BRAVE NEW WORLD

Once politics was, if not simple then at least understandable.  There were parties on the left and parties on the right, and they would stay roughly at either end of the spectrum, fluctuating into the centre and out again; but you knew, and so did they, which side of the centre they belonged.  Then you had the parties in the centre that had to fight off incursions into its space from one side or the other.  Tribal loyalties saw to it that you would usually follow your family’s lead when placing your X on the polling card. But now conviction politicians are gone.  Candidates promise anything to get votes.  Elected politicians appease reactionary popular opinion; unpalatable stories are called fake news.  No one wants to listen to elite groups who, they argue, consider themselves superior to everyone else.

Cartoon

It feels like everyone is playing by different rules; change has spread right across classes, gender and the country.   Austerity is hitting some communities badly whilst others continue much as they ever have; buying necessities like foreign holidays, fast cars and super wide televisions.  The government continues to cut funding for further education and the NHS but can find enough to commit to Trident and nuclear weapons.  Many young people want to know what the point in cramming their heads with knowledge is when experts are no longer valued or guaranteed work once they are crammed with arcane facts.

The financial crisis caused by the banks hit everyone except the banks themselves, who are still getting richer.  Terrorist fanatics are killing indiscriminately across Europe and the need to gather information means that personal liberties are being invaded.

It seems obvious to me that now is the time to have a serious discussion about how our society works and what our priorities should be to prevent the very poor getting poorer and the very rich getting, well anything they want.  Should we look to the Nordic countries and raise Taxes so that our schools and hospitals work?  Should we know what proportion of our taxes go to what?  And should the disgustingly rich pay at a higher rate of Tax than the ‘Just about Managing’ people who feel they have been left behind and forgotten?

In other words, do we want politicians discussing things that don’t really matter? Do we want a higher moral and honest tone to the debates in the House of Commons – with no booing or braying?  Or shall we forever be talking about what we can screw out of our neighbours just to leave them all alone for a while?  And seriously, do any of us really think that this is a brave little country hitting way above it’s weight against larger, calculating, unscrupulous and less plucky competitors?

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82 portraits and 1 still life

82 portraits and 1 still life by David Hockney at The Royal Academy

David Hockney is doing something very important for artists –combining the conceptual understanding of contemporary art today with the innate craftsmanship of applying paint onto a surface.

He is a modern man who doesn’t close his mind to new innovations.  He has that most important ingredient for an artist in any age, an open mind.  When a young man he became known for his photographic collages, large canvases which put together small standard photos but overlapping, adjacent and continuous to the previous image.  What these photo collages did was attempt to give a bigger picture than was possible with a single lens camera.  His paintings of sunny California bucked the trend away from the craft of painting and encapsulated something bigger and more interesting than the play of sun on swimming pool water.

He is still looking for the bigger picture, and, after a long and distinguished career, he comes to this project with a the vast amount of knowledge about the photographic image.  But he comes to it with something else, he personally observes the difference between looking through an image-catching single lens machine and looking directly through his two, independent eyes and he adds to that the skill to put down what the magic inside his head has translated and conveyed to his hands.

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82 portraits and 1 still life, Hockney’s ambitious new hang at The Royal Academy is so much more than just a collection of people painted in front of uniform backings in a maximum of three days in the artist’s studio in Los Angeles.  This collection of paintings is not only a view into the way we see the difference between individual sitters but also “reaffirms the significance of the painted portrait in an age when selfies and photo-portraits have proliferated in social media.”[1]

For me this exhibition is a very poignant and personal archive which when installed in near-chronological order – as it is, permits the viewer an insight into the psychology of the artist himself.  “Hockney was recovering from a very difficult series of events, including a minor stroke, and he did not paint for some time, which was unusual for him.”[2]  When you walk around the gallery space and take time to observe the format and execution of these paintings you can almost see as a tangible thing, Hockney’s emotional state of mind lighten as we follow his confidence and conviction in the format and medium grow.

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As I came away from the gallery and walked along Piccadilly it seemed that my own perceptive abilities had been heightened by an artist who had taught me a lesson in how to really observe people. The tourists, locals and business-people I passed now appeared more interesting; so much that I could almost see them with a blue wall behind them and a green carpet beneath them sitting on a chair and revealed in all their complexities.

This is what I consider a successful visit to a gallery.

