Archives for category: On images

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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:

Duan Thi Huong

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:

duan sb grid.jpg

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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You look up “outsourcing” on Wikipedia with a knowing smile. The crowd/out-sourced oracle says it dates “at least to 1981.” Even if this part isn’t true, I want it to be. Why? Because Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 and Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Because the era we have come to believe is ours all started with Maggie and Ronnie’s love affair with delirious deregulation? Because history loves coincidences.

You get into bed and say how good my hair looks. I tell you I dyed it with the new “Anish Kapoor Ultra Black” this morning, just after you went to work, and while I logged onto MTurk, Fiverr and Taskrabbit.

I remember back to when we first met, and you would read out loud to me. Now we have “audiobooks.” So, I ask you to read to me tonight.

You oblige: “Outsourcing is one of the central tricks of profit engineering. Keep production in an agitated state of perpetual displacement, shifting it to the next cheapest location.”

I demand a better bedtime story.

E.T.A. Hoffman wrote one called “The Sandman” in 1816. The protagonist, Nathaneal, develops strong amorous feelings towards Olimpia, whom he spies through a telescope. She plays the harpsichord, sings and dances. But Olympia turns out to be an automaton, and Nathaneal is driven mad by the sight of its disembodied eyes lying horrifically on the floor. Three years later, Sigmund Freud built his theory of “das Unheimliche” (“the Uncanny”) around that queasy feeling of not knowing if Olimpia is human or nonhuman, and the even queasier feeling Nathaneal had when he realised he was sexually aroused by a machine.

“Are we outsourcing more and more of ourselves to machines?”

“Baby, the more we outsource our memories to the Cloud, the more our memory can remember less.”

Does it matter where the Cloud is? Does it matter if the server farm is prize-winning architecture? Do the cleaners get a decent break? And are they unionized? Does the Cloud storage facility use rainwater to cool the temperature inside, or am I adding to climate change if I outsource my memory to it?

“Chill. The basic unit of outsourcing is distance,” you say, proudly.

“What kind of distance?”

“A distance that moves production not only from your physical view but also your conceptual view. This distance creates remove. Remove creates distanciation. Distanciation allows us to suspend certain judgments that proximity simply would not.”

I caress your glistening skin. I stare hopelessly into your eyes. I pray, after all these years, you do not turn out to be an automaton.

You tell me about a happy dream, where we have two robot dogs – called “Blindspot” and “Blacksite” – and a real cat – called “Blowback.” You hope I have the same dream soon.

“Would it be useful for robots to cry?” I ask.

“Well it depends what they’d be used for,” you reply, uncommitted.

“If you could, would you outsource your crying to a machine?”

“No,” you reply, committed. “Totally no.”

“Why?”

“Crying is emotionally cleansing. I don’t want to give that up.”

I decide not to share my idea of an app that crowdsources the public to cry on the user’s behalf, in case you find the idea emotionally devastating.

“So,” I process, “outsourcing is a chain of remove?”

“In exchange for something that makes us feel better, smell better, earn better. Like your luscious, gorgeous hair, which always turns me…”

You run your rugged hand through my locks – and shriek. Your palm is a blackened mess. It must be the “Anish Kapoor Ultra Black” dye. It hasn’t dried yet, still in a state of precarious entropy. I feel cheated. It was a good deal on Amazon, and only took three days to be delivered from China. I read all the user reviews. Now it’s all over our bed-sheets, which, fortunately, happen to also be black, but, just plain black, not absolute “light-absorbing black.” And not black like my skin either, which is yet another hue of meaningful noir.

All this pillow talk has reminded me that my ancestors were employed as human machines in a story of outsourcing called “Empire.” It makes me sad, not sexy. Sorrowful, the way our peace is made possible by outsourcing war elsewhere.

We turn our bedside lights off at the same time. Is there a name for the distance we see each other, arrange each other, love?


