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Two days ago, around 900 people died at sea.

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They were victims of… what, exactly? Fleeing from where, exactly?

  • War
  • Structural poverty
  • Political chaos
  • Histories of colonialism
  • Histories of submission
  • The way in which global capital does and does not enter territories
  • The 20th century
  • The 21st century
  • No future

It was put to me, by a haughty German artist in his 70s, wearer of a haughty moustache, that the flow of migrant desire from the Middle East and Africa towards Europe is proof that Europe is still, in the symbolic imagination, a superior place, a horizon of aspiration. And that any thesis that diagnoses the ‘end of the West’ should reconsider it in light of migrants’ flights.

I could not wait to exit this conversation.

His diagnosis is too simple.

Raft medusa
I do not wish to poeticise what is, in the simplest of human terms, an ongoing tragedy of epic proportions. But, there is something about what is happening, what has been happening, for over a decade now, where the borders between continents and countries have become ever porous, as if to shame the insistence of the Nation State idea into coping with its reality.

When Gericault painted the Raft of the Medusa and displayed it in Paris in 1819, it was to shame the political authorities that allowed slavery to persist, and to shame the consciousness of his own people into ensuring this diabolical trade of humans would come to a definitive end. It took an image to crystallise a condition. An image to arouse empathy. Images can possess the ethics we have yet to enact.

What of the images we see today of boats crammed with bodies, old and young, having paid their escape fee to a new kind of trader? What of the image of boats tipping, wrecking, bodies overboard, crashing into rocks? Corpses floating on the surface of the sea, specks of spirit? The many thousands that will never be found and identified.

It’s a kind of geology. Human bodies, in all their desperation, redrawing the lines between here and elsewhere, us and them, us and us, them and the others.

There’s something about the laws of entropy. That energy has to remain constant even if that means taking different forms. Travelling to different places with less… entropy.

We move everything today. In shipping containers, across kevlar coated cables at the bottom of the ocean bed, over wireless signals, on the backs of starved donkeys.

We move money through telephone lines.

We are moved. We are unmoved.

We also seem helpless against this geological shift of human pressure, maybe more or less helpless than how we feel about the ruination of the planet by those shipping containers, kevlar coated cables, wireless signals. The starved donkey is blameless. For once.

It is difficult to visualise the vast forces that are being effected by us or upon us.

This is one of those visualisations. A comprehension.

‘I enter Europe or I die,’ said one traveller.

‘I die in order to enter Europe,’ is what happens instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higgs Boson Blues.

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

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

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?

 

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André Vida is a Hungarian American saxophonist, composer and lyricist living in Berlin. Between October and November 2011, Vida was ensconced in a grueling endurance performance with fellow saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc. Except Moondoc was suspended out of a housing block window, in a film by the artist Anri Sala. Every day, at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Vida would improvise maddening scores, with short bursts of respite between immersive plays. Human, machine, instrument: how to be different when every day appears to be the same.

Shumon Basar:         When Anri Sala approached you, how detailed did he describe what he wanted you to do in his piece?

André Vida:         Clara Meister originally approached me about performing Anri’s piece 3,2,1 for her Soundfair series in Berlin. The premiere was exhilarating, and in the improvised solo section at the end of the piece I went into an hour-long saxophone trance. After that I was very curious about working more at the limits of my own endurance. There was clearly something in the air, because Anri approached me several weeks later asking if I would be interested in performing the piece nine times a day over the course of his seven week long Serpentine Gallery show. I was intrigued, scared, and overwhelmed and am still a bit shocked that I actually made it.

SB: Did you do any mental or physical preparation?

