Natasha Stagg’s debut novel, Surveys, seemed to arrive at exactly the right time. The tale of a young woman’s sudden ascent to internet fame and its accompanying obsessiveness was heralded as the first meaningful piece of literature about Generation Instagram (which was, interestingly, never the author’s original intention). Originally from Tucson, Arizona, and now living in New York, Stagg has worked in fashion (at V and VMan) and branding (the 2×4 design studio). She talked to Shumon Basar about the peculiar qualities of 21st-century life that populate her writings, and the increasing difficulty of simply being a self anymore.

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Shumon Basar Do you worry about the future? Do you worry about the past?

Natasha Stagg Of course I worry about the future,but mostly I’m worried that we’re all too stuck in our own experiences to be able to empathise with others, and that doesn’t seem to be getting easier. I’m worried that the past is brought up too often to justify the present, and that we can’t come up with new structures because we’re so dependent on old ones.

Click here to read the full conversation.

Over the years, I’ve thought about deserts a lot. As for many out there, it probably goes back to Tatooine, and the two-sun sunset Luke mourns before, in Episode IV. I got to patch a lot of these ideas together in this piece, for a special issue of Pin-Up magazine.

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Things I cite: deep time, Dubai, Gulf Futurism, DeLillo, Dune — and more.

 

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Deserts and “desertness” allow for the fantasy of imagining an earth without us, or, at the liminal point when the “us” is about to become no more.

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Click here to read the full text.

 

 

Is it strange that one of the few times I really feel like writing these days is when someone I hold dear—without necessarily knowing them personally—dies? Here’s the next, about one of my favourite filmmakers, Nicholas Roeg, who passed away in late November, 2018:

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I’m sitting by Checkpoint Charlie in wintry Berlin, listening to a haunted piece of music called “Subterraneans”. It’s from a 1976 album by David Bowie, entitled Low, which was recorded partly in Berlin, where Bowie was then resident, recovering from California and cocaine. I’m listening to this song because a few days ago the mercurial British filmmaker Nicholas Roeg passed away, aged 90. He leaves a dazzling, complicated legacy, including a film called The Man Who Fell To Earth, also from 1976, which starred Bowie as an earth-stranded alien and, in my opinion, presented him as the most beautiful man that ever lived.

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The cover of Low is a profile shot of Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton, the human pseudonym alien-Bowie adopts in Roeg’s saga. His hair, burnt orange; the sky behind, sulphur yellow. A toxic miasma of some placeless other place. Bowie intended side two of Low (remember records?) to become the film score in The Man Who Fell To Earth, which explains its abstract plaintive soundscapes, like aural transmissions from a distant planet. This music never got used in the final cut, but it didn’t matter: Roeg and Bowie created one of cinema’s truly seminal science fictions. Over the course of his time on earth, Thomas Jerome Newton drowns in contemporary America’s addictions. Booze, money, television. All the while condemned to repeat an inner image of the nuclear family he left behind on his water starved home, many millions of miles away. The Man Who Fell To Earth shows us humans how alien we are when we are at our supposedly most human.

Nicholas Roeg is best known for a suite of ten films released between 1970 and 1990 and for a career that saw his singular brilliance subsequently punished by film studios and mid-brow gatekeepers. I started watching his work in my mid-teens, out of chronological sequence, thanks to the providence of British network TV channels who happily broadcast weird stuff late at night. As such, Roeg was instrumental in my nascent love for cinema: as a distinct place where time and memory, sex and death, desire and dissolution could agitate one another and, in doing so, produce sensual and intellectual pleasure. With each new film I encountered, it became clear to me that Roeg was the poet-terrorist of fractured narratives, relationships and landscapes.

