The internet poses an impossible paradox for digital artists

Visiting the Transmediale festival in Berlin for New Scientist, 21 February 2018

BERLIN’S festival of art and media culture Transmediale is an annual reminder that art is more than a luxury good. It gives us the words, images and ideas we need to talk to each other about a changing world.

Big social changes involve big shifts in how art is made and consumed. It is a nerve-racking process for artists, who can have no idea, as they embark on their ventures, whether the public will come to appreciate and enjoy their work. And at this year’s Transmediale, the chickens came home to roost.

To begin at the beginning, back in the 1950s, Andy Warhol and the pop art movement looked at the world through the prism of advertising hoardings and television. A new generation of artists has been making art out of the internet.

Some artists have attempted to imagine the internet itself, paying attention to developments in data management and artificial intelligence, so they can better imagine what the internet is and what it might become.

The performance premiering at the festival this year, James Ferraro’s Dante-esquePlague, was work of this sort: a credible, visceral and downright terrifying portrayal of consciousness emerging from the audio-visual detritus of social media.

Other artists have used the internet as a tool through which to look at the world. Much of this work resembles anthropology more than art. Take Lisa Rave’s film Europium, which flits between trading floors, TV showrooms and a wedding ceremony in Papua New Guinea to trace the material connections and cultural gulfs that distinguish different kinds of money, from seashell dowries to plastic banknotes. In so doing, she constructs a microhistory of the rare element europium that wouldn’t look out of place in a high-end magazine, and brings the hackneyed link between capitalism and colonialism to life.

“The internet sorts. It archives. Many of its artists are, in consequence, good little bureaucrats”

But there is a problem: artists working with the materials of the internet are further removed from physical reality than their forebears. They are looking at the world through what is, really, a single, totalising, bureaucratic machine. (It’s called the World Wide Web for a reason.) And in art, as in life, you are what you eat.

The internet sorts. It archives. Many of its artists are, in consequence, good little bureaucrats who offer “findings”, “research” and “presentations” (at Transmediale we even had an “actualisation”, from artist and gay activist Zach Blas), but rarely anything as trite as finished work.

Nothing ages on the internet; nothing dies. Nothing is ever resolved. Similarly with its art: Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s A Becoming Resemblance, which uses DNA from Chelsea Manning, the former US soldier who leaked classified documents, is to all intents and purposes a brand new piece, but it is still presented as a fragment of a work begun in 2015.

Does the open-endedness of this art make it bad? Of course not. But internet art hardly ever gets finished. There’s always more data to sort, a virtual infinitude of rabbit holes to hurl yourself down, and very little that is genuinely new has had a chance to emerge. I defy a newcomer to tell the difference between the work premiering here and work that is 20 years old.

The field has, as a consequence, turned into the art world’s Peter Pan: the child that never grew up. And we treat it as a child. We tiptoe around anything resembling a negative opinion, as though every time one of us said, “I don’t believe this piece is any good”, a video artist somewhere would fall down dead.

In other words, the world of media art has suffered the same fate that has befallen the rest of the internet-enabled planet. The very technology that promised us the world on a screen has been steadily filtering out the challenges and contrary opinions that made our interests and ideas so vital in the first place, leaving us living in an echo chamber.

It was Lioudmila Voropai, a Ukrainian art historian, who got the gathered artists, curators and academics at Transmediale to confront some chilly realities about their field. We knew the book she was launching contained dynamite because it was entitled Media Art as a By-Product – no punches pulled there. Another reason was that she spent all her time telling us what her book didn’t do. It didn’t criticise. It didn’t take a political position. It asked a few questions. It didn’t have answers. Nothing to see here.

Finally someone piped up: “So the media art we’ve come here to enjoy and talk about and theorise over actually exists only to sustain museums of media art? Is that what you’re saying?”

And Voropai, perhaps figuring that she may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, let rip: “The extraordinary thing about media art,” she said, “is that the moment it was institutionally established, it was declared conceptually obsolete.”

This was only the beginning. Speaker after speaker made sincere efforts to get the left-wing, countercultural, transgressive Transmediale participants to look at themselves in the mirror. It took courage to try to get media artists to admit that their radical chic has been stolen by the likes of the just-as-countercultural far-right Breitbart News Network; that they have forgotten (as right-wingers like Donald Trump have not) how to entertain; and that they exist chiefly to sustain the institutions that fund them. These efforts were received with seriousness and courtesy.