Published in Spike Art Quarterly, #51, Spring 2017

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la-traffic-freeway

  1. “Cities may not cohere the way you think they do.” She walked across the first of the six lanes comprising the infernal highway. “You walk across the same road you’ve used for fifteen years. You see half a dozen not-quite-things—a tree in bloom, a mobile phone transmitter, some pulverized bird.”
  2. She moved past the second lane, cars ignoring her reckless presence, cars hurtling from place to promised time. Each one, that dream, Autopia. “Like star constellations. When we draw a line around them, we’re giving them a name, so we can believe they exist in a way we think we exist.” [She took out her phone. She duckfaced and selfied the moment. Filter? Nashville. Lo-Fi. Perpetua. <SEND>.] “When we do that with, say, a tree in bloom, a mobile phone transmitter, some pulverized bird, we are making that outline a ‘city.’”
  3. Lane 3 was no match for her blind faith. This forward-facing futurist. “The city is an object wished for.”
  4. The fourth lane was next, and this time, did she float across? “My father said, ‘Constellations are the product of human perception rather than astronomical realities.’ He was right. That’s how they look from earth.” Infinite formlessness freaks us out. But, an animal or a chariot inscribed in the sky makes the universe more human and makes us more like the universe.
  5. She said these words as she fought across the fifth, penultimate lane, made easier or more difficult by the increased traffic at this time of day. People heading home. To be unalone. To dream of escaping this chronic city. “The moments we call crises are ends and beginnings. This, you.”
  6. He had the answer—waiting patiently on the other side of the six-lane highway, a clogged artery—and she was so close to him now, her heart, more mess than myth. She could smell his eau de cologne. Maybe? Patchouli gasoline. Yes. They gazed across the bullet-fire of vehicles. He stared at the selfie she has just sent him, adding a new filter. Perpetua. Aden. Willow. They longed reunion. In two hours time, they’ll stop fucking each other in a gasp of heady, indefinable pleasure, wordless and breathless, creatures conditioned by places. Places as pleasure. His outline, then hers. No name for this conjoining except, “We.” Perhaps? Possibly? Love is a highway that’s never quite finished, never quite started. And yet, two hours before their future post-coital cool, a red car—roof down, young couple in front, escaping the drudgery of their suburban lives, the smell of life fading away like cheap eau de cologne—crashes into the woman and the man, on the hard shoulder of this six-lane highway at the start of the long holiday weekend. Willow. Aden. Perpetua.

 

*“Later, Whitehead introduces a new a primitive notion which he calls an actual occasion. For Whitehead, an actual occasion (or actual entity) is not an enduring substance, but a process of becoming. As Whitehead puts it, actual occasions are the ‘final real things of which the world is made up,’ they are ‘drops of experience, complex and interdependent.’” The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/whitehead/#WM


Commissioned for Jitesh Kallat’s monograph, edited by Natasha Ginwala.

This is from the October 2015 special issue of e-flux journal. It was commissioned by one of the editors, Nikolaus Hirsch, after he visited the apartment I’ve been calling home for a couple of years: a tower in Berlin conceived by John Hejduk. By now, I receive visitors with a set tour that slips and slides according to the weather and the limits of my memory. The below is an attempt to crystallize as many of the facts and fictions I’ve gathered while living in this special place. A guide to everyone that will never come to see me here, floating in space.

HejduckBerlinBlacknWhite

Photo by Helene Binet when the tower was completed in 1988

1. Turn onto Besselstraße. You’ll see the Tower, grey and green. Look for the left-hand entrance. Pass the kids’ playground. Press buzzer name _______. I’ll let you in. Take the elevator to the tenth floor.

2. Look out for the single piece of graffiti in the elevator (always the word “SEX,” in capitals).

3. Just so you know, there is no other apartment on that floor. Just this one. The elevator doors will open and you’ll see me waiting for you.

4. After I’ve greeted you with a Continental kiss on both cheeks (one kiss feels inadequate; three, inconvenient), I’ll invite you inside my temporary home. And ask you to take your shoes off. It’s an Asian tradition I take with me wherever I go.

5. Even angels have to abide.

6. “The elevator brought you up one of the five towers,” I’ll explain, “and now, we’re standing in the central tower.” You’ll look around the square white room, roughly six by six meters. Plain black carpet. Mostly unadorned.

John Hejduk, Berlin Tower: Elevations and Plans, 1985-1986. Reprographic copy on paper. John Hejduk fonds, collection Canadian Center for Architecture, Montréal

7. “Hejduk was the architect.” You will look puzzled. It’s obvious you had an expensive education. You’re an avant-garde literature savant. A fan of untitled atonal dirges. You own every seminal Semiotext(e) paperback.

8. But you’ve never heard of John Hejduk.

9. I’ll launch, quite abruptly, into a customized Wikipedia biography. He was born in 1929 and died in 2000. Between these mortal parentheses, Hejduk was one of the “New York Five,” a loose band of neo-modern architects who rose to prominence in the late 1960s and early ’70s, famous for reintroducing formalism to discourse and building a number of rich people’s houses in rich parts of America. Soon after, Hejduk went his own inimitable way, which, it seems, was always his preferred way.

10. Hejduk the poet.

11. Hejduk the mystic.

12. Hejduk the dramaturge.

13. Hejduk the dean of the Cooper Union, New York, for decades. An influential teacher.

14. I’ll point at some black-and-white printouts pinned on my white walls. Scratchy ink drawings showing menageries of objects. Part animal and part industrial factory. Little lives floating between second and third dimensions. I’ll pick up a Hejduk book called Victims,from 1986. I’ll open it to pages that describe a theatrical cast of characters, who they are, what defines their individuality, how they belong to this … community, let’s call it. Or a troupe. The descriptions: quotidian and metaphysical at the same time.

