Showing posts with label London. Show all posts
Showing posts with label London. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Tribal Futures

...meets Open Source Design

Image via Tribal Futures website

Over at her blog The Future of Self-Knowledge, designer Jessica Charlesworth writes about her recent involvement as an "embedded reporter" for a class project in the Royal College of Art's fascinating Design Interactions MA program. Tribal Futures was a four-week collaborative effort between the RCA students and the user-experience group at Vodafone, with support provided by the mobile network company. According to the brief [pdf]:

The development of mobile telecoms so far has been about personal technologies -- there is little successful development or marketing to groups, although as social animals much of human activity and culture plays out in them.

Social theorists predict that traditional units of society such as the family are becoming less dominant, and instead -- elective, tribal groupings are on the rise.
...
The project's enquiry will focus in on the mundane and the extremes of our behaviour in groups and propose design interventions to support, subvert and celebrate our tribal connections.

We encourage you to extrapolate the current trends in mobile, social and other technologies in terms of their failures as well as successes, and examine what technologies [sic] intended and unintended consequences might be.

Magical nihilist Matt Jones of Dopplr (and formerly, Nokia), who was also involved with the project, clarifies that these terms were "deliberately wide and intended to steer us all from thinking about mobile phones". Accordingly, the variety of outputs was impressive -- as was degree of development that students were able to achieve in four weeks. Overviews of each piece of work can be found here.

Among my favourites are The Singing Flock by Louise O'Connor, who was inspired by the "fluid self-choreography" of starlings -- see the image at the top of this post -- to imagine an online improvisation space, which would display the voices of physically dispersed musical collaborators as flocking birds...


Ben Faga's web 2.1: humility through humanity imagines that vital bodily activities might be relayed, via Web 2.1 Underwear and other sensory apparatus, to our anxiously waiting networks...


And Dearbhaile Heaney's Constructive Hold Spaces would create transient communities and audiences out of the disparate individuals who happen to be stuck on hold in a telephone system at the same time...


Now, if you take a look at the Tribal Futures site, you'll find that each student's output (description, concept designs, drawings, etc) contains a link, in the bottom left-hand corner, back to his or her contributions to the group's research blog, the learning space for the project that Jess was brought in to help populate.

I really like this, and I want to use it as a springboard to draw out an element in the mix here which, at first blush, has less to do with the themes of mobile networks and tribal groupings, and more to do with the fact, as well as the manner, of this graduate design program unleashing its project work on the world. (Not everything that follows pertains specifically to this program, but it's a line of thought spurred by it.)

Of course, shows of students' work have long been a crucial initiation rite for intrinsically outward-facing professions like design and architecture, for the sake of exposure to potential employers and clients, as well as broader audiences (recall the recent example here about design-led futures). But at the risk of stating the obvious, as of quite recently it has become extremely simple to integrate the pedagogical process with the broader conversations and purposes to which a program may be committed. That is to say, not only end-of-semester assignments, but also things done en route (including content sharing, brainstorming, note-taking, and discussion -- all project-development activities which are often undertaken electronically) can be made public as part of The Bigger Conversation, too. Indeed, that's more or less what we did for my experimental future-jamming class last year, via a publicly-accessible class blog that documented students' learning as we went along, and especially as tangible elements of alternative Hawaiis (circa 02038) were conceived, produced and installed out in the world.

But the argument is not confined to an academic setting. Nor need the sharing necessarily occur right alongside the creative process (rather than being made available ex post). One example can illustrate both points: certain Hollywood feature films are developed under conditions of the strictest cloak-and-dagger secrecy, but the clear trend since well before the advent of DVD has been for increasingly exhaustive behind-the-scenes materials to be gathered or generated as part of the production process. These are incorporated either into extras with the home video release (on-set interviews, making-of featurettes, commentaries by cast and crew), or into movie tie-in products sold separately (coffee-table books featuring production artwork, costume and set designs, and on-location tales from the trenches).

To be clear; our claim here is not that public inscriptions along the designer's road are always and everywhere possible, or even desirable. Indeed, constraints routinely affecting commercial design contexts, such as confidentiality due to competition, or security concerns, or a simple desire to work away from prying eyes, may make it preferable for some designers not to talk about how the sausages are made.

Rather, the point is simply to note the increasing viability, and potential utility, of the by-products of the creative process being made more widely available (particularly, but by no means exclusively, around complex collaborations). It seems to me that the more comprehensively the journey can be recorded, so long as the material remains reasonably navigable, the better it stands to serve the cause of collective learning in the long run.

I am reminded of a post from a few years ago by the Near Future Laboratory's Julian Bleecker, who noted the importance of designers sharing their creative exploration:

The process and practice of moving from idea to final version is all too often a process of making the richest part of creativity illegible.