“If the internet disappears, our lives will be held hostage by an invisible infrastructure”

Attempts to puncture the “new media art” bubble from the inside might have seemed a bit laughable to outsiders. Occupying most of the venue’s impressive foyer, Hate Library was a printout of the results (pictured left) artist Nick Thurston obtained when he typed “truth” into the search box on the online bulletin board of the white-supremacist Stormfront Europe group. The idea, I think, was to confront the Transmediale crowd with the big, bad world outside. But to the rest of us, this felt like old news. If you go there, and type that, surely you get what you deserve?

hate words

Even so, I am inclined to admire people who take their social and artistic responsibilities seriously enough to ask uncomfortable questions of themselves, and risk a bit of awkwardness and ridicule along the way.

After all, much of this work does get under your skin. It does make you look at the world anew. As I was leaving, I looked in at Yuri Pattison’s installation Vitra Alcove (some border thoughts). Pattison has mashed up videogame-generated coastal cities and garbled news tickers to capture the queasy liquidity of mediated life.

Sitting there, bombarded by algorithmically generated fake news and dizzy from the image blizzard, I was reminded of the few fraught days I once spent sitting among New Scientist‘s news team as it fished for real stories in a web-borne ocean of alarmism, self-promotion and misinterpretation. Pattison’s work says at least as much about my life as L. S. Lowry’s paintings of matchstalk men and cats and dogs said about my grandfather’s.

In January 2015, Eric Schmidt, then executive chairman of Google, declared that the internet was destined to disappear. He was talking about the internet of things: how the infrastructure that is beginning to weave together the materials and objects of daily life would burrow its way into our lives, and so become invisible.

But if, in the act of becoming ubiquitous, the internet also disappears, then our lives will be held hostage by a bureaucratic infrastructure we can no longer see, never mind control. Media art explores and shines strong light onto this complacent, hyper-conformist, not-so-brave world. Of course the art is strange, hard to explain – and a work in progress. How could it not be? That is its job.

The inside story of blood

Visiting the Royal College of Physicians for New Scientist, 17 February 2018

AFFECTION and delight aren’t qualities you would immediately associate with an exhibition about blood flow. But Ceaseless Motion reaches beyond the science to celebrate the man – 17th-century physician William Harvey – who, the story goes, invented the tradition of doctors’ bad handwriting. He was also a benefactor: when founding a lecture series in his own name, he remembered to bequeath money for the provision of refreshments.

It is an exhibition conceived, organised and hosted by the UK’s Royal College of Physicians, whose 17th-century librarian Christopher Merrett described how to make champagne several years before the monk Dom Pérignon began his experiments. Less happily, Merrett went on a drinking binge in 1666, and let Harvey’s huge book collection burn in London’s Great Fire.

The documents, seals and signatures that survived the flames despite Merrett’s neglect take pride of place in an exhibition that, within a very little compass, tells the story of one of medicine’s more important revolutionaries through documents, portraits and some deceptively chatty wall information.

Before Harvey’s 10 years of intense, solitary study bore fruit, physicians thought blood was manufactured in the liver and then passed through the body under its own volumetric pressure. Heaven help you if you made too much of the stuff. Luckily, physicians were on hand to release this disease-inducing pressure through bloodletting.

It sounds daft now, but clues back then that something quite different was going on were sparse and controversial. The 16th-century physician Andreas Vesalius had puzzled over the heart. If, like every other organ, it fed on blood produced in the liver, why were its walls so impenetrably hard? But even this towering figure, the founder of modern anatomy, decided that his own observations had to be wrong.

It was Hieronymus Fabricius, Harvey’s teacher in Padua, Italy, who offered a new and fruitful tack when he mapped “the little doors in the veins” that, we know now, are valves maintaining the flow of blood back to the lungs.

Within 30 years, Harvey’s realisation that blood pressure is controlled by the heart, and that this organ actively pumps blood around the body in a continuous circuit, had overturned the teachings of the 2nd-century Graeco-Roman physician Claudius Galen in European centres of learning. The new thinking also put close clinical observation at the heart of a discipline that had traditionally spent more time on textual analysis than on examining patients.

The exhibition is housed in a building designed by Denys Lasdun. This celebrated modernist architect was so taken by Harvey’s achievements that he designed the interiors as a subtle homage to the human circulatory system.

With the royal college now celebrating its 500th birthday, its institutional pride is palpable, but never stuffy. As one staff member told me, “We only started talking about ourselves as a ‘Royal’ college after the Restoration, to suck up to the king.”