AV: First I thought of all of the things that I could have done in my life before that moment that would have made me prepared. Like yoga, jogging, pilates. Then I cried. And I started eating. I ate and ate and ate all the time telling myself when this is all over I will do those things that I never do, so that if the opportunity should arise again, I will be ready. But now as I lie here in my bed in Berlin eating, I realize I’m probably not going to do any of those things. So I started training a combination of Grinberg therapy, playing a lot of sax, and kissing. In the process I became very aware of my physical habits with the saxophone and more importantly how to move and adjust to deal with potential pain and stress. Finally when I got to London I met an incredible acupuncturist, Karen Cohen, who is largely responsible for getting me through it all.

SB: Can you remember the first performance of the first day?

AV: There was the gala opening on a Friday night and there was so much anticipation in the unexpectedly very warm air. Then on Saturday morning in an almost empty gallery I found myself struggling. As I recall the first official performance of the first day was slightly dull and regurgitated. My journal from Day 1/Cycle 1 reads  ‘This improvisation lacks an energy contour, a simple container. 400 to go! Ha – if I think like that I will never make it. My back is tight and fluid like a heated river. Where are the fish?’

SB: You’d play for 25 minutes and then have 25 minutes off until the next performance. What would you do in that time between?

AV: After 25 minutes of blowing air through a saxophone in an unheated gallery (with holes in the wall) my mind and body were often somewhere else. And then I’d find myself walking into the heated lobby of the Serpentine feeling quite vulnerable. My typical routine was to go to my sax room, take my instrument and wireless mic off then the layers of hunting clothing. Then if I needed a table to work on, I’d walk around the building to a second space. I have a huge stack of drawings from those in-between times. Anri described them as ‘anti-scores,’ which is fitting because they are not tools of intention as much as internalizations of the saxophone language I was living in.

SB: Were you writing stuff down over the course of the months you were playing? What kind of stuff was it?

AV: Yes, I kept a journal full of little notes about the performances and daily details. The following is an excerpt from Day 6/Cycle #5:

‘At the solo section two older women start talking loudly to the guard asking this and that. They feel so empowered and oblivious. If aliens were to come to earth, these women would first try to eat them. Some kind of mundane baked alien casserole gratin and me on the outskirts talking to myself.’

SB: How difficult is it to keep something like this from being repetitious or boring? What are the mechanisms for relentless invention?

AV: I am not sure how much I can reveal about the mechanisms as I don’t want to understand too much about them myself.  In a broad sense I am continuously experimenting with amnesia. How flexibly can I move between my collective and specific memories? How can I forget what is about to happen? I have so many techniques for getting lost, so many friends who are experts, and so much of that aesthetic is hardwired into our collective sense of compelling performance.

SB: Is there epiphany in routine? Or is epiphany actually dull?

AV: When I am touring around the world one of the most exciting parts of the performance is packing up my gear after the concert. Some of my most profound epiphanies occur in the larger cycles of a process and within the routine of these 403 twenty-five minute performances the labyrinth of perspective was fully lit. Some of the epiphanies were languorous and steady, but dull is not the word I would use.SB: You told me that Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman are important to you. In what ways?

AV: Samuel Beckett taught me how to win half a cup of free tea from a full-breasted waitress, so I am forever indebted to him. His sense of timing is so distinct and I often wonder how he transmits that through words on a page. Morton Feldman on the other hand… there is a delicate sadness in his music that I gravitate towards. The seemingly endless feel in his works also fascinates me. There are some composers who write 100 year-long pieces and others whose music occupies 100 years in ten minutes. Feldman is both.

SB: And Marina Abramovic, ‘the god mother of performance art’ Like?

AV: I would rather call her the Goddess. The range of work itself, the risks she takes and her ongoing engagement with endurance are a source of inspiration for me.

SB: Would you fantasize about being elsewhere when you were performing in the gallery? Places you’ve never been before or familiar places?

AV: Yes. I fantasized and researched about the history of The Serpentine Gallery. I would imagine the natural flow of human motion in the rooms when it was a tea house. When I peered out through the holes in the walls I imagined past pavilions and experimented with my own designs. The pavilion that I designed in my time there was made out of white cotton and derived its structure from moving fans. I found myself inside that pavilion from time to time altering its structure with the wind from my saxophone.