Why? Because oftentimes we don’t treat the practice of constructing objects and things as a kind of theorizing in itself.
...
I think capturing and even sharing widely ... these articulations at even embarassing [sic] stages would go a long way toward enrolling semantic objects into the larger ecology of social beings.
...
[I]n the knowledge ecology that is made possible by the world of connected thought -- the Internet -- creativity, innovation, making stuff that makes for more habitable, sustainable worlds is a massively multiplayer game.

It seems to me entirely sensible that the bigger processes and social challenges in which the design community is implicated are aided by lifting the curtain to reveal more behind the scenes activity.

Let's return to the context which prompted these thoughts: the Design Interactions program is well known for its dedication to a distinctive set of emerging strands, or approaches to research, in design practice; among these are design futures, design for debate, design fiction, and critical design. (Here I should note the current controversies and debates over terminology within the field. In a interesting recent piece by Bruce M. Tharp and Stephanie M. Tharp at the widely read industrial design website Core77, a four-part typology for industrial design is suggested, each type being determined by the designer's main intention. Using the language proposed there, the approaches named above could reasonably be characterised as a combination of experimental and discursive design, as opposed to responsible or commercial design.) Still, regardless of precisely what we call them, there is a clear idea in all this that the outputs (designs, artifacts) themselves are not to be regarded as finished objects, but instead, or more importantly, as catalysts for further thought, discussion, and exploration. In that sense, then, they are deliberately, strategically tentative.

A relatively open attitude towards sharing the creative process by which they are generated is in fact an extension of the spirit of the whole undertaking: since even the finished product isn't, traditionally speaking, a "finished product", earlier stages of the discussion form an equally legitimate part of the conversation. This ethos is entirely in keeping with a commitment to educative, publicly-oriented and catalytic uses of design practice. In other words, we could say that in addition to the above characteristics, it's also Open Source.

It is a curious and felicitous side-effect of this intellectually generous modus operandi that the program and its students could be said themselves to be modelling a key behaviour for the development of future "tribes" -- i.e., voluntary affinity groups based around shared (in this case, design) sensibilities, commitments, ideas, and passions. In other words, their relative transparency and online openness towards the wider world may make this group a particularly fine example of a 21st century tribe in action.

And, to bring us full circle, Jess's role as an embedded reporter -- or if you prefer, tribe scribe -- embodies this Open Source commitment, as well as the 21st century affinities idea, rather well. Her designated contribution is, one could say, to serve as a conscious agent, cyber-archivist, and advocate for the collective identity and memory of the group, via the documentation and preservation of its discovery process, for both internal and external audiences' contemporary and future reference.

A quick word about Jess, whom I met at the New Sciences of Protection: Designing Safe Living conference held at Lancaster University last year (where she was also the designated -- and very European-sounding -- programme rapporteur). Jess is an alumna of the fascinating Design Interactions MA, and protégée of critical design pioneers Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne. She has also, among other interesting things, founded a hypothetical organisation called The Futures Association for Therapy and Entertainment, or The FATE Institute, "a fictitious future forecasting institute that acts as a vehicle to generate personalised future forecasting services". It explores "the cross fertilisation between three methodologies of future forecasting; ancient divination, corporate futurology and predictive gene testing" (a frighteningly plausible ménage à trois involving science, pseudoscience, and good old fashioned quackery).

It is with great thanks to her and to Fiona that I announce the happy news that I'll be joining the current Design Interactions group in London for several sessions later this month, to help introduce them to futures and its usefulness in supporting design exploration -- and vice versa.

I can't wait to meet the rest of the tribe.

Related posts:
> Future-jamming 101
> Object-oriented futuring
> Design-led futures
> The MacGuffin Library
> Open Source futures and design
> Public service and self-promotion meet on the adaptive path

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Crime scene

The Bigger the Searchlight the Larger the Circumference of the Unknown
Harland Miller (02008) | Regents Park, London
Image courtesy Flickr user Herschell Hershey

"Up until you realize it's not real, it's not a sculpture. But when you realize it's not real, it becomes a sculpture, and your brain has to think of it in a new way."

~Nigel Schofield, quoted in Katie Kitamura, "The Art Factory", Wired 17.02, February 02009 [p. 87, print edition]

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The MacGuffin Library

A gallery of props from non-existent movies.

An artifact from The MacGuffin Library (02008) by Noam Toran and Onkar Kular
Image via Electric Sheep Magazine

Legendary suspense film director Alfred Hitchcock famously used the term "MacGuffin" to denote the object in a movie narrative which would drive the plot forward: "In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers." The MacGuffin, in other words, is a sort of embodied pretext, however flimsy, for the conflicts and other relations between characters, which is where the true dramatic potential resides.