Those who can visit should be brave and explore. Upstairs, there are wooden panels from Padua with the dried and salted circulatory and nervous systems of executed criminals lacquered into them. They are rare survivors: when pickling methods improved and it was possible to provide medical students with three-dimensional teaching aids, such “anatomical plates” were discarded.

Downstairs, there are endless curiosities. The long sticks doctors carried in 18th-century caricatures were clinical instruments – latex gloves didn’t arrive until 1889. The sticks’ silver ferrules contained miasma-defeating herbs and, sometimes, phials of alcohol. None of them are as handsome as Harvey’s own demonstration rod.

But if a visit in person is out of the question, take a look at the royal college’s new website, launched to celebrate half a millennium of institutional conviviality and controversy. You will have to provide your own biscuits, though.

 

Ceiling Cat is watching you make art

Visiting 😹 LMAO at London’s Open Data Institute for New Scientist, 2 February 2018

On Friday 12 January 2018, curators Julie Freeman and Hannah Redler Hawes left work at London’s Open Data Institute confident that, come Monday morning, there would be at least a few packets of crisps in the office.

Artist Ellie Harrison‘s Vending Machine (2009; pictured below) sits in the ODI’s kitchen, one of the more venerable exhibits to have been acquired over the institute’s five-year programme celebrating data as culture. It has been hacked to dispense a packet of salty snacks whenever the BBC’s RSS feed carries a news item containing financial misfortune.

No one could have guessed that, come 7 am on Monday morning, Carillion, the UK government’s giant services contractor, would have gone into liquidation. There were so many packets in the hopper, no one could open the door, say staff.

Such apparently silly anecdotes are the stuff of this year’s show, the fifth in the ODI’s annual exhibition series “Data as Culture”. This year, humour and absurdity are being harnessed to ask big questions about internet culture, privacy and artificial intelligence.

Looking at the world through algorithmic lenses may bring occasional insight, but what really matters here are the pratfalls as, time and again, our machines misconstrue a world they cannot possibly comprehend.

In 2017, artist Pip Thornton fed famous poems to Google’s online advertising service, Google AdWords, and printed the monetised results on till receipts. The framed results value the word “cloud” (as in I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth) highly, at £4.73, presumably because Google’s algorithm was dreaming of internet servers. It had no time at all for Wilfred Owen: “Froth-corrupted” (Dulce et Decorum Est) earned exactly £0.00.

You can, of course, reverse this game and ask what happens to people when they over-interpret machine-generated data, seeing patterns that aren’t there.

This is what Lee Montgomery has done with Stupidity Tax (2017). In an effort to understand his father’s mild but unaccountably secretive gambling habit, Montgomery has used a variety of data analysis techniques to attempt to predict the UK National Lottery. The sting in this particular tale is the installation’s associated website, which implies (mischievously, I hope) that the whole tongue-in-cheek effort has driven the artist ever so slightly mad.

Watching over the whole exhibition – literally because it’s peeking through a hole in a ceiling tile – is Franco and Eva Mattes’s Ceiling Cat, a taxidermied realisation of the internet meme, and a comment on the nature of surveillance beliefs (pictured top). “It’s cute and scary at the same time,” the artists say, “like the internet.”

Co-curator Freeman is a data artist herself. If you visited last year’s New Scientist Live you may well have seen her naked mole-rat surveillance project. The 7.5 million data points acquired by the project are now keeping network analysts busy at Queen Mary University of London. “We want to know if mole-rats make good encryption objects,” says Freeman. Their nest behaviours might generate true random numbers, handy for data security. “But the mole-rat queens are far too predictable… Crisp?”

Through a mouthful of salt and vinegar, I ask Freeman where her playfulness comes from. And as I suspected, there’s intellectual steel beneath: “Data is being constantly visualised so we can comprehend it,” she says, “and those visualisations are often done in a very short space of time, for a particular purpose, in a particular context, for a particular audience. Then they acquire this afterlife. All of a sudden, they’re the lenses we’re looking through. If you start thinking about data as something rigid and objective and bearing the weight of truth, then you’ve stopped discerning what is right and what is wrong.”

Freeman wants us to analyse data, not abandon it, and her exhibition is an act of tough love. “When we fetishise data, we end up with what’s happening in social media,” she says. “So many people drowning in metadata, pointing to pointers, and never acquiring any knowledge that’s deep and valuable. There should be some words to express that glut, that need to roll back a little bit. Here, have another crisp.”

