The below has been published by South magazine, which is based in Athens.

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Photo by Natasha Stallard, taken in Dubai 2014

ISIS – or Islamic State, or ‘Daesh,’ the term appropriated by US Secretary of State John Kerry as of today (12.12.14) – upturns the fundamentalist, antediluvian image of the fun-hating extremist (although Bin Laden seemed to co-exist with caves and TV cameras) to a socially media frenzied, Hi-def wielding, YouTube sensation, obsessed – it seems – with beheadings. $2bn capital reserve + a love of Instagram = the ability to recruit a different kind of young advocate to the kind that would have had to relinquish such earthly indulgences to save their soul.

*

Good Photoshop Skills Required

“I’m going to join the Islamic State.”

“You mean ISIS?”

“No. Islamic State.”

“You mean ISIL?”

“No. Are you deaf? Islamic State. The Caliphate. It’s new.”

“Define ‘new’.”

“Since June.”

“Technically, not ‘new’.”

The first man grimaces.

“Did they ask you to go?”

“I watched a video.”

“The video asked you to go?”

“They need people with ‘Good Photoshop skills’.”

“You’re serious?”

“I’ve never been more serious my whole life.”

“I’ve known you your whole life.”

The second man stays calm.

“A higher cause. Subhan Allah.”

“What if I said you’re misguided? Would you…”

“…behead you?”

The first man is without noticeable expression.

“I did not watch the videos.”

“I did.”

“I don’t need to see the videos.”

“I did.”

The second man has downcast eyes. 

“I have known you your whole life,” says the second man, “and loved you like a brother; and I am telling you, with the love of a brother, that you are misguided in every possible way. There isn’t scripture to defend you.”

The first man has not finished packing his suitcase. What will he need to take?

“Nation states are blasphemy.”

Blasphemy is blasphemy.”

“Don’t beat me with your Westernised words.”

“Don’t use my Wi-Fi to download Jihadist propaganda.”

The second man unplugs his router.

“You can come with me.”

“My Photoshop skills are non-existent.”

“Final Cut Pro?”

“Never heard of it.”

“HashtagendofSykesPicot.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Really.”

The first man had never heard of a hashtag until hashtagendofSykesPicot.

“It’s not too late.”

“For?”

“A change of heart.”

“Do not question my heart. My faith. My purpose.”

“Faith without questioning is not faith but a simple programme.”

“Sophist.”

“Will you force me at gunpoint to pay a tax for being a Sophist?”

“You’re not funny.”

“Exactly. Funny or die?”

“Die.”

The second man wants to laugh. He would love to be able to laugh it off. He can’t.

“So you’re coming?”

“Where?”

“The IS?”

Iz?”

“I told you. I-dot-S-dot.”

“You’re going now?”

Now.”

They do not move.

The earth turns.

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A few months after reading Morrissey’s thorny and diffident Autobiography, yesterday I come across Bernard Sumner’s own memoir. I’m surprised. As much as I was with Morrissey’s, and maybe even more. Because the two of them – hailing in their own ways from Manchester’s neighbouring territories – seemed to channel everything they had to say about themselves into their words and music. Not for them the torrid reveals in society pages. Bernard Sumner’s talking voice is as meek as he has always seemed to be, whose shyness dominated early performances as the reluctant lead singer of New Order. The sleeves said it all: Peter Saville’s mining of art history allowed New Order to vanish as personalities – until the shock of seeing them on Low Life, but, then, never again.

And now, I’ve just been to see 20,000 Days on Earth, the Nick Cave fiction biography, which compresses film formats with a flickering over excitement, yet protecting Cave’s insistent tour through landscapes, towns and his past. Again and again he credits memory as the subject and the engine of what he does. Who he is. His greatest fear, he tells Darian Leader, is the loss of memory.

Cave lives in Brighton, which is maybe as improbable as Nico turning up on the shores of council estate Manchester in the 1980s. Cave salutes Brighton’s sky, and roams time and space in an ageing Jaguar.

