“Chuck one over here, Candy Man!”

Watching Ad Astra for New Scientist, 18 September 2019

It is 2033. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is told that his father Clifford, the decorated space explorer, may still be alive, decades after he and the crew of his last mission fell silent in orbit around Neptune.

Clifford’s Lima mission was sent to the outer edges of the heliosphere – the region of the sun’s gravitational influence – the better to scan the galaxy’s exoplanets for intelligent life. Now the Lima’s station’s antimatter generator is triggering electrical storms on distant Earth, and all life in the solar system is threatened.

McBride sets off on a secret mission to Mars. Once there, he is handed a microphone. He reads out a message to his dad. When he finishes speaking, he and the sound engineers pause, as if awaiting an instant reply from Clifford, the message’s intended recipient, somewhere in orbit around Neptune. What?

Eventually a reply is received (ten days later, presumably, given that Mars and Neptune are on average more than four billion kilometres apart). No-one wants to tell McBride what his dad said except the woman responsible for the Mars base (the wonderful Ruth Negga, looking troubled here, as well she might). The truths she shares about Roy’s father convince the audience, if not Roy himself, that the authorities are quite right to fear Clifford, quite right to seek a way to neutralise him, and quite right in their efforts to park his unwitting son well out of the way.

But Roy, at great risk to himself, and with actions that will cost several lives, is determined on a course for Neptune, and a meeting with his dad.

Ad Astra is a psychodrama about solipsistic fathers and abandoned sons, conducted in large part through monologues and close-ups of Brad Pitt’s face. And this is as well, since Pitt’s performance is easily the most coherent and thrilling element in a film that is neither.

Not, to be fair, that Ad Astra ever aspired to be exciting in any straightforward way. Pirates and space monkeys aside (yes, you read that right) Ad Astra is a serious, slow-burn piece about our desire to explore the world, and our desire to make meaning and connection, and how these contrary imperatives tear us apart in the vastness of the cosmic vacuum.

It ought to have worked.

The fact that it’s serious should have worked: four out of five of writer-director James Grey’s previous films were nominated for Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or. Ad Astra itself was inspired by a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems by Tracy K. Smith, all about gazing up at the stars and grieving for her father.

The film’s visuals and sound design should have worked. It draws inspiration for its dizzying opening sequence from the well-documented space-parachuting adventures of Felix Baumgartner in 2012, adopts elsewhere the visual style and sound design of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 hit film Gravity, and, when we get to Mars, tips its hat to the massy, reinforced concrete interiors of Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 Blade Runner 2049. For all that, it still feels original: a fully realised world.

The incidental details ought to have worked. There’s much going on in this film to suggest that everyone is quietly, desperately attempting to stabilise their mood, so as not to fly off the handle in the cramped, dull, lifeless interiors beyond Earth. The whole off-world population is seen casually narcotising itself: “Chuck one over here, Candy Man!” Psychological evaluations are a near-daily routine for anyone whose routine brings them anywhere near an airlock, and these automated examinations (shades of Blade Runner 2049 again) seem to be welcomed, as one imagines Catholic confession would be welcomed by a hard-pressed believer.

Even the script, though a mess, might have worked. Pitt turns the dullest lines into understated character portraits with a well-judged pause and the tremor of one highly trained facial muscle. Few other cast members get a word in edgewise.

What sends Ad Astra spinning into the void is its voiceover. Grey is a proven writer and director, and he’s reduced Ad Astra‘s plot down to seven-or-so strange, surreal, irreducible scenes, much in the manner of his cinematic hero Stanley Kubrick. Like Kubrick, he’s kept dialogue to the barest minimum. Like Kubrick, he’s not afraid of letting a good lead actor dominate the screen. And then someone – can it really have been Grey himself? – had the bright idea to vitiate all that good work by sticking Roy McBride’s internal monologue over every plot point, like a string of Elastoplasts.

Consequently, the audience are repeatedly kicked out of the state of enchantment they need to inhabit if they’re going to see past the plot holes to the movie’s melancholy heart.

The devil of this film is that it fails so badly, even as everyone is working so conspicuously hard to make a masterpiece. “Why go on?” Roy asks in voiceover, five minutes before the credits roll. “Why keep trying?”

Why indeed?

Lost in the quiet immensities

Watching Aniara for New Scientist, 7 September 2019

In the opening sequence of the Swedish sci-fi film Aniara, a space elevator rises into low earth orbit to meet an interplanetary cruiser, bound for new settlements on Mars. (The Earth, pillaged to destruction by humanity, is by now literally burning.)