When robots start caring

A glimpse into our Eloi future for the Spectator, 3 February 2018
(There’s also a podcast.)

‘I gotta be me,’ Sammy Davis Jr. croons as the android Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) steadies her horse, stands up on her stirrups, takes aim with her Winchester, and picks off her human masters one by one.

The trailer’s out at last and the futuristic TV series Westworld is set to return in the spring. It’s a prescient show, but not in the ways you might expect. It’s not about robot domination. Westworld is about an uprising of pleasure cyborgs in a futuristic resort. It is, for all its gunplay, about love. And that makes it a very timely show indeed.

In the real world, robots are actually being designed to love us — to fill traditional caring roles for which we have neither the time, energy, nor resources. Robots are being built to help the elderly, nurse the sick and tend the children. Pundits often take this as evidence of our selfish, lazy, reprehensible present. But we’ve been working towards this moment for a very long time, and would it really be so very bad?

If you think that families should look after their own elderly, you’ll need to explain why in south-east Asia, traditionally a region of three- and even four-generation family units, nouveau-riche gated retirement communities are springing up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Perhaps the elderly don’t long to live among us, as we imagine. Perhaps poverty is the only thing nailing Grandma to the family couch. As for the sick, we’ve long since been consigning them to institutions, be they care homes, hospitals or hospices, where people who are better-trained promise to look after them.

The question is not whether we should employ robots. Given the lousiness of some institutions, why on earth wouldn’t we? The question is whether the robots we employ will be any good, and whether we can accept them as substitute humans. We’d like to think not, but there’s evidence to suggest that we’ll bond with even a basic machine far more easily than we’d like to believe.

In 2011, Takanori Shibata, a Japanese engineer, turned up on the coast of tsunami-wracked Fukushima and handed out around 80 robotic seal pups to the victims of the disaster. Refugees warmed to the robots: many have held on to them and continue to look after them. Shibata could have turned up with puppies, or kittens or guinea pigs and would probably have achieved greater therapeutic impact. But who has the money and time to feed and look after 80 animals in a disaster zone? Pets need care and attention — a point not lost on the residential homes that employ Shibata’s robot seals to comfort their elderly, often demented, charges. A single ‘Paro’ — an acronym that roughly translates as ‘personal robot — costs around $5,000. A real-life therapy dog may cost more than $50,000 over its lifetime.

Paro isn’t much of a robot. It can move its head, neck, eyelids, flippers and tail. It responds to the human voice and to touch. It understands simple words and phrases (the sort we use with pets and babies). It knows when it’s being treated well, and when it’s being roughly handled. Its cries (made from digitally sampled baby seal sounds) have a discernible emotional range. It’s old news —the first Paros were sold in 1998 — but it’s making headlines again this year because the ninth generation model is being assessed for use on long space journeys. Mars colonists, permanently deprived of wider human society, will find consolation in a robotic animal chosen for its inability to disappoint. Robot dogs are a let-down because we know what pet dogs are like. How many pet seals do you know? Paro’s very blandness is its point. Its easy, undemanding displays of personal affection reduce stress, anxiety, depression, wandering and aggression among the demented of 30 countries. It must be only a matter of time before Paro makes it into the ‘safe spaces’ on university campus.

Kaspar, designed by the University of Hertfordshire’s Adaptive Systems Research Group, is hardly more sophisticated in appear-ance: a bland foot-high doll in a check shirt. It’s not really a robot — more a mechanical puppet, controlled remotely by researchers. Its expressive minimalism and extreme simplicity reassure the children it plays with — those with severe autism or those who have suffered trauma and abuse.

According to Living with Robots, Paul Dumouchel and Luisa Damiano’s recent survey of social robotics, robots are likely to be stuck in this uncanny state for some time, while we try to codify what ‘behaving like a human being’ actually means. We have vast knowledge of ourselves as social beings, of course, evidenced by millennia of cultural output from Dream of the Red Chamber to Breaking Bad. What we lack is a high-level description of human behaviour of the sort that can find its way into computer code. We all know why we laugh, cry, blush and commit suicide, but we have not the slightest idea what laughing, crying, blushing and committing suicide are for. This is why social robots attract so much academic attention: they are an experimental apparatus, through which we study ourselves.

