Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A death foretold

This series of stills comes from LA-based artist Kevin Hanley's "On Another Occasion" (02002), featured at the 02003 Venice Biennale and recently drawn to my attention by an EGS colleague. It's a three-minute video to add to our collection of future artifacts here at t.s.f.

The image seems to be moving, then still, but perhaps slowly pulling into focus. As the picture evolves, one runs through a list of associations as when reading shapes in clouds. It could be a landscape or a baby in utero, but the list of candidates shortens as the image comes further into focus. It is the face of a man sideways. It is a bearded man. It is an old man. It is Fidel Castro. It is Castro dead.
~Christopher Miles, "Kevin Hanley -- Openings", ArtForum, June 02003

Hanley explains the thinking behind this work:
[I]n 2002 during a surge in G.W. Bush's war mongering and Sharon's incursions into Palestine I was thinking, what next in a series of big changes? I just had the image of Castro lying in state pop into my head.
At this point I decided to make a contribution without waiting for the event. The video operates like this. Out of a blurry field, which is for the larger part of the video's duration formless, emerges the picture of a dead man. What then becomes clarified is for the present time, a fiction: the picture of a dead Castro, created by digitally altering a recent AP photo. In the first moments of the video, the viewer's imagination works to conclude what one's eyes see (Is this something I recognize?), and at the moment of visual clarity the viewer's imagination works at piecing together a relative conclusion (What does this picture mean? What are its consequences?). The viewer of this work is invited to experience a space between seeing something, and making conceptual leaps via ones sight [...] inspired by finding a bit of space between perception and rationalizing what one sees.
~"Kevin Hanley @ The 50th Venice Biennale", KultureFlash no. 53, 22 July 02003.

It is not news to observe that the demise of Castro, the longest-serving head of government in the world, has long been expected -- particularly in light of his ongoing health problems.

But to date, he remains stubbornly alive, so an image of him dead is indeed a sort of future artifact, of the type discussed quite a bit at this blog in recent times. We're invited us to think about how it is experienced. The cognitive dissonance triggered at confrontation by a hypothetically possible -- but not yet witnessed, and somehow unexpected -- future image or object is the key to future-shock therapy. As Hanley implies, there is a moment of arrest, a misfire or slippage in the process of recognition (what you're seeing is not what you expect to see), and the questions raised are: what does this mean, what are its consequences?

As one commentator notes:
Produced by digitally altering an AP image of the political leader, sans hat – the artist has produced a fictional space, out of which the viewer is forced to comprehend both an inevitable historical event and the way in which our perceptual faculties are often informed by the inaccuracy of conjecture.

Two interesting phrases here. First, the idea of "fictional space" suggests something of the bizarre twilight realism of an expected, but not yet manifest, event. The term fiction doesn't quite capture the intensely ambiguous relationship between image and reality that we find here, so I'm not sure it's the optimal signpost -- but the place it's pointing to is of great interest to us. Second, "our perceptual faculties are often informed by the inaccuracy of conjecture". Since "On Another Occasion" is a video of a still image swimming slowly into focus, rather than simply a still image, in addition to its status as a kind of future artifact, it provides a deliberately temporal, stretched out experience of something baffling resolving into something identifiable. (Christopher Miles: "As the picture evolves, one runs through a list of associations as when reading shapes in clouds.") Here's a neat visual metaphor for the hazards of foresight, which is perhaps a special case of the more general process of coming to understanding. I'd be inclined to warn against taking the metaphor too literally (er, visually?) because the future does not come at us predecided-only-fuzzy; its contents change as we move toward it, along with our ability to discern them. Also, it's not a one-way process, because things whose trajectory or meaning seemed clear at one point may later be rendered surprising or incomprehensible again. At any rate, the inaccuracy of conjecture does seem to be brought out experientially for the viewer by Hanley's approach.