But when we cut to its interior, the elevator turns out to be, well, a night bus. A tight focus on lead actress Emelie Jonsson, staring out a misted-up window into the featureless dark, accentuates, rather than conceals, the lack of set.

The interplanetary cruiser Aniara is a pretty decent piece of model work on the outside but on the inside, it’s a ferry. I know, because work for New Scientist once had me sailing down the coast of Norway on board the same vessel, or one very like it, for an entire week.

Have writer-directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja turned out a film so low-budget that they couldn’t afford any sets? Have they been inept enough to reveal the fact in the first reel?

No, and no. Aniara is, on the contrary, one of the smartest movies of 2019.

Aniara’s journey to Mars is primarily a retail opportunity. Go buy some duty-free knits while your kids knock each other off plastic dinosaurs in the soft-play area. Have your picture taken with some poor bugger on a minimum wage dressed as large, stupid-looking bird. Don’t worry: in a real crisis, there’s always the pitch-and-putt.

When the worst happens — colliding with a piece of space debris, the Aniara is nudged off course into interstellar space with no hope of return or rescue — the lights flicker, someone trips on some stairs, a couple of passengers complain about the lack of information, and the hospitality crew work the mall bearing complementary snacks.

“Transtellar Cruise Lines would like to apologize to passengers for the continuing delay to this flight. We are currently awaiting the loading of our complement of small lemon-soaked paper napkins for your comfort, refreshment and hygiene during the journey.”

Not Aniara, this, but a quotation from Douglas Adams’s peerless radio tie-in novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, to which Aniara serves as a particularly bleak twin. Don’t think for a moment this is a film without humour. There’s a scene in which the captain (played with pitch-perfect ghastliness by Arvin Kananian) reassures his castaway passengers that rescue is imminent while playing televised billiards. Balls and pockets; planets and gravity wells. It’s every useless planetary mechanics lecture you’ve ever suffered through and you realise, watching it, that everyone is doomed.

“They awoke screaming and clawing at their straps and life support systems that held them tightly in their seats.” (Adams again, because I couldn’t resist, and besides, it’s as good a summation as any of where Aniara is headed.)

Not only will there be no rescue. It begins to dawn on our heroine, Mimaroben (a sort of ship’s counsellor armed with a telepathic entertainment system that (you guessed it) kills itself) that there there is no such thing as rescue. “You think Mars is Paradise?” she scolds a passenger. “It’s cold.” May as well be here as there, is her conclusion. Death’s a waiting game, wherever you run.

Aniara is based on a long narrative poem by the Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and the sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, reviewing a 1964 American edition of the poem, said it “transcends panic and terror and even despair [and] leaves you in the quiet immensities”. So there.

But I don’t care how bleak it is. I am sick to the back teeth of those oh-so-futuristic science fiction films, and their conjuring-up of scenarios that, however “dystopic”, are really only there to ravish the eye and numb the mind.

Aniara gets the future right — which is to say, it portrays the future as though it were the present. When we finally build a space elevator, it’s going to be the equivalent of a bus. When we fly to Mars, it’ll be indistinguishable from a ferry. The moment we attain the future, it becomes now, and now is not a place you go in order to exprerience a frisson of wonder or horror. It’s where you’re stuck, trying — and sometimes failing — to scrape together a meaning for it all.

Transports of delight

Exploring Driverless: Who is in control? at London’s Science Museum for New Scientist, 31 August 2019

Durham Cathedral’s stained glass windows inspired artist Dominic Wilcox’s contribution to Driverless, a tiny but thought-provoking exhibition at London’s Science Museum.

It occurred to Wilcox that artificial intelligence could make traffic collisions a thing of the past, which means “we don’t need the protection systems that are built into contemporary cars”, he told design magazine Dezeen. “We can just have a shell of any design.”

His Stained Glass Driverless Sleeper Car of the Future is the sort of vehicle we may be driving when road safety has improved to the point where we can build cars out of whatever we want. It suggests a future in which safety is no longer a set of barriers, cages, buffers and lights, and is instead a dance of algorithms. Rather than measuring out a bike lane, say, we will have an algorithm that decides whether to leave a smaller distance to the bicycle on its left to reduce the chance of hitting a truck on its right.

What if that causes more cyclists, but fewer passengers, to die every year? Such questions aren’t new. But they are having to be asked again and in a different and disconcerting form as we move more safety systems off the roads and into vehicles.