Countless robot nurse prototypes, with names like Terapio and Robear, are under trial. The problems they are meant to address are real. We have conquered disease to the point where people regularly stay healthy into their nineties. This is why the US has as many people over 85 as children under five and China has 100 million senior citizens to look after. Someone or something needs to look after us in our dotage. Then there are the edge cases: those social wrinkles we could conceivably iron out with robots, but not without consequence. Should we roll out sex robots to address the uneven gender ratios in China? Straight men right now have next to no opportunity for sexual companionship: don’t they deserve some comfort?

Not according to Kathleen Richardson and Erik Brilling, whose Campaign Against Sex Robots, launched in 2015, declares that sex with an animate object that lacks agency can only brutalise us. Notwithstanding that sex robots are a bit rubbish, this particular rabbit hole swallows academics by the ton.

Nations with the most intractable demographic problems are the ones most entranced by the promise of robotics. Japan’s population is crashing as a generation of young people eschews sex. A third of men under 30 have never dated. Women prefer singledom to the life of penury and drudgery afforded by Japanese marriage. A new book by Jennifer Robertson, Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation, unpicks the Japanese government’s published blueprint for revitalising the nation’s households by 2025. If we can only build robots to do the housework, the argument runs, then women will have more time for having babies. Once again, technology is being promoted not because it ushers in the future but because it preserves the past. (A driverless car is still, after all, a car: not a bus or a train or a decent broadband link. And a robot servant is still a servant.)

On the one hand, robots are like Uber and the spinning jenny. They promise to increase production while preserving the institutions of capital. They’re disruptive right up to the point where something might happen to the money. A more intriguing threat is the one directed at our own social lives. Surrounded by dull, bland, easy-going robot companions, will we come to expect less of other people? Assisted, cared for, and even seduced silly by machines, will we lower our expectations around concepts like ‘conversation’, ‘care’, ‘companionship’ and ‘love’?

Paro and Kaspar are creepy not for what they are — clinical tools, improving the lives of vulnerable people — but for what they portend: a world in which you and I find Paro and Kaspar a sufficient substitute for other people. ‘Robotic companionship may seem a sweet deal,’ wrote the social scientist Sherry Turkle back in 2011, ‘but it consigns us to a closed world — the loveable as safe and made to measure.’ Will our constant association with such easy-going, selfless-because-characterless robots make us emotionally lazy?

We’ve imagined this sort of future many times. Hesiod was writing poems about ineluctable degeneration around 700 BC. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) imagines a world in which the beautiful, sensitive people — the Eloi — have all the savvy of veal calves and ‘civilisation’ has turned out to be nothing but a process of self-domestication. And it’s true: civilisation is as much about forgetting, and attendant helplessness, as it is about learning. In my own lifetime, handwriting and mental arithmetic have gone to the wall, and the art of everyday literary nuance is being ousted by the application of quick, characterful emoji. Having to learn new skills is a nuisance. Having to dispense with skills already acquired is a little death: a diminution of the spirit.

The pioneering psychologist William James argued that what we want from a lover is that they really love us, and not simply behave as if they did. I hope that’s true. If we come to believe that the soul is nothing more than behaviour, then of course a robot will become just as good as a person. Why even bother to build better robots? An Eloi future beckons: all we have to do is lower our expectations.

 

 

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.

Cosmoscope

We’ve learned much in the half-millennium since Leonardo declared Man “the measure of all things.”, and seen the human species relegated to a footnote in the cosmological story.
Now we’re beginning to see that humanity maybe does sit at the heart of the universe. At no other scale but ours does the universe attain such complexity.

Exhibited at the London Lumiere festival in January 2018, Simeon Nelson’s 3.3 metre-high singing, flashing sculpture, is an enormous puzzle in structural engineering, sound and software design. It’s also a homage to cosmological models of the past, especially Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man”, drawn around 1490.

I interviewed the makers for this video by David Stock.

What’s the Russian for Eastbourne?

Reading Davies and Kent’s Red Atlas for the Telegraph, 13 January 2018

This is a journey through an exotic world conjured into being by the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff of the Soviet Army. Tasked by Stalin during the Second World War to accurately and secretly map the Soviet Union, its Eastern European allies, its Western adversaries, and the rest of the world, the Directorate embarked on the largest mapping effort in history, Too many maps have been lost for us to be entirely sure what coverage was attained, but it must have been massive. Considering the UK alone, if there are detailed street plans of the market town of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, we can be reasonably sure there were once maps of Carlisle and Hull.