SB: Did you continue to play in your dreams at night?

AV: No. I did not dream so much over the period of the show. It was more as if my entire life was a dream. There is a drink I had once in Brooklyn called Morir Sonando which translates to ‘dying in your dreams,’ and this performance more than any reminded me of the taste. Kind of synthetic orange cream powder with seltzer water. Now two weeks have past since I returned to Berlin and anytime I pick up my saxophone I smell oranges.

SB: Can you remember the last performance, Number 403? How did you make it definitive?

AV: I was very over-excited and spent almost the entirety of the performance on my knees or with my back on the floor. It was very emotional although I don’t know which emotion or story I was telling, as if the accumulated weight of the experience was releasing itself through me. I felt like the lit end of a portal. The audience clapped which was the first time throughout the entire 403 concerts that a group of people clapped together for me. I didn’t expect that at all and didn’t even know how to respond to it. As I was walking away, I heard this tremendous clapping and wasn’t able to stop the routine my feet were so used to, so I kind of turned          halfway and lifted my saxophone in the air and my feet just kept on walking.

SB: When did you know this whole endurance was truly over?

AV: Four nights before the final performance around midnight a gang of hooligans on the street pulled out a tenor sax. They were drunk laughing and playing around with it and for a second I wondered if they had broken into the serpentine and stolen my baby. They started playing the sax intro to ‘Baker Street’ and I knew the cosmos was calling me home.

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This bald spot. Just here. On my chin.  Let me point it out for you. Look. This fallow, little patch. A negative island, the world’s smallest crop circle, a sign from the alien trapped inside me. This question mark. It’s here to stay. A question of time. Fucking inevitable, you say? These yellowing stains that cling to my teeth despite the computer generated animations that fill my mouth with marauding invaders whose defeat is guaranteed. By this new mouthwash. These cavities I hide from myself. Gums. What kind of word is ‘gums’? This kind of blood from that kind of electric toothbrush. Sent it back to Amazon three times. We’re sorry, Sir, it was a faulty batch. I misread the email. It said, ‘You are a faulty bitch’. And I complained but they put me on hold. I’m still holding. It was a question of time, of waiting. Inevitable, I assumed. These nostrils that slowly refuse to intake air. At the rate that I want. With the capacity I need. Those nasal sprays. Otrivine. O-tri-vine. I say it as I inhale. And think about the phrase, ‘The Last Breath’. Will I inhale it or exhale it. Will I have a choice. Does anyone. And that other phrase. ‘The tunnel after the end of the light’. These eyes. Somebody told me that, ‘Your eyes are the only part of your body that does not age’. He meant it poetically, eyes and the soul, that kind of stuff. But he was wrong. He didn’t see with my eyes, the eyes I have now, who stubbornly refuse to see the way I once did. Acuity unintact. These specks that sometime float around in front of my sight like the stuff before dinosaurs arrived. This soul, your soul. On this earth. Does David Bowie’s green eye age quicker than his blue eye? Perhaps. It’s a question of time being able to get revenge. On me. On us. Everything with time is inevitable. These white hairs. Their nylon texture. They way they fall and then refuse to fall when I want them to. I’ve kept count of every single one. I take pictures. I date them. It’s time posed as a question through me. Inevitable, my mother says. This silhouette of my body that won’t fit those skinny jeans. They won’t go on, those skinny jeans are for someone that isn’t me. I fucking hate him. The skinny jeans can’t get past the lumps that seem to be growing on existing lumps. That radio programme said lumps, they’re early warning systems. Listen to your body, the radio spooked, and I listened. I’m still holding on for customer services. This holding music by Simply Red. His fucking grin. Neither question nor answer. Whether age is a number or a state of mind or giving in to Simply Red. These aches. These aches that have become me. And I in turn become the aches. As well as these vitamins, these medicines. All the saved spam mail trying to sell me cut-price Viagra. If it’s just a question of time, of age, of inevitability, I should ask my friends to buy me a crate of the stuff. Of all the things to fail, what a thing to fail. It even happened to Ted Danson. I saw him on TV, that show about the writer who can’t write. Blocked. Ted Danson says, ‘I used to enthral. Now I disappoint.’ Cheers Ted. It’s a question of inevitability, of biological determinism, of your cells going kamikaze. My cells. These white cells. I’m sending mine back to Amazon. Don’t tell me the guarantee has expired. Machines expire. Food expires. Science tells me I’ve been propped up by artificial means, like Walt Disney’s cryogenic body, and now. This piece of technology. These circuits and valves. They can’t be saved by my mid-life Porsche, my scrawny, scrapped back ponytail, greased with organic beeswax, and this girl everyone mistakes for my fucking daughter. She isn’t. I’m not. We’ll be happy. Once I get past this hump. And so I watch the white ice caps melt, the sheaves of snow crash into the sea, water levels rise inch by lethal inch until we’re drowning, not swimming. And the errant patch on my face has grown and grown to cover the surface of the world, drowning it. This world. This fucked up world, my children one day will say. Hello. This is customer services. How can we help you? I see. The thing is, sir. You have over-extended your extended built in obsolescence. No sir. You can’t be fixed. Company policy states it’s a question of timing. These things are inevitable. Happy Birthday. Goodbye. 