I leave the last word to Christopher Miles (quoted above) who describes his own reaction to this piece, offering more food for thought about how other courses of future-shock therapy might affect the patient:

Here the image of Castro's death foretold becomes a partner in Hanley's attempt to find a moving, evolving form that can address the problem of trying to pull the recognizable out of the unrecognizable, the fixed and clear, as well as the here and now, out of the anticipated, the inevitable, and the yet unresolved. On Another Occasion is less a piece specifically about Castro's awaited demise than a metaphor for the type of confusing moment--difficult to focus, difficult to frame, difficult to register--that it likely will be, whether on a personal or a collective level. Imaging what the rest of us have only imagined, Hanley's digitally altered press photo not only complicates our individual visions of the ineluctable but presents us with the double whammy of a false concretization of an event for which we've been waiting (with passionate anticipation or morbid curiosity), but for which, we must now admit, we were hardly prepared. After multiple viewings, I still find myself trying to reverse this simulated death with a preemptive resurrection. In my mind's eye, I see the old man upright, alive. Somehow, it's just easier that way.

[Follow-up post here, 1 August.]

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

So long, for now

Today is my last day at the Long Now Foundation office for this summer. I'll be back in Honolulu at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies within a week, and continuing to work on renovating Long Bets from a distance, and writing for Long Views, while gearing up for PhD dissertation territory (here be dragons) in the Manoa futures program.

My most recent Long Now blog contributions (since those linked earlier):
Art in geological time (24 July)
The watch of the long now (19 July)
Thinking long, building big (11 July)

Many, many thanks to Alexander, Danielle, Ben, the recently departed office manager Simone (not dead, just pining) and other Long Nowers who welcomed me back to the Bay Area in general, and the Fort Mason office in particular, allowing me -- again! -- the best seat in the house (view of the Golden Gate bridge etc). It's been a pleasure. This stint began a month ago , just as Long Now was in the throes of setting up Brian Eno's 77 million paintings: tranquil to experience, but tumultuous to organise -- congratulations again to all concerned. Not unexpectedly, things have remained busy, interesting and enlightening here throughout my stay. I look forward to seeing you all again soon!

Also today, in the general spirit of creative destruction, we bid farewell to the remarkably beige design of the sceptical futuryst which has served for more than a year. Out with the old:

...and in with the new:

Some of the basic features hitherto lacking (a blogroll, links to a representative selection of archival posts, and a tag list) now appear in the sidebar at right. Plus I think this colour scheme is a little bit easier to read. Of course, feedback and suggestions are always welcome.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Footwear for a warmer world

No one seems to have found the original source, but this striking image of high-heeled rubber flippers has recently been doing the rounds online. It was drawn to my attention by a fellow attendee at the Bay Area Future Salon last Friday (thanks Pat) during a conversation about the FoundFutures postcard campaign.

I subsequently found that Bruce Sterling had blogged this under the heading "Global Warming Beachware", and as he points out, the shot has been doing heavy viral business in the echo chamber that is the blogosphere. (At the time of writing, about 10,000 hits are returned by google for the otherwise unlikely phrase "high tide heels", which appears on the label attached to these shoeboxes.)

What's interesting to me, with the image being unattributed (and in that respect rather mysterious), is the variety of responses to its ambiguity. Some folks are treating it as a failed fashion statement, some are preoccupied with whether it's authentic or an art project, and some question the originality of the design by referring to an earlier version. I prefer the artifact-from-the-future reading (c.f. Sterling), seeing this as a playful real-world variation on Wired magazine's back-page feature that's been running for a few years; most recently, this image from the August 02007 issue. One of the differences between a future artifact that appears in a known location, where you expect to find it (e.g., a regular slot in a technology magazine), and an artifact that is "set free" online -- or physically in the streets, as we've been doing -- is surely this greater scope for ambiguity. In the former case you can safely pigeonhole it as a nifty piece of artwork. But encountered in an unexpected context, however, its existence begs certain questions about its ontological status: is this thing real? That cognitive dissonance seems to lend itself to being thought about in more detail, and discussed with others.