Artists Noam Toran and Onkar Kular have recently run with this concept in an interesting direction by setting up a library of MacGuffins from hypothetical films, as part of an exhibition called Wouldn't it be Nice... Wishful Thinking in Art and Design, at central London cultural venue Somerset House.

Toran's website explains:

The MacGuffin Library proposes the foundations for a library of MacGuffins, produced by first authoring a series of film synopsis' [sic] which are used to inform a collection of objects to be designed, manufactured and catalogued. The film plots address themes stemming from a disparate range of interests and inspirations: Re-enactments, unorthodox fantasies, Borges and Carver short stories, forgeries, urban myths, high and low brow cinema, alternative histories, and the relationship between media and memory.

The objects were manufactured on-site with a 3D printer [video via moleitau's Flickr photostream] and placed alongside their paragraph-long "film synopsis" counterparts.

Image via markselby's Flickr photostream

In an interview with Pamela Jahn for Electric Sheep Magazine, Toran says:

Although we are not making the film we are hopefully producing a space between the object and the synopsis where an audience can create the film themselves, and where they can think of what we are intending to present cinematically.
...
It’s the beginnings of a library, but that library is one that is based on a process of producing a piece of work. And we’ve found that this medium, the object and the synopsis together, is the basis for conversations that we have between ourselves about art themes and other interests that we have, for example, alternative histories, unorthodox fantasies, the way cinema influences reality and vice versa. To some extent, we hope that audiences will also add their own ideas to that, and that the library will become an open source.
...
Some of the MacGuffins are based on films that we wanted to do, one in particular, that I wanted to do. Getting the budget to produce this film is currently totally unfeasible, so actually getting it out there in this manifestation is great.

This hypothetical film-prop approach resonates with our "tip of the iceberg" principle of future artifact creation (compare this work, for example, to the Americana: Hawaii exhibit that FoundFutures did a couple of months back). There's a resemblance both in the invitation to imagine the scenario cinematically, to fill-in-the-blanks opened up between object and story synopsis, and also in the strategically economical evocation of an idea or narrative which may be too large and expensive to manifest in a more fully-fledged representational format (e.g., by making the actual films).

In light of this it's no surprise to me to learn that Toran and Kular are associated with the Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby school of hypothetical product design at the Royal College of Art. Indeed, Toran's work Accessories for Lonely Men (02001; see this Régine Debatty interview from 02006) was part of the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition at the MoMA earlier this year (noted at this blog a while back), together with the work of several other RCA alumni, whose artifacts were conceived and produced specifically to spur imaginations and conversations around various future scenarios. (The future artifact-like work of Dunne and Raby and their talented design-school protégés remains a topic for me to address here in much greater depth.)

Meanwhile, props to Toran and Kular for a really interesting installation.

The MacGuffin exhibit came to an end on 5 October, but the larger show of which it was part (Wouldn't It Be Nice...) runs until 7 December.

Related posts:
> Hawai'i: The Lost Years
> Cheap prototypes, valuable insights
> Outdoor installation takes cover
> Choose your instincts wisely

(via Magical Nihilism)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

TH.2058: a dystopian pastiche

TH.2058 (02008) installation at the Tate Modern art museum, London
by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster | Image via Rob Brennan's Flickr photostream

It has been raining for years now, not a day, not an hour without rain. This continual watering has had a strange effect on urban sculptures. They have started to grow like giant tropical plants, and become even more monumental. To stop this growth it has been decided to store them inside, among the hundreds of bunk beds which, night and day, receive refugees from the rain. [link]

This is the premise for French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's installation, which just opened on 14 October 02008 at London's Tate Modern: TH.2058. Why that title? Apart from the sly pun on the title of George Lucas's first feature, the work is located in the Tate's gigantic lobby, the Turbine Hall (T.H.), and is set in the year 02058. Voilà.

The deluge scenario -- and especially the idea of reworking the Turbine Hall itself as the setting for a future refuge, lined with bunk beds, and complete with ambient audio of endless rain -- seems to me a fine starting point. But it runs swiftly downhill from there.

[Important: I'm not in London right now, and haven't seen this installation first hand. What I have to say below is aimed at the conceptual level and therefore should hold good regardless -- but it's conceivable that as an experience it's something else altogether. Anyway, before reading on, do check out this video, and accompanying articles.]