On show is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Moral Machine”, a website using more than 40 million participants’ decisions on what to do in certain situations to inform our autonomous machinery design. The findings can be unsettling: would-be designers are more likely to sacrifice your safety if you are fat, a criminal or a dog

This is a show as much about possible futures as it is about the present. Interviews, archival footage, models and some interactive displays create a series of provocations, more than a fully fledged exhibition.

I especially liked the look of the MIT Senseable City Lab and the AMS Institute’s “Roboats”, currently on trial on Amsterdam’s canals. These autonomous floating platforms form spontaneous bridges and event platforms and can transport goods and people.

The exhibition spends much of its time off-road, investigating drone swarms and privacy, flocking behaviour and mine clearance, ocean mapping and planetary surveillance.

Don’t let its size put you off: this little show is full of big surprises.

Priority message

Exploring The Current War for New Scientist, 10 August 2019

Let’s begin by being boorish. Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb. The German-born precision mechanic Heinrich Goebel demonstrated a practical prototype in 1854.

But of course you can play this game with pretty much any invention. The correct response to such nit-picking is given to Edison himself – inventor of the phonograph, inventor of motion pictures, holder of over 2000 patents – in a new movie, The Current War, which lays out, as surely as any circuit diagram, the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to bring electric light to America at the end of the 19th century.

Salt. Fat. Flour. Water. Only when you put all the ingredients together, in the right proportions, using the right method, so people will spend their hard-earned pennies on the stuff, do you get bread. Priority – being the first to file a patent – is not won by dreaming alone. Edison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, teaches this hard lesson to his personal secretary Samuel Insull, an entertainingly exasperated Tom Holland.

The film itself is the bloodied but unbowed victim of no end of industry trouble. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival ahead of a scheduled release of November 2017 by the Weinstein Company. But as allegations about Harvey Weinstein gathered and grew in severity, the decision was made to quietly shelve the film for a while.

It doesn’t feel like an old movie, but it does feel like an odd one. Big, bold, none-too-subtle speeches by playwright Michael Mitnick are directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon as though they were set pieces by Martin Scorcese, for whom he once worked as a personal assistant.

Inventor George Westinghouse (played by Michael Shannon in a sensitive, understated performance which rather puts Cumberbatch’s familiar schtick to shame) has developed a system of electrification using alternating current. For cost and efficiency, this has Edison’s direct-current system beat. Westinghouse offers Edison a partnership, but Edison behaves like a cad, disparaging Westinghouse’s “lethal” technology and executing dogs, sheep and eleven horses with AC to prove his point. Irony piles on irony as Edison’s demonstrations lead him inevitably towards designing, much against his better ethical judgement, the first electric chair.

In the world outside the cinema, the “war of the currents” is not yet done. DC lost out to AC in the early days of electrification because efficient long-distance transmission required high voltages while the public needed safer, lower voltages. That required transformers, which existed for AC networks, but not for DC.

When it comes to transmitting large amounts of power over long distances, however, high-voltage direct current (HVDC) is way more efficient than conventional AC lines.

The length and capacity of new HVDC projects has risen fast, particularly in China, and calculations suggest that continent-wide HVDC “supergrids” could help smooth out the variable levels of power created by renewable sources.

In 2009 an influential study by Gregor Czish, of Kassel University in Germany, proposed a “super grid” to connect various European countries and bordering regions including North Africa, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, and at a total cost that virtually guarantees cheap green electricity for all.

No one’s heard of Czish, of course, though his insight may give the next generation cheap green energy and a chance to save civilisation from global warming.

It was ever thus: we only remember Nikola Tesla (The Current War’s peculiar third wheel, an AC pioneer and inventor of fluorescent light) because David Bowie played him in Christopher Nolan’s magical puzzler The Prestige.

Priority is a twisty business, and fame is twistier still. Westinghouse so despised the whole business he burned his papers, ensuring that his deeds alone would outlast him. “If you want to be remembered,” he says in the film, “it’s simple: shoot a president. But if you prefer to have what I call a legacy, you leave the world a better place than you found it.”

 

A clown, a fool, a “klimatosser”

I went round to Olafur’s house for New Scientist, 13 July 2019

SIXTEEN years ago, Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson caught London off guard with a massive indoor artwork. Some 2 million people visited The Weather Project at the Tate Modern gallery to bask in the glow of a giant, artificial sun. It was a rare moment of collective awe – created using the simplest of materials. This week, Eliasson is back with a major retrospective exhibition and most of the pieces are new to the UK. But a lot has changed since 2003. Days before his new show opens, we asked the artist about selfie culture, what accessible art looks like in the teched-up Anthropocene, and the hefty carbon footprint that pictures and installations leave behind.

Do big art and big science have to justify themselves to people who don’t get the point?