So, apart from it being kind of unusual and cool, I'd say there are two related reasons for the high traffic in this footwear image: first, it strikes a chord with people for different reasons, as suggested by the various responses noted above -- fashionistas, shoe lovers, scuba divers, art people, and futurists all find their own source of appeal here. Second, it's puzzling. Without accompanying explanation, we can't categorise it right away, and it may make more of an impact, perhaps reaching a viral-transmission tipping point, as folks chatter about what they don't understand (for instance at Snopes).

Similarly, the varied responses to the Hawaiian postcards-from-the-future campaign [images] illustrate the power of ambiguity to provoke thought, generating alternative possible explanations for these future artifacts.

Last week Bob Maynard, CEO of Aloha Petroleum, received four postcards, one a day beginning on Monday.

The first was an invitation to visit "the Commonwealth of Hawai'i" and asked for an R.S.V.P. by June 31, 2036.

"I thought maybe it's something to do with sovereignty," said Maynard's executive assistant, Joan Ellis. "Then I thought it was some sort of promotion that someone was using to pique interest."

But an additional quote from the same source that did not appear in the brief Honolulu Advertiser report from which the above is extracted was in response to the fourth day's postcard, which came in the form of a plea directed to the United Nations for help from a beleaguered, post-hurricane Hawaii of the future.

Perhaps, reflected this recipient, the islands have indeed been "dodging a bullet" every hurricane season. Hmm. There's an interesting thought.

Meanwhile, I'm content to co-opt High Tide Heels for our evolving gallery of artifactual "found futures" interventions (on which, more background at this HRCFS blog post). And if I happen to discover whence this fancy footwork came, I'll be sure to let you know.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Future-shock therapy in your pocket

A few years ago in an Oxfam bookstore in Canterbury, England, I stumbled upon a book called Mind Invaders: A reader in psychic warfare, cultural sabotage and semiotic terrorism (Serpent's Tail, London, 01997), a fascinating little paperback full of learned, anarchistic mischief. Among the many pleasures of this collection was an introduction to the Situationist International practices of psychogeography (which eventually fed into my interest in audio walks), an essay on psychogeographic poker (a variation on the wildly popular card game which at the moment seems oddly invisible to Google's all-seeing eye), and three-sided football, an idea which intrigues and delights me to this day.

So, Mind Invaders was edited by one Stewart Home, and when I sought recently to better acquaint myself with his other activities, I found out he's a sort of multimedia performance artist based in England, who says the following in his mission statement:

I have sought performativity on a wider social canvas. What interests me is not finished products, but rather the social relations among those from whom process based cultural forms emerge in new and exciting ways; and the means by which these forms can be utilized in a more general move towards disalienation.

Interesting how this echoes with Sandy Stone's strategy of performing her theory, which I noted yesterday in response to a comment on an earlier post.

Anyway, among Home's works is this provocative artifact, the Necrocard (click the image to enlarge):

He writes:

[B]ased on the NHS [UK's National Health Service] organ donor card [link to image], the necrocard provided people with a means to indicate they gave their consent for necrophiliacs to have sex with their corpse after their death. The necrocard was distributed by various means, including simply handing them out on the street in the west end of London, which produced some interesting reactions. I had fifty thousand of these cards printed in 1999.
(Eight years later, he's still giving them out.)

Elsewhere, Home says more about the origins of the project:

As I've got older I've found my thoughts fixed increasingly firmly on the big issues that fascinate anyone whose mind has a philosophical bent, that is to say sex and death. Since I wished to address the relationship between these two issues, I decided to issue donor cards enabling those who carried them to leave their body for sexual experimentation. Getting the art work together wasn't a problem, I simply copied the design of NHS donor cards but changed the wording.
As far as I can see, if sex is consensual then there is no reason for there being legal sanctions against it.

To be honest if I was given the opportunity to have sex with a stiff, I'd probably pass it up. However, if prior to their death someone has given their consent to necrophiliac sex, then I don't really see what moral objections can be raised against it.

