Archives for category: On people
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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:

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?

 

160614 Format 2016 – edition print WIP 1 lo

Poster by Wayne Daly

In Summer 2016, I organised a series of conversations at the Architectural Association in London, where guests were invited to share one “Couple Format” that has, in retrospect, made some kind of mark upon them. I asked each guest—from the worlds of art, architecture, curating, literature, and philosophy—to present the ways in which their chosen couples’ roles were delineated; the way in which the things the couples produced rendered the relationship; or the way in which the relationship may have been a kind of work or product itself.

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 12.39.37 am.pngSuperhumanity, a project by e-flux Architecture at the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial, commissioned me to translate the “live magazine” into an essay. Included here are selected excerpts from the seven presented Couple Formats. They include:

  • Charles and Ray Eames by Catherine Ince
  • Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown by Sam Jacob
  • Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari by Aaron Schuster
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas by Guy Mannes-Abbott
  • Marina Abramović and Ulay by James Westcott
  • Broadway and Fifth Avenue by Natasha Sandmeier

Throughout, we ask, “What was the identity between love and work, or, the love found in working together?”

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I interviewed Miranda July for Tank magazine, Travel issue, 2016, here. My introduction goes:

“Filmmaker, writer, artist.” Biographies tend to reduce people to nouns, but in reality the most interesting people are adjectives. Miranda July has made two acclaimed feature films (You, Me and Everyone We Know and The Future), a book of short stories (No One Belongs Here More Than You), a novel (The First Bad Man), and many collaborative art projects that harness communication as their medium. There are pre-lives, too, as a Riot Grrrl or a performer, all of which will surface in her characters. She lives in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, despite disliking all the driving that the city entails. Miranda July is always impeccably dressed and has an ear for tender pathos.

She’s also effortlessly affable in this conversation.

Portrait by Todd Cole.

 

Cao Fei I Watch Book

The artist Cao Fei asked me to write a few short impressionistic texts for her new book, co-published by Daimler Art Collection and The Pavilion, Beijing. They were to act as introductory entry points to three of her best known projects: RMB City; Haze & Fog and La Town. New China, forever apocalypse. Here they are.

You Travel to La Town

Cao Fei La Town

You will arrive at La Town. You travelled a long way. A long time. Via Hiroshima and Nevers. The plane had to take a detour. Electrical storms. Turbulence. You hate turbulence the most. You only reflect upon your mortality in a plane. You can even taste death. Or is that the after-taste of the terrible plane food. Every tiny shudder. Jolt. It sends shivers from your brain to your feet and then back again. The pilot said we have to make an emergency landing. You assumed you would all die. That’s what the sky is for. Disappearances. It’s OK though. It’s fine. You have arrived in La Town. With a new vitality for life. You are ready to discover. You are the kind of person who prefers not to read about a place beforehand. Those travel websites that advise. Award stars. You prefer to see everything with your own eyes. Without prejudice. You have tried to put the frightening rumours around La Town aside. You are an explorer of what’s left of the world. Sometimes you feel like you’re the last person on earth. This makes you feel alive. Like you matter. You are about to enter La Town, at its militarized border. You show your passport, even though countries are a thing of the past. You are tired. Your life feels like a videogame without a prize. But what is that sensation? That you have stood here before? It’s impossible. Your home is thousands of miles away. It’s your first time here. Irrelevant. This is what you sense. Déjà vu. La Town. Fear, excitement. Dread and desire. Your friends warned you that when you get to La Town you would remember nothing before that. You remember nothing about Hiroshima and Nevers. La Town will swallow you whole. Desire is fear. La Town coughs clouds of smoke. A chilling silence of an abandoned planet. La Town is what’s left of all of us. The end is OMG. Then a scream that can never be forgotten. That scream is yours.