John Hejduk, Berlin Tower: Sectional Details, 1985-1986. Felt-tip pen on wove paper. John Hejduk fonds, collection Centre Canadien d’Architecture, Canadian Center for Architecture, Montréal.

15. I’ll try and remember this quote by Hejduk: “I cannot do a building without building a new repertoire of characters, of stories, of language, and it’s all parallel. It’s not just building per se, it’s building worlds.”

16. Building worlds.

17. You may be surprised that for someone of his stature, Hejduk built relatively few buildings. (Less than a handful.) However, he was prolific in other ways.

18. I’ll gesture for you to follow me. “We’re in one of the walkways between the big tower and one of the smaller towers.” It’s just 70 cm long, and about 50 cm wide. “Notice. Windows on both sides.” You will feel like you’re also floating somewhere between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. You will feel tiny and also immense because Berlin slices right through this anti-room.

19. You’re part of it and apart from it.

20. This feeling was often considered to be the defining condition of life in the second half of the twentieth century. “I recommend Colin Wilson’s The Outsider.” You think I’m being quaint.

21. (Later on, you may admit the small walkway was erotic.) (I would agree.)

22. The kitchen tour will not take long because it’s just 1.8 m by 1.8 m, fitted out in original grey laminate 1988 cupboards. “1988 was not a high point in kitchen design.” There’s another window, this one with a green metal canopy floating over it. The view turns the outside into a slowly moving still life.

Photo by the author, 2014

23. I’ll walk you to the other side to show you the mirroring room, also in its own tower (the third), separated by another walkway with its two facing windows.

24. You will ask me what Hejduk intended with such impractically small rooms. “Well,” I’ll pontificate, “the whole apartment oscillates between spaces that seem too big and too small.” I’ll say that we only become conscious of space when it is either too big (a cathedral, a palace) or it is too small (a railway cabin, a prison cell). For most of us, lived space happens in the midground and, as such, washes over us quietly. Anonymously.

25. Some trivia: Hejduk was very tall. Imposingly tall.

26. I’ll open the two window-doors in the living room and tell you to go through the one on the left and I will go out of the one on the right.

27. Separated by about 40 cm, we now have one balcony each. A perfect cube approximately one by one by one meter, encased in gunmetal green painted steel. I think of them as two Carl Andre sculptures cantilevering above others like them below and above.

28. Why two, you might ask (scanning these floating square orbs for erotic potential). “It’s so she can sit there in peace and he can sit here in his own peace. They pass things to one another butter, coffee, a hardback copy of Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy but maintain their sovereignty.”

29. You will either find this a sad model of togetherness …

30. … or something liberating and true.

31. At this point, will another truth bloom in your mind?

32. “Today, luxury living has come to mean expensive finishes, furnishings, bathroom taps, and ‘exclusive views.’ Things to display. This has come at the expense of any kind of original idea on how to live.” For Hejduk, the antithesis is the case. All the material finishes in this building are humane but basic, suitable for social housing. Linoleum. Square white tiles. Cheap grout. “The luxury Hejduk offers is a radical rethinking of the plan of a house or an apartment. Its received principles of sense. He forces you to inhabit through invention.”

Photo by the author, 2014

33. This is a different kind of luxury. One that may have died in the handover from the twentieth to twenty-first centuries.

34. To live in an idea about living is wealth not measured in money.

35. “How did you get this place?” you will ask. Because everyone asks, expecting an answer rich in nepotism or savvy connections. I will honestly reply, “Providence.” You will say, “What?” I clarify, “Craigslist.”

36. “Let’s go upstairs.” This other Hejduk quote is pinned on the wall: “I don’t make any separations. A poem is a poem. A building’s a building. Architecture’s architecture. Music is music. I mean, it’s all structure. It’s structure.”

37. We’ll be on the eleventh floor now. Another large white space, four windows, two like square eyes, and we are the brain, gazing out at the city.

38. If you haven’t heard of Hejduk then you won’t have heard of IBA Berlin (Internationale Bauausstellung). An initiative from 1979 led by the architects Josef Paul Kleihues and Hardt-Walt Hämer to add and renovate much-needed West Berlin housing stock mostly welfare housing and culminating in 1987 on the 750th birthday of Berlin. The date would be exactly thirty years after Interbau, a similar initiative that bequeathed Berlin the Modernist district Hansaviertel, replete with Alvar Aalto, Oscar Niemeyer, and, further away, Le Corbusier for the urban un-rich.