Of the latter, see Walkabout, from 1971, where a young brother and sister are inexplicably shot at by their deranged father, who then sets his car and himself on fire, leaving the two children stranded, alone in the Australian outback. They’re joined by a young Aboriginal boy. Together, they traverse the arid landscape – through desolate farms and white Australians and nature’s avenging bounties – unable to speak each other’s language, and yet, as reviewer Roger Ebert wrote, the film is ultimately about “the mystery of communication”. It’s also remarkably tender, a reminder that racism is something inculcated by adults in children, not an inherent feature found in the young.

Or there’s Don’t Look Now, from 1973, this time framed around a bereaving couple. Water is everywhere. Water drowned Laura and John’s young daughter outside their family home. And now water surrounds the city of Venice, where the couple have gone to try and recompose their shattered life. Except grief never really goes away. Sometimes it haunts you, dressed in the same red coat your daughter wore when she died in front of you. Don’t Look Now intercuts the present with the trauma of the past. The atomic material that constitutes film – images, sounds – is the same material pain presents itself to the mind’s eye.

The critic Mark Cousins once said, if there is one film any aspiring filmmaker should see to understand what the medium is capable of, it’s Performance, co-directed by Roeg and artist-turned-scriptwriter Donald Cammell, from 1970. Authorial wrangles aside (such debates are essentially conservative; collaboration is ultimately mysterious), Performance drenches the screen in psychosexual energy, by way of Jorge Luis Borges and RD Laing’s recent theories of the Divided Self. James Fox and Mick Jagger’s characters – gang boss and rock icon respectively – are nothing alike. This is what makes them destined to fuse, neurologically, spiritually, in a dimly lit bohemian basement of a West London terrace house. The editing in Performance is abrupt and elliptical. It’s like being invited into a fever dream of identity and alterity.

Prior to becoming a director, Roeg had an established career in the 1960s as a cinematographer for The Masque of Red Death (by Roger Corman), Fahrenheit 451 (by Francois Truffaut) and Petulia (by Richard Lester). I would go so far to say that every great practitioner, of whatever discipline, has had a pre-life doing something else. It’s the pre- that fuels the present.

Throughout his other films – Bad TimingEurekaInsignificance, to name a few — Roeg seemed to burn fragmented images in my own mind’s eye. Many of these films star his long time muse and second wife, the actress Theresa Russell, who summoned Siren-like beauty and off-kilter distress. Roeg, at the peak of his powers, smuggled avant-garde film language into mainstream film viewing, setting the way for someone like Paul Thomas Anderson to do the same today. That Roeg was unable to make another feature after 1990 – and perhaps his nadir was a 1995 cable-erotica entitled Full Body Massage (the title is everything, right?) – says more about how formalist genius is frequently disdained and disowned in Anglo-Saxon cultures, tagged with that damning, lazy qualifier: “difficult.”

Life isn’t easy, is it? So why should the art which attempts to crystallise life aim to be anything but difficult? Nicholas Roeg knew this and exposed this, 24 frenetic, fractured frames per second. ◉

Postscript: By the time I reached the end of writing this text, the world learned that Italian film-director Bernardo Bertolucci had also just passed away. Contemporaneous with Roeg – although younger by some 12 years – Bertolucci’s legacy includes Marxist inflected The Spider’s StategemThe Conformist (both 1970) and the brutal sex-dirge Last Tango in Paris (1972), although the latter has been retroactively dethroned by admissions of sexual violence against its lead, Maria Schneider, by none other than Bertolucci himself. Like Roeg, Bertolucci’s was a career that shape-shifted, with moments of undeniable brilliance. He went from vital political relevance (though that was contested by Maoist-era Godard) to something, later in life, closer to theatrical pomposity. Aging is hard enough. Enduring relevance and longevity in what you do: harder still.

