Sunday, 27 December 2009

Iceland #1

Millennium People is back, with a new look (pretty sweet), new series of posts, but the same agenda: to examine the spirit of the times, to psychoanalyse the people of the new millennium. Yeah, yeah, you've heard it all before; to the meat in the millennial sandwich...

Iceland is a microcosm for the current global condition. Crippled by the last financial crisis, it is also the home to several of the world's largest glaciers, all of which are quickly disappearing. It is the only country powered by 100% renewable sources, and is one of only two countries permitted to hunt whales (the other is Japan). Down its middle is a ridge formed from the tectonic movement of the European and American plates, shifting against each other at the rate of about 1cm a year. In 20 million years Iceland will be the largest nation in Europe.

Examining the country in terms of energy and sustainability, the development of both global warming and global economic systems has practical applications at a larger scale. Over the next couple of posts Millennium People will recount its exploits to the strange land of Iceland...

Friday, 25 December 2009

seasons greetings millennial peeps

The lights in the next town over – reminding us all about the true spirit of Christmas.

stocking fillers (ho ho ho)

Santa and his elephant, via Minesota Historical Society, see also Sociological Images on Black Pete...

Fill your stockings with this hefty packet of links: arranged in no particular order.

Top 10 people who died too young. Related, Young Gallery (not really, its cool pictures of animals and shit); what breakfast cereal you should eat; related, Cairo: garbage city; the Japanese ex-mining town/modern ruin that is Gunkanjima; abandoned malls (a really good one that); Sustainability is a myth; Badass of the week.

Drawings of Ray guns; tricks of the eye? street installations; like, what even is that thing, in that jar? Thing in a jar; stupid IT questions; DIY converting text to binary; how to dress up like a lego man; emoticons from the 70's made with a typewriter; a weird, but gramatically correct sentence: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Send a postcard from NASA to the International Space Station; Star Trek was the most ripped off film of the year; Retro Junk; Tracing the journey of a single bit; comic about cars and murder; someone once asked me, 'how do you go about drawing the face of someone you've never seen?' Dude, Flashface.

Shrigley's notice; mind over matter; Lem's lost opera; London, now and then; an existential video game that's doing the rounds; the world's first functioning molecular transistor; the future of the World...

The first time I've ever done a fistful and not referenced Things.

Via Norwegian photographer Rune Guneriussen

Thursday, 24 December 2009

unfinished 2009 drafts #1: data visualisation

From top: Dan Hill's 'The Cloud'; 'Sound as object' via Generator X; Toyo Ito's 'Tower of Winds'; Weather Bracelet from The Teeming Void.

This is an unfinished draft from 2009, there are two others which have been chronologically placed into the archive (#2 & #3)...

The precipitation of the digital into the real has been accelerated by a virulent new wave of 'data visualisation', through which digital data and statistics are presented either through real-time displays or objects, mostly made by 'rapid prototyping' (which, as anyone who has ever used the process knows, is far from rapid).

I don’t know if you heard about it already, but Dan Hill (of City of Sound fame) recently posted about his new project: The Cloud. I won’t go into details, nor cast an opinion, but simply group it together with several other projects as examples of a New Millennium Spirit: data visualisation. In times-gone-by the problem was collecting the data, not representing it. Researchers developed speculative manners of presentation (graphs and specialist charts) and then went out into the world to collect the information. What I'm really saying is that modes of data visualisation were propositional about a certain reality.

Today, there exists way too much data: insensible and unreadable. Understandably, the challenge is in creating new ways of presenting that data. Unfortunately, very few of these modes are intuitively comprehensible. In the world of arbitrary employment of technological tools (Za … what was her name?) data visualisation has remained ‘meaningful’. But in reality, it’s just a new tool for the generation of forms and images. And yet there is something rather banal about all these works (with perhaps the exception of Ito – not out of favouritism, but simply because he was so far ahead of his times).

Baudrillard wrote: “It is the difference that constitutes the poetry of the map and the charm of the territory, the magic of the concept and the charm of the real.” This difference belongs to the order of representation. Though it might equally be the order of transduction: the conversion of one physical quality to another (as light to heat, kinetic energy to electricity, magnetic impulses to sound, etc). The map is in some sense a translation of the territory, from a space through the hand & mind onto the page.

Data visualisation is not the same as cartography (although cartography could be seen as a type of data visualisation, it is at its foundation a conceptual visualisation, since our perception of landscape is not a data operation) – the difference is that there is no difference between the source data and the presented data. There is no abstraction of the information, only an abstraction of the presentation of that data. The reification of the digital only produces a physical version of the electronic dross. Nothing about the information has changed, only its mode of presentation.

This goes beyond Baudrillard’s notions of simulacrum and simulation in the sense that his hyperreality had no counterpart in the real. The visualisation of the digital has recently moved from the ethereal to the real – 3d printing, and any number of other manners for turning data into objects. But what is the meaning of these objects? And what are their purposes? A map is a practical document related to the revelation of the real, but a bracelet of the year’s weather?

Monday, 30 November 2009


Its that time of year again.

Rather than let Millennium People drift into the region of half-written, never posted entries with the obligatory Fistful keeping the thing ticking along, MP is going on holiday – to the Arctic of all places. Next post no later than Christmas Day... with a re-launch and re-vamp for the New Year.

Take a load off, Sally. Take a load for free. And happy holidays...

Saturday, 28 November 2009

unfinished 2009 posts #3: steampunk

This was going to be a crushing indictment of the steampunk movement, revealing it to be a kitsch throwback, a false nostalgia, and so on. Never got round to it, and have since lost interest, so find some links: I am the Weather; Herr Doktor; Tombanwell; Neatorama; Behind the Steam.