[1] 82 portraits and 1 still life, by  Edith Devaney.  Royal Academy catalogue

[2] Ibid

MONA HATOUM at The Tate

I saw Corps étranger [1994] by Mona Hatoum for the first time in 1995 when it formed part of the Tate’s wonderful Rites of Passage exhibition marking the end of the twentieth century.  I was just beginning my art degree then and I’d never seen anything like it; there wasn’t anything like it.  It made a very deep impression on me, the fibre optic camera moving slowly across the body’s landscape and disappearing down orifice’s and into deep thickets of hair was foreign territory for me.

Now all these years later and twenty years older I have had perforce a few occasions when I became a little more familiar with my own moist and glistening interior and I have become aware of just how complex this installation must have been to execute.

The perfect white encasing cylinder was a departure from the artist’s usual oeuvre and so evocative of one of Le Corbusier’s primary solids. But it also served to create a space that was both inside and part of, yet also separate from the space of the museum.  The neutral, clean surface of this column was cool and sophisticated, with a whiff of Huxley’s Brave New World about it – a giant test tube for creation?

Once inside I watched vertiginously from above the journey moving relentlessly onwards on a forward momentum through familiar and unfamiliar parts towards an unknown goal.  This time my added years and own personal experiences has lent this work added significance and a more personal appreciation of just how magically Mona Hatoum manipulates her audience.

Corps etranger

I had plenty of time, and the patience to wait and allow the works to communicate to me.  Three works especially moved me and highlighted the artist’s prescience. Light Sentence [1992] was visually interesting from the outset – this installation was made up of square wire mesh lockers stacked to create a three-sided enclosure of over human height.  They resembled animal cages, prisons or might have been short hand for modernist architecture?  The incredibly bright, single light hanging in the centre threw shadows of fine, intersecting lines and squares onto the outer walls.

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Standing quietly and watching the shadow play on the walls I slowly became aware that the disturbed ambient air in the room was making the light bulb swing very, very slightly on its wire thus creating the effect of shadows that were moving rhythmically up and down much like that of breathing.  This subtle, uncanny movement, full of suspense and unspoken threat spoke to me of sinister Prison Camps for terrorists.

One of Hatoum’s earliest works, Don’t smile, you’re on camera! [1980] was a performance where she surreptitiously mixed live shots of audience members with images of naked bodies and x-rays, making it appear that the camera could see through layers of clothing.  In 1980 how could she have foreseen cameras in at airport check ins which actually do see through your clothing – all introduced without any complaints about invasion of privacy or decency?

Finally there was a room full with a combination of kitchen utensils and household furniture, connected to each other with electric wire, through which ran a live electric current.  Homebound [2000] crackled and fizzed with the sound of the amplified hum of the fluctuating current which alternately illuminating separate parts of the installation.  At first I didn’t think this complicated set up was very effective.  I sat on the bench conveniently placed in the room; I sat and watched the loop of disparate, mundane objects lighting up and then going off and didn’t get it.  What was the connection?  OK so most of the objects were distressed metal, cooking utensils, whisks, colanders, chairs, tables, stools, buckets.  Then I noticed the empty metal baby’s crib, there was nothing to soften the hard, metal surfaces, no mattress or pillow.  Under the cot was a metal potty, white inside.  Then the lights went on and this potty glowed brightly and seemed to draw attention to the complete abandonment of the place and suddenly into my mind came the pictures of bombed out and abandoned building in Aleppo and I got it.

Homebound

Mona Hatoum’s work does seem to improve with age.  Her work.  Her Art.  Her magical ability to force her audience to experience something and to empathise with what concerned her mind at the time.  Taking the time with this retrospective I became conscious that for Hatoum the viewer is always part of her considerations when contemplating her work.  Seeing all these works together we are moved from vicarious involvment, bound up in hopeless adventure, empowered as a voyeur, entrapped, and with luck just a bit of self-recognition. If you go please give this very well curated exhibition plenty of time and an open mind.

 

THE GREAT EUROPEAN DISASTER?

On Sunday 1st March 2015 a programme called ‘The Great European Disaster Movie’ was broadcast on BBC 4 and followed by a ‘Newsnight Debates’ programme with newly floppy-haired Robert Peston. 