Published in Tank, Spring 2013

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PROLOGUE

She has eyes, liquid gold, and an argot just this side of human. She lisps. Her hair lacquers in vertical, electrostatic lines, a sound of silvered solar cells. That skin. He spent so long on that, her freckled skin, partly dreaming and wholly scheming, calculating the exact moment a touch would register on the inside of her heart; that infernal contraption that insists on having a mind of its own. “Not my mind,” he cursed. He curses a lot—at the sun and the moon, at the gods of invention and genetic coding. He curls his fists around her wrists.

WOMANESQUE

There’s a fantasy that’s stuck around for millennia. Man creates life, without women coauthoring. A non-sexual birth, in Petri dishes or super-charged subterranean chambers or cosmic alignments. Artificial Intelligence, clones, immortals, exceptions. Post-humans engineered devotedly by humans, blessed by the holy conjunction of hubris and science. Note: many of these mutant manifestations aspire to recreate woman, anew. Mary Shelley may well have fabricated the literary Dr Frankenstein so that he could piece together his ugly, unloved, monster-son; but when men method their own ungodly Creation Myth, it is often a “She” they conjure: daughter, lover, wife. Saviour.

SCREENED

Cinema—that 20th century art form for the desiring masses—provides one of the most fertile settings for history’s enduring experiments with man-made women. What is the appropriate noun? Female automata, gynoid, cyborg, actroid. All have featured prominently in their silver skin on the silver screen. These modernist manifestoes reach backwards into time as much as leer into the future. The word “robot” is attributed to Karel Čapek in his 1921 play, R.U.R. But as early as 1st century AD, the ancient Greek mathematician and inventor, Hero, described animistic machines in his treatise, Pnematica and Automata. They reappear through Ancient China, Middle Ages Islamic dynasty and 18th century French courtly life (in the guise of a mechanical duck that excretes). By the time cinema establishes itself as the dominant entertainment pastime, Freud’s theories of the unconscious have flourished as virally. At the core of one of his most famous essays, “Das Unheimliche” (“The Uncanny”), is Olympia, a mute female automaton mistaken for living woman. ETA Hoffman’s story, The Sandman (1840), embodies, for Freud, the essential components of modern male fetishism and pathology—with mechanical Olympia beating as its heart and hard-on. So, let me draw a personal, selective genealogy of some of cinema’s most telling female automata, androids, cyborgs and gynoids. If, as Freud postulated, “fantasy realized is nightmare,” then what nightmares are these male-made synthetic women trying to fantasize away?