Ah, what could have been... There is actually one more unfinished draft, on the use of colour in ancient temples, but I think I will save that one for later in the new year.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

unfinished 2009 drafts #2: M.McLuhan

This is an unfinished draft, posted at the end of 2009.

The phonetic alphabet, Marshall McLuhan tells us, requires only the eye as medium for comprehension:
"The alphabet is a construct of fragmented bits and parts which have no semantic meaning in themselves, and which must be strung together in a line, bead-like, and in a prescribed order. Its use fosters and encourages the habit of perceiving all environment in visual and spatial terms – particularly in terms of a space and of a time that are uniform, continuous and connected. The line, the continuum, became the organising principle of life."
This post was originally going to explore how the fundamentals of a language impact upon our perception of space. Popular demand may see it revived.

fistful of links

Via The Day After You Die.

A short one today: some news.

John Mayer threatens to sodomise NY Mag editor (via Gawker). Not related, Rabbi's pimp gets worried for his health, cancels girls and coccaine. All lightweights, compared with the Internet Vices. Still sort of religious, the Christian Dollar Store's Scripture Candy (Testamints, Jesus Loves You Suckers, etc). Kitsch. And Christian. What do you know, there's even a blog for that: Kitchianity.

Projects by Cabracega including the 'you are here' umbrella for identifying yourself on Google Maps (yeah, like if you wait about 3 years). Picked by Six, a weblog. Also, NoMoreBrains. Wikipedia's list of legendary creatures. Another legendary creature, the amazing 50's pin-up that is Bombshell Betty (via Shae, from Spokane). Related, accidental geography. 15 days in GTA4, via Digital Foundry, what do you need real cities for anyways? Related, the miniatures.

The Fall, via bldgblog. Pop-architecture firm BIG have released a comic book of their exploits. UK launch tomorrow. The pigeon towers of Iran; Abu Dhabi does its thing. What the hell is this film? X-Wing explodes in the desert.

Yeah, I mean, the links are all still there, but they just don't run as glibly as they used to. Maybe I need help?

What to do with the other arm while spooning, via NYT blog: Abstract City.

Monday, 23 November 2009

riding the wave

Apparently the world's best surf photographer: Clark Little.

Over the last three months or so I've been researching the idea of the 'open plan internet'. In the 19th century homes were designed in a hub and spoke manner – a central entry leading through corridors to rooms with single functions: bedrooms; bathrooms; dining rooms, etc. Robin Evans explained how the relationship between these rooms was highly limited, most rooms only had one door, or, in exceptional cases, two (kitchen/dining, for example). The open plan rooms of the 20th century, rather than being simply the sum of the older rooms, became a new and different type of space. There was a spatial gestalt effect.

The Web: today the internet is comprised of monofunctional internet programs or sites connected in fairly linear ways: e-mail; social networking; chat and phone programs; video and image sharing, etc. Youtube, Myspace, Facebook, Gmail, Hotmail, Skype, MSN Messenger (if anyone still uses it), Flickr, Picasa, are all examples of 'rooms' on the internet. These were either created by one of the two internet giants (Yahoo/Google – Goohoo as I call them) or quickly absorbed into their families. The clan-like collection of these sites was the first step towards the 'open plan internet' – an internet that will be other than the sum of the applications and sites that make it up. A digital gestalt.

Today I joined Google Wave (many thanks to Will Wiles), which is what I would consider to be the first open-plan web browsing application. It differs from previous feed amalgamation programs (where you can view twitter and facebook at the same time, for example) in the same way that putting a doorway between the dining and kitchen is not the same as knocking down all the walls to make an open space.

In what looks like an e-mail window, the user can 'start a new wave' and then add to it using 'blips'. The only way I can think to describe a wave is like a massive, informal, wikipedia page, or possibly a blog: it can contain chats, videos, images, references to external sites, in both real-time (like googlechat or ICQ) and delayed-time (like hotmail or flickr). It seems at first like a mess. Especially when you consider that all the elements are editable, and all edits are saved and able to be reviewed. Imagine receiving an e-mail from a friend only to find that the next day the message has been changed. Unlike the world of 1984, for the moment the changes are traceable.

I think something should be said about the rise of real-time editing. The ability to doctor information (images, text, etc) as it is in the process of being created has far-reaching philosophical ramifications. There can be no 'original' – simply a series of second order simulations (or worse, a chain of simulacrums). More to folllow...

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

fistful of links

Over 300 works by deceased sci-fi artist Peter Elson have been scanned and put online. Above: his magnificent art for the Kim Stanley Robinson titles: The Martians (Elson's last work); Red Mars; Green Mars; Blue Mars. Elson died of a heart attack painting a mural for Butlins.

I was a young teenager when I first discovered the world of terraforming, and the bizarre 'future histories' of Robinson, yet these images were perhaps even more powerful– they inspired a whole world of lego models and pencil drawings. There was something so terribly normal about the sight of a pine tree in a Martian valley. Foreign planets are a lot like earth, really, just very far away.

Word out to my Gerroa homeboy Richard for hooking me up with that shit: some news

2012: there's only one person I would trust to investigate the end of the world and that's my good friend NASA. Ask an astrobiologist. Related, if the apocalypse does come, its better underground (says China). Signs of life from Dubai at night. Related, view from the top of the tallest tower in the world: Burj, via Archi-Ninja. Still crazy architecture, another reminder of why Hadid won the Pritzker... Related, I am Zaha and you can too: Grasshopper and Rhino tutorials (the design programs, not the animals) at Digital Toolbox.