While I enjoyed the film – its fits of fantasy truth, Cave’s dogged meta-presence – it, and the books mentioned above, point to the simple fact that as they careen into their 60s, these pillars of pop iconoclasm have shifted or shuffled forwards into a reconciliation with the past, rather than an innate embodying of the extreme present. The present is still present but it’s just not as present as 1981 or 1989 was. It never will be. It never was in 1981 or 1989. Tru dat.

In the age of reveal, I something percent miss the obliquity of my heroes’ lives. I’m more privvy to them and that should feel good, it should quench some irreconciled urge to know more about them. But it does not do this. It humanises them by turning the capital of the present into the 3D render of the past.

Maybe it doesn’t matter and I’m just seeing my own anxieties. It’s possible because this business of ageing is never yes or no. Good, bad. It’s an unanswerable question. It’s not even a question. It’s intractable fact. Enacted upon us.

Higgs Boson Blues.

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Gerhard Richter did many of his most chromatic paintings with a squeegee. They flatten paint and turn it into flight. Here, I squeegeed the Earth – figuratively. The image, that index of space travel in the 60s, earthrise, Whole Earth Catalogue, speck, galactic spit, the blueness of the blue. Now it falls downwards. Digital striation. And I find it so tragically beautiful. Ultra vivid seen. I wonder what the drips on the floor look like.

There is a good chance this image will, in another form, play a major role in the book I’m doing with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Douglas Coupland, designed by Wayne Daly, and published by Penguin and Blue Rider in 2015, called The Age of Earthquakes. Watch (this) space.

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Came across this in an artist’s studio in Vancouver. She was using it as a tea pot holder, to prevent the wooden table top from scarring. She had clearly been doing this for a million years because the copy of October is now a fossil. It’s brittle and congealed and very very beautiful. It’s what we might look like in the future, that is if we had the longevity of paper. Of course we don’t. We are more like e-books, whose future form is no different to its current form: inessential, on loan, proprietary, ungiftworthy. Read me?

The below was delivered as part of the AA’s Summer program, Format, which I direct. The 2014 issue looks at four iconic individuals and how they renewed their worlds and ours with it. The first of these was dedicated to Kurt Cobain, 20 years after his death in 1994. I was joined by the brilliant Sophia Al Maria – who wormholed with her own moving letter to Kurt – and the equally brilliant Tamara Barnett-Herrin, who sang versions of ‘Been a Son’ and ‘Come as You Are.’ I’ll add the video link when it’s up.

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KC 1991

You are seventeen years old. You are programmed to feel awkward, gangly, and angry. You wear anger like you wear hair mousse. Because you think it makes you cool; this despite the fact cool totally sucks. Cool is for the crowds. The corporate masses.

You are an individual.

To the horror of your South Asian parents, you grew your hair two years prior, down to your shoulder and you started shaving it underneath. Why? So that you can tell the world in the clearest possible way:

Me 17

I am not like YOU.

I am like me.

I am like Kurt.

Kurt Cobain is like US.

One day, you switch on the TV and you see this:

 

Your hair, Kurt, is long, bleached blonde and doesn’t seem to care about things that hair is meant to care about.

KC Hair

But everything in this song—like mulattos and albinos and mosquitoes and libidos—and everything in this strange video—like, where is this? High school in hell?—everything about it makes us care.

Why? How?

And what IS Teen Spirit?

You all assume it’s that anger or frustration or awkwardness you’re programmed to feel throughout your endless teens.

KC Rimbaud

If you were smart with words like the poet Rimbaud was when he was 17 you’d turn those feelings into art.

But you’re not. You’re you. You’re all just you. You need Kurt – and everyone like him, before him — to say what you can’t say, not because nothing is there. But especially because everything is there. Everything that hasn’t happened to you yet. But you hope will.