Following those programmes, there has been massive wringing of hands, predictably, from UKIP who have complained (unsubstantiated) that the film was EU funded, and schadenfreude from political journalists like Peter Hitchens.  Undoubtedly the future looks bleak for the great European dream that began on March 28th 1957 with high hopes and the signing of the ‘Treaty of Rome’.  It is worth reminding ourselves, I think, of a little bit of European history which is often overlooked.  It is called the ‘Werner Report’ and it illustrates that The British Government was never hood-winked into signing up to a secret idea of Europe that they were unaware of – the only people deceived  were the poor British public.

 In 1970 British Prime Minister Edward Heath’s government applied to join the Common Market, the same year that Pierre Werner’s confidential report began circulating in Brussels. The Council of Ministers had commissioned the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Pierre Werner, to draw up a plan to move the Common Market forward to full economic and monetary union, possibly also including a common defence policy, and Werner’s recommendation was that this should be achieved quickly, “within a decade”. 

 When secret papers released under the 30-year rule, from the time Mr. Edward Heath was the British Prime Minister, the most striking of these documents were those reflecting the Heath Government’s reaction to that report. Apparently, what alarmed the Foreign Office was not the contents of the Werner Report. On the contrary, Mr Heath and his ministers did not throw up their hands in horror and say “good heavens, we had no idea this was what the Common Market is about. We could not possibly accept such a thing”. In fact, when Geoffrey Rippon, the minister in charge of our negotiations, went to see M. Werner on October 27, the minutes of their discussion show that Rippon went out of his way to congratulate him on his report, which he said “well stated our common objectives”.

Privately, Her Majesty’s Government had no objection to the political union Werner was proposing. The only real concern of Mr Heath and his colleagues was that this plan should not be talked about too openly in public, because this might so inflame public opinion that it would be much harder to persuade Parliament and the British people that it was in their interests to join what they were being assured was no more than a ‘common market’, intended to boost trade.

When these documents were released in 2001, these details were confirmed by a retired Foreign Office official Sir Crispin Tickell, who had played an intimate part in Britain’s Common Market negotiations as Geoffrey Rippon’s private secretary and was present at the meeting with Werner. In a BBC interview Tickell frankly admitted that, although worries over Britain’s loss of sovereignty had been “very much present in the mind of the negotiators”, the line had been “the less they came out in the open the better”.

 Here was chapter and verse showing how politicians and civil servants had been party to a quite deliberate attempt to hide from the British people what Britain’s entry into the Common Market was letting them in for.  From the very beginning, the British government’s involvement with the “European project” introduced an element of deliberate deceit into the politics of this country. To anyone who follows such matters in detail, nothing is more striking than the way, again and again, we see supporters of Britain’s participation in this project apparently having to resort to obfuscation and subterfuge, both to disguise what the project is really about and to hide what they themselves are up to. And the fundamental reason for this culture of concealment is that there have always been two quite different perceptions as to the nature of this European project.

 For 40 years British politicians have consistently tried to portray it to their fellow-citizens as little more than an economic arrangement: a kind of free-trading area primarily concerned with creating jobs and prosperity, which incidentally can help preserve the peace. This is the lie, founded on deceit, that is now pedalled by such decent and upright people as Nigel Farage (who by the way has no scruples in taking EU money himself) and Peter Hitchens whose fantasy world of a perfect Britain standing alone, out of Europe – proud and independent, is only a product of his fevered brain. 

 But ultimately this culture of concealment derives from that same basic act of deception, the pretence that the nature of the ‘European project’ is something different from what it is. Is it too much to ask for honesty now in British politics and political journalism?

 What does Britain want from membership of the European Union now? 

Most other EU countries are committed to the union, and are prepared to work for that dream of closer harmony.  If Britain isn’t, then they should leave and go it alone.  But I personally fear for what will happen to the United Kingdom if that is what they decide to do.

A TERRIBLE SHAME

Technology in its widest sense has shaped mankind’s evolutionary journey.  Our brains, bodies, metabolism, society and culture have co-evolved along with technology.  Ever since our cave dwelling progenitors first picked up a stone to crack open a nut, a bird’s skull, overwhelm an angry predator or a rival in love, mankind has used technology.

 The 4th century BC philosopher Plato railed against a radical new technology in his book Phaedrus.  He was worried that the invention of writing would prevent us using our memories.  “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls because they will not use their memories.  They will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.  You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth.  They will be hearers of many things and they will have learnt nothing.”  Today, however, the inability to write even your own name brings upon the individual a terrible shame which many attempt to hide from others. 