What if Ice Cube had become an architect? NY's Highline is saved; not saved, the bunkers of Albania: Concrete Mushrooms. The City Project, a blog. Australia splits conjoined twins; man attempts to smuggle 1000 live spiders in Brazil; scenes of joy from Berlin; Murdoch gives Google the cold shoulder.

What to do with all that foreclosed property just lying around? Answer: The Land Bank. NME names top 50 albums of the decade – what dopes, they forgot Hot Chip? Top new words of the year, 'unfriend', 'intexticated', etc. And 'hashtag' for those of you on Twitter. I didn't realise it wasn't a word already. Not related, Hitler on Letters of Note. Not related to that, the photography of Greg Miller, via Sociological Images.


Monday, 16 November 2009

ghost forest

Walking through Trafalgar Square last night I took a photo of a crews installing a new artwork, called Ghost Forest. I'll let the website fill in the rest. Oh, and new pictures via the Londonist.

Friday, 13 November 2009

where in the world / scatterbrain

If the future dialectic is the real/digital (I've heard your comments, just run with it a bit) then a poignant question might be "what of the real is already in the digital (read: Second Life, MMORPGs) and what of the digital is already in the real (read: where on the earth actually is the internet)?"

Also, I toyed with putting this up on Inter 7 (I've just put up some images of visualising wireless fields), but decided in the end it was MP worthy. It is a photo-cartoon series I've been doing about the future of the Internet, drawing the comparison between the process by which houses with monofunctional rooms (dining room, bedroom, bathroom, etc) became open plan (where the open plan is in fact other than the sum of its composite functions) and the changing nature of the Internet from a collection of monofunctional sites (facebook, wikipedia, twitter, etc) into the open plan internet (read Google Wave, and any other of those things).

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

fistful of links

The crisis in California via This isn't happiness

I missed our little tête-à-tête last week, it was like a fistful to my heart: some news.

Hardcore gamers adopt strap-ons. Related, a court is played a couple's sex sessions. Still related, Orgy, via Geekologie. Only related if you consider children the inevitable result of careless foreplay, Maclaren pushchairs create amputees. Apropos of nothing: Art-con? Related, Chinese mass-produced art. So that's where all those paintings I saw at Montmatre came from.

Everyone knows Vice's do's and dont's are passé (unless you're a hipster); seek shameful joy at People of Walmart. Battersea, I hear, is the new Left Bank. I certainly didn't hear it from the man on the Clapham omnibus (that's a little geographical joke). Another joke, the top 100 defining cultural moments of the 2000's. Not on my list.

News of the world... Texas: Major goes postal. Related, the origins of the term 'going round the bend'. Australia: hacker invents first iphone worm. No worms in Paris: one table restaurant atop the Palais de Tokyo (one-time home of Würsa). Other turning tables: 9/11 – that's not funny. Also Stateside, an article on design observer that has been doing the rounds. Not a Millennium Person, if you ask me. London: pecha kucha is back. The Net: the amazing Beagle escape.

Second to last, Mas Yendo - an ex-student of Lebbeus Woods - is speaking at the Bartlett this week via Tomorrow's Thoughts Today. Also from that think tank: the power of dystopias.

Last: Richard Dawkins, Britain's foremost aethiest, uses one nerdy profanity.

Monday, 9 November 2009

toyo ito talks it over

When I got home to Battersea the fog had completely permeated the suburb, leaving nothing but the orange halos of streetlights and massive neon 'Tescos' sign to guide my navigation. I shudder to think what it was like when this was all still swampland. That's right, I shudder.
I spent the evening at the Architectural Association, listening to a talk by Toyo Ito entitled 'my first and most recent works'. This was a confusing title, because his first works seemed to encompass 1964 to 2002, and his recent works 2006 to 2009. I can't remember what he did in 2003,4 & 5, but he must regret it. He arrived, and bowed to everyone, and then just launched into an explanation of his beginnings in Japanese, with translator: the end of the 60's/early 70's, when rapid technological advances clashed with student political ideologies. He worked on Tange's Olympic Stadium, and Kikutake's Expo 70 Tower. Ito took inspiration from the Metabolists, particularly the Nakagin Capsule Tower, but also from less influential architects like Shinohara. He described Japan as being divided between Metabolism and another school that focused on minimalism, interiority and isolated space. This, he said, led to the current Japanese architectural trend of closed boxes [What We Do Is Secret] .

In 1971 he wanted to go back to university, but because of the revolts all universities were closed. So he was forced to open his own practise. His explained his first work, the Aluminium House, [unusually I can't find any good images of this building] as being founded around two Nagakin capsules that had fallen to the earth. This grounding, for him, signified the end of Metabolism, but also a new beginning. He purposely chose aluminium for its disposable connotations, as opposed to the solid durability of the Metabolist modules.

After his famous White-U building, where he had tried to create a completely isolated and socially disconnected space, he tried to re-engage with society and community through a Dom-ino mass produced housing system. They only sold one, which went to Sejima's parents. Towards the mid-eighties he tried to revisit some questions of traditional ephemerality in modern Japanese architecture. The Japanese house, he said, is like an empty stage [Kuma]. It only remains to bring in the furniture, which will immediately imply certain relationships – relationships brought to life through rituals.

He touched briefly on the 90's, ending with the Serpentine and Brugge pavilions, before brushing over completely the Sendai Mediatheque and concentrating on his Tama Art University Library. "I try to avoid becoming reliant on high quality finishes, because if you become too used to Japanese quality, you find it very hard to build elsewhere." In this building, through the furniture and the shelving, he tried to explore what the positions of the body associated with learning might be. What is the physicality of education?