 For Sale: Haze and Fog

Cao Fei Haze and Fog

We have the ideal place. You and your family have been searching for this all your life. Where is it? It’s not ‘just outside Beijing.’ It’s the New Beijing, the one that makes the other Beijing feel old. Like a ghost. We’d really like to set up a viewing for you. All our agents are ready. They’ll even dance when you arrive. Our best clients are entitled to their own customized dance. That’s the kind of agency we are. When you arrive, we’ll show you all the new facilities. Think residential paradise. Cafes. Organic grocery stores. Cutting edge hairdresser. International primary school. Yoga studio. 24-hour gym. Dark hidden basements. We’re so proud of the community created here. China is proud of us. Together we are proud of our future. Where else do the living and the not living manage to coexist? Where else can you see your dead parents and their dead parents on the way to the kid’s playground? Hello! All apartments have state of the art kitchens. Every surface is wipe easy. The plasma screens are so realistic you’ll think that red paint is blood! Your neighbours are the new crème of society. Lots of creative types. Artists too. We are very strict about who can move here. We share values. Everyone here believes in a kind of modern Chinese freedom. Every man, woman, or zombie is free to do his, her or its business without the judgment of others. Wealth, boredom, sexual fetishes. These are not taboo words. They’re a way of life. And the views! On a rare clear day, the views tell you this is a special place with its own rules. They may at first seem hazy and foggy but you’ll soon discover that a community that shares values can make a place like no other on earth. Because every great civilization from the past adapts morality to their time. We do too. We police each other. Wrongdoers are eaten alive. Not joking! Remember. We want your life to be the most contemporary possible. Your life is an investment. This place is the high yield return. Would you like a slice of watermelon? Welcome to your new home!

User’s Guide: RMB City

Cao Fei RMB City

I press the ON button.

me:                  “Hello?”

user guide:    “Hello. I’m your Intelligent Guide.”

me:                  “Nice to meet you.”

user guide:    “The pleasure is mine. I’m here to tell you how to use RMB City.”

me:                  “Great. I can’t wait to get started.”

user guide:    “If I go too fast, just rewind. I’m here to make your life less chaotic and much more fun.”

me:                  “Capitalism has killed my idea of fun. And made me poorer.”

I look sad.

user guide:    “RMB City was designed with you in mind. Let’s get started. First. You’ll need to stop being you. You need a new you.”

me:                  “I can do that?”

user guide:    “You have to. The secret of RMB City is searching for the secret inside of you.”

me:                  “You make it sound metaphysical?”

user guide:    “I’m sorry.”
me:                  “It’s OK. I like metaphysical. At the weekends.”

user guide:    “Ha. That is a joke. Ha.”

I look perplexed. I point at the various elements that make up RMB City.

user guide:    “They’re the best of New China all in one easy to get to place.”

me:                  “How do I get there?”

user guide:    “You teleport of course.”

me:                  “That sounds fun.”

user guide:    “I told you it would be. You just mentally picture where you want to go and in less than a second you’re there.”

me:                  “You make it sound so perfect.”

user guide:    “I’m programmed to.”

me:                  “What about money. In First Life, money corrupts and kills.”

user guide:    “Currency is a necessary evil.”

I look worried.

me:                  “Ha? Joke? Ha?”

user guide:    “No. RMB City has its own currency. You can never hold it though. It never becomes dirty. You can use it to buy me a present.”

I look more worried.

user guide:    “That was a joke.”

me:                  “What about when I want to meet others like me?”

user guide:    “No one is like you. RMB City will make you more of an individual than you have ever been. But it’s easy to meet other individuals. They’re waiting to meet you. And your soul.”

me:                  “How do you know I have a soul?”

user guide:    “I scanned your body.”

I look violated.

user guide:    “Everything is data. Data is everything.”

me:                  “Is that the religion there?”

user guide:    “You decide.”

me:                  “What if I transgress?”

user guide:    “You decide.”

me:                  “What if I don’t want to decide?”

user guide:    “There’s provision for that too.”

me:                  “So there really is no limit to my freedom?”

user guide:    “The sea and sky and land are as wide as our server farms allow. Your imagination is the only other factor.”

me:                  “I’m ready.”

user guide:    “So is RMB City.”

I teleport.

user guide:    “Ha?”

Photo by Bas Princen

The new Fondazione Prada Milano is opening this week. For Miucca Prada and Patrizio Bertelli, it represents the culmination of somewhere between seven and 22 years of preparation, in conjunction with the architects OMA/Rem Koolhaas. For me, it represents the culmination of just over a year or so, and with it, the public announcement of the Fondazione Prada Thought Council, of which I — along with Cedric Libert and Nicholas Cullinan — are credited as Founding Members. Yes, the name evokes George Orwell and Superman comics. It’s worth reminding ourselves how impoverished terms are if you want to avoid ‘Advisory Board,’ ‘Curatorial Consultants,’ or worse still, ‘Think Tank.’