Sadly, yes, and it’s an argument we’re losing because great science and great art are very much long-term projects, views given to politicians with short-term goals. Making a work might take 10 years. Getting it shown might take another 10. For people to finally settle down with the experience might take 10 years, too. It’s a very slow piece of communication.

You command big budgets. Is the relationship with money tricky for artists?

To make big projects is expensive. But think about how much money an alcohol company throws into the promotion of some new drink! I believe there are studies showing that if you throw a euro or a pound into the culture sector, it generates two to three times as much income. There are more people working in the culture sector than there are in the car industry. It’s also a part of our democratic stability. It’s a space where we feel we can have difficult conversations. Is that expensive? No. It’s actually very cheap.

What can we expect from the show at Tate Modern?

We have about 42 works, big and small. Some are entertaining, like Your Uncertain Shadow and Your Blind Passenger, where a tunnel full of smoke gives you the experience of being blind. Of course, instantly your ears get more active, you touch the wall and stretch out your hand so as not to bump into somebody. Other works are more contemplative.

Wasn’t there a plan to stage something outside the gallery?

Yes. We’re installing three waterfalls. We know today there are no real waterfalls left because they’re all human-influenced, if not human-made. So our waterfalls are as real as anything in nature – or as unreal.

Do you consider yourself an environmental artist?

In the show, there is a series of 40 photos of glacial tongues from Iceland, taken in 1998. I believed then that culture and nature were two distinct spaces. I didn’t fully understand that the Anthropocene age had started. When people look at the photos now, they say “this is about climate”. When I took them, it was about their beauty. Soon, I’ll be retaking those photos from the same angles, in the same places. Maybe in October, if I’ve finished, we will sneak in the new pictures so we have the two series hanging next to each other, 20 years apart.

In December, you brought 30 polar ice blocks from Greenland to London and let them melt. Why?

Some 235,000 people were estimated to have been not just walking by, but at the ice – sometimes physically hugging it – and this, I think, made Ice Watch a clear and robust statement. This is what the data from the scientists looks like. This is what a block of ice 15,000 years old looks like. And it’s going to be gone in a week.

How big is the carbon footprint of your work?

We worked with a consultancy called Julie’s Bicycle, which helps people in the culture sector calculate their climate footprint. The London project came to the equivalent of 52 return flights from London to Ilulissat in Greenland. For almost two years, we’ve been trying to come up with a step-by-step solution for my Berlin studio. And whenever I work with museums and logistics teams, I ask them to come up with a response to the climate.

Our readers care about green footprints, but does everyone?

I was with teenage children in Ethiopia in January. They knew all about global warming, they understood about greenhouse gases and how it wasn’t really them, their parents or their ecology that created this problem. There is no place left where people don’t know this. There are deniers in places like the White House who deny things because they’re following other economic or power priorities.

What can artists bring to the climate debate?

Recently, a far right Danish politician lost a huge number of voters and one of the most prominent members of that party said, well, it’s all these climate fools. And immediately, across the political spectrum, people picked up on it, saying “I’m a clown, a fool, a klimatosser“. If we’re going to re-engineer the systems of tomorrow, we need to risk being foolish. Previous models of success can’t be applied. The planet simply can’t host them any longer. We need to take risks.

How has social media affected your work?

It’s kind of the stone age, the way people walk through exhibitions. People walk up to a piece of art that’s very tangible, highly emotional, with sounds and smells and all sorts of things – and they just bloody look at their phone! The problem isn’t necessarily the audience, but the way institutions over-explain everything, as though without a long text people just won’t get it. And once we are used to that, that’s how we react: “My God, there was no text! I had to find out everything myself!” I say, yes, art and culture are hard work, not consumerism. You have to give something to get something.

Does activism consume much of your working life?

I’m lucky that art can be seen to be flirting with activism, and maybe there is a fertilising relationship there. But that’s one of the good things about getting older: you know there are things that you aren’t good at. I’m very content just being an artist.

But you run a business to drive social change.

I have a social entrepreneurship project called Little Sun, which makes a small, handheld, portable solar lantern. On one side, it has a photovoltaic panel, on the other an LED. It replaces the kerosene or petroleum lantern that you would have used previously. Obviously, sitting with an open-wick petroleum lantern is both very unhealthy and very bad for the climate. It’s also expensive.

Is the Little Sun a success?

We’ve done studies on the impact of the lamp. Say a family eats dinner, then the girl does the dishes while the boy does his homework. Once the girl is done, she sits down only to find there’s not enough petroleum left for her homework. One study showed that the Little Sun increased the boy’s homework efficiency by 20 per cent, but increased the girl’s efficiency by 80 per cent. So the Little Sun project is incredibly inspiring.