Several questions were asked after the lecture: first Jencks rambled for a bit, really boring everyone with a long winded discourse, and finally with no question. If he hadn't been Charles Jencks I'd have reminded him whose lecture it was. Brett Steele asked a good one: Ito mentioned that he wanted to reject traditional symbolism in architecture, but, since his Dom-ino system he had in fact been rejecting some of the most fundamental elements of architecture: the column and the grid. None of his buildings after the Dom-ino possessed columns at all, nor a regular grid. Was this purposeful? Ito smiled and said, in broken English, "this is a subject of current research."

I asked "You mentioned several times the fact that this lecture is mostly translated, how would you say the language, or vocabulary, of Japanese space influenced your work?" He paused. At length, he said "Language is about an ambiguity, and there can often be a contradiction of expectations in translation. I find this metaphor useful: you go to the water temple, the surface is of still water. You pick up stones of different sizes, and you throw them. Each one creates different ripples. The meaning of the shape comes not from any single pattern of ripples, but through the collection and association of the sum. This is the Japanese language."

One other student asked "how do you conceive of ephemerality in your buildings?" Ito responded "The notion of ephemerality may not lie in the structure itself, but in its occupation, as at Sendai..." He spoke in English "But, generally, I should wish any architecture to not rest too long."

Certified Millennium Person.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

shetlands and urchins

Battersea Mill - unique for having no windmill, but wooden shutters that opened to turn a central shaft.

Winter is coming, the air has a certain bite to it. That grey light of dawn persists the whole day, and then brightens to dusk, before dimming to night. I emerged from my house at 5:30, to find myself in utter darkness.

If you catch the 344 past Battersea Power Station there is a type of bridge that goes over the railway, and down on the right is a small back street with an old Irish pub, called Finnegan's, on the corner. As I passed it this afternoon I noticed a small band of children peering over the handrail – kids from the estates, shivering without coats. They had a slight sheen under the lamplight... vaguely oily. Not a clean shine like machines, but like old newspapers wrapped around greasy chips. It really struck me.
In any case, the street had been partially blocked by two or three horse floats, and about three dozen Shetland ponies were tied to any iron or wood fixture their owners could find. The owners, pints in hand, were feeding the horses from buckets while the children nervously jeered from above. I looked more closely at the pub. Was that gas burning in its lanterns? The street was lit by gas?

One more piece of evidence that London is at best a Victorian city.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

nature versus technology

A natural landscape. See also: 14, by David Bickerstaff.

Technology, as I wrote yesterday, means only ‘to assemble’ (and shares this root with 'tectonic'). The traditional misconception, however, is that nature is somehow atechnological. Nature is pure, it precedes humanity and is complete without it. So there is a dichotomy established- that technology is dangerous, that it will threaten nature. In light of the original meaning of ‘technology’ nature is most certainly a technological creational force. The dichotomy disappears.

Human technology, as opposed to natural technology, is distinct only in the manner by which the product comes to being: the body must always be the mediator for its creation, while nature generates itself. Hence the association that the root of technology is the tool, and the belief that if the tool is made big and dangerous enough it will one day turn back on its maker and pummel him.

The etymology of 'nature' is the Latin 'nasci' meaning birth (the root trickles down to 'renaissance'). The Roman notion of birth is that it occurs when the baby is complete - which is why nature carries implications of being finished, perfect and balanced. The sense of these two terms opposite each other is: the perfect, finished world versus the constructive, unfinished assemblage. And so the point I am making is that the meaning of 'nature' is misconstrued, and that it is also technological, it is also in a state of construction and evolution, and is not a static, finished thing. There can therefore be no such thing as 'tampering' with nature, or 'playing God', since all our actions are essentially natural.

Let's just assume that global warming stems from human activity. It remains nonetheless a natural process. But it is also a technological process, since it occurs over time and through the coming together (arrangement, assemblage) of innumerable sub-processes. This distinction carries through to all of our current experimentation with 'nature'. Growing an ear on the back of a mouse, cloning a sheep, stem cell research, each of these is both technological and natural.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

digital dialectic

It was eerily silent at Oxford Circus last night. It had been on Sunday night too. I waited in front of the Tube exit for my father while a constant stream of empty buses rolled past, flicking up wakes in the gutters. The pavements were deserted. Then I suddenly had the irrational sensation that London was concealing itself in preparation for some imminent event and only I remained unwarned.


Fukuyama famously announced the Death of History a couple of years after my birth (I don't believe the two were connected). The Death of History? The end of all history? His basis for this statement was a worldview he had extrapolated from Hegelian thinking. Hegel basically saw the spirit of any epoch (zeitgeist) as being defined by the struggle between two principal opposing entities. The neutralisation of this great struggle signals the end of the age.

The first epoch is supposedly the human struggle for mutual acknowledgement; to be recognised and recognisable to ourselves and by each other. Perhaps less opaquely, the late 19th century might be seen as the struggle between worker and master - the resolution of which signalled the end of the Industrial Revolution. The mid to late 20th century might be seen as the struggle between Communism and Capitalism.

Fukuyama's argument is that when the USSR packed up it ended the Communist/Capitalist struggle, allowing for global free-market Capitalism. The idea of the opposing entities is that they are fundamental. Capitalism is a fundamental organisation of society, as is Communism. The vacuum of the struggle, the absence of a dialectic, apparently signals the end of all history, since no major struggle replaced it.

Fukuyama's basic problem was that he was considering the 'spirit of the times' from a strictly economic standpoint. I find his dramatism about the end of history pretty absurd. Although it is true that the collapse of the USSR did signal the end of the Communism/Capitalism struggle – and Capitalism, having no opposition to keep it in check, ran out of control. The '07 crash (which we are apparently climbing out of) signalled the actual end of this mighty struggle. Which is part of my argument for why we are only now at the beginning of a new decade, new century and a new millennium, people.