*Originally published on tankmagazine.com

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I had kindly been invited to the Experimenter Curator’s Hub, in Kolkata, India. Although I don’t feel like I have anything interesting or useful to say to a room full of curators or people interested in curating, the invite was kind and heartfelt enough for me to say yes. I haven’t been to India since 1997, and then, only around the North: Dehli, Jaipur, Agra and torrential Chandigahr. Having been born in Bangladesh, for a long time I wondered whether I should describe myself as “Bengali” or “Bangladeshi,” interchanging the two when I was younger, only realising the difference much, much later in life (region vs nation, in case you’re wondering). Kolkata is the spiritual centre of Bengali culture, its intellectual fulcrum: literary, cinematic. And it was also, of course, the centre of the East India Company, Britain’s Imperial instrument of colonialism. For all these reasons, I was keen to go.

But in the end I didn’t go. TL;DR: I couldn’t get an online visa, despite having a British passport. I won’t go into all the details, because it will expose my entitled privilege (“I’m British! I can go anywhere!” screeched in a colonial accent, of course). Let’s say a BJP-led antipathy towards Pakistan and especially “secret Pakistanis” combined with the ham-fisted crudeness of automated systems of bureaucracy meant I was not eligible for the online visa process. My father was born in 1937, therefore, in British Imperial India. My mother in 1953, therefore in East Pakistan. They were both Pakistani citizens—as were my grandparents— from 1947 to 1971, when Bangladesh won its independence. I can only deduce, by the number of questions asked about me and my family’s ancestral links to Pakistan, that I had tripped up a computational red-line.

This is a minuscule fraction of what millions go through on a daily basis, burdened with less palatable passports than mine, and by palatable, I simply mean, the extent to which you are welcome or unwelcome and made to prove your worthiness of being welcomed. Birth is the first lottery. Naturalisation to another country, another passport, is another lottery. Both weigh the worth of people in unethically asymmetrical ways.

I often think about what would have happened if my father had decided not to leave Bangladesh in the early 1970s—initially to Libya(!) but eventually to the UK.  What would we have become, in Bangladesh, a country whose greatest adversity is not the punishing climatological condition—a third of Bangladesh may be wiped out by rising sea levels in a few decades—but the violence enacted on the vulnerable masses by the privileged political, economic and military elite.

I touch upon this thought here in an interview with Rosalyn DMello  published in Firstpost. I also talk about automation and AI, living across cities and countries, and the uniquely important opacity of art.

 

 

 

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Machines à Penser is an exhibition at the Fondazione Prada’s Ca Corner, in Venice, which “focuses on three major philosophers of the 20th century: Theodor W. Adorno, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein… and the conditions of exile, escape and retreat and physical or mental places which favor reflection, thought and intellectual production.”

Curated by Dieter Roelstraete, it brought together artists who have reflected on these philosophers’ spaces of solitary production, as well as ersatz reconstructions of Heidegger and Wittgenstein’s huts.

A book accompanied the show. Designed by Will Holder, it contains essays by Roelstraete and Mark Riley; conversations with Goshka Macuga, Leonor Antunes and Alexander Kluge; and excerpts from the philosophers’ works.

I was asked to write about the history of the “primitive hut,” its antecedents and after-effects. My essay sweeps across time, from the Desert Mothers and Fathers to a Muji cabin available to order online. The full illustrated text is here. Throughout, the question remains, “why does this archetype return, again and again?” And what does it say about the fantasy of thinking?”

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It’s been impossible not to think about power recently. Power has gone through some kind of monumental transfer — from print to screen, from political parties to political outliers, from Good Internet to Bad Internet, from humans to algorithms. It was the topic of 2017’s Format at the AA School. And here, below, it continues, as 76 points written for the AA’s fierce lil’ zine, DUE.

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FYI, according to YouTube, the answer to number 75 is all of these power ballad-ish songs.

With thanks to Due’s editors, Sofia Belenky, Tobias Hetzer Dausgaard, Hunter O’Brien Doyle, and the designer, Anja Kaiser.

 

I was asked to write in Michael Rakowitz’s catalogue, for his show at the MCA Chicago (Sept 2017 – March 2018), entitled Backstroke of the West, curated by Omar Kholeif. Michael’s work encompasses errant history, near and far. He plays with time and matter. And so, here’s my short story inspired by his preoccupations*.