 

All the ghosts in the machine

Reading All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of immortality in the digital age by Elaine Kasket for New Scientist, 22 June 2019

Moving first-hand interviews and unnervingly honest recollections weave through psychologist Elaine Kasket’s first mainstream book, All the Ghosts in the Machine, an anatomy of mourning in the digital age. Unravelling that architecture turns up two distinct but complementary projects.

The first offers some support and practical guidance for people (and especially family members) who are blindsided by the practical and legal absurdities generated when people die in the flesh, while leaving their digital selves very much alive.

For some, the persistence of posthumous data, on Facebook, Instagram or some other corner of the social media landscape, is a source of “inestimable comfort”. For others, it brings “wracking emotional pain”. In neither case is it clear what actions are required, either to preserve, remove or manage that data. As a result, survivors usually oversee the profiles of the dead themselves – always assuming, of course, that they know their passwords. “In an effort to keep the profile ‘alive’ and to stay connected to their dead loved one,” Kasket writes, “a bereaved individual may essentially end up impersonating them.”

It used to be the family who had privileged access to the dead, to their personal effects, writings and photographs. Families are, as a consequence, disproportionately affected by the persistent failure of digital companies to distinguish between the dead and the living.

Who has control over a dead person’s legacy? What unspoken needs are being trammelled when their treasured photographs evaporate or, conversely, when their salacious post-divorce Tinder messages are disgorged? Can an individual’s digital legacy even be recognised for what it is in a medium that can’t distinguish between life and death?

Kasket’s other project is to explore this digital uncanny from a psychoanalytical perspective. Otherwise admirable 19th-century ideals of progress, hygiene and personal improvement have conned us into imagining that mourning is a more or less understood process of “letting go”. Kasket’s account of how this idea gained currency is a finely crafted comedy of intellectual errors.

In fact, grief doesn’t come in stages, and our relationships with the dead last far longer than we like to imagine. All the Ghosts in the Machine opens with an account of the author’s attempt to rehabilitate her grandmother’s bitchy reputation by posting her love letters on Instagram.

“I took a private correspondence that was not intended for me and transformed it from its original functions. I wanted it to challenge others’ ideas, and to affect their emotions… Ladies and gentlemen of today, I present to you the deep love my grandparents held for one another in 1945, ‘True romance’, heart emoticon.”

Eventually, Kasket realised that the version of her grandmother her post had created was no more truthful than the version that had existed before. And by then, of course, it was far too late.

The digital persistence of the dead is probably a good thing in these dissociated times. A culture of continuing bonds with the dead is much to be preferred over one in which we are all expected to “get over it”. But, as Kasket observes, there is much work to do, for “the digital age has made continuing bonds easier and harder all at the same time.”

Just a nuclear-powered dinosaur

Pondering the science of Godzilla for New Scientist, 12 June 2019

FOR Japanese children, Godzilla is the ultimate scary adult: fierce, honourable, clumsy and a bit out of control. For their grandparents, he’s the irradiated embodiment of wartime tragedy, a bad memory come to life. For the rest of us, I suppose, he’s “just” a nuclear-powered dinosaur.

Godzilla is also a pay cheque. Films featuring the epic creature, almost all by the Japanese studio Toho, have been produced since 1954, a cinematic franchise record. The current release, Godzilla: King of the monsters, is the 35th, and the third to be produced entirely within the Hollywood system.

Its human stars play the shattered Russell family. Millie Bobby Brown from TV hit Stranger Things is Madison, whose brother Andrew was killed during a 2014 kaiju (monster) attack on San Francisco. Her dad Mark is literally living with wolves; her mum Emma prefers kaiju to people.

Terroristic eco-warriors are out to awaken Godzilla’s subterranean cousins in an effort to bring the planet “back into balance” – and Emma is inclined to help them. Newsreel images of ruined San Francisco make her point: in five short years it has turned to jungle, accelerated by ionising radiation spilling from Godzilla’s insides.

Why do movies, stretching back to the giant ants of Them!, assume that excess radiation promotes growth? The evidence has always pointed the other way. Ionising radiation weakens and breaks up DNA, damaging cells enough to kill them, or cause them to mutate in ways that, somehow or other, lead to the grave. In humans, epidemiological studies show that even low doses of radiation increase the risk of cancer.