Teen Spirit deodorant

Many years later, when you are not 17 anymore, you discover that Teen Spirit was the deodorant Kurt’s girlfriend Tobi used to wear…

Kathleen Hanna Wall

… and Kurt’s friend Kathleen sprayed the phrase ‘KURT SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT’ on his rental wall. Oh well. Nevermind.

KC 2014

And now you’re 39 years old, sitting in front of an audience, twenty years after Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, killed himself, when he was 27 and you were 19.

Kurt Old

Is this what you’d look like now, Kurt? We will never know. Because you’ve been frozen in a Kurt shaped box that means even as the rest of us age — and look more and more like this picture — you won’t.

KC Anniversary Format

Since time is vast and the past keeps increasing in size, in depth, sometimes overwhelming us, we’ve invented tools to make time tangible to our minds and in our everyday lives. Without these tools, we’d drown in time’s gooey unknowability. Anniversaries are navigation instruments. They help you against the random accumulation of time.

KC July 8th

Here you are now, still the same age sitting in front of the same audience. Many of you were born between 1991 and 1994 and some even afterwards. You’re thinking what does this mean to me? You weren’t there. You weren’t anywhere — yet. But in 20 years time, you will be somewhere, and someone you never knew will have marked you and many other like you. Individuals. Crowds. And you might also wonder: why? How?

KC Exhausted conversation

KC Cardigan 1

Well. For a start. There’s your cardigan Kurt. That green-yellow-mustard Mohair cardigan you’d wear again and again. The lumberjack, flannel shirts made sense. They were from your hometown, Aberdeen, once known for its timber industry, then already in decline when you were born. But cardigans were from somewhere else.

KC Cardigan 2

Cardigans were not rock and roll. Cardigans were the opposite of leather jackets. Cardigans were what Morrissey once wore. An anti-uniform alchemised by sensitive types, with Keats and Yates on your side.

KC Angst

Then there’s the “angst.” And angst is great until someone tells you that you’re angsty. Doesn’t angst always sound better in a German accent?

Generation X Cover

 

Then there was that whole “voice of a generation” thing, which the early 90s was crazy about, as though history was rebooting itself, the century’s last hangover before it collapsed into pre-millennial anxiety. And here’s a generation — your generation? — steeped in… what? Postmodern irony? Consumer numbness? The end of history? You said you never chose to be this voice for this or any generation. But you were.

KC Feminist

You were also… a feminist? You never used the word, but, there’s this straightforward outright hatred for sexism and sexual violence that was not only rife everywhere but enshrined in the credo of sweaty, male American rock.

KC Read well

You read Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume 10 times and there’s even Camille Paglia in one of your songs.

KC Couple Format

A lot of this is down to the influence of your wife, Courtney Love, whose band Hole were as blistering and brilliant as your band were at the beginning.

KC Couple Sid Nancy

You were a girl-boy unit with an obvious precedent, but, somehow, amidst the clichéd trashing of Seattle hotel suites, there was an old fashioned romance.

KC Reality Format

You chose to not take a limousine to NBC’s studios for the Saturday Night Live gig. You kind of kept wearing the same clothes, the same cardigan, your hair changed colour a bunch of times, but you never got all nouveau riche. In the language of the time, “You kept it real,” and, for everyone who had no choice but continue to live out their lives surrounded by their reality, this mattered. I hope you know that it mattered?

 

In 1993, Nirvana do this MTV Unplugged gig, and, you’re sitting on a stool surrounded by lilies and candles. You’re funny and drink tea and are touchingly real. You only play one of your well-known songs. Many are cover versions of unheard of bands. You’re a portal to other music — The Vaselines, The Meat Puppets, The Marine Girls, The Pixies, Neil Young, Sonic Youth, The Raincoats, Beat Happening, Daniel Johnston. Your generosity also seems real.  You introduce and re-introduce forgotten music the way a friend used to make a mixtape for another friend or lover.