Says one review of the artist's work, "She has plunged us into the future by 50 years and into an immersive scenario on to which visitors can project their own fears and fantasies." Their own fears and fantasies? I find that hard to believe. With a background screening of what she calls The Last Film, a jumble of apocalyptic movie footage (Marker, Watkins, Roeg); the canon of paperback dystopias sprinkled across refugees' brightly coloured bunk beds (Bradbury, Ballard, Wells); and dotted with reworked sculptures (by artists whose names I confess are only vaguely familiar to me); the work is dominated by the derivative, diluted ingredients of others' imaginaries. "Used futures", an evocative term coined by futurist Sohail Inayatullah, suggests itself irresistibly here. The piece has the air of an unfocused pastiche. Guardian art critic Adrian Searle explains, "This is an extended joke about the purpose of art and art galleries..." Really? A cynical exercise in repackaging the insights of tragically prescient artists who came before? Some joke.

Atop the basically unobjectionable climate-havoc premise, perhaps it's the trivial surrealism of the twist that bothers me -- overwatered sculptures growing out of control. (Actually, as a 13 year-old kid in Brisbane, Surrealism was the first art movement I ever cared about.) It's also possible that my own work as a designer of experiential futures leads me to insist too much on the coherence of a scenario's premise. In any case, I admit to being disappointed to learn that this large-scale, influential gallery's commissioned installation actually set a half-century into the future -- the first that I know of -- has fallen prey to that debilitating disease, equally afflicting po-mo art and theory, of frenzied referentiality. I don't doubt the value of thoughtfully adapting, remixing, and commenting upon extant images of the future in our culture. Still, a chance to do something much more provocative and important than that -- to render experientially available any one of countless conceivable futures, on its own terms -- has not been merely overlooked here, but flouted.

Searle again:

We are meant to ruminate on catastrophe and laugh amongst the ruins of art and civilisation. But you don't need to wait till 2058 to do any of that. The end is now.

It saddens me to say that if this is the best that a world-class art institution can muster by way of an "immersive" exploration of our next half-century, he mightn't be far wrong.

Related posts:
> London after the rain
> Immaculate extinction
> Not drowning, thriving
> Second Nature
> Experiential scenarios on video

(Thanks again, Bryan.)

Thursday, August 07, 2008

London after the rain



Ben Marzys is "a young London based designer with an academic background in architecture and motion design". He produced the above video in 02006 while a student in Nic Clear's Unit 15 at the Bartlett School of Architecture. BLDGBLOG's Geoff Manaugh explains in a profile of Clear for Dwell magazine (March 02008) how moving images are integrated into the curriculum:

Each film functions as an architectural proposal -- or as an avant-garde form of urban analysis, albeit of a decidedly futuristic kind. This suits Clear just fine.

"Film can be a much more appropriate way of training architects than the traditional reliance on orthographic representation," says Clear, who once also studied philosophy, "and the skills learned in film production are great for transferring to conventional architecture. Even at the most basic organizational level, film is all about the flow of information. A decision you make now can have enormous consequences later."
[...]
"This type of work opens up a whole new series of possibilities about what architecture is," Clear explains. "The availability of film tools fulfills a deep-seated need in architecture to communicate beyond an architectural audience. But for all my polemic about the spatial, immersive, experiential, and narrative qualities of film, the main reason I teach this way is because it is so much fun."

Amen.

The short came to my attention via the recent London Festival of Architecture (noted here earlier). On 12 July 02008 it was screened as part of onedotzero terrain 07: "distinctive visions and evocative interpretations of terrains and environments real and imagined, from built urban worlds to the shifting rural landscape and beyond". I was in the city at the time, but wasn't able to make it to the show. Still, even on a laptop screen, the tone of this short film (aptly described in in Manaugh's Dwell piece as "both Edenic and postapocalyptic") is arresting. The motion-collage and sudden context switches made me think of Röyksopp's music video "Eple", and the empty, yet somehow whimsical après-déluge imagery put me in mind of Mary Mattingly's series Second Nature, as well as Squint/Opera's series Flooded London 2090.

Other work by Marzys includes the somewhat jauntier and less polished 2012 (02006), and the more abstract, mood-driven Dystopian Dreams (02007); both videos exploring similar territory.

I'm interested to see where he goes with this work, and equally, look forward to seeing what else emanates from Unit 15. Certainly, their communicatively rich and broad conception of architecture is converging on the exploratory practice of experiential futures that keeps this blogger busy.

Related posts:
> Not drowning, thriving
> Second Nature

Friday, July 04, 2008

Not drowning, thriving

Flood (dir. Tony Mitchell, 02007); image captured from DVD ch. 13

Yesterday, almost a year after my spies in London spotted a BBC News report about its forthcoming release, I got around to watching Flood, a British disaster flick about the inundation of the capital. Not even the usually sterling efforts of star Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting; 28 Weeks Later) could keep this determinedly mediocre movie afloat. (Sample the reviews; and join me in sympathy with whoever kept his name off the list of players at the DVD's Amazon UK listing.)