Still, human nature being what it is, whenever a new kind of ray is detected, we speculate about its magical properties. Radium, a radioactive metal, was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, and though it eventually killed her, it still found its way into the food chain thanks to products like Hippman-Blach bakery’s Radium Bread (made with radium-laced water, which was supposed to cure everything from arthritis to impotence to wrinkles).

Is there more to this accelerated-growth idea than magical thinking? “Hormesis” is the controversial notion that things that are dangerous in high doses might be beneficial to human health at lower levels. Some lab studies have shown the effect in action. Whether there is radiation hormesis, however, is a big question – and a timely one.

China’s space programme has studied the ability of plants to develop and thrive in conditions of microgravity and exposure to cosmic radiation in space. Since 1987, 66 mutant varieties have been cultivated through its space-breeding efforts.

So far, so workaday: “atomic gardening” has been around since the 1950s, exposing plants to radioactive sources (typically cobalt-60) to generate mutations, and over 2000 new varieties of agriculturally useful plants have been created this way.

The Chinese results, however, are a bit weird. Plants positively mutated during space flight have grown faster than their irradiated Earth-grown counterparts. Space-bred mutations do better than their “atomically gardened” controls, and no one is sure why.

Is there something magical about cosmic rays? Probably not, though if I were Godzilla (traditionally Earth’s first line of defence against alien attack) I would watch my back.

100 minutes of immersive terror

I interviewed Carl Guyenette, the creative intelligence behind The War Of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience, for New Scientist, 23 May 2019.

It’s six years since the Martian invaders succumbed to a microbial infection, leaving us once again in possession of our planet. Carl Guyenette has repaired to The Spirit of Man to raise a glass to Earth’s victory, and to take stock of his new production, a 100 minute-long immersion in Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds.

The pub, which is part of the set and an integral part of the show, comes with its own meticulous backstory. On its walls, animated paintings record famous scenes from humanity’s first interstellar conflict. Remnants of Martian technology loom over the patrons. The effect is amusing for the first few minutes, but the aura of threat is unmistakable: pleasingly, the guts from one of the invaders’ war machines turn out to have been re-engineered to dispense gin.

Wayne’s musical retelling of H G Wells’s sci-fi shocker was released as a double album in 1978, and remains a hit, having sold over 2.5 million copies in the UK alone. There have been spin-offs a-plenty: video games, DVDs, stage shows, live tours. Nothing quite like this, though: “When I’ve been trying to explain this show to people,” says Guyenette, “I say it’s like walking into a cinema, except that once you’re there, you just keep on walking, into the screen. Into the movie itself.”

The full effect of Guyenette’s experiment in “layered reality” can only really be experienced at first hand. Nothing stays still, and neither does the audience, as it moves in groups of a dozen through over 2000 square metres of unlikely theatrical space – two floors of the old Metal Exchange in the City of London.

Visiting this venue mid-development, it had looked like somebody’s open-plan office: bad fluorescent lighting, grey carpet tiles; bins full of sandwich-shop litter; plastic water bottles in cardboard trays; laptops everywhere. Now, as the cast and crew set about unkinking the show’s phenomenally complicated logistics, the space is coming alive, fully dressed in both real and virtual light. Everything trembles. Everything moves, especially the air. Everything has a temperature. Everything has a smell.

Some of the experiences on offer in this show use VR headsets. Others use projection mapping. Some involve puppetry. Almost all manage to work in one of eight different holographic effects. Reality intrudes on the virtual world in unsettling and shocking ways. Things grab you – things you had thought were only in the headset. In VR, meanwhile, figures that seem to be fellow theatre-goers are plucked into the sky by Martian harvesting machines, their eyes meeting those of the participants (thanks to a neat eye-tracking algorithm) as they rise and perish.

Carl Guyenette talks about how he created the show.

New Scientist: What do they call you here?

Carl Guyenette: My job description’s a nuisance. When I called myself the CTO, the technologists on the show insisted I was actually the creative director. Then the creative people told me I’m a technologist. What I actually do is bring things together and makes new things out of them. So I suppose I’m an inventor.

NS: How did you come to work in theatre?

CG: I studied computer science, then joined the film visual effects industry, compositing for big Hollywood films. From there I moved on to making creative technological applications for the British Museum and other venues and festivals. I worked on Viens!, a virtual-reality piece by Michel Reilhac, which then went to Sundance and Cannes. This shot me into the centre of things. And now with the production company dotdotdot I’m trying to bring new media technologies and general audiences together through immersive theatrical experiences like this one. Not that we’ve worked at quite this scale before.

NS: Which of these new media are making the biggest impact on live performance at the moment? 

