Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Unreal Deal

Image taken from the Flickr stream of Cliph and used under a Creative Commons Licence.

"Reality as we know it is finished," I announce rather grandiosely in this piece from Icon 076. It takes a fairly fleeting look at the rise of "augmented reality", a term used to describe a number of linked technologies that are making it possible to overlay data and graphics on the world around us (via our next-generation phones, until appropriate eyewear becomes available).

This relates to an older piece I wrote about the film Tron. I wrote:
[Tron] gave computers an inner life rich with stories, drama, conflict and even emotion. It made the abstract seem real. But it also touched upon how virtual reality could improve on the real thing – that it was an environment unbounded by limitations such as the laws of physics, where everything could be manipulated and altered. The young people it inspired became the young professionals who designed and built the internet and drove the world-changing high-tech boom of the 1990s.

In other words, films like Tron have a lot to answer for. This came up again in a conversation I had recently with Matt Jones of BERG. Children see these worlds, and the men and women they become try to build them. This might not even be on a concious level - just that children who loved, say, Flight of the Navigator or Short Circuit would absorb a certain view of what constitutes high technology and then go on to try to make it happen, building BMW's GINA concept car and the Pentagon's attack robots respectively. Which just goes to show the incredible power of fantasy, particularly fantasy of a speculative nature.

This isn't to say something po-faced and brainless like "speculative writers have great responsibility". It might be a little frightening to think that the designers of the aforementioned killer robots are getting their ideas from Terminator, but it's more frightening to imagine a world where killer robots were being developed, but we didn't have Terminator as a guide to what could go wrong. The people in that world wouldn't be frightened enough.

Returning to augmented reality, there is of course a great risk that it will flop, just as the first wave of virtual reality did in the 1990s. I remember being taken to the Trocadero Centre to try out the "Virtuality" machines installed there - the first in the UK. I remember it clearly because it was such a huge disappointment. AR strikes me as massively more practical, but no matter how sophisticated the technology, it still comes up against a fixed limitation - the human arm. Are people going to walk around holding up their mobile phones to navigate the world?

Rationally, I'd say no, but then I wouldn't have guessed that people would experience real-life events through the tiny screen on their digital cameras or even their mobile phones - and they do, preferring to see an even through a technological surrogate. I wouldn't have guessed that people would trust the information on their Sat Nav screen over the evidence of their own eyes and instincts, but they do. There's no guessing what people might prefer to delegate to gadgetry.

Monday, 19 October 2009

George Orwell, Modernist

There's not a lot of architecture in George Orwell's writing. When it does feature, it's not really clear what his feelings are about it. In 1984, for instance, the only modernism (the Senate House-influenced Ministry) is sinister and authoritarian, but the real horror of Smith/Orwell's London is its decaying Victorian buildings, which are barely functioning ruins. Coming Up For Air similarly combines suspicion of the tide of modernity and the suburbs with a sense of the 19th-century built environment slipping beyond salvage.

The lack of interest in architecture in Orwell's non-fiction has long surprised me. As someone with a fairly detailed sense of the shape of a potential democratic, socialist Britain, you'd think there's be more about it. Really, I think he was too much of a pragmatist to get hung up on whether the Britain he desired looked like an 1870 Board School or the Finsbury Health Centre. He was, if you prefer, a phenomenologist - it was effects that mattered, not aesthetics. But he looked forward to the rebuilding that would have to come after the War, and it's intriguing to speculate briefly on what an Orwellian architecture might be.

Here's a data point, from "The Lion And the Unicorn" (1940):

The place to look for the germs of the future England is in light-industry areas and along the arterial roads. In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes - everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns - the old pattern is gradually changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town, with its slums and mansions, or of the country, with its manor-houses and squalid cottages, no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income, but it is the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in labour-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in the naked democracy of the swimming-pools.

That's the new England, the promise of the suburbs and the new towns: philistine, materialist, but more equal than before. The "naked democracy of the swimming pools" - beautiful. No wonder our present state is so suspicious of the municipal baths. There's no democracy, naked or otherwise, in a gym. "Fitness First" is pretty much a fascist slogan, an inch from "Strength Through Joy". But that's a subject for another time.

But it's in another line from that excerpt that we can see the foundation of Orwell's modernism: Those "labour-saving flats". There's a revealing "As I Please", from the Tribune of 9 February 1945, which has the pleasingly candid quality of something written quickly and in the grip of emotion, a sort of off-the-cuff charm. (The full text can be found here, on a site I can't vouch for.) Here's the start:

Every time I wash up a batch of crockery I marvel at the unimaginativeness of human beings who can travel under the sea and fly through the clouds, and yet have not known how to eliminate this sordid time-wasting drudgery from their daily lives.

He goes on to describe many of the miseries of keeping house in 1945. I don't mind washing up, but Orwell plainly despised it - not a surprise, given his experiences as a plongeur - and had little patience for the rest of the housework. He continues:

What, then, is to be done about it? Well, this whole problem of housework has three possible solutions. One is to simplify our way of living very greatly; another is to assume, as our ancestors did, that life on earth is inherently miserable, and that it is entirely natural for the average women to be a broken-down drudge at the age of thirty; and the other is to devote as much intelligence to rationalising the interiors of our houses as we have devoted to transport and communications.