KC Death Format

Then on April 5th 1994, after several other attempts, you end it all, in a greenhouse with linoleum floor at the bottom of the garden.

Kurt death scene 1

You are Douglas Coupland, aged 33, the author of Generation X, and soon after this news, you write a public letter to Kurt Cobain, in which you say:

And then yesterday I heard Nirvana pulled out of the Lollapalooza Tour. And I figured something was up.

And now you are dead.

I was in San Francisco, driving up the 101 past Candlestick Park when the news came over the radio, LIVE 105 – the news that you had shot yourself. A few minutes later I was in the city and I pulled the car over and tried to figure out what I felt. I had never asked you to make me care about you, but it happened – against the hype, against the odds – and now you are in my imagination forever. And I figure you’re in heaven too. But how, exactly does it help you now, to know that you, too, as it is said, were once adored?

D.

 

KC Cohen quote

Yes Kurt. Does it help? Does it help that you are still adored? For maybe the wrong reasons? The same reasons that hover like a halo around other “tragic heroes”? Surely one of the worst things about not being alive is not being able to defend what happens to you in death. You’re resuscitated, cloned, egregiously mythologised, made to advertise detergent powder or credit cards, doomed to spent eternity on T-Shirts sold at Topshop. With no apologies.

KC Anniversary Format

You’re also sitting here, 20 years later, addressing an audience who think you smell like middle-aged nostalgia. But you want to explain that something happens to past time. New adjacencies emerge. Unknown causalities between unrelated points on earth and its people. Undiscovered ricochets. Not only is the world flatter but history is flat too. A month is 2.5 seconds eye-scanning. A year is scrolled through in a few minutes. The history of everything is a sequence of bullet-points. This distillation: new, strange, entanglements of retrospective destiny. Maybe it’s all happened before. We’re in the future looking back. Rest in peace. You’re lost. That’s OK. We are too.

Smells Like Teen_Cover

And you remember the time you sang Smells Like Teen Spirit it in a tiny karaoke bar in Japan. And you wonder: Do all great songs die with their singers and then die again and again as karaoke classics?

 

(1)

It’s just a few minutes in to the film Gravity, and hurtling space debris shit is about to hit the motherf*ckin fan. Will Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt (George Clooney) make it?

Of course they will. Do the math. The film is 90 minutes long. It’ll get bumpy, like the very worst turbulence on the very worst flight you’ve ever had, times shitzillion. But Rudy and Matt are going to make it through because you—cinema goer—have paid for 90 minutes and what else is going to happen for the next 80? It’s not like Actual LifeTM where tragedy will mercilessly cut short someone’s earthbound existence irrespective of where it is in his or her own advertised running time. Dead at 15? Sure. Struck down at four years of age? Happening all the time. Within ten minutes of being born? Sadly, yes.

However, in Gravity, where there are only two characters to start with (I’m not counting Shariff with the racist accent), we are sure that early adversity will be overcome. It has to. For the sake of the film. For the sake of your entertainment.

Question. What would a film be that stayed true to Actual LifeTM? To its contingent and brutal suddenness?

Answer 1 would be a film that doesn’t last 90 minutes, but however short the amount of time it takes for the protagonists to pass away. Ten minutes. Twenty. It would be brutish and fast, over before you’ve made yourself comfortable. House lights on. Exit to the right. What do you do with the extra 80 minutes given to you?

Answer 2 is found at the end of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1961). Alain Delon and Monica Vitti’s desultory affair anti-climaxes in a way that has never been done before in cinema—and maybe, never since. After making love for the last time, they agree to meet “at the usual place” that evening, 800pm. But their (empty) eyes tell the true story of what is (not) about to happen. Come 800pm, and the camera turns up at the rendezvous point. However, neither Delon nor Vitti appear. Instead of zooming out and fading away (what any conventional film would have done), Antonioni’s camera continues to film the non-meeting meeting. We see: a woman with a child. A man crossing the road. The flayed sides of buildings. Tarmac. Factory smoke. It goes on for some seven minutes. No flashback or forward. No voiceover. No resolved comfort. Delon and Vitti’s parting opens up this pregnant space, full their vital absence. The film continues without the characters.

