Dropped Pins on the Beauty/Catastrophe Slider

This is a piece I wrote when I was predominantly a visual artist, before I started writing for its own sake. I realised on re-reading it that as an artist, I was interested in the same, exactly the same things, as I am when writing. The book I am working on now is in part about the entropy of cities, the bleed back into nature. It is also in some way about our ability, or inability, to operate as individuals and as a collective. It is about ‘the banal absurdity [..] in the endless imbalance between our grotesque human failures and enchanting victories.’

In light of recent news about the ability to manipulate people into a desired voting strategy by provoking emotional responses with tailored social media posts based on mass data gathering, the data seems even more like a suffocating swarm than it did five years ago.

Image from Where the City Can’t See directed by speculative artchitect Liam Young and written by fiction author Tim Maughan. 

APRIL 7, 2013

Writing artist’s statements can be interesting but it is more usually difficult and faintly embarrassing. Thus when you hit on a way of expressing something that explains without being outright nonsense or causing one to cringe, it gets copy-pasted so often that it can become unclear whether it actually means anything. One such statement came to mind attending a fascinating talk at Lighthouse on Thursday night.

The talk was from Liam Young, and covered some aspects of a varied practice in what he terms speculative architecture and design fiction.

He began with an explanation of a project that involves a large model of a city, post-oil Dubai, a new old city. The project was being created by architects, designers, writers and artists, modelled in the real and digital world. Something that Young said at this point made me think about a much-used phrase in one of my statements. I can’t remember what he said, but my faithful copy-paste sentence it triggered is a matter of clicks away and goes as follows:

“The built environment provides a way of exploring dreams, mistakes and ideals. I am interested in the way built things hold traces of both human intent and natural entropy, eventually leading to decay and desolation. This study gives me a strategy for exploring the human occupation of the world without needing to narrow the gaze to any individual.”

I was curious about whether this was what was happening for the people involved in the city building project. Whether they were looking at the human without looking at an individual human.  And I was curious about what is the difference and whether, if it is by design that this happens, what is the advantage in excluding the individual.

So much of a what I have learnt over the years comes from stories and usually these narratives are told from a particular person’s point of view. I wrote in an earlier post that literature has been a big source of inspiration and much of what I love in writing, whilst it is wonderfully generous in depicting aspects of all-humanity, is utterly dependent on the means and ways of very specific characters. Not all kings are as vain as Lear, not all fighter pilots have Yossarian’s baffled, frenetic energy, but both tell us about the whole world. It is a cliche that this is so.

Back to the city. The architecture of the city, an entire city, was an exciting prospect. An entire city holds many imprints of the mass of our lives. There are movements, strategies, stories, accidents, designs, as well as the quoted intent and entropy. My imagination  summon up one of those speed-filmed views of a busy street, the entity of human street occupation moving smoothly through gaps, crowds pulsing in cityspace. That view is almost individual, almost admitting the many single human bodies. But it is the human as a multitude, still not the individual carrier of a specified fictional narrative.

Later in the talk, Liam Young took us through a different geography of the world, a world mapped by data and a data held by fields of desert-dwelling, air-conditioned machines. This information has been used to produce new topographies of, for example, islands formed by data relating to the environmental footprint of a fashion item  This is one of the projects at Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today, a think tank run by Young and Darryl Chen.  The amount of information, the massive quantity of little things known that can be pieced into a huge amorphous knowledge of everything or nothing suddenly seemed to me to have the qualities of a swarm.  A swarm of something whose sheer size and density makes it frightening, monstrous even, in the same way that a human is repelled by many things in a multitude, a response to locusts, small things, anything in a billion cloud.

And yet there is another manifestation of the multitude that is beautiful, rapturously so. The flock or school, making new organs of intention within the ever-changing body of movement. Anyone who has watched the starlings here in Brighton, or scuba dived where fish school or noticed the slow expression of space-sharing that happens in a tree canopy knows the heart-catching quality of the multitude in the flock, the multitude that is not a swarm. The bubble of ash, as my daughter once described the starlings.

There is great difficulty in understanding humankind as a whole, because in part the scale of behaviours, the range of possibilities is so extreme. Hope for our future is so very easily confounded by observation of our present and past. It is for me utterly undesirable, simply wrong, to be a pessimist for many reason and yet the evidence would indicate that the trajectory will continue forever to veer between abject failure and wonderful faltering achievement that can never secure its own legacy. The only response to these extremes is to recognise the absurdity of us. To quote again from my artist’s statement:

“There is a simultaneous frailty and ferocious grip present at the point where we hold on to our place in the universe […] There is a point of banal absurdity that interests me, in the endless imbalance between our grotesque human failures and enchanting victories.”

The link then, is between the extremes of human behaviours, between the flock and the swarm, between these things and the study of the built or architectural environment as a device for looking back at them. The conversation at the end of talk included the question from Honor Harger, Lighthouse artistic director [now the executive director of the ArtScience Museum in Singapore] as to whether science fiction had lost its way, that perhaps design fiction was better placed at this time to act as a format for exploring future possibilities and current world refracted views. I would suggest that it is to do with the flock and the swarm, it is to do with the slider that goes from beauty to catastrophe on which we try to locate ourselves. What design fiction (and happily for the veracity of my artist’s statement stalwart phrase, design fact) offers, is indeed a way of looking at humans as an entity. Perhaps that is a position that is particularly valuable now, because of the new ability of technology to net the swarms of data, the huge monstrous, relentless mass of small squishy infos, enough to choke us, enough with which to build new islands, enough to drown us with the acknowledgement of our devastating impact and casually hefted destructive power. We have to be able to look at this as a whole. We have to find ways of looking at ourselves as a whole, we have to find the narratives of networks, of swarms, the gliding beauty of flocks, the choke of trivial mass.

There will always be individual fictional narrative that triggers within us a frequency that hums the sound of the whole, the collective. However, these narratives may be in relationship to negotiating what has already been done. Design as an act is inherently forward-looking because it takes place before existence, before use. It is hard to imagine taking hope (however framed) out of design. It may be a hope for power or control, or a hope for grace and enlightenment. A hope for a good return. Both design fiction and design fact offer us a gantry view of aspects of the whole of us.

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