Arguably the best thing about it, as a film, is the nifty shot of Westminster awash (see above).

However, as a contribution to public discourse on flood risk, the film has possibly done a bit better. Its timeliness in confronting/exploiting one of the bogeymen of climate change has been noted, and its likelihood evaluated (The Times; BBC News Magazine). It also earned an audience of 7.2 million when reincarnated as a TV miniseries two months ago (Brand Republic). A film need not be an artistic masterwork in order to offer a useful contribution to our mental environment. I'm not qualified to do this, but it could be interesting to see an evaluation of how money spent on a movie production compares to expenditure on more orthodox means of bringing issues to public attention (public service announcements, government reports, and the like).

Meanwhile, the flooding of London as a long-term prospect, as opposed to popcorn cataclysm, appears to be trickling into the collective mind. Over at Open the Future, Jamais Cascio has posted on a series of photoshopped visualisations called Flooded London 2090, produced by Squint/Opera, a film and media production studio based in the city. (Thanks to Jake for the tip.)

"St Pauls -- A late afternoon plunge from the Whispering Gallery"
Image: Squint/Opera, Flooded London 2090
via www.jamesshaw.co.nz (->Visualisation->Flooded London)

"St Mary Woolnath -- Rich Pickings from Bank"
Image: Squint/Opera, Flooded London 2090
via www.jamesshaw.co.nz (->Visualisation->Flooded London)

"Honor Oak -- Suburban Bucolia"
Image: Squint/Opera, Flooded London 2090
via www.jamesshaw.co.nz (->Visualisation->Flooded London)



The strikingly attractive images above (disappointingly, there are just five in the set) are now being exhibited as part of the London Festival of Architecture, and so, being nearby, I made my way to the venue this afternoon to take a look.

Medcalf gallery, 38 Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell
Photo: the sceptical futuryst

(The details and background of the artwork are, of course, much better appreciated when mounted in large prints on lightboxes than onscreen.)

Outside, it's a sunny 02008; inside, an après-déluge 02090
Photo: the sceptical futuryst

From the project description:
The general scenario is set 80 or so years into the future, long after the sea levels have risen. The catastrophe side of the sea coming in has long since past [sic] and the five images are snapshots of people going about their lives, long since having adapted to the worlds [sic] new circumstance. The five scenes shown through lightboxes present London as a tranquil utopia with the architecture of the distant rat race suspended below the water.

It's good to see here what I've previously suggested, following Jim Dator, we need more of; namely, images of futures in which people are adapting responsibly and pleasantly to climate changes which we no longer have the lead-time to avoid; "promoting a range of viable responses -- various different scenarios which all assume global warming, and some of which show us thriving anyway".

Also, it strikes me that this approach could make a marvellous basis for a much larger exhibition, in London or elsewhere -- imagining alternative futures for a whole variety of urban settings, in a sort of Worth1000 challenge for professional artists. Better yet, include original photos of the current locations alongside each set of alternative visual forecasts.

Disaster scenarios are dramatically exciting, and conceptually vital to risk management; but I suspect that without a sense of their (comparatively mundane) non- or post-disaster counterparts, our best intentions will be found dead in the water.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

London's burning

Last week, here in London, I went for a rather remarkable walk.

And While London Burns is an "operatic audio tour" in three acts, a self-guided, immersive audio experience of The City, a.k.a. The Square Mile, London's financial district. The story it tells is woven around the area's extravagant fossil fuel consumption; past, present and (other things being equal) future. It's told mainly through the anguished persona of a young investment manager, who starts out by showing you his place of work, and who, as you listen, quits his job in a wave of self-disgust and wanders the streets ruminating aloud on his, and our, ugly predicament. It deals with two layers; one schematic, the tangled "carbon web" wrapped around the city; and the other personal, the woman who left him, along with her own parallel career in high finance, for a remote off-the-grid commune.

The tour is a project of political art collective Platform, which "works across disciplines for social and ecological justice... combin[ing] the transformatory power of art with the tangible goals of campaigning, the rigour of in-depth research with the vision to promote alternative futures." An impressive, and resonant, undertaking. At the project website, you can download the audio files for free (thanks to Arts Council England, which puts public money to work "to get more art to more people in more places"). Then, you put them on a portable music player (iPod or similar) and make your way to the Starbucks adjacent to the underground railway station at Bank, where the journey begins.

