Dispersing the crowds

Considering the fate of museums and galleries under covid laockdown for New Scientist, 3 February 2021

In November 2020, the International Council of Museums estimated that 6.1 per cent of museums globally were resigned to permanent closure due to the pandemic. The figure was welcomed with enthusiasm: in May, it had reported nearly 13 per cent faced demise.

Something is changing for the better. This isn’t a story about how galleries and museums have used technology to save themselves during lockdowns (many didn’t try; many couldn’t afford to try; many tried and failed). But it is a story of how they weathered lockdowns and ongoing restrictions by using tech to future-proof themselves.

One key tool turned out to be virtual tours. Before 2020, they were under-resourced novelties; quickly, they became one of the few ways for galleries and museums to engage with the public. The best is arguably one through the Tomb of Pharaoh Ramses VI, by the Egyptian Tourism Authority and Cairo-based studio VRTEEK.

And while interfaces remain clunky, they improved throughout the year, as exhibition-goers can see in the 360-degree virtual tour created by the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent in Belgium to draw people through its otherwise-mothballed Van Eyck exhibition.

The past year has also forced the hands of curators, pushing them into uncharted territory where the distinctions between the real and the virtual become progressively more ambiguous.

With uncanny timing, the V&A in London had chosen Lewis Carroll’s Alice books for its 2020 summer show. Forced into the virtual realm by covid-19 restrictions, the V&A, working with HTC Vive Arts, created a VR game based in Wonderland, where people can follow their own White Rabbit, solve the caterpillar’s mind-bending riddles, visit the Queen of Hearts’ croquet garden and more. Curious Alice is available through Viveport; the real-world show is slated to open on 27 March.

Will museums grow their online experiences into commercial offerings? Almost all such tours are free at the moment, or are used to build community. If this format is really going to make an impact, it will probably have to develop a consolidated subscription service – a sort of arts Netflix or Spotify.

What the price point should be is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t help for institutions to muddy the waters by calling their video tours virtual tours.

But the advantages are obvious. The crowded conditions in galleries and museums have been miserable for years – witness the Mona Lisa, imprisoned behind bulletproof glass under low-level diffuse lighting and protected by barricades. Art isn’t “available” in any real sense when you can only spend 10 seconds with a piece. I can’t be alone in having staggered out of some exhibitions with no clear idea of what I had seen or why. Imagine if that was your first experience of fine art.

Why do we go to museums and galleries expecting to see originals? The Victorians didn’t. They knew the value of copies and reproductions. In the US in particular, museums lacked “real” antiquities, and plaster casts were highly valued. The casts aren’t indistinguishable from the original, but what if we produced copies that were exact in information as well as appearance? As British art critic Jonathan Jones says: “This is not a new age of fakery. It’s a new era of knowledge.”

With lidar, photogrammetry and new printing techniques, great statues, frescoes and chapels can be recreated anywhere. This promises to spread the crowds and give local museums and galleries a new lease of life. At last, they can become places where we think about art – not merely gawp at it.

Fatally punctured by a sword-swallower’s blade

Visiting Flop: 13 stories of failure at The Octagon, University College London, for New Scientist, 6 November 2019

Quitting your job? Then remember to clear out your locker. One former employee of University College London left a bottle of home-made plum brandy in a drawer. The macerated plum was eventually discovered, mulled over (sorry), misidentified as a testicle (species unknown), and added to the university’s collection. Now that same collection fuels Flop, in UCL’s tiny Octagon gallery.

It’s not so much an exhibition as a series of provocations. (A notice by the last case asks you to share your own accounts of failure on a postcard “so we can all start learning from each other’s mistakes.”) After all, what is a failure? Do failures exist outside of the realm of human judgement? (“Can animals have accidents?” is a favourite undergraduate philosophy question. Humans can: one of the more gruesome exhibits here is a human heart, fatally punctured by a sword-swallower’s blade.)

How we define failure depends on our changing needs and circumstances. There was a time, not very long ago, when the plethora of human languages seemed indicative of some deep, Biblical failure to establish amity across our species. Concerted efforts were made to establish a single, synthetic language through which we might all be understood. There’s a fascinating page here from an essay by John Wilkins, whose Royal Society language project attempted to establish an analytical language that would allow people to communicate despite not sharing the same tongue. It foundered because the Royal Society couldn’t agree on how many essential concepts existed in the world.