I fancy we shall choose the third alternative. If one thinks simply in terms of saving trouble and plans one’s home as ruthlessly as one would plan a machine, it is possible to imagine houses and flats which would be comfortable and would entail very little work. Central heating, rubbish chutes, proper consumption of smoke, cornerless rooms, electrically warmed beds and elimination of carpets would make a lot of difference.

He goes on to describe what he sees as the only sensible solution to the washing-up problem: doing it communally, like a laundry. Individual mechanised dishwashers were simply beyond the bounds of the imagination at the impoverished, ramshackle end of the Second World War. The only alternative, he says, is eating off paper.

But I digress. This concern for hygiene is prevalent in Orwell's writing - think of the lingering descriptions of grime or grease clinging to every surface in 1984, down to the dust in the folds of Smith's neighbour's face. Here we see what it means in practical political and design terms: making homes that will save people time and effort. Saving people from drudgery - a harmonious intersection of design and socialist thought. The detail of his vision is sweet, but it's also chiding. Central heating is now almost universal, and an undeniable amenity. But why are carpets still so prevalent? What happened to the idea of the cornerless room? Wrecked by association with prefab bathroom pods, perhaps, or the difficulty of placing bookscases against an edgeless wall.

Overall, however, we can see a commitment to making home a pleasure. Orwell's instincts here - and I'm sure he wasn't aware of it - are in sync with Le Corbusier. He could see home as a labour-saving device; a machine for living in. And we can see what makes that a humanitarian impulse. After all, what does he identify as the alternatives, the first two of his three paths? Primitivism or despair.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

A Zone of One's Own

My review of Anna Minton's book Ground Control is at long last up on But the delay* hasn't made it any less timely - I fear its subject matter is only going to become more and more relevant. It cover the sorry (and under-examined) story of what has happened to Britain's cities under the fluttering banner of Regeneration - a selloff of public space, the erosion of ancient civic rights, the self-destruction of local democracy, the rise of gated communities, and the astonishing extension of police powers into every aspect of the lives of people who have mostly done nothing more than make other people feel uneasy. It's sickening stuff, and Minton has done a good job of bringing it all together in one book.

What Minton makes clear - although she is never wholly explicit about it - is that the decline of urban liberty is a largely spatial phenomenon. Control over the city by the authorities - increasingly private authorities - is arranged by carving the territory into zones and policing individual access to those zones. As I say in the review, things like ASBOs and dispersal orders are spatial in effect. "Order" in the city is being enforced by depriving certain groups and individuals of access to certain areas.

Zones are going to be a very important part of the future. Their use has cropped up in a number of books I've read recently: Keller Easterling's Enduring Innocence, Mike Davis' Evil Paradises, and The Invisible Committee's infamous The Coming Insurrection. (These are all heartily recommended reading.) This is what The Coming Insurrection has to say on the subject:

The unmanned drone that flew over Seine-Saint-Denis last July 14th - as the police later confirmed - presents a much more vivid image of the future than all the fuzzy humanistic projections. That they were careful to assure us that the drone was unarmed gives us a clear indication of the road we're headed down. Territory will be partitioned into ever more restricted zones. ...

I don't agree with what's advocated in The Coming Insurrection, but as an analysis of the present situation, it's often extremely insightful. A future of privately owned city centres and gated communities is no future at all. This extraordinary story from the United States (via) is a sample of why privatised, gated estates don't deserve the name "community".

*The book has been out for a few months; my review was originally slated for Icon 076 but became snarled in a scheduling problem, and held for 077, when it finally had the ignominy of being bumped to make way for Mr Philippe Starck's Design For Life.

The images for this post came from my Flickr stream.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Trafigura Art Prize: Be Creative!

The Guardian newspaper has been prevented from reporting on Parliamentary proceedings - or rather, prevented from reporting a particular question asked of a particular minister this week. Last night, enterprising netizens had little trouble identifying the what could be the contentious question; The Spectator has made the link explicit. It's to do with Trafigura, an oil company that may have been complicit in the dumping of highly toxic sludge in an African city.

This is typical of both the traditional and new media - focusing on the negative, when in fact there are plenty of positive things that could be written about Trafigura. Why, only last week I received a press release announcing the Trafigura Arts Prize. In its own words:
The Trafigura Art Prize will be awarded to one of sixteen international artists who have been chosen to exhibit work at the forthcoming Young Masters exhibition, presented at The Old Truman Brewery from 14 October 2009. The winner of The Trafigura Art Prize will be announced on Tuesday 3 November, and the prize will be continued by the Trafigura Foundation each year.

The inaugural prize will be judged by a panel of high profile artists, journalists and historians including Medeia Cohan-Petrolino, Head Curator for the University of the Arts London; Tom Hunter, artist; Lock Anderson Kresler, Christie’s Contemporary Art Department; Averill Ogden, Outset Art Fund, and Gilda Williams, Goldsmith’s lecturer. Prize money amounting to £4,000 will be awarded to the most talented artist.