 Technological tools proliferate in all cultures, poor and rich alike, with most of us in affluent parts of the world using digital gadgets of some or all kinds.  It would be difficult for us to conduct our daily lives without our smart phones, sat.navs., tablets and laptops.  Technology expands what it means to be human creating things that possess capabilities we thought unique to humans; reason, ethics, learning and intelligence.  Technology today both mirrors us and challenges us.

 Micro-chip implants allow a kind of internal technology that link us to our machines.  Not only do surgical implants keep us alive and moving, but chips inserted into our bodies beneath the skin can enable us to operate remote machinery; to communicate with distant loved ones; or provide information to our homes which ensure a warm welcome every time the computer opens the front door.  

 Why should we resist  outsourcing or integrating with machines, surely that would  make us Luddites?  If we do link with technology can we ensure mankind stays in the driving seat?  If we upgrade our bodies will we stop being human?   What if we discard our bodies but insert our brains into robots will we lose our humanity and become just another cyborg?

 A lot of our illnesses are due to our bodies wearing out, if we didn’t have a physical body we wouldn’t have a problem, would we?  When do we stop being human?  Would we be happy living longer, being integrated with a machine, having enhanced powers and anyhow, do we need more people living longer on this crowded plant?

 We should remember Plato and keep our critical faculties sharp, questioning new developments and valuing what we already have. But for us to move forward in this interconnected new world and continue our evolutionary journey safely, we will need some time apart, un-plugged and on our own.  Plato’s words could just as easily be used today to criticise the widespread use of satellites to navigate when we used to read maps; computer reminders of appointments when we used to write in our diaries; dialling our friends when we used to remember their numbers; sending automated from computer generated lists when we used to empathise with loss or celebration face to face. 

 Not knowing how to use our new devices probably will, some day, also mark us out as deficient and the non upgraded human will probably wish to hide their shame much like those people today who cannot write.  Furthermore what will happen to the humans who don’t upgrade, will ‘ordinary’ humans become something of a sub-species?  Future cyborgs will be far more intelligent than the un-enhanced.  The hybrids will have new ways to communicate, new sensory inputs, they will be superior.  If we want to stay part of the action will we have to upgrade? 

 It seems that we should value what we have, our brains and their un-enhanced capacity to analyse.  Take some time apart.  Reflect honestly.  Adhere to our own moral codes, as some things must remain sacrosanct.  It would be a terrible shame if progress were to pass us by, or hastily welcomed without all our critical faculties fully engaged. If we don’t embrace mankind’s new technological advances it could be a terrible shame. 

QUEEN OF CODES

Ever since the days of Charles Babbage the engineering of computer hardware has been dominated by men. The pioneers of software, however, were often women, beginning with Babbage’s friend and muse Ada, Countess of Lovelace. 

A century later, when the first electronic computers were being invented, the men were still focusing on the hardware, and many women followed in Ada’s footsteps. You probably don’t know the name Grace Hopper, but she should be a household name.  As a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, Hopper worked on the first computer, the Harvard Mark I and she headed the team that created the first compiler, which led to the creation of COBOL, a programming language that by the year 2000 accounted for 70 percent of all actively used code. Passing away in 1992, she left behind an inimitable legacy as a brilliant programmer and pioneering woman in male-dominated fields. 

Grace was curious as a child, a lifelong trait; at the age of seven she decided to determine how an alarm clock worked, and dismantled seven alarm clocks before her mother realized what she was doing (she was then limited to one clock.  She graduated from Vassar in 1928 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics and earned her master’s degree at Yale University in 1930.  In 1934, she earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale and her thesis, New Types of Irreducibility Criteria, was published that same year. Hopper began teaching mathematics at Vassar in 1931, and was promoted to associate professor in 1941. 

Grace was enigmatic, disruptive and ahead of her times.  On December 7th 1941 after Pear Harbour was bombed by the Japanese in the Second World War she joined the navy.  As a former Maths lecturer she was put to work on the Harvard Mark I, the 51 foot maths calculating machine.  She loved machines and considered the Mark I a beautiful machine.  She was good at making machines work.  Not interested in the parts of a computer that “you could kick” she was fascinated by what later came to be called Programming. The input system used in the Mark I was paper tape, a system in which you could physically punch your code out in the tape that was fed into the machine. 