39. Size wasn’t what made IBA Berlin so unique. It was, in particular, Kleihues’s choice of architects. On the one hand, there were historical postmodernists, who, in the early to late 1980s, had usurped orthodox or late modernists as the go-to avant-garde. Aldo Rossi, Charles Moore, Stanley Tigerman. However, Kleihues also enlisted many from an outmoded neo-modern camp. OMA, Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman, Raimund Abraham often built their first “real” buildings confined by stringent Berlin building regulations and challenging budgets.

40. IBA Berlin also commissioned three projects from John Hejduk. This poet of the unbuilt who kept a quote by Alain Robbe-Grillet pinned above his drawing desk: “The hallucinatory effect derives from the extraordinary clarity and not from mystery or mist. Nothing is more fantastic ultimately than precision.”

41. Robbe-Grillet was talking about Franz Kafka.

42. “This building would never be commissioned by anyone else,” I’ll explain to you, “because it’s so completely irrational.” A tower with just seven apartments. Two storys each. Twenty windows each. Not for affluent condo-dwellers, but originally intended for the DAAD residency program, yet ultimately never adopted for that purpose. There are also two lower blocks, with twenty apartments each, which initially housed mainly Turkish residents and families. The front facades are childlike faces, possibly crying.

43. In 1988, when the complex was finished, Checkpoint Charlie was just a few minutes away. The Wall sliced across Zimmerstrasse. This whole area between Friedrichstrasse and Charlottenstrasse, was a prominent hinterland edge of West Berlin, close to the Nazi command center. History on the sidewalks.

44. Then the Wall came down a year later.

45. The edge condition of East Berlin fused with the edge condition of West Berlin and instead of cancelling each other out as I’ll argue to you they combined their alienating forces.

46. This area (what is it? Friedrichstadt? Kreuzberg? Mitte?) has the paradoxical quality of being Berlin’s geometrical center while often being unmarked in Berliners’ memories or minds. An ongoing no man’s land, only now on the cusp of sweeping change.

47. “This is the bedroom. It can’t even fit a full double bed.” My artist landlady has hand-built a timber frame that acts as a 1.5 person bed. This room also can’t fit anything else except a single window. “Look,” and I’ll point at Potsdamer Platz over there. “That’s where the sun goes down.” You’ll lie on the bed and all you’ll see is the yellowing light on the grey concrete of the cylindrical tower outside the window. You’ll again feel like you’re between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. At peace.

48. I’ll then take you to the last part of this tour. We’ll have to go up the spiral stairs, which is inside the cylindrical tower, the fifth and final one. The view up and down the tower is a dirty realist Vertigo. “It’s always cold. It doesn’t want you to be inside it for long.” I’ll whisper to you that “I am convinced these stairs link heaven to hell.”

49. We’ll climb the industrial ladder to the roof.

50. Here, you will see the plan of the building, naked. You’re inside the drawing. The individual square and rectangular and cylindrical shapes connected by short bridges. Instead of carpet or linoleum, here you stand on large, smooth, grey pebbles. “It feels like a private Japanese garden.” You’ll nod.

51. We see the sun vanishing behind the skyline that’s not Berlin or anywhere particular. An ersatz horizon.

52. I’ll tell you to look down.

53. Metallic stars protrude from the walls, silently and regularly arrayed.

Photo by the author, 2013

54. What are they?

55. The most convincing story I’ve heard is: “They’re grips for angels to hold onto when they climb the sides of the tower.”

56. If we were anywhere else, you’d look at me bemused. As if I was overidentifying with supernatural sap. Here, it’s the only rational reason.

57.Wings of Desire came out in 1987,” I’ll mention. “Wasn’t that a film about angels in Berlin?” you ask.

58. Yes. It was. Marion as played by Solveig Dommartin, who couldn’t see the ponytailed outsider angels, and Damiel played by Bruno Ganz, inhabited their own parallel dimension next to humans. Don’t forget Nick Cave, one of West Berlin’s star residents of the mid-1980s, who utters the words, “I’m not gonna tell you about a girl … I’m not gonna tell you about a girl … I wanna tell you about a girl …”

59. You, who have been so patient with my exhaustive circuit, you will clasp my hand in flickering friendship, and, standing unusually tall, as if with wings, recite the following:

60. “The Angel dropped
and knelt
to ask a pardon
for its announcement
anticipating the coming entombment
The stone vault door
exploded into putrid passage
Italian was softly spoken
The cloth was loomed
in iris
Waxed bannisters
Pinioned the entry
Impregnation was complete
Joseph wept”1

[‘Annunciation’ by John Hejduk, taken from Such Places as Memory: Poems 1953 1996 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998)]

Both

Here are the two cover designs for The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present, both rendered and designed by Wayne Daly. The one on the left is the Penguin UK edition (echoed in the German edition), which sets the title in a bespoke captcha font. What are captcha?

Don’t pretend.

You all know.