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“I REMEMBER HISTORY,” she says.

“YOU REMEMBER NOTHING,” he replies.

A precious artifact separates them. It’s white, brittle looking, a real talking point. Dust falls onto the starring loan. Neither she nor he notices. It’s nearly midnight now. The museum is open late, for the public. We must educate the public. Guards are prone to daydream, but what do they dream of at night? Dust always falling, breeding, elsewhere in the building too. Tiny enemies. Dust falls between this woman and this man.

“I REMEMBER…,” she says.

“YOU REMEMBER…?” he shakes his head.

They have been visiting this popular museum since they first met, on the third floor, forty-five years ago. They sought shelter from the rain that day. From the fucking chaos of the world. Their eyes locked onto one another—through the missing gaps of a dinosaur skeleton. Love at first extinction, you might say. Small talk ensued. Were the dinosaur’s memories still trapped in the bones?

A tour guide passed by, arms flailing, and he shouted, “One day, humans will be artifacts in a museum like this.” It made our couple laugh, and, before long, they’d told each other their plain, familiar names.

“I REMEMBER AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL DIG IN…,” Riva says.

“YOU REMEMBER NOWHERE,” Okada side-eyes.

Time in a museum is unlike time on a watch, on a screen, between atoms. Museum time is a relatively affordable luxury, a holiday away from habit. Time, here, is not narrative. Neither is it nonlinear. It is formed of crystals, according to a Sudanese painter whose work they saw on the ground floor of the museum, in rooms one through four. Women trapped in crystalline cages.

“I REMEMBER MY MOTHER’S TIARA,” she says.

“YOU REMEMBER WRONG,” he brays.

Riva and Okada have lost track of their route through the popular museum, the rooms they’ve visited, in their long, winding life together. Numbers are related to counting, and, after some years, when their marriage slowly turned into a private museum, they chose not to count anymore.

“I REMEMBER OUR FIRST BED, IT WAS…,” she says.

“YOU REMEMBER NADA, SO WHY DON’T YOU…,” he coughs.

Earlier, in one of the museum’s other rooms, they read a caption that said, “Time, more than space, belongs to theologians, filmmakers, and shamans.” They made a note of this, in shorthand that the other would find impossible to ever read. Then they watched a film. Historical sites—thousands of years ancient, in a part of the world most associated with unending wars—were being blown up with old explosives. These statues, apparently, were sacrilegious. Shirk, the greatest sin of all. Shirk, attributing God’s greatness to something other than God. Destroying them was the duty of the devout?

But the videos played backward. Pulverized dust slowly congealed back into form and figure, poise and premonition. This is often how their marriage felt too.

“I REMEMBER THE UNITED ARAB REPUBLIC,” she says.

“THERE IS NOTHING TO REMEMBER,” he shushes.

Are we able to piece together their itinerary over the past three hours—or three decades, who’s to say—moving from curated room to didactic display? Is this an accurate checklist?

  • MISSING ARTIFACTS STOLEN FROM
    THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF IRAQ IN BAGHDAD.
  • LOST VOLUMES DESTROYED IN THE STATE LIBRARY
    OF HESSE-KASSEL IN GERMANY
  • DISPLACED TRAY FROM THE GREAT SYNAGOGUE IN BAGHDAD
  • SCALED-DOWN RECONSTRUCTION OF THE ISHTAR
    GATE FROM ANCIENT BABYLON
  • DAMAGED BOOK OF PRAYERS
  • IRAQI FEDAYEEN HELMET, CIRCA SADDAM HUSSEIN
  • DARTH VADER’S HELMET DYING LANGUAGES

Doomed to repeat, cursed to repeat, shuffling the same playlist—this is what their grandchildren believe happens to civilization. Only technology changes. The nature of switches, dials, buttons. If humans are going to be artifacts in a museum like this, Riva wonders, could they pick me? She imagines a vitrine shaped like a crystal, like the one she saw Vladimir Lenin encased in, at his Red Square mausoleum. She envies the glory of his eternal rest. His pallor.