This wasn't the first time I had taken the walk. It was on a brief stopover here in February 02007, on a quiet Sunday morning, that I did it the first time. En route to the airport, I wheeled my heavy suitcase through deserted streets and alleys, and the grim eschatological tone of the tour and its melancholy score was underlined by the emptiness of the buildings and thoroughfares along the way. The tour is generally intended to be taken during business hours, however, because at one stage you're guided indoors through the Royal Exchange Building (formerly the London Stock Exchange), now a luxury shopping centre. The other time, the building had been closed; but on this occasion, a lunchtime crowd of snappily dressed financiers sat round tables in the vaulted atrium, surrounded by top-end stores like De Beers and Cartier. Generally I found the backdrop of the teeming, oblivious hive of The City just as effective as its sombre, emptied-out weekend version. The latter condition, however, does make the tour a little bit easier to hear.

The audio walk -- which, regrettably, by its nature can't really be appreciated or grasped by an audient not on the spot -- emphasises how much things change on the surface, and how little they change underneath. There's a world-weariness about this view that's not shallow cynicism, but burdened by a deep awareness of history. I think the great achievement of the project is that the walker comes to appreciate this depth, and accompanying entanglements, much better. Along the way, you cross the line of the Great Fire of London (01666), as well as the possible future shoreline of a risen River Thames. One of the practical consequences of the constant change is disruption of the tour's route as time goes on: both a pedestrian overpass leading away from Tower 42, and the Monument which concludes the walk, are currently closed for renovations. Obviously the times for walking certain sequences do vary, and the directions were sparse enough that I accidentally strayed from the path once or twice the first go around, but I was able to hit pause and get my bearings. Another potential frustration that can pull you from the story is if your batteries run out. That happened to me ten minutes in, this time -- a charming little irony for an audio walk about unsustainable energy consumption, ha ha. I had to recharge and come back the next day.

Still, I find this rapidly developing medium, the immersive audio walk, a fantastic way to experience a place. You get a new, mind-expanding vision of the City that is afforded only by inhabiting it differently (a bit like the Situationists' dérive, but carefully constructed to place you in another man's shoes). The cocooning of the listener in her private aural environment, which might in other contexts be regretted for disconnecting people from their fellows and surroundings (armies of commuters spend their journeys either shouting into cellphones or retreating into iPod solitude), in this setting provides instead a cinematic soundtrack-to-life, an unpredictable (the first time, at least) meandering path to which you can surrender, and a thrilling sense of insider's initiation. Sensory synchronicities, both planned and unplanned, make the experience exciting, and somehow grounding. The voiceover mentions a layer of fine black dust on all the buildings about -- the accretion of miniscule particles of fossil fuel exhaust -- so you touch a finger to the handrail, and it gets coated in grime. On two occasions, during the choral refrain admonishing the audio-walker to "look up at the sky", I raised my eyes in time to catch, at precisely that moment, a jet passing overhead.

I love the contradiction that it's substantially the same experience, and yet unique in each detail, every time it is taken. The audio walk is a designed experience, the script pre-recorded, but the motion performed by you, with the improvised assistance of the location and thousands of unwitting extras. It's more unpredictable than a film, feels more labile than most live theatre, and is certainly more personal, by dint of participation, than either.

The essence of the experience is not the walk per se, but the detailed choreographing of attention in the midst of a genuinely chaotic environment. Directing the attention, cognitive and sensory, in a real place in motion, seems to make it eminently suitable for futures, which is ultimately about perceiving the present differently. This is the only audio walk I've encountered which really succeeds in heightening appreciation of the fragility, ephemerality and contingency of the present, although I see this medium as ideally suited to engendering that reflective frame of mind.*

In any case, I'd recommend this to anyone within reach of London who's interested in the forces behind climate change, or even in just the possibilities of this immersive medium. Platform is to be applauded for a daringly critical piece of public art that asks, and enables, us to survey and move through our dazzlingly, dizzyingly busy surroundings with a more inquiring gaze; it invites us not to be overwhelmed by all the things that appear to change, but to be more sensitive to the things which stubbornly do not.

On that point; yesterday, while getting updated on Platform's current work, I watched their recent home-brewed documentary Burning Capital, which is about BP (formerly British, now ostensibly "beyond", Petroleum; one of the largest energy companies in the world, headquartered in London). It's quite a technical investigation -- not in an engineering sense, but a political one -- so may not enthrall all comers, but it does explicitly ask one question implicitly posed by And While London Burns: "How long is it before government, forced by rising public pressure, changes the theoretical cost of carbon into an actual cost, and the company is forced to carry the real economic impact of climate change?" (Burning Capital, Act 3.1)

How long, indeed.