MARIA

She is a voluptuous metallic cast of a girl, as if naked, expressionless and embellished by Art Deco extrusions. Rotwang manages to transform her, with rings of electricity, into Maria’s evil-double. Soon, she unleashes chaos on the city, driving men to murder, out of delirious lust for her. The city is Metropolis, the eponymous title of Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian masterpiece, and Maria (who is also referred to as Maschinenmench, Machine Man) is the first robot depicted in cinema. It becomes she. She seems to incite urban havoc while at the same time is the diabolical product of the same modern forces that made Metropolis the modern city par excellence. Steel, electricity, systems, seduction. Maria’s beauty bypasses the rationality of male workers and collectivizes them (on the 10th anniversary of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution). Ultimately, false Maria is tied to a stake, set afire and gradually transforms back into her hard, robot form. Real Maria, a cipher of kindness and soft femininity, has been returned from a nightmare where she was a kind of Kali: destroyer of all worlds, and of men.

NATACHA

She is the daughter of Professor von Braun, architect of totalitarian computer-ruler Alpha 60. Her black hair falls to her shoulders, to the delicate woven white collar, above which her fiercely outlined eyes betray this: Natacha does not know the word “love” nor “conscience”. Nor does anyone else in Alphaville, Jean Luc Godard’s 1965 sci-fi noir, because the overlord Alpha 60 sees and hears all things, and it does not like the idea of love. Lemmy Caution, an interstellar Gallic grimacing Columbo, has fallen for Natacha, her icy innocence. For her dearth of human affection. Lemmy introduces Natacha to the poetry of Paul Eluard, the Surrealist sage of lamenting love. Because Alpha 60 has also banned poetry in this light forsaken city. Slowly Natacha thaws. All this time, she has been missing something, that humanizing gene. Physical beauty is not enough. But, love and conscience, they make us human? All it takes is a man in a Macintosh on an Orphic mission, and the defective quasi-woman is saved. From her curse. We know when it is broken. When, in the final scene, Natacha (played by Anna Karina) turns to the camera (and therefore to her newly divorced ex-husband, Godard), to shed her first ever tear, and stutter the words: “I … Love … You”.

JAIME

She is a tennis pro who is nearly killed by a skydiving accident. A mysterious organization save her life with bionic implants: soon, she has a bionic right ear; a bionic right arm; and superhuman legs that allow her to run as fast as a slow car. Jaime Sommers becomes the Bionic Woman, a 1970s spin-off from The Six Million Dollar Man. The same subdivision of the CIA, The Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) has rebuilt her with the same advanced technology used to rebuild Steve Austin, her former lover. In return, she has to dedicate her life as an agent to OSI. Jaime’s cyborg self is the result of advanced American military research. Her recuperation, her enhancement, is also her weaponisation. Her decoy day job as a schoolteacher doesn’t stop the fact that she will spend the rest of her life seeking out morally dubious targets as well as permanently be a target for other scrupulous entities. If Steve was the first cyborg Adam, Jaime is the first cyborg Eve. Courtesy of Cold War America’s finest crypto Creationist minds. Twenty years on, and Motoko Kusanagi freefalls into the anime classic, Ghost in the Shell. She may have wires that plug into the back of her neck—an echo of the electrolysis in which she was lab formed—but that doesn’t detract from her impossibly curvaceous manga figure. If you are going to be assassinated point blank, it may as well be by a thing of elegaic beauty. That way, death can creep a little closer to sex.