He goes on to provide descriptions of the mixed reactions to the experiment, which are illuminating; I especially like this observation: "I encountered several individuals who were clearly alarmed by the fact that my necrocards used humour to raise these serious issues. Several people said they thought the cards should either be serious or a joke, not both." This provokes me to consider that the kind of hybridity, ambiguity, and spirit of serious fun referred to here is fundamental to the futures (and other) work I find most valuable. Alternative futures are thought/emotion experiments, and in a spirit of academic as well as artistic exploration, I believe we should experiment with them fearlessly.

So, while I'm not particularly captivated by the idea of an opt-in body donor system for necrophiliacs, at a more general, process level I applaud this approach to calling into question an inherited social taboo. The beliefs, attitudes and practices we don't question are the ones liable to get us into trouble in times of accelerating change. Tradition is habit on a pedestal. We need to consider, case by case, whether each belongs there on its merits, and therefore be prepared continuously to discard or reinvent them.

Though not explicitly a future artifact, Home's Necrocard could be regarded as part of a broader set called the hypothetical artifact, or embodied simulation. Its most important features are its eerie combination of familiarity (or realism, because of its sheer materiality) and fantasy (or impossibility, in the case of artifacts from a future that has clearly not yet come to pass). This seems to generate a cognitive dissonance that can be met with dismissal, or irritation (blame the artifact!), but which to my mind is best resolved by thinking through the questions it begs: where does this thing come from, what kind of world (could have) produced it, and, most interestingly , what does my reaction to it -- aversion, surprise, delight, boredom -- say about me?

To administer a mild trauma relating to a plausibly imagined possible future, and then work back from there: this is the essence of future-shock therapy.

Home's playful experiment is not unlike those that my colleague Jake Dunagan and I have been undertaking with our ongoing project thread, FoundFutures. He locates it in his portfolio under Performance > Social Sculpture, a term I hadn't seen before and which I followed back to German artist Joseph Beuys (01921-01986). Beuys had the following to say about "Social Sculpture":

My objects are to be seen as stimulants for the transformation of the idea of sculpture. . . or of art in general. They should provoke thoughts about what sculpture can be and how the concept of sculpting can be extended to the invisible materials used by everyone.

THINKING FORMS--how we mold our thoughts or
SPOKEN FORMS--how we shape our thoughts into words or
SOCIAL SCULPTURE--how we mold and shape the world in which we live:

That is why the nature of my sculpture is not fixed and finished, processes continue in most of them: chemical reactions, fermentations, color changes, decay, drying up. Everything is in a state of change.


Monday, July 09, 2007

The Blog of the Long Now

I've recently started contributing to Long Views, the Long Now Foundation's weblog about long term thinking, art, and ideas. There you can find Stewart Brand's excellent summaries of the monthly Seminars About Long-Term Thinking, as well as other news and insights from what may the only organisation in the world specifically dedicated to fostering long-term responsibility.

My first few posts:
The Long You (3 July)
"The Iraq Gamble" (4 July)
Catastrophe a good bet? (6 July)
Slow Art (9 July)

Like the above, future posts from me are likely to revolve mainly around the Long Bets project (my current focus as Research Fellow at Long Now), and media, notably Long Shorts -- films exemplifying long-term thinking or a longer perspective.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Visit Venice, see Baghdad

The EGS June session this year involved a day-long excursion to the Venice Biennale, which had begun just four days before our 14 June visit. Arriving bright and early after an all-night bus ride from the cosy alpine confines of Saas-Fee, I found myself somewhat punchdrunk by the combination of sleep deprivation and the sudden superabundance of contemporary art, canals, and edible food.

Though I didn't make it through the entire exhibition (having only scratched the surface of the vast Arsenale collection when closing time crept up on me), I did manage a pretty comprehensive tour of the Giardini's international pavilions.

Probably my favourite part was in the Nordic Pavilion; an installation by an Iraqi artist living in Finland, Adel Abidin. It took the form of a sort of fly-by-night, threadbare tourism agency called Abidin Travels. Entering a small concrete room, you see a TV suspended from the ceiling, looping an upbeat, Vegas-gaudy tourist infomercial with a vacuous voiceover extolling the wonders of war-torn Baghdad (see stills below), imbued with gleefully dark humour reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall.