“I REMEMBER LENIN’S GUARDS. WERE THEY MADE OF WAX?” she asks.

“YOU REMEMBER EVERYTHING INSIDE OUT,” he says.

It is 11:59 pm, and the museum guards are rounding up people, politely asking them to make their way to the exit. The precious artifact separating Riva and Okada—white, brittle looking, a real talking point of today’s museum tweets—has puzzled them ever since they arrived.

The museum should provide theologians or shamans for moments like this, when the captions on the walls fall short. When you’re free-falling through meaning. When you look at the person you’ve spent almost your entire life with and— like that—you feel no love.

  • TRAGEDY
  • DISPERSAL
  • DISPLACEMENT
  • EXILE
  • RECONSTRUCTION
  • REMEMBERING
  • FORGETTING
  • FARCE

The chaos of the fucking world leads us here?

To a set of “keywords”?

The precious artifact—says the exhibition handout—is a new, three-dimensional printed copy. Very twenty- first century, apparently. However. Let’s be honest. This re-creation is more of a lewd ghost, composed entirely of digital dust, the wet dream of millennials, who have become the stupidly successful museum’s priority audience.

Riva and Okada fail to lock eyes with one another, missing the dinosaur skeleton maybe, missing whatever it is that makes the past something other than a grotesque animal. Their memories are trapped inside their bones. And at this moment, sadness falls between Riva and Okada for the last time.

“I REMEMBER OUR HISTORY,” she says.

“MY LOVE,” he cries, “I KNOW YOU DO.”

 


*The characters’ names are borrowed from the actors’ names in Hiroshima Mon Amouras is the contrapuntal affirmation and denial between the protagonists.

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And here’s the cover of Michael’s catalogue:

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Portrait by Trevor Paglen

I interviewed Hito Steyerl for the Autumn 2017 issue of Tank magazine. Read it here. My introduction goes:

For anyone with an interest in the fate of images, Hito Steyerl’s work is indispensable. Based somewhere between Berlin and the internet’s subconscious, Steyerl is equally adept at writing as she is at filmmaking, and is an influential professor at the Universität der Künste Berlin. Books such as The Wretched of the Screen, and installations like Factory of the Sun at the 56th Venice Biennial of Art, have cemented Steyerl’s status in a lineage that includes Harun Farocki and Chris Marker. No one quite manages to historicise the recent present in the way that Steyerl does, summoning philosophy, politics and popular culture with deadpan precision and deadbeat humour. Duty Free Art, Steyerl’s latest book, is published by Verso and is out October 2017.

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Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, was killed in an attack at Malaysia’s low-cost carrier airport, klia2, at around 9:00 a.m. on February 13, 2017. He was scheduled to take a flight to Macau later that morning. Two women, Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong (twenty-eight) and Indonesian Siti Aisyah (twenty-five), were allegedly asked to wipe baby oil on Jong-nam’s face, and were paid $90 for this reality-TV prank. However, twenty minutes after the attack—which was caught on airport security CCTV—Jong-nam was dead.

In issue #83 of e-flux journal, I’ve written a piece entitled “LOL History,” which is about this image, released soon after Kim Jong-nam’s murder:

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It’s an attempt to enumerate the different associations my mind and my memory made when I saw this image for the first time. When I started to zoom in, print it out, zoom in further, print out again, then pin on my wall:

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If our memories are becoming more like the data sets used by Facebook et al. for facial recognition, then it’s perhaps unsurprising that our eyes and ears have become search engine interfaces.

The text ends with a heartfelt question:

Something always exceeds the images of faces. Escapes complete capture. Maybe it is why we take so many selfies everyday?

 

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Dark Habits, published by HOME, 2017

 

8:04am

I’m starting a new moral universe. I decided. This morning. After difficult dreams; before my day began its dull duty. Today, I vowed, I must start a new moral universe.