Answer 2, then, is a film that fills the remaining 80 minutes with the world without its glittering protagonists—and not in some sentimentally cathartic way (depictions of bereaving family, a husband that can’t cope, Autumn leaves shedding, etc). It would show how radically same the world continues to be when someone is no longer part of it. A kind of limpid thrust forward into the near future. Newton’s Second motherf*ckin Law.

(2)

Antonioni is summoned again in Gravity. This time, the end of Zabriskie Point seems to make a cameo appearance.

It’s the only other sustained piece of cinema I can recall that shares Gravity’s relentless anti-gravitational derangement. We are stranded with Ryan and Matt, tumbling and spinning with them, against the vast widescreen of Mother Earth. Home. Gravity is, paradoxically, bereft of its title. It is “anisotropic”—the usual axes of top, bottom, left and right, which we measure by our own perpendicularity against the surface of the earth, all this is gone. The cinema screen (and the inside of Rudy’s helmet visor) is a well of black void in which things—pens, decomposing bodies, tears—float. Most space movies get around the finnickiness of zero gravity by taking place in battle-ship sized space-ships where gravity works just fine. Space, phenomenologically speaking, is just earth further away.

In the Zabriskie Point clip here, the compositions of exploded matter become more and more unmoored. They attain the quality of gestural abstract painting, with the blue of the sky taking the place of the white of canvas. In Gravity, the sky is black; Earth is blue. The screen isn’t flat—and neither is our fear of being lost in the beyond. It’s a shame, then, that Gravity loses its nerve quickly. It succumbs to the necessity to join the dots of personal salvation. In doing so, it becomes the “ultimate problem solving” movie (says Sophia Al Maria). A vast and expensive first person POV video-game puzzle with instructions in Russian and Mandarin. Whereas 1970s “existentialist” sci-fi film would leave its characters lost in the forever emptiness of space (the way Sartre said man was banished to his/her own freedom once God vanished), Gravity ultimately needs the stable ground of narrative closure. Ryan struggles to stand up. It’s primeval mud. But she does stand. She walks.

(3)

And that’s … ninety minutes. PING!

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Remember or Forget? History decides for you

(Published in Tank’s 15th Anniversary issue)

Certain neurologists claim that the brain’s experience of the present lasts between 2.0 and 2.5 seconds. Everything before this is before and everything after is future far away.

It is the 15th anniversary of The Lunar Prospector being launched into orbit around the moon and finding frozen water there, close to where Ramzi Yousef was sentenced to life imprisonment for planning the first World Trade Center bombing, just north of Hugo Chávez’ Presidential election victory in Venezuela.

Since time is vast (maybe endless, depending on whose eschatology you buy into) and the past keeps increasing in size and depth, we’ve invented tools to make time tangible to our minds and graspable in our everyday lives. Without these tools, we’d drown in time’s gooey unknowability. The way it overwhelms us by never really being there.

It is the 13th anniversary of the world not ending Y2K-style, sparked by the billionth person being born in India, whose soul was the reincarnation of the recently departed Walter Matthau. Or Alex Guiness. Or Douglas Fairbanks. No, it was Hedy Lamarr’s.

The duration of a single day links us with the earth’s planetary spin, the pirouetting of the moon, tide-sway, and birdsong. This in turn synchs our shops and TV stations and office hours with nature’s unstoppable cycles. A day is the smallest unit of time that begins, middles and ends.

It is the 12th anniversary of the Taliban destroying the first Apple retail store in Glendale, CA, news of which never made it to Douglas Adams, Aaliyah or Timothy McVeigh. They had already recently passed away.

