Huw Lemmey


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You'll have to bear with us on this one; a slightly tongue-in-cheek film by the cult BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis (a personal favourite of mine), who makes a number of leaps to produce a nonetheless witty and passionate short film about the pangolin, Prince Philip and the PKK.

Prince Philip, he says, is a surprising champion of the pangolin, the mascot of this weekend's Marathon. He has long campaigned against the destruction of the habitat the animal lives in. It's a habit of aristocrats to be passionate about conservation, because, he says it is symbolic of a worldview that demands nothing must end, nothing must change, nothing must go extinct: not least the hierarchies of power that preserve the power and wealth of the ruling aristocratic elites of Britain.

But there is another political perspective that looks to conserve natural habitats whilst overturning the notion of hierarchy which structures society — that is the ideas of anarchism, not least the idea of Social Ecology, pioneered by the libertarian communist Murray Bookchin. He thought we must create new societies free of hierarchies.

(Wait for it…)

But Bookchin's ideas didn't go extinct with his death. In Kurdistan the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), a militant political organisation dedicated to self-determination for the Kurdish people, and a for of revolutionary socialism. Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, was heavily influenced by the writings of Murray Bookchin whilst imprisoned by the Turkish government in the late 90s (Kurds have long suffered repression at the hands of the Turkish state, which controls areas that Kurds claim as part of their national homeland). Today, in areas like Kobane, the PKK are attempting to pioneer and develop new forms of local, municipal government pioneered modelled on some of Bookchin's idea. However, over the past weeks, Kobane has been under siege by the forces of the Islamic State, and have fought fiercely to hold territory in the face of massive firepower.

In something of a leap, Curtis suggests that if we want to save the Pangolin, we can begin by intervening in Kobane to help save the Kurds pioneering libertarian municipalism. What might then become extinct are the hierarchical institutions that dominate society today: like the British Monarchy.

It might be something of a leap; whilst the PKK are pioneering forms of participative democracy, the PKK retains long roots within Marxist-Leninism, an ideology far removed from the ideals of libertarian communism, as well as retaining strong stands of nationalist ideology. That said, they do retain the support of many anarchists and anti-authoritarian communists, as evidenced by the presence of anarchists and antifascists on yesterday's pro-Kurdish solidarity march near the Serpentine Galleries yesterday.

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On a personal note, I felt Curtis' film really addressed some of the issues I felt have been problematic in some of the speakers presentations this weekend: namely, the worrying levels of trust placed in the idea of "pure science" and empiricism, and the dubious assertion that science and politics can be separated. Lord Rees today suggested that science needs to be grounded in values that science cannot itself provide, and Curtis reflected that, acknowledging that well-meaning conservation (of people like Prince Philip) has to be seen within the context of the political and social structures of society. Science and technology, put at the service of voracious, avaricious capitalism, have been intrinsic in creating the environmental crisis we're only just beginning to experience. A political critique of science and technology are therefore vital in formulating our social and technological response to this crisis. It seems unthinkable we can even begin to save ourselves from destruction without first destroying the structures that have lead us there. To quote another libertarian communist (also fighting under siege from ultraconservative forces), Spanish militant Buenaventura Durruti:

We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute.

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19
Oct
2014

9:09
PM
2014

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Anna Zett presents a crisp and powerful silent lecture, using a series of animated GIFs (with titles) to talk about the relationship between production and subject in the history of dinosaurs films, most notably the Jurassic Park series (1993-2001) and The Lost World (1925).

Zett's compelling argument positions the history of the cinesaur as being about understanding the relationship between modern science and nature (of course), but also about the U.S. writing itself a new prehistory: one that doesn't trouble itself with who might have called the continent home before the arrival of the white subject.