To define the new age, to find the spirit of the times, in Hegelian terms is a lot easier than it sounds. It only requires the defining of the two opposing entities. Some people would say that the principal struggle of our times is technology versus nature. I'm not going to get into it too much (perhaps in another post) but this is a false division. If you look at the root of technology - tekne - it means simply 'to assemble'. Technology is an assemblage. Nature, however, is also an assemblage. That is, nature is technological. When we talk about nature and technology as opposites we are really talking about the differences in the manner of assembly. Nature assembles itself, while human assembly is always mediated. Our technology has to be assembled by our own hands.

The nature versus technology struggle can be excluded. For me, the strongest alternative is the struggle between the real and the digital. This is for several reasons - firstly, it would seem to be a logical historical progression: we have moved from the manual revolution (industrial) to the digital revolution. But a digital revolution cannot be without purpose, it has to have something to revolt against. And that subject is the real.

More to come on the subject...

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

fistful of links

Relics of the Cold War, photography by Martin Roemers.

A nice cup of tea and a sit down: some news.

What do you want in life? No joke, no link, its a legitimate question. Post Secret style. Related, what bloggers want (bunch of wanke... oh). Segway to London town. "shock as figures show Britain is still in recession" from the Times (via And Another Thing) – who the hell is in shock about that? More importantly, the freesheet newspaper wars could soon be over, as the London Lite hints at kicking it in. Derelict London, & London Skylines. In the same vein, a page doing the rounds at the moment: 33-part guide to abandoned places.

A Bill Bailey classic, just to put this blog in some context. Related, the profound depths of our universe. Meanwhile, Royal de Luxe are doing their thing (Giants, surprise, surprise) in Berlin, via Big Picture. The beautiful analogue images of Ren Rox, and the kaleidoscopic hulicination that is The Whole World is Peaceful.

If you're cheating on your partner: stop it. If you are, consider perhaps an alternative: Cockula, the vampire sex-toy (via the normally safe for work Warren Ellis). You remember Mork and Mindy? Well then. Old construction drawings. Topical data visualisations: I particularly like Left vs. Right and a Twitter breakdown. You mean 5% of Twitter users are producing 75% of the Tweets? I'm looking at you: Marcasaurus, Kosmograd, Fatcharlesh, Tragedyhatherle and BBC. I've never met any of these people (who really is the BBC?), but I know what they're thinking in real-time. As Will Wiles recently wrote: "We had one of those I-know-you-off-of-the-internets moments for which the etiquette is still kind of hazy."

See this film. Let me know if I should see this one. I quite liked this:
TVs From Craigslist, are images of the screens of TVs for sale I found on Craigslist. With hints of the seller’s interior space reflected in them, they offer inadvertent glimpses of intimacy and function as self-portraits of the sellers (the camera’s flash announcing the seller’s presence in the image). Landscapes of felt; related, Blizzards of Tweed. The end of the (digital) world, in style. Kiruna: the town that moved; architecture re-used (why are all the Battersea proposals so goddamn ugly? Remember this?)


Saturday, 24 October 2009


Last year I went to the Palais de Tokyo to see an exhibit. This is what I wrote.

“At a distance of 18,000km from the Earth," the guide notes "the elephant Würsa could balance on her trunk. It is on the basis of learned scientific calculations that Daniel Firman reached this conclusion, and came above all to produce this extraordinary work which confounds all our certainties regarding the gravitation of bodies.”

Wishful thinking at best, sophistry more likely. This phrase implies that the trick of the fibreglass cast on a pole is the logical end of a scientific investigation, it implies inevitability. The passage conjures the image of a diligent artist-scientist investigating gravity. Late into the night he pores over reams of calculations and suddenly, to his immense surprise, finds that the mass of an elephant… but this is a deception.

Fibreglass Würsa (herself not based on a real elephant, but the sum of images of elephants) surrounds a steel pole structure. The art is a trick, but the deception lies in the order of the art and the investigation. The passage implies that the art is inevitable, that it is nothing other than the logical outcome of scientific reasoning. In reality, it is the answer to an arbitrary question ‘how far from the Earth does an elephant have to be to balance on its trunk?’ In which case, why even ask the question? What is the difference between this and simply balancing the elephant on its trunk? Scientific validation to artistic whim. There is mystery and credibility to technology. I find this ‘technological’ approach to modern art flimsy, but ubiquitous. ‘I used technology as a tool to generate meaning and beauty’. This idea of the divinity of technology is false. It is controlled and predictable – the desired answer always dictates the technological question. In fact, this work is far more about ‘confounding all our certainties’ – not by presenting us with the unexpected, but the desired.

We live in an era in which the ease of technical generation (and extension by mechanical production) has rendered most art banal. The power of the virtual is such that we perceive homogenous space as virtual space. The ‘white cube’-style art gallery is the paramount example – it could be anywhere and anytime. The importance of the hidden structure in these places relates to their ability to suspend the laws of gravity, to generate the virtual manifest. Having conceptually idealised space in the virtual, a confusion or frustration results from the shortcomings of reality and our inability to arbitrarily control (consume) objects. The floating elephant, the semblance of a weight impossibly supported, is our desire, as it validates the virtual by manifesting it in the real. It is, of course, immediately recognisable as an illusion, and is therefore no longer such.

The moment of semblance lies only in the first fraction of exposure. Indeed, even this illusion does not whole satisfy our desires, this would involve the actual precession of the virtual, the actual suspension of gravity, the actual elephant actually floating. So we quickly lose interest in this ‘one-liner’. Semblance itself no longer interests us because the semblance of the virtual is perfect. In other words, the precession of the virtual means the real will always be catching up, the real will always be the virtual’s simulacrum.