They’re the ever primitive looking warped writing used by computers to determine if you are also a computer or a human. They’re the machine version of the Turing test on us.

captcha_lots

At their very best — or worst — it does feel like only another computer could decipher certain captchas, leaving us effectively locked outside our own existential homestead.

impossible captcha

We assume that captchas belong to Web 1.0, to a clunkier, Netscapey era of the Internet. But they’re around just as much — in more or less sophisticated forms. In fact, they illustrate the way in which the Internet is ‘chronochaotic,’ suffering olde bits of technology in tandem with the swooshiest HTML 1000 PRO (I made that up. I think). During the design process for AOE, we therefore liked the idea that our cover would effectively be this machine-Turing test for the reader, as well as another kind of test whereby some people will recognise the allusion to captcha, and others, simply will not.

The cover on the right is for the US edition, published by Blue Rider (also part of the Penguin Random House Group). Here, an illustration entitled Luxury Melted Earth by Alex Mackin Dolan, originally sent in as black and white:

ALEX MACKIN DOLAN melted luxury earth

has been artfully colourised and then even more artfully placed on top of a holographic foil.

Luxury Melted Earth _ Alex Mackin Dolan

We always imagined the front cover of the book — a paperback with an identity crisis — to be a kind of screen, so, it was thrilling to be given the go ahead with the holographic foil by our American colleagues. The insides of AOE are strictly black and white, following the example set by Quentin Fiore in The Medium is the Massage:

p14-15

so, it’s important that the exterior has a chromatic, even tactile quality. The holo-foil is again both contemporary and also quaintly 60s or 70s, as if lasers and space travel have just been invented, and express the frontier of now. A time when Carl Sagan was our guide through the universe:

Carl SaganNotice the name at the bottom. Jerome Agel. Oft forgotten genius svengali who gave birth to some of the most important experimental paperbacks of the later 60s and early 70s, including the McLuhan/Fiore The Medium is the Massage:

Medium is the Massage

Outrageously, Agel’s name was not included on the original Penguin cover from 1967, but, the current re-print amends this, and says, “Co-ordinated by Jerome Agel,” which goes some of the way — but arguably not far enough. For that, I recommend the brilliant The Electric Information Age Book which restores Agel’s cultural and intellectual significance. It’s because of Agel that I’ve come to think of the paperback as a piece of always-new technology. A Papeback OS, as it were.

Doug’s simple request to Wayne was that the cover should “feel like a classic Penguin paperback.” And this time-travel logic continued in the brief for the insides, too: “Wayne, the reader should be able to open our book somewhere and it feels like 1967. Then open it elsewhere and it’s 2015.” Just like the bumpy contours of the Internet itself.

p228

We hope we’ve succeeded.

bitter lake

There’s a scene in Adam Curtis’ new history-essay, Bitter Lake, which made me turn away — and cry, and wait until the un-narrated scene was finished. It shows a young Afghani girl, maybe aged 6 or 7, sitting by her father. They’re in a hospital. In Afghanistan. Her right eye seems to have been gouged out, her left hand and both her legs are heavily bandaged, twisted. She’s the victim of a bomb. The camera films them face-on. She’s there, placid, damaged, no doubt confused, shattered. But silent. Her father and the unseen health staff are doing their best to elevate the tragic situation. He offers her a flower, a red flower, with a smile, a loving smile, as if this red flower, its intrinsic beauty, might take her and them and maybe even their broken land somewhere else.

Photo 26-01-2015 1 36 42 pm

After I opened my eyes again, I see a soldier. He’s in a grassy landscape. I’m assuming it’s Afghanistan. That after all is what Bitter Lake is ‘about.’ Close by, a bird. Also just sitting there, minding its avian business. The soldier reaches out to the bird, carefully, delicately — yet the bird doesn’t fly away. In fact, it responds affectionately. They commune. This footage is also un-narrated, a moment of irrational tenderness, perhaps just before another bomb is set off, and other small children will be maimed irrevocably, or that soldier will be killed, and that bird decides to flee Afghanistan.

We listen to the news and we may think we are informed. But footage that makes its way to us is usually there because it can perform shorthanded and spectacularly. But what about everything else? All the time and space between those newsworthy ‘money shots’? For lack of a better phrase, where actual life occurs?

Much has been said about the fact that Curtis has made his new 137 minute film available only on the BBC online iPlayer, so that he can go long-form, free-form. But I’ve always thought of his film-essays as single pieces, 3 or 4 hours long, subsequently sliced into hour long fragments, to fit normal TV schedules.

The difference in Bitter Lake is that the strongest, most affective — and perhaps most informing — sections are these long, uninterrupted sequences where Curtis allows us to see footage from the never-seen BBC Afghanistan archive in a primary, unrhetorical manner. He allows them to ‘speak.’