The Trafigura Art Prize was conceived by respected gallerist Cynthia Corbett, who represents emerging and newly established artists. Corbett is a regular exhibitor and curator at international contemporary art fairs, and promotes an annual programme of off-site and “pop-up” exhibitions at Cork Street, Mayfair as well as the East End. She describes her enthusiasm and reasoning behind the prize: “Young Masters reflects our belief that the contemporary art world has, to a great extent, ignored craft and technical skill when bestowing recognition and awards to young artists. Young Masters and the first Trafigura Art Prize hope to address this partiality towards conceptualism. Young Masters celebrates absolute technical brilliance in homage to the Old Masters, in all fields of contemporary art from painting, sculpture and drawing to photography, video and installation, proving that all media of contemporary practice is capable of meeting exacting technical as well as conceptual standards.”

Young Masters is curated by Constance Slaughter and Beth Colocci and includes painting, photography, sculpture, video and installation by artists who have shown both reverence and irreverence to the Old Masters through their work. The artists include Gemma Anderson, Lluís Barba, Jessie Bond, Charlotte Bracegirdle, Maisie Broadhead, Cecile Chong, Héctor de Gregorio, Alice Evans, Art Basel exhibitors Ghost of a Dream, Kerry Jameson, Valerie Mary, Ali Miller, David Roche, Constance Slaughter, Antonia Tibble and Masaki Yada, all of who reveal images that are familiar icons, often instantly recognisable, yet re-interpreted, distorted and somewhat uncanny.

Frank Runge, Director of the Trafigura Office, London said: “Trafigura is delighted to support the inaugural Young Masters exhibition, presented in association with The Cynthia Corbett Gallery, recognising the talent of emerging and newly established artists. The Trafigura Art Prize reflects our passionate belief in giving people the opportunity to fulfill their potential. The company is proud to support such an exciting exhibition and to pay tribute to the artists displaying their work this year.”

Everyone involved in this new prize should be congratulated for looking past tedious allegations involving the poisoning of a few thousand Africans and coming together in a display of creativity. After all, did not Trafigura head Claude Dauphin himself urge his subordinates to "be creative" in disposing of the toxic filth that was the result of his pursuit of cheap oil?

The exhibition opens tomorrow.

(UPDATE: That gagging order has now been overturned, the netizens were right, it's Trafigura.)

(UPDATE #2, 18 October: I understand that Young Masters has binned the connection with Trafigura - good for them.)

Friday, 2 October 2009

I Left My Heart in Ul Qoma

(The following is my review of China Miéville's new book The City and The City. The text appears in Icon 075 (September 2009, published in August). Since it won't be online for a while, and the issue is off sale, I thought I'd repost it here by way of recommending the book.)

Beszel, the imaginary metropolis that is the setting for China Miéville’s latest book, is much like many cities. Clinging to the edge of Europe, it has crime and traffic, and is grappling with the problems of globalisation. Its inhabitants talk about Google and Starbucks. But it is also extraordinary – in fact, it is one of the most fascinating literary creations of the new century so far.

The City & The City explores Beszel through the eyes of inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad, who is investigating the murder of a young foreign woman. It’s an investigation that becomes ensnared in Beszel’s unique geopolitical situation: it is not one city but two, or rather it shares its space with another polity, Ul Qoma. The two cities overlap and interweave, but so sensitive and contentious is their Balkan history that the citizens of one cannot see the other. It is not literally invisible, but the inhabitants of the dual city are practised in “unseeing”, conscious ignorance, a skill like the doublethink in George Orwell’s 1984. To engage the other city which shares their streets, even by accident, is to invite terrifying consequences.

This sounds like fantasy, and in a sense it is. Miéville has written fantasy before, creating the superb gothic supercity New Crobuzon for the 2000 novel Perdido Street Station and its sequels. But really the world of The City & The City is rarely much more fantastic than the real world around us. Real-life analogues to Beszel’s many complications continually occur. There is, of course, of the surrealism of existing and historical divided cities: the tangle of Jerusalem’s temples and tunnels, where archaeology is politics, and the Cold War tragicomedy of West Berlin.

And Beszel/Ul Qoma is not just those cities: every city is more than one city. Every day we instinctively unsee the cities that share our space – we unsee poverty, crime, the other. On the day this review was written, the killers of a 16-year-old Londoner were convicted, and the morning papers were explaining the complicated turf war between the Shine My Nine and Don’t Say Nothing gangs. These political alignments and the ground they contest are unknown to most of the inhabitants of the city, but mean life and death to others. A fascinating but depressing report released by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year explored this territoriality. It included maps drawn by teenagers that revealed their neighbourhoods as patchworks of “safe” and “no-go” areas, an exquisitely complex secret topography.

This is why The City & The City succeeds so beautifully. All cities have their arcane, unspoken, “other” side. Noir works by exploring that other side – stories in the genre start with a set of circumstances that do not make sense in the “conventional” world alone, and can only be understood by venturing into the underworld, the secret city, the parallel universe of criminality. Miéville seems to have an instinctive understanding of this, and he weaves city and mystery together to tell a gripping story.

The City & The City, by China Miéville, Macmillan, £17.99