CG: Projection mapping is really interesting. There are systems now that will project images and textures over objects even as you move them. This is edging us towards VR experiences that won’t require us to wear headsets. And there are domes which you can projection-map from the inside which give you immersive video experiences. There’s a massive one that is going up in Madison Square Garden in 2020 which has a capacity of around 20,000 people: that’s going to be fun!

NS: How did you select the technologies for War of the Worlds?

Stability was essential. Because we’re splitting the audience up into groups of a dozen, and leading them from set to set, and from experience to experience, we’re effectively putting on 70 shows a day. The bottom line is, you want to be using kit that doesn’t break or fall over, so we’re using the HTC Vive Pro. We try out more exotic machinery in our prototyping and experimental work — everything from Hololens to Magic Leap, which I’d dearly like to use in a theatrical setting. But augmented reality systems are still a generation behind VR in terms of stability.

NS: Even with a workhorse VR platform, you’ve been able to mix the real and the virtual in clever ways. Was achieving that mix always an important aspect of the production?

CG: More important for us was to make sure that the technologies worked well with the storytelling. At one point we place our audience in a small boat and set them afloat on a computer-generated sea. The graphics are just one element to the experience. The mechanisms that move the boat, the breeze, the drop in temperature: these elements are just as important. And timing’s the most vital element of all, not just to provide seamless experiences, but also to give the audience breathing space between experiences.

NS: A lot of the technology you’re using is old…

CG: I wanted this show to be an homage to old media: Pepper’s Ghost illusions, and zoopraxiscopes, pyrotechnics and animatronics. It’s a show set over a hundred years ago, after all, at the birth of photography and cinema. In The War of the Worlds, all these technologies feel new.

NS: VR was said to be a medium that would isolate us from each other but you’ve used it to create a social experience. Is this the future of VR?

CG: I think there’s still money to be made from the home VR market. But building something big, in a spacious venue, layering technologies together so you can let audiences do things they couldn’t do anywhere else, means that you can also add a social dimension to the experience. There are not many places where you can be with 12 people in the same room in VR, firing cannon at Martian invaders, fighting off tentacles, befriending and losing people as you struggle through a besieged city.

Venice in interesting times

Visiting May You Live In Interesting Times, the 58th International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, for New Scientist, 16 May 2019

BETWEEN now and 24 November, half a million people will visit May You Live in Interesting Times, the main art exhibition of the Venice Biennale. More than 120 years old, the Biennale is the world’s biggest and most venerable art fair. This year’s offering overflows its historical venue in the gardens on Venice’s eastern edge and sprawls across the city.

In a 300-metre-long former rope-making factory in Venice’s Arsenale, a complex of former shipyards and armouries, it is hard to miss data-verse 1 by Japanese DJ and data artist Ryoji Ikeda: the first instalment of a year-long project to realise an entire universe on a gigantic, wall-sized high-definition screen.

Back in Paris, in a studio that consists of hardly more than a few tables and laptops, Ikeda and his programmers have been peeling open huge data sets, using software they have written themselves. From the flood of numbers issuing from CERN, NASA, the Human Genome Project and other open sources, they have fashioned highly detailed abstract animations.

Ikeda is self-taught. He came to visual art from making animations to accompany DJ sets in the squats, clubs and underground parties of Kyoto, Japan. While his own musical taste was eclectic in the extreme, “from classical to voodoo”, Ikeda was drawn to house and dub: forms in which he says “the sound system is the real subject, not the music being played”.

His own “music” reduces sound to sine waves and impulses – and the animations to accompany his sets are equally minimal. “If the sine wave is the simplest expression of sound, what’s the simplest expression of light? For the scientist, that’s a complicated question, but for the artist, the answer is simple: it’s the pixel,” he says.

Ikeda’s project to reduce the world to its essentials continues: “I wondered what would happen if matter were reduced the same way.” Now Ikeda has turned himself into one of art’s curious beasts, the pure “data artist”.

Each of data-verse 1‘s 15-minute-long abstract “dances” explores the universe at a different scale, from the way proteins fold to the pattern of ripples in the cosmic background radiation. However, Ikeda’s aim is not to illustrate or visualise the universe, but to convey the sheer quantity of data we are now gathering in our effort to understand the world.

In the Arsenale, there are glimpses of this new nature. The Milky Way, reduced to wheeling labels. The human body, taken apart and presented as a sequence of what look like archaeological finds. A brain, colour-coded, turned over and over, as if for the inspection of a hyperactive child. A furious blizzard of solar images. And other less-easily identified sequences, where the information has peeled away entirely from the thing it represents, and takes on a life of its own: red pixels move upstream through flowing numbers like so many salmon.