Grace Hopper helped find a way in which a ball could be made to collapse in on itself, this was called the implosion problem and the solution to this problem ultimately created the nuclear bomb which was later dropped on Hiroshima in Japan.  

After the war she became Head of the Software Division for Eckert and Mauchly Comp, where as Head of the Software Division she popularized the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of COBOL, one of the first high-level programming languages. She is credited with popularizing the term ‘debugging’” for fixing computer glitches, inspired by an actual moth removed from the computer. 

Grace Hopper worked in the male dominated world of computers all her life and had no truck with people who called her a Trail Blazer.  She didn’t admit that any trail needed to be blazed saying that if you work hard and are capable then recognition would follow.  It must have amused her when she was voted Computer Man of the Year. 

Always an independent thinker she hated the expression “But we’ve always done it that way” and visitors to her office would be perplexed and fascinated in equal measure by a clock on her wall that went backwards, “there is no reason why a clock should work one way or another” she would reason.  Grace Hopper has been described as appearing to be “‘all Navy’, but when you reach inside you find a ‘Pirate’ dying to be released” and it may be this reason that a Jolly Roger flag was always flying in her office or to highlight her ability to release information from the most  secure hideouts. 

In 2014 eight thousand people attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and it was the world’s largest gathering of women technologists.  The George R. Brown Convention Centre, Houston Texas is the location for the 2015 Celebration and will be held from October 14th – 16th with more people expected to attend than ever before, her name may soon be recognised in ever more households.

AVATARS

November 2014

Yesterday I heard a very interesting radio 4 programme about Avatars.  Apparently the word Avatar was not conceived by a Hollywood film producer but comes from the Sanskrit word for ‘descent’.  It relates to when a deity manifests itself in an earthly embodiment.  In Christianity ‘incarnation’ describes the coming of the divine in bodily form to the world in which we inhabit.  Does this make Jesus an Avatar?  Some Hindu’s believe he was, along with Krishna and Rama, and the programme explored the parallels and distinctions between the two.

Also as new technologies offer the prospect of digital Avatars able to simulate our personalities in the online world after death, they discussed what such developments tell us about contemporary attitudes to life after death and immortality.

Millions of us interact with Avatars through computer games and online virtual worlds like ‘Second Life’ and it has become the buzz-word’ for a secular age. In a very subtle shift from the religious connotations of an Avatar being God taking human form to re-establish ways in which we can connect with him, to the contemporary meaning where we can be represented in a virtual environment through a simulacrum which can be considered the real us in a virtual existence in which we can live vicariously.

The logical progression of this will be creating our own Avatars and, the programme maintained, the technology will soon exist (estimated at within twenty years) to enable us to preserve our personalities and life stories, digitally.  It is not too far fetched, they said, for us soon to curate our own legacies which our children and grandchildren can access after our death so they will be able to react with us long after our own physical demise.

There are already 25, 000 people signed up to a library of clones site that promises to preserve their thoughts some time in the future.  At the moment this is just a matter of collecting information to store for when the time comes and robotic answers can be found to preserving their ‘real selves’.  So many questions arise from this prospect.  Is it actually desirable?  Who would ensure that these Avatars are authentic or just idolised personas? Who decides what part of our personalities are preserved?  And would this ‘break-through’ actually just perpetuate the grieving process preventing us from letting go of the dead?

Is it morally right to continue our existence beyond what it is supposed to be?  Death is important for life, because the fact of the finite time we have, forces us to make important decisions about what sorts of people we are here and now.  Death is not just extinction but an important boundary about what sort of person we want to be and forces us to behave and interact in a world that ensures we are those people.  If there was always a possibility that anything we physical did could be overwritten by this programme with the profile of an unfeasibly perfect person, who is to say some of us will not just cut ourselves off from the world and concentrate on fabricating a totally fictional character?

Moreover will we become scared of death, will we hide from it and immune ourselves to it?  Do Avatars, in fact, tranquilise us from the fact of death?  For me the question must be, what is in it for me?  And the answer can only be nothing, because even though our Avatars will contain our thoughts, personality and experiences, once we are dead will we not experience the relationship our loved ones are having with our Avatars, so what is the point?  I would much prefer to live my fallible life and let my friends and family remember me for the flawed human being I really am, and surely it would be better for them to come to terms with my death as quickly as possible and not prolong the parting with agonising conversations with what sounds like me but is in fact a simulacrum of me.  I will be far gone.