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 02:  Patrizio Bertelli and Dario Franceschini attend Fondazione Prada Press Conference on May 2, 2015 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images  for Fondazione Prada)

Nicholas Cullinan, myself and Cedric Libert in ‘Serial Classic,’ shown in the Museo, Fondazione Prada Milano

Cedric and I will continue for another year, while Nick assumes his new role as Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London. The Thought Council will now be joined by the curators Elvira Dyagani Ose and Dieter Roelstraete.

TC Opening May 2015

Cedric Libert, Nicholas Cullinan, Miucca Prada, Dieter Roelstraete, Elvira Dyagani Ose, myself (4 May 2015). Photo by Goshka Macuga

So, what is the Thought Council’s remit? Every answer remains speculative except, in Miucca Prada’s words, ‘You are here to think!’

What I’ve gleaned during my time there is that the Fondazione has been it’s own thing for over two decades, which is also not-being many things: it’s not a museum (though it organises museum quality exhibitions), it’s not a Kunsthalle (though it organises ambitious temporary exhibitions), it’s not Artangel (though it stages some spectacular happenings in weird places), and it’s not a display of a permanent private collection (most of it has never been seen).

Now, with the enlarged permanent venue, it can experiment with all these gestalts and never have to choose to permanently be any of them. ‘It is a learning process for us,’ says Miucca Prada.

View towards entrance

From ‘An Introduction,’ curated by Germano Celant, makes a personal selection from the Collezione, set in a quasi-domestic setting

‘In Part’ curated by Nicholas Cullinan, takes works from the Collezione that feature bodies in fragments

‘Serial Classic’ renarrates the role of reproductions and copies in Greek and Roman antiquity

Accademia space for young children, conceived by  Giannetta Ottilia Latis and students from École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Versailles, led by Cédric Libert and Elias Guenoun.

Accademia space for young children, conceived by Giannetta Ottilia Latis and students from École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Versailles, led by Cédric Libert and Elias Guenoun.

As if to mirror this moment of reinvention — and also continuity — the institutional structure of the Fondazione has been rewired. There is no director. Instead, there are a constellation of opinions and minds. Some are pre-existing (Germano Celant, the Fondazione Curatorial Team, OMA, 2×4, regular collaborators). They represent the continuity.

The Thought Council is a new point in the constellation. We are there to bring new perspectives and, to use an old fashioned word, provide counsel. We also generate concrete projects (the first is Trittico, a display initiative using three works from the Collection at a time). But our voice is really one among many (which currently include Roman Polanski, Robert Gober, Thomas Demand and Wes Anderson), and one among many unknown voices that will appear in time to come.

Something thing we — and in particular I — worked on was formulating the Cultural Statement. This version, which I imagine will continue to evolve, alludes to the impulses of the many involved. It also stresses the certainty of doubt, something I appreciate. For those of you interested, here it is:

For the last two decades, the Fondazione Prada’s activities have analyzed intentions and relevance through an evolution of projects. These have included ‘Utopian’ monographic artist commissions, contemporary philosophy conferences, research exhibitions and initiatives related to the field of cinema. With the opening of a permanent cultural complex in Milano, the Fondazione offers new opportunities to enlarge and enrich our processes of learning.

‘What is a cultural institution for?’ This is the central question of today. We embrace the idea that culture is deeply useful and necessary as well as attractive and engaging. Culture should help us with our everyday lives, and understand how we, and the world, are changing. This assumption will be key for the Fondazione’s future activities.

Our main interest are ideas, and the ways in which mankind has transformed ideas into specific disciplines and cultural products: literature, cinema, music, philosophy, art and science. With the new venue, the Fondazione’s range of knowledge will be expanded. Each field will be afforded its autonomy but have the same overall aim. They will co-exist with one another, leading to unpredictable resonances and cultural intersections.

An attitude of openness and invitation characterizes the political mood of the new Milano premises. We will assert the possibility of participation at all levels for all generations. We will try to find new ways for sharing ideas. Attempts to redefine residency and education programs will go alongside with rethinking the notion of the Library, which might stay open all night, together with the Bar Luce below it. Another possible question is how a contemporary art institution can engage with the Cinema without becoming a film festival.