To this extent, quite a lot of art and architecture concerns itself with ‘effects’. There is, however, one thing that remains meaningless in the virtual and meaningful in the real – violence. Hence the interest of Arcangelo Sassolino’s ‘Afasia 1’, “a sculpture that propels empty beer bottles [into a steel sheet] at more than 600km/h thanks to compressed nitrogen.” The mechanism is randomised, and a good deal of the spectacle lies in the anticipation of the loud bang and the instantaneous vaporisation of the bottle into a fine powder of green glass. But it is really a spectacle, a gratification of destructive desire. Not “physically compressed time… permanent memory, a dangerous equilibrium” but a gratification of the sole refuge of the real, violence, as it retreats from the primacy of the virtual.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

ballard and the near future

The giant shining face of Jim Ballard stared out at us, like some deity critically surveying his assembled congregation. Below this over-sized icon Nic Clear swayed back and forth on his feet, at times falling into a reverent chant as he picked up on some core Ballardian doctrine: the high priest behind his technological altar.

Nic, amongst other things, is the editor of a recent AD entitled “Architecture of the Near Future”, which began as an investigation into the influence of Ballard on contemporary architecture – and he began by answering the question: why “near” future? Conception necessarily precedes construction, so architecture is necessarily a profession founded in tomorrow’s work. It is, therefore, also necessarily utopian, in that it is always foreseeing the immediate future. The relevance of Ballard is his critique of ‘laissez-faire’ architecture; an architecture that avoids social engagement, searches only for form and which is based in the world of speculative finance (MP on speculative/specular architecture). “Architecture” Nic said “has replaced a vision of the future with an image of the future.” Touché.

It was basically a lecture exploring the juxtaposition of extremes in the events of Ballard’s life: the sudden and shocking death of his wife from pneumonia while on holiday was contrasted with his domestic situation, which Ballard called ‘dreary and boring, ubiquitous suburbia’. His feelings of injustice, that in some way Nature had committed a crime, inform his earlier novels: Drowned World, Drought, Crystal World.

His early life was a strong theme, as it almost always is in discussions of Ballard: his childhood in Shanghai as the son of a civil servant, the Japanese invasion, and his young adulthood in a prisoner of war camp. The speed with which the normal became extreme; the amazing capability for humans to adapt; protagonists that are simultaneously liberated and condemned; and the essential tendency of people towards power abuse and violence are all Ballardian motifs that find their roots in this time.

As the discourse moved on to Ballard’s later life in England, as Englishman yet somehow perpetual foreigner, he made a good point about just how influential the author has become: Ballard’s last novel Kingdom Come was based around the shopping centre, commercialism, a civilisation that lacks any civic identity except the shared experience of consumption (with undercurrents of latent nationalism, and borderline racism), and its protagonist was a mid-40’s advertising agent. This rang untrue, but only because, as a man in his mid-40’s, Nic knew that he would never have been sucked into the plot, because in reality he would have immediately identified the setting as Ballardian. To this extent, not being an author of meta-fiction, Ballard could not have written himself into his own novel, and its lack of credibility was based upon the fact that the influence of Ballard was absent in the characters of the Ballardian world. Ha.

The lecture accompanied the work of his studio. In the dark of the movie room, I asked several people what they thought, to which one said: “the films are provocative, and atmospheric, but they are not providing any solid ideas.” In any case, the production of the unit is truly remarkable. Nic’s conclusion about Ballard's thinking was this: we must embrace the future, if only because we have no other choice.


Church near Ferrybridge (scroll down) via John Davies.

In Zamyatin's 1920 novel We everything is made of glass. There is only one city, ruled by the Benefactor, a glistening metropolis of green glass – all the buildings, all the streets, all the furniture, even the very wall of the city itself are cast from that one pure liquid. The 'cyphers' (as the mathematically-minded citizens are known) operate in a transparent world where everything is immediately visible, and therefore immediately perceivable.

At the edge of this vast crystal dictatorship is "the ancient house", a home from the early 20th century protected from the age of millennia by a protective glass pustule. It is remarkable because of its solidity, its opaqueness, and its strange ornaments and objects that imply outmoded societal structures. But as the protagonist, D-503, points out, while in the process of solving a question of mathematical logic: "there is no end to revolutions. Revolutions are potentially infinite." Even the magnificent towers of glass will one day crumble back below the surface of the earth, leaving behind them only one thing: a violent and savage humanity.

Not wholeheartedly related.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

the wake of the wealth of nations

After Adam Smith by Shannon C. Stimson and Murray Milgate (of Palgrave’s fame) is a recent publication from the Princeton University Press that examines how, and in what ways, our thinking about the relationship between politics and political economy was transformed in the one-hundred years or so after the publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776).

And yet, for what is at its base a detailed historical analysis of the development of 19th century economic theory, the book remains remarkably current. And with everyone from Barack to Brown name-dropping Keynes it is certainly refreshing to read about the somewhat eclipsed Smith. By re-visiting the grand questions that interested Smith (for example, the relationship between the market and the state, or between individual liberty and common good), Milgate and Stimson re-assess the relevance of his thinking to our current global economic predicaments.

The premise of this (mostly architectural) blog is in fact an economic one – that the period 2001-2007 was not the beginning of a New Millennium, but the continuation of the 20th century, because it was a continuation of 20th century economic thinking. This conclusion is based on a subliminal association: I am defining an epoch not by its essential social dialectic, but by the economic principles that largely determine that dialectic.