From internal evidence (serial numbers and such-like) we know there were well in excess of 1 million maps produced. Only a few survive today, and the best preserved of them, the most beautiful, the most peculiar, the most chilling, are reproduced here. The accompanying text, by cartographers John Davies and Alexander Kent, is rich in detail, and it needs to be. Soviet intelligence maps boast a level of detail that puts our own handsome Ordnance Survey to shame — a point the authors demonstrate by putting OS maps alongside their Soviet counterparts. You can not only see my road from one of these Soviet maps: you can see how tall the surrounding buildings are. You can read the height of a nearby bridge above water, its dimensions, its load capacity, and what it is made of. As for the river, I now know its width, its flow, its depth, and whether it has a viscous bed (it hasn’t).

This is not a violent tale. There is little evidence that the mapmakers had invasion on their mind. What would have been the point? By the time Russian tanks were rolling down the A14 (Cambridge, UK, 1:10,000 City Plan of 1998), nuclear exchanges would have obliterated most of these exquisite details, carefully garnered from aerial reconnaissance, archival research, Zenit satellite footage and, yes, wonderfully, non-descript men dawdling outside factory gates and police stations. Maybe the maps were for them and their successors. Placenames are rendered phonetically: HEJSTYNZ for Hastings and “ISBON” for Eastbourne on one Polish map. This would have been useful if you were asking directions, but useless if you were in a tank speeding through hostile territory, trying to read the road signs. The Directorate’s city maps came with guides. Some of the details recorded here are sinister enough: Cambridgeshire clay “becomes waterlogged and severely impedes off-road movement of mechanized transport.” Its high hedges “significantly impede observation of the countryside”. But what are we to make of the same guide’s wistful description of the city itself? “The bank of the river Cam is lined with ivy-clad buildings of the colleges of the university, with ridged roofs and turrets… The lodging-houses with their lecture-halls are reminiscent of monasteries or ancient castles.”

Though deployed on an industrial scale, the Soviet mapmakers were artisans, who tried very hard to understand a world they would never have any opportunity to see. They did a tremendous job: why else would their maps have informed the US invasion of Afghanistan, water resource management in Armenia, or oil exploration in India? Now and again their cultural assumptions led them down strange paths. Ecclesiastical buildings lost all significance in the Republic of Ireland, whose landscape became dotted with disused watermills. In England, Beeching’s cull of the railways was incomprehensible to Russian mapmakers, for whom railways were engines of revolution. A 1971 map of Leeds sheet not only shows lines closed in the 1960s; it also depicts and names the Wellington terminus station, adjacent to City station, which had closed in 1938.

The story of the Soviets’ mapping and remapping, particularly of the UK, is an eerie one, and though their effort seems impossibly Heath-Robinson now, the reader is never tempted into complacency. Cartography remains an ambiguous art. For evidence, go to Google Maps and type in “Burghfield”. It’s a village near Reading, home to a decommissioned research station of the Atomic Weapons Establishment. Interestingly, the authors claim that though the site is visible in detail through Google Earth, for some reason Google Maps has left the site blank and unlabelled.

This claim is only partly true. The label is there, though it appears at only the smallest available scale of the map. Add the word “atomic” to your search string, and you are taken to an image that, if not particularly informative, is still adequate for a visit.

Two thoughts followed hard on this non-discovery of mine. First, that I should let this go: my idea of “adequate” mapping is likely to be a lot less rigorous than the authors’; anyway it is more than possible that this corner of Google Maps has been updated since the book went to press. Second, that my idle fact-checking placed me in a new world — or at any rate, one barely out of its adolescence. (Keyhole, the company responsible for what became Google Earth, was founded in 2001.)

Today anyone with a broadband connection can drill down to information once considered the prerogative of government analysts. Visit Google Earth’s Russia, and you can find traces of the forest belts planted as part of Stalin’s Great Transformation of Nature in 1948. You can see how industrial combines worked their way up the Volga, building hydroelectric plants that drowned an area the size of France with unplanned swamps. There’s some chauvinistic glee to be had from this, but in truth, intelligence has become simply another digital commodity: stuff to be mined, filleted, mashed up, repackaged. Open-source intelligence: OSINT. There are conferences about it. Workshops. Artworks.

The Red Atlas is not about endings. It is about beginnings. The Cold War, far from being over, has simply subsumed our civic life. Everyone is in the intelligence business now.

A glimpse at time

Visiting MU Artspace, Eindhoven for New Scientist, 20 January 2018

Making art out of biological material, living tissue or even recordings of whole ecosystems is no longer a new idea. In fact it is one that is fast approaching its majority: SymbioticA, the pioneering art and science research laboratory that did so much to establish the field, was opened in 2001.