* Colleague Jake Dunagan (HRCFS) and I did a bit of research towards a possible futures-themed audio walk in Chinatown, Honolulu. As funding for the (surprisingly expensive) studio production bit proved elusive, that project morphed into a more immediately viable, but very different, multi-part FoundFutures intervention late last year. Still, with my appetite whetted thanks to that development process, the series of audio walks or tours I've taken in the past year and a half is surprising even to me: Chinatown Manhattan; the 9/11 Sonic Memorial; Wall Street; Belleville, Paris; the disappointingly dull Da Vinci Code tour at The Louvre; the eye-opening driving tour Invisible-5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I've also taken more standard key-in-a-number tours of Pearl Harbor, Stonehenge, Tate Modern (a multimedia guide on a handheld computer), and a couple of urban walks of the cheap talking-head variety that gives audio tours a bad name. The one that first alerted me to the potential of the medium, which I first took in 01998 and revisited last year, was the Alcatraz prison audio tour in San Francisco. The most fully realised urban experiences were the Soundwalk tours (Chinatown, Wall St, and Belleville), along with And While London Burns.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Futurist food for thought

(Or: From Italy to Brazil and back, via London.)

I learned this week about a recent event at the British Library which immediately captured my imagination...

Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli prepares to serve the Futurist Banquet
Image: Alastair Grant/AP (via Today/MSNBC)

More than 100 well-heeled diners are sitting in the august British Library in London, eating a fennel slice, an olive and a kumquat while stroking pieces of velvet, silk and sandpaper. The scent of cloves wafts around the room as an airplane engine roars. And this is just the appetizer.

The main course of this unusual banquet is "Alaskan Salmon in the Rays of the Sun With Mars Sauce." Dessert is Elasticake, a fluffy pastry ball oozing blood-red zabaglione and crowned with quivering licorice antennae.

Welcome to the weird, sensory world of the Futurist Banquet -- an eccentric but strangely influential combination of culinary experiment, political statement and artistic stunt served at the library recently for an assortment of food lovers, artists, academics and diplomats.

The menu was based on the 1932 "Futurist Cookbook" [link] by Italian writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a combination of radical manifesto, practical joke and recipe book whose dishes include chicken with ball bearings, salami cooked in coffee and eau de cologne, and the enigmatically titled "Carrot + Trousers = Professor."

"Futurist food is a revolution," said Lesley Chamberlain, editor of the cookbook's English edition. "The 20th century is a century of revolutions. This is perhaps the funniest one, the one you have to take least seriously -- but one we are still living with."

Marinetti coined the term "Futurism" for the art movement he founded in 1909. Intended as a celebration of modernity and a rejection of romance and sentiment, it was dedicated to modernity and speed, to the violent, the urban and the mechanical.

Its followers were famed for playful, provocative pranks and manifestos -- and, less appealingly, for an uneasy but enduring allegiance to the Fascist movement led by Benito Mussolini.

For the Futurists, food was about art, not sustenance. A meal should be a feast for all the senses, as well as a rejection of bourgeois values. Marinetti was the sworn enemy of comfort food -- he caused a sensation by proposing that pasta be banned on the grounds it promoted "lethargy, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity and neutralism."

Turning Marinetti's exuberant vision into an edible meal was a challenge, said Giorgio Locatelli, the Michelin-starred London chef called in to oversee the dinner. Real-life Futurist banquets held in the 1930s were raucous affairs in which food was often secondary to sensation.

"We did a lot of reading, and it seemed like one guy would cook a meal for six or seven people, and 200 people would turn up," Locatelli said. "So there was no food at all -- just people drinking and then beating each other up at the end."

Marinetti's cookbook includes descriptions of various dishes, as well as descriptions of meals appropriate to various occasions. For lovers, Marinetti suggested a cocktail called War-in-Bed, "composed of pineapple juice, egg, cocoa, caviar, almond paste, a pinch of red pepper, a pinch of nutmeg and a whole clove, all liquidized in Strega liqueur."

Soldiers about to go into battle should eat "raw meat torn by trumpet blasts." The recipe begins: "Cut a perfect cube of beef. Pass an electric current through it, then marinate it for 24 hours in a mixture of rum, cognac and white vermouth."

In adapting Marinetti's freewheeling ideas for the table, British Library organizers were forced to strike a balance between the avant-garde and the edible.

Curator Stephen Bury said he regretted the absence of chicken with ball bearings. "But we thought, 'Oh God, the liability if someone choked.' "

Entering the dining room, guests passed a carne plastica, or meat sculpture -- a towering pyramid made from 36 chickens, assorted guinea fowl, chunks of lamb, beef and sausage, topped with a honey-glazed tumulus of minced beef.

Courses were served by waiters in striped flannel pajamas. Salmon with Mars sauce turned out to be an inoffensive piece of fish with a sauce of anchovies, capers and pesto, and was dismissed as "boring" by one diner. Almost everyone agreed the Elasticake was delicious.