 

8:05am

And here I am.

 

8:06am

Here we are. At the foothills of a more moral universe, whose path, I should warn you, is steep and likely hellish in parts, TBH.

 

8:49am

And yet, gulping the sweet coffee that is more like a chemical poem, tingling with this remarkable and fierce fury, the kind that accompanies deliverance, not mere duty, I said to myself, (((but not out loud))), that the time has come for a new moral universe. Free of novelty mugs.

 

9:22am

Because YOLO.

 

10:07am

I left the chain coffee shop, whose mermaid logo I am considering as a tramp stamp, and set off to the horizon of the future where a new moral universe is impatiently awaiting. (Kickstart campaign pending. (The pitch video is awesome)).

 

12:22pm

To the skeptical I say let us choose our battles. To the haters, I say let us arm ourselves with truth. To the basket of deplorables, I swear, let us not fall prey to the false gods of universalism.

 

2:59pm

I’m starting a new fucking moral universe AND there will be no Kenyan Keynsian economics, no state-capitalist discos, and no sweatpants outside of the gym. Dress code: strictly Uptight Anna Wintour.

 

3:11pm

I meditated a new moral universe. Peace. Shalom. Shanti.

 

4:01pm

I have yet to define where morality comes from. Me? You? Us? Him? Her? Them? There’s a song I stream – ‘Morality is Vanity’ by Momus – and the lyrics start out like this:

 

Nobody is evil, nobody is good
All the guilty people have misunderstood
It’s really nothing personal
You shouldn’t blame yourself
The crimes are irreversible
The life sentence is death

 

But I can’t dance to it. Downer.

 

4:04pm

I’m starting a new moral universe and I need an acronym because people don’t read anymore, they just ‘thumbs up’ 👍 or ‘down’ 👎.

 

4:49pm

Although these are just notes, they do contain encrypted secrets.

 

5:54pm

In my new moral universe – FYI! – we will be commissioning a lengthy report on the disruptive potential of morality. It will be full of cute GIFs and big, big data. It will make Mr Robot look like Peppa Pig.

 

5:55pm

[Enter sponsors logo here. And here.]

 

7:18pm

Before dinner tonight I will have installed a transition team for my new moral universe. They will bear uncanny resemblances to all the great thinkers – Noam, Lindsay, Michel, Hito, Sophia – but their thoughts will have been unthinkable even a year ago. Thinking that comes from the deserts, from deep past and deep future, desert language, prophets… absolutely nothing perfunctory. I promise you with my cold dead hands.

 

8:49pm

Jeff Buckley died too young. He would have been one of the most important twenty-first century feminists ever. I saw him play in a tiny club in Glasgow. It was 1995. He covered a Cocteau Twins song. He was in a relationship with Elizabeth Fraser, the lead singer from Cocteau Twins. Love letters come in many forms. In my new moral universe, where cryogenics will be immorality-free, I’m bringing Jeff Buckley back to pen the anthem and teach young boys gender grace, not through fear, but love.

 

11:11pm

I’m starting this NMU and I will look into:

  • statutory rights for robots
  • free Ashtanga for every citizen
  • the end of money money money
  • the definitive ‘season end’ of celebrity
  • fascism detection classes
  • an algorithmic poet laureate
  • energy produced every time an emoji is used
  • 7 billion social contracts
  • and I’m crowdsourcing the rest from you. Rest assured.

 

11:51pm

We don’t know whether to think or feel. If we think too much, those who feel more than us seem to win. If we feel too much, those who think more than us win.

 

11:59pm

I took some pills to slow my mind, to go to sleep. I hope I wake in time for my new moral universe. If I don’t, then, you’re in charge.

 


 

Commissioned by Sarah Perks for Dark Habits, a companion piece to the La Movida exhibition, which took place at HOME in Manchester in 2017. “The book is also self-consciously aware of its namesake, the title and content of Pedro Almodovar’s third film Dark Habits (1983), a key figure and film associated with that time.”