Jurassic Park, she claims, is a celebration of computer effects, yet also displays a deep distrust of computers. What follows in Jurassic Park 2 is an either starker contrast: all technology but the radio is destroyed. In 3, all that is left is a boat and a satellite phone. Of course, Zett says, we are supposed to think Jurassic Park is posing us questions on the technological intervention of man into nature, and the height of man's techno hubris. On screen, however, CGI has already won — and so has the Jurassic Park brand, which is available on the silver screen even before the cinemagoer has chance to buy their own t-shirts and lunch boxes on sale, in the foyer, now.

This contradiction is as old as the dinosaur itself — a beast positioned as both scientific and phantastic, old and new, a precious, rare original and a cheap reproduction: the dinosaur represents symbolically the modern contradiction.

The dinosaur, Zett claims, is the true animal mascot of the U.S. American Empire. A lost giant that once ruled the world, but then disappeared, only to be resurrected by those miners, biologists and frontiersmen. Discovered at the birth of the modern era: "all those modern scientists, all those American dreamers, caught in a bad romance at the frontiers of progress and accumulation".

In the US, she claims, dinosaurs were resurrected to symbolise the death of the ancient Other, but also the dinosaur is also at the forefront of technological development: any new technology in moving image making was immediately test-driven on the dinosaur, from stop-motion in The Lost World through to the latest CGI in the Jurassic Park series.

A clue to why this is the case, she says, can be found in the two scripts written for The Lost World. The first, Plot A, is the script eventually made into the released film, using stop-motion techniques to animate our prehistoric friends. However, doubting the ability of this new technology to truly represent dinosaurs, the producers also commissioned a second script, to be used in the case of the failure of the new technology. In this Plot B the cast are attacked not my dinosaurs but by cannibals.

The stop motion was successful, however, and we only see a glimpse of the Native Americans; the colonial conflict zone was replaced by a zoological one which captured the imaginations of the American cinema-going public, and in doing so, helped create a popular image of a New American Past.

Zett compares these films with other films of reanimated beasts of cinema, including King Kong — again, a tale riven with the violent fantasies of the colonist against the dark interior, and the preservation of white womanhood by the virile white heterosexual male. It too is a film about the power of film-making. The docu-fiction becomes reality: "Seeing is believing in the terror of this industrial magic". Again, the beast is untameable, and the subject of its attack is modernity itself, "because the more alive and terrifying it appears, the more symbols of modernity it destroys, the more powerful modern technology appears to be".

Jurassic Park, however, marked a change it tack for the cinebeast, and CGI marked a changing relationship with the scientific subject. In Spielberg's vision, they cease to be monsters but instead become animals, and the hunters become veterinarians and conservationists. Digitisation accompanied a process by which dinosaurs became unprehistoric, and the digital wilderness must be protected, returned to the conservation park and the laboratory. Yesterday's dreams of de-extinction at the Marathon became unavoidable...

Back in this peaceful conservation paradise history dissipates. Manmade dinosaurs obsessively parent their young. This wilderness, Zett claims, is not prehistoric but posthistoric:

Evolution and history, once dialectically entangled in the name of progress and modernity, have now fully collapsed into each other. The past is a digitized animal and the future is the promise of this animal materialisation and artificial fossilisation.

Modern lovers used to point with cameras and funs at dumb prehistoric creatures. Smart contemporary creatures now point their digital eyes back at modern lovers.

Just like my laptop is looking at me right now.

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"I was thinking the colour of Schopenhauer, of Dostoevsky … Old men nostalgic for the past potency of humanism. What is humanism? The masculine potency that is going to be lost in the extinction of things … I was wrong. Extinction won't come with the dark colours of Dostoevsky … My language is old! It's the old language of an old man who has not perceived the real reality of the real. I am trying to understand. I am trying to feel! I am trying to perceive a perception of the colour of extinction! … It will come in the colour of excitement! it is brilliant, exciting, glittering, stimulating! Extinction will come in the colour of brightness! It is like me! And it is like you." — Franco Bifo Berardi

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U.S. artist Trevor Paglen produces work on the infrastructure and apparatus of the surveillance state; that's what he's known for, and usually, it's what he'd talk about at events like this. But with just 15 minutes, perhaps that's too expansive an issue to discuss, with its complex issues of serious breaches of civil liberties, torture and oppression. To cram that into 15 minutes would involve being necessarily and unacceptably reductive.