Art is the Fondazione’s main and given instrument of working and learning. A territory of freethinking in which established, indelible figures ¾ as well as emerging approaches ¾ are welcomed. The Prada Collection, comprising mostly of works from the 20th and 21st centuries, is another one of our given instruments. Our collection is conceived as a resource of perspectives and of potential energy. We will invite different kinds of people to provide new interpretations of undetected ideas from the collection: curators, artists, architects but also scientists and students, thinkers and writers.

This emphasis on range and repertoire of knowledge is reflected in the spatial composition of the Fondazione Prada in Milan. Formerly a distillery dating back to the 1910s, the transformation leads to an architectural configuration that combines preexisting buildings with three new structures. The combined result is a campus of post-industrial and new spaces, alternately intimate and expansive, while the courtyards provide a common public ground, open to the city. This rich spatial array will encourage quick and improvised reactions to cultural stimuli.

Finally, the Fondazione’s new institutional structure embodies the overall aim towards reinvention. It has become an open structure, where ideas are freely exchanged between the Presidents, the Artistic and Scientific Superintendent, the Fondazione Prada’s curatorial departments and the Thought Council, a group of individuals invited to engage with the future program for different durations of time. These and other contributions and voices bring to the process their own unique views on the present moment.

STRUCTURE

Presidents

Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli

Artistic and Scientific Superintendent

Germano Celant

Curatorial Departments

Head of Programs: Astrid Welter

Head of Research and Publications: Mario Mainetti

Head of Exhibition Design and Production: Alessia Salerno

Thought Council

Founding Members: Shumon Basar, Nicholas Cullinan, Cédric Libert

Forthcoming Members: Elvira Dyangani Ose, Dieter Roelstraete

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.

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

IMG-20140809-WA0001

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.

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.

*

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?

 

Image

Space, the final frontier? For artist, author, and “experimental geographer” Trevor Paglen, it’s just become home to his orbital project, The Last Pictures. Commissioned by New York’s Creative Time, Paglen has, courtesy of a television satellite called EchoStar XVI, sent 100 etched images to spin round the earth potentially for billions of years, or until the sun collapses. Shumon Basar asks Paglen about what it means to prepare for post-human time, the language of non-human communication and the ways we have represented ourselves, from the caves of Lascaux to Voyager, to ourselves in images.

SHUMON BASAR: So, Trevor, your Last Pictures are about to go into space. How does it feel after researching and preparing the project for so many years?

TREVOR PAGLEN: I’m in Kazakhstan right now and the launch is tonight. I’m amazed that this project has actually happened. Mostly I’m humbled by the amount of work so many people did to make The Last Pictures a reality. One of the most amazing things about this project is how many people from different fields, from anthropologists to aerospace engineers, dropped what they were doing to work non-stop nights and weekends to make it all happen.

SB: When it dawned on you that you would be sending something up that would be there for billions of years, what was your first instinctive idea?

TP: The Last Pictures imagines a distant or not-too-distant future where there are no humans left on earth and the spacecraft forming a ring around the planet are the longest-lasting traces of our presence. From the beginning of the project, it was going to be a meditation on the fact that we know full well how we are making the planet uninhabitable to ourselves, but are going ahead with it anyway. The project evolved into something more impressionistic than that, but I think that theme is still
very central.

SB: What changed?

TP: One of the main changes was the inclusion of images of people. For several years, I was convinced that there should be no images depicting human figures. The reasoning was that the project was in no way meant to be a “portrait of humanity” or anything like that. The Last Pictures was meant to tell a story about what humans did to the earth’s surface, biosphere, climate, and so on, not a grandiose representation of humankind. After looking at dozens of ideas for the collection that had no humans, I realised that no matter what you show, if you don’t include images of humans you end up with something that looks like a very clichéd apocalyptic narrative. But the decision to include humans then came with a different “rule”, which was that I wanted to locate the people depicted in each image and tell something about their specific story. Those stories are collected in the book.

SB: Carl Sagan’s Golden Record of 1974 is still careering beyond our solar system as part of Voyager’s epic voyage. Do you remember when you first heard of, or saw, this enigmatic object, and what it said to
you then?