RACHAEL

She at first wears her hair tied up, tightly wound in 1930s coil. Her shoulders extend like runways, a silhouette prickly with supermodel swagger, and taut pencil skirt stricture. Rachael Tyrell does not know she is a replicant. Why would she? She has tactile memories of being a 6-year-old girl. And then Agent Deckard arrives, in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), to subject Rachael to an “empathy test”. She responds with all the shrill wit of a first rate intelligence, at one point replying, “Is this testing whether I am a lesbian or a replicant, Mr. Deckard?” The empathy test is a sci-fi reimagining of the Turing Test, Alan Turing’s famous means by which artificial intelligence is to be gauged. In Blade Runner, the replicants have exceeded their servile denomination. They now want to live forever. And they’ll kill in order to do so. In this advent, the law asserts its right to destroy them. Rachael, however, is an anomaly in this bio-system. She is a replicant that may be more human than machine or indeed other humans. And, it is secretly inferred—via an origami unicorn—that Deckard may well be a replicant also assuming he is human. Inevitably, Deckard falls for her/it, despite or because he knows what Natacha truly is (or, is not). He undoes her repressed hair. They fuck like animals (real, not robotic). Once again, we’re with Orpheus and Eurydice: Rachael and her saviour escape always-torrential Los Angeles, 2018, disappearing into the horizon. But, who will die first? Twenty years after Blade Runner, Osaka University unveiled the first of a series of “actroids”—androids with strong human likenesses. Most recently “Geminoid F” has been acting in a play with a human counterpart, performing with over 60 facial expressions and breathtaking lifelikeness. In Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s 2012 revisitation of Alien territory, Michael Cunningham’s robot-character David acts human to parry the calm assurance from actual humans around him, while Charlize Theron’s stoical Meredith Vickers, like Deckard, appears in flashes to be some cyborg invention of her father, Peter Weyland. Confusing? Good.

LISA

She emerges in the doorway: white sawn off top, blue boys’ trunks, backlit by neon pink smoke, the stuff of home DIY sorcery meeting soft porn search. Lisa has been Frankensteined by two teen nerd virgins—Gary and Wyatt—who have made their desktop PC do much more than play Pacman. Playboy pin-up, Barbie doll, Eddie Van Halen, government mainframe. Of these things are sexual-beings made. Weird Science (1985) presents Lisa as the ultimate adolescent wet-fantasy turned flesh. Kelly LeBrock fulfilled this role supremely for millions of real-life teens (myself included) that drooled at the dream scenario: smokin’ hot older woman as your own love/life guru, insatiably prone to sharing showers. Like, woah. 1985 also saw the publication of Donna Haraway’s influential essay “A Cyborg Manifesto”. She used the concept of the cyborg to offer a political strategy for the disparate interests of socialism and feminism, writing, “We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short we are cyborgs”. This liberation-call does not immediately tarry with Lisa’s more base function on earth (or in Gary and Wyatt’s bedroom). But where does it fit with the invention and sexual success of RealdollTM, which, since 1996, “has been using Hollywood special effects technology to produce the most realistic love doll in the world”. Be ready to part with $6000 and you can choose, online, from 10 female body types, 16 interchangeable faces, and minutely customizable details including make-up, pubic grooming, cornea colour, tan lines—and elf ears. In fact, the atomized selection process could be straight from Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corporation or Prometheus’ Weyland Corp. In reality, it’s located at San Marcos, California. The company’s name? Abyss Creations. As deep—and safe—as your deepest female fantasy fear.

EPILOGUE

Only when he falls asleep in this tangle of wires, wattage and spent Kleenex does he let go, and tells himself: She is salvation, serenity, cold sexual perfection. My antidote to mother and sister. She will be siren and shorthand for something missing. He hopes to never live long enough to see her die. She is learning, without knowing, what hope is, and why She is His.

Published in Tank, Autumn 2012.