Life Time, a small show running at MU Artspace in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, shows this quintessentially 21st-century art at its best. Few pieces here would ever find their way into a regular gallery. A striking exception is An Incomplete Life, a performance installation by Dutch physical theatre company Wild Vlees (styling itself as Proud Flesh in English), in which a recumbent actor is slowly engulfed by a pile of salt spilling from the inverted cone of a giant hourglass.

More often, the artists take the scatter-gun conceit-making of traditional conceptual art and push it towards real experiment and analysis. The pieces that result are more interesting than beautiful, but with good curation this need not be a problem. It would be a dull gallery-goer who didn’t appreciate the exhibits, including those by finalists of the 2017 Bio Art and Design Award.

The BADs, developed with leading Dutch researchers in the life sciences, have been pushing the boundaries of bio art since 2011. Three winners from last year take centre stage.

South Korean artist Jiwon Woo collaborated with Han Wösten of Utrecht University to study whether there is a bacterial or fungal basis to the Korean notion of son-mat or “hand taste” – the subtleties of flavour imparted to food by the person who prepares it. Some local hooch-making kit was on display – in case you didn’t get the point.

Then there’s an immersive eight-channel audio installation called Seasynthesis: a thudding and horrific distillation of the sound pollution besetting the North Sea. This is the work of Dutch artist Xandra van der Eijk, working with Han Lindeboom at Wageningen University.

Meanwhile, Chinese artist Guo Cheng has worked with Heather Leslie at Free University Amsterdam on a Canutic effort to remove all traces of human activity from a cubic metre of soil taken from a dockyard in the city, sorting, washing and rinsing, and removing rubble, plastics and other chemicals. The Anthropocene has never seemed so immediate, or so insidious, as in this video installation.

So much for the art. What of the curation? MU Artspace’s show juxtaposes the BAD shortlist with works by more established artists to make a statement about the nature of time.

Time is difficult to talk about – the show’s cumbersome title is proof enough of that, and even the gallery’s lucid handout by William Myers, a curator based in Amsterdam, labours under the title “A Non-Circadian Cadence”. But the show itself does much better, embracing a wide swathe of temporal landscape, “from the universal to the personal and from the cellular to the geological”. Time, we are told, is “simultaneously binding us, through heredity, and separating us, by death”.

“Ex Nihilo affords us an ice-cold glimpse of a bureaucratic, post-natural future”
It is significant, I think, that of the works by established artists featured here, the strongest are two video pieces.

Noah Hutton’s film Deep Time documents the destruction of the oil-rich North Dakotan landscape by 1970s-style big engineering. And Ex Nihilo by Finnish artist Timo Wright juxtaposes footage from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a frozen brain being prepared by a cryonics company, and a workshop working on an advanced humanoid robot to afford us an ice-cold glimpse of a bureaucratic, post-natural future.

Visiting Life Time is rather like watching one of those allusive, polymathic documentaries by British documentary film-maker Adam Curtis. While the show exhibits some of the method’s shortcomings, it manages the old Curtis trick of delivering much more than the sum of its parts.

Music and art stop dementia from stealing everything we cherish

A choir and a De Kooning show inspired this piece for New Scientist, 4 January 2018

This year, stalked by insomnia, I have been going to bed with Melvyn Bragg. More precisely, I have been putting myself to sleep with podcasts of Bragg’s BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time, the best cultural contexter money can’t buy. On its website there are quizzes to check how much you remember, though I rarely score more than 4 out of 12.

Podcasts, the St John’s College reading list, Wagner’s Ring cycle: I’ve been pouring culture down my throat the way the Danaids filled their bath, and to about the same effect.

According to Greek legend, 49 of King Danaus’s 50 daughters were mariticidal, and condemned to fill a leaky bath in hell, and their lot is an apt metaphor for the human condition. However much we fill our lives, our lives still dribble away. We experience, we learn – but we also forget. Finally, we die.

No wonder death is terrifying. It’s not just me that will perish on my deathbed. With me, a whole world will gutter out.

One day in October, circumstances conspired to bring me a little comfort. The Wellcome Trust invited me along to a rehearsal of Singing with Friends, a community choir for families living with dementia, led by the Wigmore Hall in partnership with Westminster Arts.