Through a narrow doorway into another small room, unadorned but for a TV playing uncensored footage from the bloodied streets of Iraq. No commentary supplied, but the advertisement's "Welcome to Baghdad!" echoes from the other room.

What makes the exhibit work, though, from my point of view, is a novel opportunity given to become part of it. Before leaving the area, you join a queue for access to a computer set into the wall, and through the faux "Abidin Travels" website, enter your name, city of departure and meal preferences to book a one-way flight to Baghdad. The graphic interface is convincingly busy with optional extras, and the content peppered with macabre comedy: "We suggest that you take some good life insurance you will need it!" All questions duly answered, it physically spits out your ticket then and there; a souvenir of the experience to take away together with a glossy (sticking with the theme, also grimly ironic) Abidin Travels brochure in any of seven or eight languages.

I appreciated the subversive political conscientiousness of Abidin's installation, which avoided the seemingly ubiquitous art traps of obtuseness and self-indulgence with a straight-for- the-jugular approach. The brutal irony of commodifying war-torn Iraq, a hell on earth that most of us experience reluctantly, if at all, at arm's length via news reportage, highlighted the absurdity -- not to mention the obscenity -- of this violence as well as its tacky, mercenary raison d'être.

This was, I felt, a kind of immersive scenario which sought to implicate the visitor more deeply than as a mere observer -- of the artwork, as well as of the war. What I most liked about it was the type of engagement produced by an interactive, satirical take on the now-familiar ritual (to middle class Westerners) of online airfare bookings and tourist kitsch.

Something that one of my EGS professors, Sandy Stone, said towards the end of the summer session has been bouncing around in my mind since then: "Theatre is a machine for producing a different kind of consciousness." The notion of consciousness-producing machines strikes me as one of those generous, substratum kinds of ideas which lends itself interestingly to other domains. For one thing, it helps me understand why I've become increasingly intrigued by a fuller spectrum of media than I used to think about (now including sculpture, installation, and audio walks, for instance). As a futurist I think a major part of the job is to encourage people -- including ourselves -- to "seriously entertain" hypothetical futures. That is, to see how far their logic -- and affect -- can carry you. So, in trying to make a previously unexamined (or examined and dismissed) scenario appear realistic and striking, then why not stay open to using the full panoply of available communicative strategies? A futurist is, in this sense, an agent for producing a particular type of horizon-expanding consciousness, and any art form is fair game.

I wasn't all that interested in using theatre before, either, but why the hell not? As one of the variety of "machines" on the menu of consciousness production, there are no doubt things it can generate, induce or communicate (insights, feelings, ideas) that are hard or even impossible to achieve any other way. In fact that's pretty much precisely why we at HRCFS ended up doing what we did with Hawaii 2050. The original idea was to produce four galleries of artifacts (like museum exhibits under glass), ostensibly "from" four different versions of the year 2050. As we toyed with this plan, however, it became clear that some sort of a performance could be much more effective than a set of inert objects. So we used improv actors working with semi-scripted scenarios, designed each room to serve as a tip-of-the-iceberg, a window on the world imagined in each scenario, and we conscripted visitors inside the fourth wall.

Abidin used a different range of media from what we did, and didn't use live performers -- I don't want to draw too long a bow with this comparison -- but his work here does seem to have a kind of underlying similarity of intent... cast the unwitting observer in a role, get them on the hook and involve them physically in the world you've created. Give them something to do, and something tangible to take home, and the transaction is consummated: they've become part of the scenario, and (to the extent the trick succeeds) it's become part of them.

"Abidin Travels" seems to me to be a kind of art that's needed now -- an art that is unafraid to make sincere political critique (as opposed to gratuitous feather-ruffling), and that is at once highly serious and extremely playful. Art that doesn't use its privilege for self-serving purposes, but that takes the opportunity, the focused attention it attracts, to produce a different kind of consciousness. It seems to me that the experiential scenario (whether set in a future or not) is an artform whose time is now -- and I have my ticket to Baghdad to prove it.