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Here are details from pictures depicting Sheikh Zayed (the founder of the UAE) and a number of national envoys, from Hosni Mubarak to Abu Mazen. I found them in a 1993 publication produced by the Ministry of Information, UAE. It’s sort of like Wikipedia before the internet. A statistical and hagiographic portrait of a country that has yet to experience the verb ‘To Dubai’. That will take another decade or so, once 9/11 and the second Gulf War have become historical landmarks. The 1990s was, in retrospect, the transition decade. Between the 20th century grand narrative of Soviet Communism ending and whatever was going to come next. Huntingdon’s ‘Clash of Civilisation’, naturally, followed Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’. In these pictures, where Sheikh Zayed sits consistently on the right hand side, the masculine pursuit of diplomacy is made possible only when a bouquet of artfully arranged flowers lie in the discursive pathway. It’s impossible to tell if the flora are real or plastic. Regardless. They’re cores of visual concentration. They bind the two figures together in a shared domain of non-human arbitration. Flowers are unequivocally good. Innocent. Beautiful. (I’m reminded of one of Leonard Cohen’s book of poems, ‘Flowers for Hitler’. Do they become evil once they’re dispatched to an evil recipient?) The flowers can be colourful so that the men sitting on either side of them can choose not to be. Flowers are not capitalist (though they can be produced and traded in capitalistic ways), they’re not Marxist, they’re not neo-liberal, they’re not gay or straight, East or West. Flowers are blind to unethical appropriation. They retain their inate flowernessness. The most interesting arrangement is the last one: Abu Mazen, who is pretty much right between the first and second Intifada, struggles to make eye contact with the Sheikh. The pyramidal bouquet is too high. The symbol for peace has become an impediment to the conversation that is presumably concerned with a specific, regional peace. I think this is why there are three phones on the table. Well, it explains two: one for Abu Mazen to use to call Sheikh Zayed, and vice versa, thus circumventing the obtrusive flower-wall. But who is the third handset that walks between them?

Written for SCHIRN magazine, on the occasion of the installation ‘Framework‘ by Bettina Pousttchi at Frankfurt Schirn.

*

What does it mean? What does it mean to mean? What does it mean to express? What does it meant to impress? What does it mean to regress? What does it mean? What does it mean to matter? What does it mean to manipulate matter? What does it mean to manipulate the means with which matter matters? What does it mean to matter less? Matter more? Does it matter? Does it mean? What does it mean to copy? What does it mean to paste? What does it mean to open a new window? What does it mean to adjust levels? What does it mean to lose all your files? What does it mean to fail again, fail better, and then just fail? What does it mean to win? What does it mean to blow-up? What did it mean to Antonioni, his paranoid, forensic lens, the dead body at the centre of life? What does it mean to zoom-in? What does it mean to zoom-out, the way Michael Snow did in Wavelength? What does it mean to prefer the middle-ground? What does it mean turn foreground into background? What does it mean to you, to him, to her? What does it mean to a society, if such a thing still can exist, to find solace in the symbols of the past? What does it mean to say that you have hypochondria of the heart? What does it mean to people holding passports like yours? What does it mean to people holding passports like yours but not skin like yours? What does it mean to be your skin? What does it mean to turn attention to skin? What does it mean to a building when it is skin deep? What does it mean to obsess about the soul, the soul of a country, of a people, of a time, of an era, of a history of the now that is defined by who cannot share that same history? What does it mean? Who do you mean? What does it mean to care? What does it mean to care anymore about impossible things? Were things ever possible? When was that? Do you have the time? Whose time? Yours? What does it mean to tell the time? To whom? My time? What does it mean to claim that the world is flat, then not flat, then smooth, then striated? What does it mean to stock exchanges, derivatives, fluctuations and finely tuned financial instruments? What does it mean to you? What do you mean to them? Is this what you think when you think about your place in time and space, in space and time, when you stand in front of black and white lines arranged in repetitive rows according to an interpretation of geometries from faraway lands, mystic aesthetics, image prohibitions, Mohammadean anti-idolatory? What does miscegenation mean to you, to him, to her? What happens when images miscegenate? What happens when miscegenation miscegenates? What does it mean, mother? Father? Brother? Enemy? What does it mean to stand and stare and stop to think and not shy from the consequences of that thought? What does it mean to listen, not the way drones listen, but the way flowers listen? What does it mean to speak? To say? What does it mean to mean all these things, at once, like a meteor shower in the blackest of skies with someone you love? What does it mean to encounter? What will it mean? I meant every word I said.

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

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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.