This is what I’m taking from Bitter Lake.

There seems to be two films encased together. The first is the more familiar Adam Curtis-esque quantum hidden history, how causes (in this case, Saudi Arabia) ricochet to make events and vice versa. But the second film, the one I’m grateful to see and hear, the one that’s made me flinch away and well with tears, is akin to what cameras would tell us if we asked them to tell us everything they saw and heard. Everything. The lilts of nothingness, wordlessness, and the violence that occurs beyond the frame of vision we permit violence to operate in and as. Video game or not. Reality TV or reality free.

At the start of Pierrot le fou, Godard’s 1965 film that makes margins into centres of cities and souls, we hear Ferdinand read from Elie Faure’s History of Art. It’s worth working your way to the end of this longish excerpt, for the very last word:

‘Past the age of fifty Velasquez stopped painting definite things.
He hovered around objects with the air, with twilight,
catching in his shadows and airy backgrounds…
the palpitations of colour…
which formed the invisible core of his silent symphony.
Henceforth, he captured only…
those mysterious interpenetrations of shape and tone that form a constant,
secret progression,
neither betrayed nor interrupted by any jolt or jar.

Space reigns supreme.
It is as if an aerial wave, sliding over the surfaces,
soaked up their visible emanations, defined and modeled them,
then spread them about like a perfume,
an echo of themselves,
a scattering of impalpable dust.
The world he lived in was one of sadness:
A degenerate king, sickly infantes,
idiots, dwarfs, cripples,
a handful of clownish freaks dressed up as princes,

whose function it was to laugh at themselves…
and to amuse a cast that lived outside the law,
in the meshes of etiquette, plots and lies,
bound by the confessional and remorse,
with the inquisition and silence at the door.”
Listen to this, little girl!
“A spirit of nostalgia pervades his work, yet he avoids what is ugly, sad,
or cruelly morbid about those oppressed children.
Velasquez is the painter of evening,
of open spaces and of silence,

even when he painted in broad daylight or in a closed room,
even with the din of battle or of the hunt in his ears.
As they seldom went out during the day,
when everything was drowned in torrid sunshine,
the Spanish painters communed with the evening.”
Beautiful, isn’t it, little girl?’

IMG_4609.JPG

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.

(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.

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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!

Fiction is confirming that we have moved beyond the thunderdrome that came after the ‘End of History’.

Image

I submit this as cordial evidence: went to see two films last week. The first — Avengers Assemble — is a Marvel comics mega-mash up, brought to us directorially by Buffy-inventor, Joss Whedon (which means more one-line quips than would normally be otherwise). The second was The Dictator, Sacha Baron-Cohen’s latest obscenely, excessive, stereotype cipher. I don’t really want to review either of them here (the former: enjoyable, yawningly patriotic, predictable; the latter, unpredictably hilarious); rather, suggest that both films could never have been released before this year — 2012 — because they’re both ‘Post 9/11 Decade Films’.

That decade began eponymously when the digits say it did; then seemingly ended (farcically) first in 2008 with the global financial crisis, only to truly die again (like Buffy, coincidentally) last year, when the remote-camera-wired Navy Seals crashed into Osama Bin Laden’s lazy TV viewing evening, and finally smoked him out with all the technological panache of the most expensive first-person video game in the world. Bin Laden at this point apparently had been reduced to amassing prodigious amounts of (American!) porn in his basement, perhaps because the Arab Spring (/Uprising/Awakening/Thing) was well underway, yet still way before the so called Islamists and Salafists would step into the void left by the liberal Twitterocracy afterwards. Awkward period. Osama had no bizness left to bother with in 2011. His belated, biological death was — again like Buffy — a second death, coming after the symbolic waning of his symbolic power. That his body was disposed so seamlessly and invisibly at the bottom of the sea perfectly bookends the decade that started with suicidal airplanes, smoke and sky.

Soon after, Hollywood’s habitual fetish of blowing-up Manhattan in the movies became total taboo. Death-drive, wish fulfilment, thank you Herr Freud: now we really get it. ‘Fantasy realised,’ paraphrases Zizek in The Perverts Guide to Cinema, ‘has another name: nightmare.’

Fast-forward to May 2012 — the year anniversary of Osama’s assassination — and Manhattan is painstakingly destroyed in glorious CGI 3D by salamander alien spaceships and Thor’s pissed off step-brother. Avengers: Assemble is no longer in the 2001-2011 prohibition era. Manhattan is fictive fair game again. Watch the Empire State building crash and crumble as the mechanized tail of the serpentine invader lashes liberal death to order and metropolitan civilization. It’s like aliens can’t take over the world until they’ve turned Manhattan into a demeaned dust crater. Until we see our precious symbols subjugated by what we secretly — terrifyingly — desire the most.