Instead, he wants to talk to the Marathon audience, at this point crowded into the room which is at capacity, about his work "The Last Pictures", an artistic project dealing with an extreme, possibly unprecedented, duration. This is a project that virtually no-one has seen, and probably no-one will ever see, he explains, because it's based far outside the earth's atmosphere. It can only be experienced at one removed, through talks like this.

The earth is surrounded by a ring, not unlike the rings of Saturn; but a ring not of dust and debris but of machines. Geostationary satellites providing instantaneous communication (and surveillance) around the world orbit around 36000 km. Hundreds of machines that, outliving their use, are allowed to die, but never decay. Untouched by erosion, and outside an orbit that would eventually suck them back into our atmosphere, they just sit there, lifeless, silently waiting. Without erosion or decay, their futures are not measured by in the time of human epochs, but in the time of planets and of stars.

This ring is a permanent part of the planet.

Paglen recounts a potential future history. The average lifespan of mammalian species is about 2 million years, and we've been here for 200,000. Species might evolve into new species, or they might die out. But the earth will (probably) live on well past our the insignificant speck of the anthropocene, and see new epochs. Paglen imagines what may happen once the Age of Humans is over. We might see the age of dogs. Crows. Centipedes. Maybe another age of dinosaurs. In the meantime, the movement of the earths tectonic plates have swallowed what little human activity was left unburied by the many volcanic explosions, dust clouds and asteroids.

Imagine an Age of Giant Squids. In the depths of the worlds oceans, recovering after the pollution of the anthropocene, the Giant Squids have developed incredibly sensitive eyes to see through the murky seas. They rise to the top of the oceans, and with thee eyes, they look, like we once did, to the stars. Much moons! Very numinous! Not a single moon, like we see, but a whole array of moons. And maybe a million years later, they develop the means to investigate the moons further, and discover the moons are not natural. The moons are alien spaceships.

So the rest of the history of earth includes the age of space artefacts, a ring of human fossils encircling the globe.

We should treat these spacecraft as messages in bottles, Paglen proposes. Vehicles of messages travelling not through space, but through time. A cave painting for the distant future. A monument to the anthropocene.

Paglen was invited to be artist in residence at MIT and set about, with a team of engineers, to design an artwork that can live in space. He intended to build the most archival work of art ever made, and they worked to make something approximating a microfiche film, but built of diamonds. They build a shield for it to live in, protecting it from the trip into orbit and from the powerful attack of the sun's rays in space. It was attached to Echostar 16, a satellite in geostationary orbit launched from Kazakhstan.

Images Paglen chose included

  • A photo of the back of the Angelus Novus by Paul Klee
  • Eye of a predator drone
  • A photo of people watching a tidal wave about to kill them
  • Human transformations of the worlds surface
  • Cats
  • Malevich, because, well, Malevich
  • A fruit fly genetically modified with legs coming out of its eyes
  • Ships in the Suez Canal
  • A reaper drone photographed by a Pakistani man upon waking one morning
  • A photo of flowers in a field adjacent to a GULAG camp

Paglen says "I don't think these images drifting through time will ever be found by anybody. And I don't think images mean anything outside of their historical and social context."

Nevertheless, he recounts feeling a huge responsibility in choosing what images might represent humanity. Unlike artworks created for, say, the Voyager missions, Paglen's work is not intended for extraterrestrials, but for communicating back to earth. In an important way, it's about a reflection for the artist himself, a project about becoming self-aware as a human. It's not about communicating over space, but it's a question of what sort of relationship we want to the future.

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19
Oct
2014

4:04
PM
2014

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Alice Rawsthorn was in conversation with the Dutch graphic designer Irma Boom to discuss the future of contemporary publishing and book design. Faced with the rise of digital platforms for information exchange, and the rise of the e-book, do we need to take a stand against the extinction of the book?