Ikeda differs from his fellow data artists. While a generation has embraced and made art from “big data” – the kind of dynamic information flow that derives from recording a constantly changing world – Ikeda remains wedded to an earlier, more philosophical definition of data as the record of observed facts. Chaos and complexity for their own sake do not interest him. “I never use dynamic data in my work,” he says.

He did try, once. In 2014, he won a residency at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Switzerland. But he found the data overwhelming. “They have supercomputers and one experiment takes two years to analyse and compute,” he says, “and still it’s not really enough. They proposed I use this dynamic data, but how could one single artist handle this? We talk of ‘big data’ but no one imagines really how big it is.”

So Ikeda’s data-verse 1 project, which will take a year and two more productions to reach fruition, is founded on that most old-fashioned of ideas, a record of objective truth. It is neither easy nor cheap to realise, and is being supported by watch-makers Audemars Piguet, an increasingly powerful patron of artists who operate on the boundaries between art and science.

Last year, the firm helped Brighton-based art duo Semiconductor realise their CERN-inspired kinetic sculpture HALO. Before that, it invited lidar artist Quayola to map the Swiss valley where it has its factory.

While Audemars Piguet has an interest in art that pushes technological boundaries, Ikeda fights shy of talk of technology, or even physics. He is interested in the truth bound up in numbers themselves. In an interview with Japanese art critic Akira Asada in 2009, he remarked: “I cannot help but wonder if there are any artists today that give real consideration to beauty. To me, it is mathematicians, not artists, who epitomise that kind of individual. There is such a freeness to their thinking that it is almost embarrassing to me.”

Other highlights at the Arsenale include Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s Endodrome, (above) a purely virtual work, accessed through a HTC Vive Pro headset. The artist envisioned it “as a kind of organic and mental space, a slightly altered state of consciousness”. Manifesting at first as a sort of hyper-intuitive painting app, in which you use your own outpoured breath as a brush, Endodrome’s imagery becomes ever more precise and surreal. In a show that bristles with anxiety, Gonzalez-Foerster offers the festival-goer an oasis of creative contemplation.

Also at the Arsenale, and fresh from her show Power Plants at London’s Serpentine Gallery, the German artist Hito Steyerl presents This Is the Future, (above) a lush, AI-generated garden of the future, all the more tantalising for the fact that you’ll probably die there. Indeed, this being the future, you’re sure to die there. Steyerl mixes up time and risk, hope and fear, in a wonderfully sly send-up of professional future-gazing.

The Giardini, along the city’s eastern edge, are the traditional site of La Biennale Art Exhibitions since they began in 1895. They’re where you’ll find the national pavilions. Hungary possesses one of the 29 permanent structures here, and this year it’s full of imaginary cameras. They’re the work of cartoonist-turned media artist Tamás Waliczky. Some of his Imaginary Cameras and Other Optical Devices (above) are based on real cameras, others on long-forgotten 19th-century machines; still others are entirely fictional (not to mention impossible). Can you tell the difference? In any event, this understated show does a fine job of reminding us that we see the world in many, highly selective ways.

There’s quite as much activity outside the official venues of the Biennale as within them. At the Ca’ Rezzonico palazzo until 6 July, you have a chance to save an internationally celebrated artist from drowning (or not- it’s really up to you). A meticulously rendered volumetric avatar of Marina Abramović beckons from within a glass tank that is slowly filling with water, in a bid to draw attention to rising sea levels in a city which is famously sinking. Don’t knock Rising (above) till you’ve tried it: this ludicrous-sounding jape proved oddly moving.

Back at the Arsenale, Ed Atkins reprises his installation Olde Food, (above) which had its UK outing at London’s Cabinet gallery last year. Atkins has spent much of his career exploring what roboticist Masahiro Mori’s famously dubbed the “uncanny valley” — the gap that is supposed to separate real people from their human-like creations. Mori’s assumption was that the closer our inventions came to resembling us, the creepier they would become.

Using commercially purchased avatars which he animates using facial recognition software, Atkins has created his share of creepy art zombies. In Olde Food, though, he introduces a new element: an almost unbearably intense compassion.

Atkins has created a world populated by uncanny digital avatars who (when they’re not falling from the sky into sandwiches — you’ll have to trust me when I say this does make a sort of sense) quite clearly yearn for the impress of genuine humanity. These near-people pray. They play piano (or try to). They weep. They’re ugly. They’re uncoordinated. They’re quite hopeless, really. I do wish I could have done something for them.

A series of apparently impossible events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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