Polonius has me fascinated. The British character actor Peter Wight isn’t playing him for a fool, but as someone suffering from mid-stage Alzheimer’s. His mood swings wildly about, his silences are painful, his recollections pathetic victories snatched against the coming dark.

Wight’s portrayal is meticulous, sincere, and timely. Old age may not be a disease but it’s certainly a genetic condition, and one by one, elements of that condition are succumbing to medical research. This has had the disconcerting effect of curing all the easy diseases in order that we may bankrupt ourselves treating the recalcitrant ones. Rates of terminal cancer have plummeted, only to expose us to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

It looks like we’re all going to live to 100 before we drop dead. This pleases me, because I want to become the character described by the Athenian lawyer Solon 2,600 years ago: “so wise that he no longer wastes time on useless things, and this enables him to formulate his profoundest insights most succinctly.”

The trouble is that only a couple of hundred years after Solon, Aristotle came up with this charming formula: the old, he said, live by memory rather than by hope. Sure they have a lot of experience, but this means they are sure about nothing and under-do everything. They are small-minded because they have been humbled by life. As a result, they are driven too much by the useful and not enough by the noble. They are cynical and distrustful and neither love warmly nor hate bitterly. They are not shy. On the contrary, they’re shameless, feeling only contempt for people’s opinion of them.

Aristotle knew what a pantalone was, and he knew that being a pantalone was nothing to do with disease or infirmity. It was, and is, to do with the passing of time.

By the time I’m a hale and hearty 100, what kind of monster will I have become? Always voting the way I’ve voted; always writing the same kind of novel about the same kind of people using the same kind of dialogue; always dating the same kinds of people and always messing them up in the same sorts of ways; bringing up the same kinds of children and saddling them with the same hang-ups.

Would I want to live for ever? Probably. I just wouldn’t want to remain human forever. I don’t want to be “better than human” or “superhuman” or any of that rubbish (what does that even mean?) What I want is simple and, thanks to the passage of time, quite impossible. I want to be not bored. I want to be not burdened by experience. I want to be unfazed by life.

I realise now that I don’t know nearly enough about how other animals think. I need to read more Sy Montgomery. I need to read Marc Bekoff and John Bradshaw. I need to know what my options are, just in case the triumphant effort to healthify old age tips suddenly towards affording us everlasting life.

My best bet right now is the cockatoo. If you treat a cockatoo properly, it’ll stay a three-year-old child forever – and that’s a long time: cockatoos live into their sixties.

Don’t let me be a pompous ass, a fussy, fond old fool. Don’t make me a gull, a mark, a slippered pantalone. Let me become something else, something less than human if needs be, but better adapted to forever.

Who’s a pretty boy then?

I am

The dreams our stuff is made of

 

We imagine things before we make them, from spacecraft to smartphones – and designers often turn artists’ imaginings of the future into our everyday reality. So who’s in charge?

I am.

At least, I will be on 29 June when I herd Matt Smith (editor of 2000 AD) spaceflight expert Piers Bizony and architect Liam Young into London’s Barbican Centre for a session called The Dreamer’s Club. Fun and games begin at 7.30pm. Details and tickets here.

Like it or not, these are the people we need to save America

As I write, President Donald Trump has just accused former incumbent Barack Obama of having tapped his campaign phones during the 2016 election season. I doubt very much whether this will be a major issue by the time these words are read. Most likely it’ll have been overtaken by “FAKED” nuclear exchanges over the South China Sea.

Kleptocracy moves faster than ordinary politics. Across the media, opinion writers are having to learn how to think like crime reporters. It’s frightening, but undeniably exhilarating.

Old forms of civic engagement seem hardly relevant now. On April 22, scientists will gather across the world to protest the Trump administration’s de facto dismantling of the EPA, veiled threats directed at programs of vaccination, cuts in NASA’s climate-studies funding, and any number of other depredations. All very noble, to protest this outrage, and necessary in its way.  But the rest of us might just as easily marvel at the alacrity and efficiency with which groups of suddenly vulnerable people round themselves up. The spectacle of well-educated people congratulating themselves on their effortless (because sacrifice-free) “intersectionality”, while at the same time complaining about their job security, is unlikely to prove particularly edifying, least of all since the “cosmopolitanism” so necessary to science (I mean devotion to an idea or ideas bigger than the nation state) is rapidly becoming synonymous with disloyalty.     

The March for Science was conceived on a Reddit forum as recently as 20 January, yet  we already find ourselves operating at an entirely different level of discourse. Science illumines small, detailed corners of the world, but it’s the entire reality of that world that’s under threat now. We are dealing with an administration that, when not lost in the toils of its own mythomania, will quibble over what is even in plain sight.

Studying an existential crisis of this magnitude requires no scientific apparatus. Consider this classic bullet-through-the-foot statement from Trump aide Myron Ebell: “We will be ceding global leadership of climate policy to China,” Ebell said on 1 February. “I want to get rid of global climate policy, so why do I care who is in charge of it? I don’t care. They can take it as far as I’m concerned, and good luck to them.” [1]   

Well, really, who needs luck? Knowing what climate change is, what causes it, and what needs to be done about it is — among many other things — a recipe for printing money, which is why China, the world’s fastest-growing green economy, just invested $360 billion into renewable energy production. US industries either innovate to address the carbon problem, or they join the tobacco companies in the shadowlands of lobbying, litigation, and spin: not quite dead, but no longer really alive.