The Dictator does Post-9/11 Decade differently. Now that so many of Ameeraka’s flamboyant, mortal enemies are dead-dead-dead (Qaddafi, Kim Jong-il — though Osama seems to be staying in a guest-suite in the state of Wadiya), and Arab Spring sequels into scary sectarianism, all the ludicrous details can be retrospected. Sacha Baron-Cohen’s Dictator is hauled in front of the UN to make a statement about Wadiya’s nuclear proliferation. Wadiya is therefore, in part, Iran: Amerika’s enemy du jour. Now that the ‘difficult’ Sunni’s have been brought into line (or shoved down to Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria), it’s time to deal with the Shi’a mother ship. Because you gots to have a Nemesis, a spectral foe, whether its from outta space or inner Communism or immanent terrorism. Widespread acceptance that Iran is now the primary source of badd future is another symptom of how the decade that was, now no longer is. The Dictator careers through a litany of liberal and illiberal clichés that adorned the various fought wars on beards and burkinis and anti-universalisms. I’d like to list what all of these are but it’s easier to urge you to see the film for yourselves.

I’ve written here about how Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was a sign that Dubai had emerged from its 2001-2008 era where cinematic fiction was unemployable and impotent in the face of nation state fiction-realism.

True Lies. Total Recall. As if our dreams secreted out into the streets via the silver-screen.

Published in the ‘Nostalgia‘ issue of Tank, Spring 2011

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Illustration by Olivia Meier

From TV to Wikileaks, the Only Way is Fake

“I can’t imagine having real boobs again, can you?” The other girls in the Jacuzzi, sipping champagne, immersed in bubble bath, nod their heads in vigorous approval. No, like Chloe Sims (cup size: 34EE), they too can’t, won’t and never will have to experience what it means to bare breasts that are entirely their own. Chloe Sims – not of the virtual reality computer game The Sims, but the hit TV show The Only Way is Essex – isn’t nostalgic for a former time where bodies were genuinely real. Authentic. Pure.

Chloe and her pneumatically prodigious, perma-tanned, hair-extensioned, Botox-baring best friends live their lives truthfully – on camera, for us to envy and disparage equally – with this mantra permanently in mind: the only way is fake.

The programme in which this scene so honestly unfolds cannot be as clearly categorised as the breasts under scrutiny – ie “fake”. In fact, some of the most popular TV shows of the past couple of years in America and Britain – The HillsThe CityJersey ShoreGeordie ShoreMade in ChelseaDesperate Scousewives – have fuzzed the flimsy wall between real and fake, fact and fiction. They introduce a format capturing the audience’s jaded attention spans today: pseudo-reality.

Ever since Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County aired in 2004, pseudo-reality programmes have given us a mash-up of documentary and soap opera. They proffer “real people” with “real names” (Whitney, Spencer, Chloe) whose lives pre-date the shows and continue to spill out into “real life” once the cameras stop rolling. Pseudo-reality programmes are full of “larger than life characters”, but Whitney, Spencer and Chloe are not fabrications from a scriptwriter’s keyboard. Life has delivered them to TV as ready-made chancers, seen on the E! channel, cascading down the steps of the Chateau Marmont in their off-screen time. Even the PR agents, skulking behind the bushes, are for real. Believe it.

Yet Whitney and Spence’s daily machinations of love, betrayal and very big hair do not manifest on-screen in the garb of realist documentary film. Instead, these programmes have a slick, carefully crafted look akin to aspirational, MTV-friendly dramas such as The O.C. and Gossip Girl. Shot/reverse shot. Lingering close-ups. Cool fade-ins/outs of brightly coloured indie songs. No one in pseudo-reality ever fluffs a line, is ever lost for words, talks over each other, or has their back clumsily facing the cameras – facing us.

This is pseudo-reality’s core capitulation: “real” people living hyper-real lives. Watching these programmes is like being in an ontological freefall sans metaphysical parachute.

FARAWAY, TOO CLOSE.

In the 1960s, film director Jean-Luc Godard popularised a theatrical device academics like to term “Brechtian distanciation”. Anna Karina would turn to Jean-Paul Belmondo, over a dead corpse, and inform him – and us – that “it’s not blood. It’s just red paint.” Decades later, and the UK comedy Peep Show is filmed entirely in direct address – towards us. Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, or “alienation effect”, was described by himself as “stripping an event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about [it].”

This tactic told you what you were seeing was not really a reality but something staged, constructed, scripted. Life-size quote marks. However, the pretext in cinema and theatre is already clearly signposted for us: we are observing fiction. What else are stages, screens, costumes and strange character names for, if not to transport us elsewhere? To alert us to the artificiality of the artificial is a neat, even cute conceit in these safe contexts and only truly disturbing if you think that cinema and theatre are, in the first place, a presentation of “the real”.