As Mircea Eliade pointed out in The Myth of Eternal Return, traditional man relives time, over and over again, to invoke mythical time, impelled by “nostalgia for the origins.” This is what gives him or her orientation against the nausea of eternity.

It is the 11th anniversary of the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, whose increased airport checks led to a large section of the Antarctic Larsen Ice Shelf beginning to disintegrate. Victims included Billy Wilder, Lisa ‘Left-Eye’ Lopes and Pierre Bourdieu.

Anniversaries are modern navigation instruments amidst the accumulation of time. To paraphrase the historian Eric Hobsbawm, anniversaries protest against default forgetting. Anniversaries organise human history—so much smaller than geological history but already incomprehensible for any one individual—into short bursts of collective memory.

It is the 10th anniversary of Dewey (the first deer clone) and Prometea (the first horse clone) being born, the final puzzle pieces to the completion of the Human Genome Project and the capturing of Saddam Hussein in Tikrit, Iraq.

To Anniversarise: summon the past into the present on a significant day. Remembering is re-enactment. The dead are allowed to undie one day a year, a decade, a century. Just now, I have been told, ‘Today would have been Kafka’s 130th birthday.’ With that, an occasion to reminisce and revisit Kafka’s writings, letters and loves arise.

It is the 8th anniversary of the first human face transplant becoming the first uploaded video on YouTube as a direct result of the founding of the Kyoto Protocol. Eight years since a bomb blast killed Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, rocker Johnny Carson and comedian Richard Pryor.   

Where do we go today to find out what happened before we might forget forever? Wikipedia. Our free, commons archive. The one that compiles collective witnessing. In fact, this collective witnessing (that may spill into fantasising or misremembering) is now the primary source of history many of us rely on hundreds of times a week. Thousands of times a year. Eternally returning.

It is the 5th anniversary of Iran launching a rocket into space, controlled by the first implanted bionic eyes. Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy protection upon hearing of the sudden deaths of Studs Terkel, Alain-Robbe Grillet, David Foster Wallace and Bobby Fischer.

If you enter a number into Google that looks like an Anno Domini date—1536, 1979, 2003—the first result is the Wikipedia page entry of that year. It will tell you what day January 1st fell on and then proceed to list, in chronological order, notable historical events, month by month. After which come the births. Then, most poignantly, the deaths.

It is the 3rd anniversary of Tunisian fruit-seller Mohammed Bouazizi committing self-immolation at the top of the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa just as it opens. Wikileaks’ first leak tragically brings about the deaths of reclusive author JD Salinger and inventor of the fractal, Benoit Mandlebrôt.

When I read the year pages on Wikipedia as continuous prose, something happens to past time. New adjacencies emerge. Unknown causalities between unrelated points on earth and its people. Undiscovered ricochets in geopolitical matrices. Not only is the world flat, Thomas Friedman, but history becomes flat too. A month is 2.5 seconds eye-scanning. A year is scrolled through in a few minutes. There’s a kind of chrono-dyslexia that produces conspiratorially rich cause and effect. The father of deconstruction (Jacques Derrida) dies and so does the father of Palestinian independence (Yasser Arafat). Accident? Providence? Myth? Coincidence? Because, Wikipedia’s faceless annotators have distilled the history of everything into a selective sequence of bullet-pointed somethings. This distillation: new, strange, entanglements of retrospective earth destiny.

Derrida

 

 

Arafat

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it’s all happened before. We’re in the future looking back. Happy birthday. Rest in peace. I’m lost. That’s OK. We are too. As Eliade wrote, ‘In our day, when historical pressure no longer allows any escape, how can man tolerate the catastrophes and horrors of history—from collective deportations and massacres to atomic bombings—if beyond them he can glimpse no sign, no transhistorical meaning; if they are only the blind play of economic, social, or political forces, or, even worse, only the result of the “liberties” that a minority takes and exercises directly on the stage of universal history?’

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