The default Trump position on America’s scientific institutions is that they have become blunt weapons in the service of an over-centralised state. We know what this would look like were it true (and how far it actually is from American reality) when we look at Stalin’s Russia. Genetics was banned in Russia in 1948 — its institutions destroyed, careers truncated, individuals sacked and internally exiled — because the findings of genetics flatly contradicted promising but badly flawed state-sponsored agricultural trials of new crop varieties. If new varieties could be generated at will (and genetics said they couldn’t), then the countryside could be industrialised overnight, speeding the development of the Soviet Union towards communism within a single generation. The state had ambitions for science and, centralising its efforts around a handful of top-heavy institutions, ensured that those ambitions drowned out the very findings it had paid to obtain.

When climate change-denying Republicans invoke the bogeyman of overpaid lackey climatologists working to a misguided, politically motivated programme, they’re not pointing at nothing. Indeed, they’re pointing at what happened to the largest and best-funded science base in history. The problem is that theirs is an argument from analogy. Which is to say, no argument at all. Flim-flam, if you prefer.

It hardly matters now. If exploited to the hilt by US industry (and let’s be honest, we all want to go out with a bang) Trump’s climate policies — his devotion to fossil fuels and rejection of the Paris protocols — are more than sufficient over four short years to set global temperatures on a course topping 2.5 degrees, at which point our much-maligned globalised civilisation will collapse from the sheer cost of its own insurance premiums.

Some more flim-flam while we await the End Times. So Obama was Stalin, was he? Knowledgeable in both science and in politics but unable to separate the one from the other? Then Donald Trump is Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia: reactionary, vain, deaf to the entreaties of his ever more carefully hand-picked advisors, until, at the last, only the Rasputin-like whispers of Steve Bannon catch his ear.

Let’s indulge this bad habit of arguing from analogy a little further, and ask this interesting question: how did Russia’s academics react against Nicholas II’s lame-duck regime? They held marches. They published pamphlets. They organised strikes. They pinned their liberal and cosmopolitan colours to their sleeves, and wrote angry letters to the papers. They achieved virtually nothing until, in 1905, they got canny. They became political. They stood up for an idea of civics rooted in the European enlightenment. They fomented a revolution. They even got the Tsar to convene a parliament, in which they were the ministers.

Ultimately, this “constitutional-democratic”  movement failed. It refused to cohere, it sought compromise where it should have fomented discord, collaborated where it should have opposed. It died from politeness. A dozen years later, its failure made Bolshevik extremism possible and the rest, as they say, is history.

History, yes. But not destiny. The people who march in the name of science on Saturday 22 are taking but the first step on what promises to be a long and frightening journey. We should not expect too much from them yet. But neither should we pull our punches. Like it or not, and certainly if Trump lasts into a second term, these people, thanks to their educations and well-thumbed passports, their urbane reflexes and all the advantages that leisure has bestowed on them, are best placed to be the champions of our by then virtually extinguished civic life.

We are going to have to teach these snowflakes how to fight.

“Some only appear crazy. Others are as mad as a bag of cats.”

unnamed

“In her old age, Olga Lepeshinskaya became entranced by the mystical concept of the ‘vital substance’, and recruited her extended family to work in her ‘laboratory’, pounding beetroot seeds in a pestle to demonstrate that any part of the seed could germinate.”
Stalin’s more eccentric scientists are the subject of this blogpost for Faber & Faber.

 

Achievement, naivety and dread

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“A modest biography that should have taken me a bit less than a year became a five-year behemoth that burned through three editors and which takes in more or less every major scientific advance and controversy in the Soviet Union from Russia’s failed liberal revolution of 1905 to Khrushchev’s removal in a bloodless coup in 1964. A book that nearly killed me. A book that — since by then I had actually got myself an honest job — I had to write on the bus. (The 521, to be exact.)”
Talking Stalinist science with Tom Hunter of the Arthur C Clarke Award

from HOW TO LIKE EVERYTHING by Paul Shepheard

For a hundred days, between July and October 2009, the empty fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square was occupied, an hour at a time, by selected members of the public. The author of this ruse was the artist Antony Gormley; he allowed his successful applicants to do anything they wanted while they were up there, and to take anything with them that they could carry unaided.

The other day, I came across this passage, from Paul Shepheard’s excellent crypto-Utopian novel How to Like Everything:

Anthony+Gormley+Fourth+Plinth+Installation+i4AAKMLP4QYl

The real story was in the plinth itself. To stop this man and all the others hurting themselves a huge safety net supported on steel beams and painted grey like the ones they have on aircraft carriers to catch overshooting planes was attached to the plinth. I think that was the real sculpture, that net. It was made out of the problem of democracy – which is that it starts out as the means of collective action against oppression and then abruptly runs out of steam. Democracy has no value in itself, it is made of the will of the majority, whatever it is at the time. It is a way of dealing with everything, but it is a utility, not a vision. To think of it as a vision results in a thousand regulations surrounding every action, because ultimately democracy depends on the law. That safety net was an example of the art of the law.