Timeless avant-garde

This low-budget Lovecraftian thriller explores territory we more usually associate with the heavyweights of the 1970s avant-garde – with the tangled story arcs of Alain Robbe-Grillet, and the cunningly withheld narrative revelations of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Mirror. In fact, I’ll stick my neck out here: The Endless is very nearly this decade’s Solaris.

Watching Benson and Moorhead’s The Endless for New Scientist, 21 July 2018

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.

The Singularity (a sermon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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