In this respect, works like After Adam Smith become important signifiers of the emerging zeitgeist. The book will be of interest to anyone concerned with how the ideas of economics and economists have influenced (and continue to influence) politics and politicians. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Adam Smith on the new £20 note.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

fistful of links

The 1900 Paris World Expo, via the FlickrCommons.

The locus of links that leads straight to our hearts: some news.

There are not enough tampons in Williamsburgh. Not at all related, Auschwitz is now on facebook. Still not related, man seeks Glaswegian translator. Probably not related, The WHO has decided to ban booze. Finally related, this is bad news for the inventors of the Beer Belly (don't miss their equally amazing Wine Rack). Blurring the human-machine interface: the talking Piano (via Shawn Sims) and Vocaloid (via Tokyo Bling). Looks like the robot workers of the future will be... Mexicans? Pretty much related, the possibility for a ten-fingered mouse/keyboard: 10GUI.

American readers (you make up over 50%) will no doubt have been following the Balloon Hoax fiasco: Gawker's exclusive; The Balloon Boy Game. Coincidentally, the Queen recently wrote to a different Balloon Boy. Related, only in the sense that playing with ants was something I did as a boy, the man who makes casts of ant colonies.

In case CCTV seems too impersonal, there's now a camera to capture your life. Related, the camera to capture your dog's life. Related, the company that will look after your dog when the apocalypse comes. Related, a spectacular anti-evolution poster (via unknown Tweet). Still related, the end of the world is probably not 2012 after all, according to reliable sources; movie (is it just me or are apocalyptic films getting lazy?) sticks by its guns: Kids with Guns; Bullets from Guns.

Old man caught in doors by faulty Tube, abused by Underground staff (via the Londonist). Also in this City of Cities: London After The Rain (a film by the AVATAR); map of London brownfields (via Things). Not related, Hi-Rise– hi-res images of mars. Related, the beautiful art of Florian Maier-Aichen (via But Does It Float?) Related, but is it art: the 4th plinth. Also art, dead flies.


Bookmark and Share

Monday, 19 October 2009

fully sick

Image: my project for a remotely located research station, UNSW, 2007 – pdf here.

As I lay in bed Saturday morning, feeling ill and self-piteous, my thoughts turned away from the bleak landscape of 1970's social housing outside my window to my home in Australia. If I had to describe autumnal London in a word it would be 'grim'. I made a cup of tea and turned on Australian Radio National. By Design was on, a discussion between architect Glenn Murcutt (under whose tuition the above project was completed) and writer David Malouf – held in Utzon's Opera House.

It was an interesting talk for a number of reasons, not least for Glenn's comments about the Opera House shifting the city's focus to the harbour side (whereas previously it had been centred on Sydney's commercial district). He also mentioned Utzon's proposals to unite Sydney's laneways. It was the first time I've heard Glenn talk about the city this way. He is known to irritate a lot of Australian architects for his refusal to wholeheartedly engage with the metropolitan condition, which is after all the condition of the 21st century. His expensive homes in beautiful scenery are seen as marginal to the discussion of contemporary architecture.

But if you dig architecture and want to gain a window into a very particular type of Australian thinking, this is for you. The undertone of the talk is a criticism of Australia's litigious and restrictive architectural thinking (which I believe stems from its origins as an imperial penal colony). This type of self-deprecation is common to Australia, with everyone complaining about the situation and yet nothing changing. It makes me sick. Or, sicker, rather.

I passed out to Sunset Rubdown, which always reminds me of driving in the sun.

Saturday, 17 October 2009


Battleground, via Nasa

I'm out Sunday, so I'm bringing you tomorrow's post today (which is more than can be said of the actual post).

In theory, the moon belongs to no one. That is to say, it belongs to everyone. We take solace in the fact that while the Earth might be geo-politically torn by the petty disputes of its microscopically visioned peoples, there lies beyond our fragile sphere the vast reaches of deep space. It calls to us with the voice of the New World, inviting us into the tranquility of eternal emptiness, a profound vacuum of silence.

This is perhaps why the recent bombing of the moon by American satellites sits so uncomfortably in the public mind. The idea of pristine lunar landscapes being exploited by nations (India, China, Japan, Europe) and corporations is abhorrent, because we do not trust our own countries to behave responsibly. We're no longer sure who is the parent and who the child in the modern citizen-state relationship: 20th century policies of paternalism have largely dissolved into models dictated by the Market Economy.

One thing you sometimes hear from astronauts, although it is now fairly passé, is that 'from space, the earth has no borders'. This invokes for me not grandiose visions of one nation, nor one love, one hope, nor any of that other white-rasta-fake-hippy shenanigans. I am after all a realist. It makes me reflect more on why there are no boundaries on other heavenly bodies. The moon is an inaccessible, but perpetually present, celestial element that for us is unified because it is unoccupied. I've written about the problems of mapping the moon before – the subtext of this post is concerned with the conceptual difficulties of creating a socio-political map of the moon. But what will happen when it is colonised? Most people hardly know the geography of the earth, let alone the moon. But will we begin to look up at that satellite and subconsciously divide it into its political regions, as we do with images of the earth?

The final thing I wanted to say is that the difficulty of visualising the future human boundaries of the moon is tied up in the fact that we know those boundaries are arbitrary. When we view maps of Antarctica, the effect is similar. Yes, that segment belongs to Britain. But it is not a part of Britain, because it is physically unconnected to the socio-political evolution of that country. The New Millennium requires humanity to radically shift the way it conceives of boundaries, and I am not just referring to those that are socio-political. Perhaps the effect of a divided moon will have far-reaching impacts on the way we conceive of space that we cannot even begin to predict...