Other elements were more unsettling. After the appetizer, diners were ushered away from the table by a man with a megaphone and herded downstairs to chew on rice balls while listening to Futurist tracts read out in Italian and English.

Futurism and other avant-garde movements such as Surrealism and Dadaism have had a well-documented impact in the arts, visible in everything from the paintings of Salvador Dali to the free-associating slapstick of the Marx Brothers.

Futurism's influence on the way we eat today is less obvious. But traces of it can be seen in nouvelle cuisine, with its focus on tiny portions and artistic arrangements.

Marinetti's declaration that scientific principles should be used in the Futurist kitchen is reflected in the "molecular gastronomy" practiced by acclaimed chefs such as Britain's Heston Blumenthal and Spain's Ferran Adria.

And his anti-pasta stance finds an echo in today's low-carb diets.

"A lot of the things these people talked about, like the tactile sensation of the food, are things that chefs today talk about," Locatelli said.

"And it's true that Italians tend to overdo it a little on the pasta. I agree with that. So the idea of a varied diet was very forward-thinking at the time."

~Jill Lawless, "Futurist Banquet blends the avant-garde, edible", The Associated Press (The Oregonian), 15 April 02008.

A few thoughts.

This particular event was part of the British Library's exhibition "Breaking the Rules". Its curator, Stephen Bury, blogged on the event here: "I was expecting a gimmick but I curiously started to perceive the food differently. [...] It's a fantastic evening." Tickets ran £75 each, "including all food, wine, cocktails and other distractions". It's amusing to me that this rather lavish effort sought to recapture a genre of 01930s dinner party aimed at the "rejection of bourgeois values" (so, maybe that phrase meant something different back then).

A 02003 article at Cabinet magazine explains that the Italian Futurists weren't above a little hypocrisy: at "a banquet for 300 people held on 18 December 1931 at the Hotel Negrino in Chiavari. [...] Although the Futurists had advocated the abolition of eloquence and politics around the table, the guests nevertheless first had to sit through a lecture by Marinetti on the state of world Futurism."

Why does that kind of irony seem so eerily familiar?

In part, it could be a lingering effect of the movie I just screened tonight for the EWC classic movie program (previously mentioned here), Terry Gilliam's Brazil. There's a great scene where Jonathan Pryce's hapless character Sam Lowry finds himself in a fancy restaurant with his vain, cosmetic surgery-obsessed mother. Their haughty French waiter insists that each dish be ordered by number only, and the food arrives in revolting piles of processed mush, with a photograph of the real food you were expecting planted on a little stand in the middle of the plate.

So when I saw this passage in Cabinet, it positively clanged with irony:

Ultimately, Marinetti believed, modern science would allow us to replace food with free, state-sponsored pills composed of albumins, synthetic fats, and vitamins that would lower prices for the consumer and lessen the toll of labor on the worker. Ultraviolet lamps could be used to electrify and thus dynamize food staples. Eventually, a totally mechanized production would relieve humankind of labor altogether, allowing man to be at leisure to pursue nobler activities. Dining could thus become a purely aesthetic enterprise.

~Romy Golan, "Ingestion / Anti-Pasta", Cabinet, Issue 10, Spring 02003.

It's curious and quite troubling to note how (what Golan characterises as) an expectation that speed, mechanisation and standardisation would herald workers' liberation came to be turned on its head. (Indeed, the whole movie Brazil is a requiem for the freedoms and dreams sacrificed at the altar of the modern -- the entrapment of the worker.) History's revenge: the promise that the Futurists discerned in mass produced synthetic foods has been disintegrating -- Fast Food Nation, anyone? -- with Italy, of all countries, the centre of the Slow Food movement protesting against it.

Very rarely, yet still occasionally, art history types get us postwar social change-watching futurist types confused with these prewar fascist Futurist types. (I'm not sure if I'm adding to or lessening the confusion with this post.) Let me be clear: I'm no fascist, but I love the banquet idea. It's not quite the fanciful, absurdist aspect of it that gets me -- although that's fun -- so much as the attempt to create a parallel experience, outside of our reflexes, that is attentive to all sensory details.

Jake Dunagan and I have been talking for a year or two now about a futures dining event, an immersive, experiential scenario where apparently impossible future foods are served (a timely but non-essential example could be in vitro meat, as reported in the New York Times this week). It would aim to be considerably less disgusting than the restaurant scene in Brazil (or the Chinese restaurant in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ); more attentive to food than theatre in contrast to Tony and Tina's Wedding; and more grounded in emerging possibilities for food consumption patterns -- with respect to changing tastes as well as shifting availability of ingredients -- than the artful fripperies of the Futurist banquet... but nonetheless, an immersive scenario intervention to get you right in the stomach.