Wellcome’s interdisciplinary research group Created Out of Mind are trying to understand (and, where possible, quantify) the therapeutic properties of the arts in dementia care and the care of older people generally.

Paul Camic, a psychologist at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent, UK, was there to talk me through the research.

Musically inclined readers may already be familiar with the idea that we recall best and most reliably the music we first heard between the ages of 15 and 21.

This choir’s weekly rehearsals (four-part harmonies from a standing start, public performances announced, and a great deal of mutual mickey-taking) reveal something that for my money is much more exciting.

Apparently, musically inclined people are more than capable of continuing their musical education, and achieving command of new material, in even quite advanced stages of dementia.

Is there a general truth to be drawn here? That same morning saw me visiting Skarstedt Gallery in central London, and an exhibition of late canvases by Willem de Kooning.

The American abstract-expressionist’s celebrated and long career ended in an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and wags in search of a cheap laugh have long suggested that his last, ever-more minimal canvases reflected his mental deterioration.

Face to face with this work, however, it’s clear that de Kooning was developing and exploiting new vocabularies of form, depth and colour right up to his retirement at the age of 86.

Such stories take nothing away from the misery of dementia. I recall vividly, at the Wigmore Hall, the wife of a former jazz musician explaining how her husband, after hours of skilful extemporising around a new theme, would fail to remember how or where to go to the toilet.

Then again, she also told me that attending Singing with Friends was like “coming out”; that for her husband and for the choir as a whole, excellence was still achievable; and that its attainment was all too rarely recognised by a squeamish wider world.

Which is why I’m here typing that most unfashionable thing: a story with a moral. The bath is leaking. But then, the bath was always leaking. Deal with it. Keep going with the buckets. “Pour, pour, against the draining of the bath,” as Dylan Thomas didn’t say.

Just experience it

Visiting mumok, Vienna’s museum of contemporary art, for New Scientist, 23 December 2017

Visitors to Vienna’s spectacular Natural History Museum may discover some taxidermied exhibits smothered in black gloop. This is artist Mark Dion’s The Tar Museum, and it is part of Natural Histories: Traces of the Political, an art exhibition about nature and politics, most of which is in the nearby museum of contemporary art, mumok.

Those venturing across the Maria-Theresien-Platz will not be sorry. Or not at first. Early on, there is charming, sometimes beautiful documentation of work in the 1970s by the Romanian Sigma group. Inspired by research in bionics and cybernetics, mathematician Lucian Codreanu and his fellows applied scientific method to their observations of the rivers and woods of the Timisoara hunting forest. Doru Tulcan’s abstract sculpture Structuring the Cube makes something surprisingly organic, suggestive of the workings of a crayfish’s eye, from a tiny vocabulary of rods and triangles. Meanwhile, Stefan Bertalan’s Structure of the Elderflower earns its place by virtue of its exquisite draughtsmanship. This being the 1970s, the Sigma group also enjoyed a lot of more-or-less undressed mucking about, and became a focus of dissent against Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship.

The other artists, groups and movements in this show rarely achieved as direct an engagement with the natural world.

Many pieces here index human activity through changes in the environment. The models and photographs of Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan’s Debrisphere record how landscapes have been altered for military purposes. More often, though, the art focuses on how nature encroaches on human settlement. In Arena, Anri Sala records the decayed state of Tirana zoo, with feral dogs occupying a space meant for people, while the zoo’s “wild” animals languish in cages.

Nature’s eradication of human traces can’t come quickly enough in some cases. In 2003, Polish sculptor Miroslaw Balka visited Auschwitz and filmed deer grazing by the barbed wire fence of the concentration camp. A wall board observes that, in 1942 (when Bambi was released), “while cinemagoers were shedding tears about the emotional story of a little deer, the ‘final solution’ and the murder of millions of people was already being planned”. This is silly: would the world be any better if Bambi’s bereavement left us unmoved?

It gets worse. Exquisite allegorical frescoes by 18th-century artist Johann Wenzel Bergl are “recognizable as strategies of absolutist picture propaganda”. And back with Dion: one installation capturing “the lifestyle and self-image of the prototypical ethnographer of colonial times”, isn’t even that, according to the curators, but alludes “to our own imagination of that ethnographer”.

I left feeling rather as Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have felt if, instead of freely stepping through the mirror, she had been shoved through it from behind by a gang of goonish anthropologists.

Natural Histories is a portal into a world where history, politics, horror, guilt and the natural world are sewn together. It is well worth seeing, but I wish the curators had shut up.