Friday, 16 October 2009

prophetic visions

"When Burt Smallways" reads the blurb to Wells' 1907 classic " is accidentally whisked off to Germany in a balloon carrying plans for a top-secret aeroplane, he gets involved in Prince Karl Albert's massive airship raid on New York... the first step in a war which soon flares into world-wide catastrophe." The novel sees fearless and hapless Burt witness, from relative safety, the destruction of the Western world, before striving to make a new life for himself in a brutal and feudal post-war society of devastated Europe.

He tumbles into the balloon while assisting an eccentric inventor (a narrative technique perhaps borrowed from Verne's Mysterious Island?) and when, at length, the fog clears he finds himself bobbing between gargantuan Zeppelins – he lands in a German air park, described as an endless matrix of orthogonally aligned airships, each tied down to the ground by a mass of fuel pumps and strings of lights. The scene invokes a cross between Gulliver's Travels and Archigram's Instant Cities.

He sees the fire bombing of New York, a massive aerial battle over Niagara Falls, and only after many years of travel does he make it back to the small suburb where the story began. Civilisation is completely destroyed, and the novel ends with an interesting remark from one of the characters. As he stares up at the rusting monorail lines he realises that even if his children were to live to 100 they would never see the wonders of the society he grew up in.

Image via.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

sir ken adam

Sketch for Submarine Lair in the classic Bond 'The Spy Who Loved Me'.

On Tuesday night I was at the AA, just hanging around the bar, minding my own business, when I heard that Sir Ken Adam was going to give an interview downstairs. I was incredibly excited. If you're not aware of who he is, I will just say this: every James Bond set, gadget and gimmick – from machine gun headlights to volcano lairs– were his idea. As were the sets of Dr. Strangelove, much of Star Wars, Hornblower, Around the World in 80 Days, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and he also consulted (apparently in a fairly involved manner) for 2001: a space odyssey (although he said that after Dr. Stangelove he didn't get on so well with Kubrick).

Further, he was the only German national to fight for the RAF during the Second War, and helped to provide air cover for the D-Day invasions: "Zthey said 'you juzt fly down zther, and fiare all your rockits' and I zthought 'that zounds simple' but... it vwas.... a lot more complicated than that."

Sketch for Dr. Strangelove's War Room (dir: Kubrick).

For the most part he reiterated the things I have heard him say elsewhere, which is why I won't be reiterating them here: go elsewhere. I'm just going to touch on one or two things that stood out. At one point he showed a slide of a drawing, and said "I had no idea who could have been doing a glass tower block like this one in 1928 in Berlin for my father's sports shop. And then, of course, I discovered it was a Mies. It was one of his forgotten projects. Even Moma didn't know about it." Needless to say a million architects reached for their pens. His photograph is not online, but the project is briefly described here.

He also postulated that the reason American Modernism was so strong and English Modernism so weak was because all the German exiles emigrated to the States – before the War the English had not taken a fancy to Modernism, and found it even unattractive as a style. He refered to 'Highpoint' in Highgate in particular. When he studied architecture at the Bartlett in 1936, he said, they were still teaching him to use Georgian and Edwardian styles. 1936. Shame. He wondered what would have happened if the English had embraced Modernity, instead of encouraging all the German Modernists to move further West.

The final point I'm going to write up is one he made about the Flowmaster pen. It was the first pen to have a felt nib and a transluscent replaceable bulb. Not only, he said, did it change the way he drew (up until that time only charcoal had provided him with the fluidity he desired) but it changed the way he designed. Later on he said, in reference to a modern render that had been done from one of his drawings, "I can tell, you kno, if a design hasz bin started by haand or as a computer architecture." He didn't express a preference, but I think the lesson is obvious: we are both limited, and afforded capabilities, with each new technology.

In the case of digital technology, the question must always be asked: are you designing that way because you can (that is, arbitrarily, because the technology allows for it)? Or, if given a blank piece of paper, or a charcoal stick, would you be trying to describe similar forms? What I really mean is, do you design digital architecture because you have digital means, or is the digital a design ideal in itself, unique from technology?

Roll that one over, Millennium People.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

thames and tyburn

The lost rivers of London, via Strange Maps.

London has only very recently emerged from the tidal marshes and floodplains of the Thames Valley; only very recently ceased to be a site of soft clay pools and nomadic tribes of proto-humanoid hunters. Beginning with the Romans' wooden river defences and culminating with the 19th century embankment and 20th century River Barrier programs, the city has slowly re-claimed an inhospitable and humid landscape.

The dominance of the 'Dark River' over the city is absolute, and Londoners will not share its ancient and prestigious path with any rival. The Fleet, the Effra, the Falcon, all were made to disappear out of deference to the Thames. Even the lesser tributaries– the Black Ditch and Earl's Sluice, for example – are invisible. Although I can't help but suspect this has more to do with their role in the Great Stink of 1858.

But what would happen if these rivers were unburied? The Tyburn turned loose? In ancient times London used the source of the Tyburn as the site of immense gallows for the mass and public execution of criminals and political scapegoats (such as those brothers of the Charterhouse). Now Marble Arch blocks its way – could hangings take place there instead? Where now the river is only visible as it runs underneath Grey's Antiques, the uncovered Tyburn would spill down over Hyde Park in a deluge of destruction.

It would flood Buckingham Palace, turning the royal household into a tidal marshland ruin:

Buckingham Palace as it would sit on the tidal plains of the River Tyburn, via Time Team (UK only).

It would flow around the rise of Westminster City, as it used to, and once again set Thorney Island in the middle of the river.

Thorney Island, via the Museum of London.

Let's do it. Let's flood London.