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.

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


“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


“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:


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.

The Singularity (a sermon)

So here I am at Utopia, Tel Aviv’s festival of fantastic film. the other day I gave a talk and today, when I could be swimming or sunbathing, I’m sitting in the cinemateque’s green room – a perfectly white and windowless box – typing this. It started as a bloggable version of what I had to say about utopias and dystopias but it quickly got out of hand and became what I can only call a sermon.

This blog’s mostly a shop window – and a personality-free zone – but what the hell: if you’ve a moment to spare, let’s see what you think of this:


In 1979, Dan White was brought to trial for murder of two San Francisco government officials: George Moscone and Harvey Milk.  White’s defence attorney hoped to convince the jury that his client was not responsible for his actions. White had a history of severe depression, and it had come to light that his diet – consisting almost entirely of junk food – regularly pushed him into a hypoglycaemic state. When this happened, White’s palpable misery bloomed into something else: something positively homicidal.

Medically, the argument was not without merit, but it quickly became notorious. Dubbed the “Twinkie defense”, it angered many who felt White was no longer having to answer for his own actions. “The snacks made me do it” is a pretty thin defence for a killing.

At the back of the outrage around this case was a deeper unease. Any act, sufficiently anatomised, will tend to evaporate into imponderables. Stare at the trees long enough, and you lose all sense of the wood. An act is an act is an act. Hedge it around with circumstances, however, and it becomes a story, a narrative – and stories can be spun in any number of ways, Crafty attorneys know this. Happily, so do judges. (So do scriptwriters: think of all those scenes where the judge instructs the attorney not to badger or haze the witness.)

Why should the circumstances of an act matter? Why is a killing not a murder in every instance? Our willingness to entertain *some* measure of narrative explanation is partly to do with our experience of the world, but just as much (if not more) to do with our unshakeable conviction that we are in ourselves, more or less, good people. At least, we don’t set out to do wrong. And if we did wrong, well, we were led to those wrong-doings by a concatenation of regrettable circumstances. Forget vaudeville villiany: brought to book, even serial killers do not cackle. They offer up their excuses, and seem as puzzled as the rest of us at their inadequacy. No-one in the history of the world, however deranged, embraced wrong-doing in the belief that it *was* wrongdoing. The closest we ever get is a sense of compulsion: “She drove me to it, officer.”

Were we to gather up every circumstance surrounding a crime, and explore every contingency – if , in short, we knew all – would we forgive all? If we’re so convinced of our own essential goodness (all be it that circumstances trip us into wrong-doing for this or that reason), does this mean that everyone is good; that everyone is, at their existential core, a righteous person?

For some radicals, the answer is unabashedly Yes. In the first heady days of Russia’s October Revolution, courts rewrote their deliberations so as to avoid perjorative notions of “crime” and “wrongdoing”. Punishments were things of the past: criminals were simply people in need of education and treatment.

The idea foundered since, in 1921, relatively little work had been done on the most effective correctional programmes for offenders.  Today, we know of many effective strategies. Why then do so many of us resist their use? Why do so many of us advocate prison sentences (which patently don’t work) over other schemes (which patently do work)? Why can we not bring ourselves to extend our sense of our own righteousness to everyone?

I think this has to do with time. However diminished Dan White’s responsibility, by his hand two innocent men lay dead. You can excuse and explain and mitigate Dan White at your leisure. You cannot excuse, explain, and mitigate a corpse. A corpse just lies there. It begins, quite quickly, to stink.

To understand all is to forgive all, but only if you’ve the luck, the temperament, the time, and the patience. Forgiveness is not restorative. Forgiveness is hard work, Understanding is merely the first step on an arduous personal journey.

Forgiveness is such hard work, we usually resort to a quicker, easier, more reassuring alternative: justice. The scales of justice are more than a metaphor for objectivity, a weighing of evidence. They also represent an effort to restore the balance of things. An eye for an eye, if you like; more usually, fifty quid for inconsiderate parking.

In a world in which not everything *can* be known, justice is more effective than (and not incompatible with) forgiveness. The more we know, the more just our justice becomes: that, anyway, is the hope, and it’s borne out reasonably well by the historical evidence. The more ordered and well-observed a society, the less frequent its recourse to draconian punishments.

Justice is not altogether a human invention. Social species have their rituals of correction and punishment. I’ll mention one decidedly odd example.

European cuckoos are brood parasites. A female will lay an egg in the nest of an unwitting host. Though relieved of the drudgery of child care, cuckoos still have an investment in their young. Males and females both  will sometimes observe the host’s nest to make sure their hatchling is secure. If the host gets wise to the cuckoo’s deception, it will evict the egg from its nest.

Then something very peculiar happens. The cuckoo’s egg is done for. From a purely adaptationist standpoint, it’s game over for the cuckoo; it may as well write off its losses and withdraw. Quite often, however, this isn’t what happens. Instead, the cuckoo attacks the host’s interests, evicting all the eggs in its nest. What’s the survival advantage in this behaviour? If anyone can spot it, please tell me, because the alternative is weird indeed: the cuckoo must have a sense of justice. A wildly one-sided one, it’s true: but a sense of justice all the same. Maddened by the implacable, unidirectional nature of time, the impossibility of restitution, it exacts punishment on the host: eggs for an egg.

Utopia is where we locate our dreams of a life well lived. In utopia, right prevails. So we must presuppose one of two qualities for our utopia. Either it is timeless, and all acts may be reversed, all wrongs righted by a simple, agreed return to initial conditions. (Discussions of precrime belong somewhere here.)

Or, while remaining embedded in time, everything that happens in Utopia is known, and therefore forgiven.

This is the promise of the Singularity, of course. Once we have combined in acquiring a seamlessly distributed moment-by-moment grasp of the entire world, the innate righteousness of everyone will be manifestly apparent to all. Except, of course, for the bodies. And there’s the rub: the bodies will still stink.

Afforded perfect knowledge, it is entirely plausible that punishment might become obsolescent, replaced by a culture of forgiveness, bolstered and secured by our prefered varieties of tough love and loving correction. And for all that, innocent government officials will still lie bleeding and the cuckoo’s egg will still lie smashed.  For that reason, the idea of *justice* will persist. It will lack any useful outlet, of course, since the only thing we will be unable to forgive – the thing we will *blame*, and much good may it do us – is the stubbornly unidirectional nature of time itself

Our sense of justice then will reveal itself to be, at bottom, nothing more than this: enraged regret that what has happened, *has* happened.

Time, it turns out, is the villain, brought to book by our peculiar ability to model sequences of events that have not happened and cannot happen. We tell ourselves stories of what might have been (had Milk lived, had the cuckoo grown and flown) – grammarians might want to dub this our *subjunctive* capability – and when we judge the world against this ephemeral criterion, we find it wanting. Our pursuit of the Singularity is nothing more or less than this: a royal hunt for the rewind button.

Good lives are like trees: they branch exponentially, to explore the possibilities available to them. They switch and reverse, pulse and repulse. Lives aspire to the condition of narratives. Lives want to be rewritten.