Rawsthorn questions whether the book really has what it takes to survive. Designed objects have come and gone from everyday life throughout the history of civilisation. Is it purely sentimentality to think that the book might be exempt from this process of obsolescence? Plenty of other technologies that previously had standalone design objects are now combined into smart phones, tablets and laptops. An ebook, she claims, is more versatile than a printed book; it doesn't consume paper, or the precious fossil fuel resources needed to ship the printed book around the world. There's a counter-point to this, of course; most handheld digital devices are hugely damaging to the environment to produce, utilising rare earth metals and, of course, requiring constant inputs of power to keep going. The initial high-cost of the printed book in resource terms is offset by its durability. A printed book from the dawn of mass-publishing is still as readable today as the day it was produced, and has consumed no more resources in the intervening centuries. The book also has an incredibly low barrier to entry within a literate society; pushed into hands, through prison bars, left on train sets, flung from cargo planes: the book is a resilient and user-friendly object. Once in your hands, if you can read, you can read - by moonlight, by candlelight, after trekking through a wet jungle or submerged in a fast river. Rawsthorn suggests "as an object the book is a container, a form of packaging" — perhaps, but it's also a platform, the form of which is intrinsic on how the content is utilised and interpreted.

Boom, too, is stoic; it's too simplistic to suggest that the digital book has yet superseded the printed object. "I feel like a dinosaur", she says, but "a book still has value". A website, a digital book is capable of great flux, and can be easily amended. There's a different form of commitment to a text or idea in putting it to paper. A printed book also holds a different legacy in terms of the transmission of knowledge; fields of study such as palaeography can trace meaning and development of language and thought through the very form of a book. From colophon to index, the book hold a history separate to that of the nominal content it purports to transmit. Each book holds within in the history of both the text, and of "the book" as a historical form itself. Indeed, within palaeography the invention of movable type is a paradigm shift. Before this development, accurate data transfer degraded the further you move from the origin text; scribes mistranslated, and errors were continued and compounded. Movable type, along with the development of simple forms of universal cataloguing and editioning forms, allowed a new process to take place; that of revising, making more accurate, correcting errors and tracing their origins to specific errors or sabotages. Digital publishing is set to complicate this issue once more.

Boom discusses her beginnings and inspirations as a book designer — a tutor who discussed the book as a dialogue between content and form — as well as her own design practice, which challenges the orthodoxy that the author is the sole transmitter of ideas within the book. She takes as an example a book she designed opening with huge text, which gradually shrinks in point size until it reaches a standard 12 point text size effectively dragging you "into the text". This encountered opposition from publishers and editors, claiming "you can't play with text like that". Well, maybe you can — she contacted the author, Arthur Danto, who was keen on the idea, leaving no hiding place for those who opposed the idea.

All this is not to say that digital publishing isn't an important design challenge, who effects are felt in paper publishing design. "Young people all want big type books because they want to enlarge!" Boom says, making a hand-gesture of pulling fingers together across a screen, as if to zoom in on a touch screen. And, of course, Boom recognises the strong case for certain types of digital books over printed books, when prompted by Rawsthorn: atlases, dictionaries and even literature are better suited to digital formats, although it's perhaps a loss to see the decline of literature covers, an important part of a collective culture of reading. Rawsthorn agrees; it's a declining cultural form, much like LP covers. The more they're removed from the mass-market experience of popular consumption, and moved into the realm of the art object, the less effect they can have on shared culture, whether that's Bowie or Patti Smith LPs from the 1970s or Penguin's mass-market paperback covers which held their own democratic value of equality of opportunity. That said, the LP cover was a mere flash in the pan compared to the 500 year history of the printed book. It's been here for 500 years, says Boom — why not another 500 years?

Most importantly in the survival of the printed book, says Boom, is the factor of price. "I am against expensive books" she says — a very pertinent point in an industry being purposefully crushed by the financial warfare of Amazon — "I want a democracy of books."

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