TP: I don’t remember when I first heard about the Golden Record, but I’ve spent an enormous amount of time studying it and learning about their decision-making process. Before I really started looking closely at it, I thought the Golden Record was a saccharine piece of feel-good multiculturalism, which it is. But as I’ve looked at it more and more, I’ve come to see it as an extremely strange artefact. They had very sincere ambitions to represent specific things about humanity to an alien
audience. But images don’t make scientific or even reasonable arguments. I think there’s a lot to learn about how images do and do not function by looking at the Golden
Record’s contents.

SB: One hundred black and white images constitute The Last Pictures. Can you describe some of the categories you have ended up with, and if they portray life on earth optimistically or not?

TP: There isn’t really any effort to portray life on earth, so much as to look at some of the ways that humans have transformed what the earth itself is. Some images depict things like genetic engineering (a fruit fly that’s been genetically modified to have legs on its face instead of antennae; cloned cows), transformations to the earth’s surface (hydraulic mining, railroads), and climate change (melting glaciers, tsunamis). But the collection as a whole is much more impressionistic, I think.

SB: You have said that the cave paintings at Lascaux were crucial in the development of your own “cave paintings for the future”. In what way?

TP: My research team and I always understood that The Last Pictures would be a cultural object radically detached from history. We spent a lot of time looking at messages or images created for the distant future, like the Golden Record and various design proposals to mark nuclear waste sites for thousands of years. The art historian/theorist Yates McKee really got me thinking about cave paintings, which are images from the distant past that have become similarly torn apart from history, floating through time in much the same way that The Last Pictures will. I think cave paintings teach us a lot about what images actually are. They are incredibly slippery things. A lot of people would strongly agree with the idea that cave paintings speak to us, but it’s not at all clear what they say.

SB: How much has cinema played a role in subconsciously influencing what you have done? By this I mean outer space is somewhere none of us have ever visited but space feels less strange to us than many places on Planet Earth.

TP: Cinema influenced The Last Pictures very explicitly. Towards the beginning of the project, we imagined the object as a kind of archive, but as we worked with the materials and images more, that evolved. I started to understand The Last Pictures as a kind of silent film for eternity. An
enormous amount of effort went in to the formal relationships and montage effects from one image to the next, the rhythm of the sequencing, and the motivic
and thematic relationships throughout
the collection.

SB: Recently, you described The Last Pictures as “a meta-gesture about the failure of meta-gestures”. Throughout the whole project, it seems that you have constantly battled with the absurdity – or even futility – of what you were trying to do. At which point did you make peace with yourself and what you were conjuring, with all these different people?

TP: I’m not sure I’ve actually ever made peace about that, to tell you the truth. I think that The Last Pictures is on one hand a deeply nonsensical project, and I mean that quite literally. The Last Pictures is going to a space and time where there literally is no human sense (outer space; the distant future). At the same time, I felt an enormous responsibility to do the project in the most ethical way I could. I think that contradiction is very fundamental to what the project is.

SB: Obama has made it clear that the
frontier of space is no longer a priority for debt-ridden America, the way it once was during the anxieties of the Cold War era. Now, that race seems to be run by China, India and any other wannabe economic powerhouse. Would it be fair to say that
s/he who owns space travel owns the future down here?

TP: I think that space travel is largely symbolic, bound up with notions of “progress” and the like. There’s really no point to human spaceflight other than its symbolism. It’s enormously expensive and humans can’t do anything in space that robots can’t do better. Although human spaceflight isn’t practical in any way, it makes perfect sense that nations like China and India are pursuing it for that symbolic significance. Having said that, dominance of space is hugely important to the American military, and you don’t see much talk about cuts to the largely secret programs that are consistent with that goal.

SB: Werner Herzog, that fearless explorer of the human soul, conducted a conversation with you in New York about your project. How did he react to The Last Pictures and did you manage to convince him?

TP: Herzog is a big fan of the project, which is why he came out to New York to kick-off the project with me. But he had some quibbles with some of the images I selected. One image shows a smiling child in an American internment camp. Herzog thought that was what he called a “cheap shot”. I disagree – for me it’s an utterly horrifying image precisely because it seems to depict the normalisation of something so inhuman. Every person who set out to do a project like this would arrive at something different, which is something we agreed on. There is no “right” way to undertake such
a project.

The Last Pictures by Trevor Paglen, is published by University of California Press and Creative Time Books.

paglen.com