Tony Wood, creative director of Lime Pictures, which makes The Only Way is Essex, pitched the format to ITV as”Big Brother without the walls”.

An example of this occurs in an episode of Made in Chelsea when Ollie dumps Gabriella on the deck of a Thames pleasure cruiser, lit up by fairy light pathos. Daran Little, story producer on the show and The Only Way is Essex, said that Ollie had called the production team and informed them he was about to end things with his girlfriend. The shot and setting were swiftly orchestrated (cue fairy lights) by the production team. In the scene broadcast on TV, Gabriella seemed genuinely upset by the news. There were actual tears, in fact, and disbelief. But how much is set up, how much is sincere?

All of this probably sounds like the next evolutionary step in the interminable future of entertainment froth, but, seen from an even broader meta-perspective, it insinuates much about that fragile delineation between so-called fiction and so-called fact in our own off-screen lives.

Big Brother without the walls. It is a very neat equation. A perfect pitch for a pilot. One that describes contemporary reality as a whole. Think about it. Think back to Truman Burbank in The Truman Show, who believed he lived in authentic, suburban bliss, only to find out his reality had been meticulously constructed for the viewing pleasure of millions around the world. Millions who paid to watch him laugh, love and cry. In our own pseudo-reality, of course, there is no huge, Buckminster Fuller-type dome covering us, as there is in Truman’s town Seahaven, rigged as it is with theatrical lighting, 5,000 cameras and switch-controlled weather. In our pseudo-reality, there may not be a “backstage” as such, but there  are control rooms, directors, producers and scriptwriters we don’t know about and most definitely do not see.

Theirs is a one-way mirror upon us.

When WikiLeaks burst the information dams and the crusading antics of Anonymous exposed fragile corporate firewalls, we entered a new climate of super-structure exposé. WikiLeaks made the walls in international politics disappear so that real-reality seeps out into constructed reality. Or is it vice versa? That all this myth busting happened to happen the same time that pseudo-reality TV topped viewers’ preferences is all part of the pseudo-real plan.

Here’s a question. What was the most shocking thing about WikiLeaks’ various cables concerning Saudi Arabia, Iran, America and Europe? Answer: it was how unshocking most of it was. Unlike Gabriella when she was spurned by Ollie, we didn’t feel alarmed by what was revealed in diplomatic communiqués. It affirmed what we already knew but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, accept. Not unlike when watching The Hills or Desperate Scousewives,  we refuse to acknowledge that the whole thing is staged. Why?

The “shock” of the global economic crisis played out in eerily reminiscent fashion. We discovered that capitalism has engineered fictional frontiers of virtual money, and that this fiction cannot go on forever. The crisis is a sensational season-ending episode to 20th-century economics where the world’s “richest” countries are also the ones with the greatest deficits. Money, the ultimate pseudo-real invention.

BELIEVE IN ME.

The falsehood of reality has been an ongoing pet favourite of philosophers from time immemorial. Think Plato’s Theory of Forms and the shifty shadows in the Timeas’ cave. Descartes could only guarantee that our mind exists and that is only because it is able to think. Everything else? Big question mark. More recently, Baudrillard continued with this theme, focusing on the society of spectacle in which we drink the “simulacrum” of Coke rather than the real thing. You pay to be cheated.

Of The Only Way is Essex, Tony Wood has said: “At the heart [of what we do is] always a desire to put in the audience’s mind: ‘Is this real? Are they acting? Is it scripted? Is it not?'” And to leave  that as an open question for them.

Duplicity, paranoia and uncertainty: the pseudo-real building blocks of philosophy, politics and popular TV. Perhaps computer image specialists Hany Farid and Eric Kee at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire can help. They have invented a technique that measures how much a digital image has been manipulated. How someone’s eyes have been lightened, their crow’s feet removed, wrinkles removed, skin unsagged, and freckles, blemishes and unwanted hairs zapped away by Photoshop. This new software winds back the “impossible human beings” presented to us as fetishistic gloss, and shows us the “actual human beings”.

The ones like you and me.

To alert us to the artificiality of the artificial is a neat conceit in these safe contexts and only truly disturbing if you think that cinema and theatre are, in the first place, a presentation of “the real”.

To rewind to Chloe Sims’ rejection of the real, surrounded as she was by double-E implants, we may need to  heed her insight. For perhaps, like Descartes or Baudrillard, she can see through the nostalgia for authenticity.

The “real” was always just an iteration of the pseudo-real. More than ever, there is no uncorrupted core to aspireto, no loss to lament. If there is one thing we can take away after we have switched the TV off, it is that these programmes do not fictionalise reality in a duplicitous way. It is reality that fictionalises itself all the time.