Now that we live among artificially intelligent agents, the best of whom are more than capable of translating even spoken speech in real time, we find failure in our reduction of linguistic diversity. We bemoan the loss of languages (3000 of them have perished since 1910) , and mourn the cultural deficit left by their demise.

Can objects fail? Only in the sense that they fail to perform an expected action. Silly Putty, a perenially popular toy, was the result of a failed attempt to produce a synthetic rubber substitute during World War II. People can “fail” in much the same way. Percy Wyndham Lewis was kicked out of the Slade School of Fine Art for arguing with his lecturers, and went on to become the foremost avant-garde artist and writer of his generation.

If these examples of failure feel a bit tenuous, well, that’s really the point Flop wants to make: what’s interesting is how we deal with failures, not how we define them.
“Perhaps contrasting failure with success is the real problem,” the introductory material explains. “If every activity has to end in either one or the other, it denies the nuanced and messy complexities of life.”

Nothing to do except try not to die

Moving to Mars for New Scientist, 18 October 2019

Step into Moving to Mars, an exhibition of Mars mission and colony design at London’s Design Museum, and you are confronted, immediately, with some very good reasons not to move there. Minatory glowing wall texts announce that Mars was not made for you; that there is no life and precious little water; that, clad in a space suit, you will never touch, taste or smell the planet you now call “home”. As Lisa Grossman wrote for New Scientist a couple of years ago, “What’s different about Mars is that there is nothing to do there except try not to die.”

It’s an odd beginning for such an up-beat and celebratory show, but it provides some valuable dark ground against which the rest of the show can sparkle — a show that is, as its chief curator Justin McGuirk remarks, “not about Mars; this is an exhibition about people.”

Next up: a quick yet lucid dash through what the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson calls “the history of Mars in the human mind”. A Babylonian clay tablet and a Greek vase speak to our early cosmological ideas about the planets; a poster for the film Total Recall (the good one, from 1990), reminds us of Mars’s psychological menace.

The bulk of the show focuses on our current plans for the red planet. There are real space suits and models of real rovers, maquettes of 3D-printed Martian settlements and prototypes of Mars-appropriate clothing and furniture. Mission architectures and engineering sketches line the walls. Real hammers meant for the International Space Station (hollow, and loaded with ball bearings to increase their utility in zero-gravity) are wall-mounted beside a nifty low-gravity table that has yet to leave, and may indeed never leave, Earth. This, of course, is the great strength of approaching science through design: reality and speculation can be given equal visual weight, drawing us into an informed conversation about what it is we actually want from the future. Some readers may remember a tremendous touring exhibition, Hello Robot in 2017, which did much the same for robotics and artificial intelligence.

Half way round the show, I relaxed in a fully realised Martian living pod by the international design firm Hassell and their engineering partners Eckersley O’Callaghan. They’d assembled this as part of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge — the agency’s programme to develop habitat ideas for deep space exploration — and it combines economy, recycling, efficiency and comfort in surprising ways. Xavier De Kestelier, Hassell’s head of design technology and innovation, was on hand to show me around, and was particularly proud of the chairs here, which are are made of recycled packaging: “The more you eat, the more you sit!”

So much for the promise of Martian living. The profound limitations of that life were brought home to me a working hydroponic system by Growstack. Its trays of delicious cress and lettuce reminded me, rather sharply, that for all the hype, we are still a very long way from being able to feed ourselves away from our home world. We’re still at the point, indeed, where a single sunflower and a single zinnia, blossoming aboard the ISS — the former in 2012, the latter in 2016 — still make headlines.

The Growstack exhibit and other materials about Martian horticulture also marked an important cultural shift, away from the strategic, militarised thinking that characterised early space exploration in the Cold War, and towards more humane, more practical questions about how one lives an ordinary life in such extraordinary, and extraordinarily limited, environments.

It’s no surprise that the Russian were thinking seriously about these questions long before the rest of us, and it was good to see Russian space cultures given their due in this impressively international show. All through the 19th century, researchers for the Tsarist government tried to develop agriculture in mostly frozen and largely infertile Siberia. Well into the Soviet era, soil scientists undertook extreme expeditions over vast distances in pursuit of insane agricultural speculations. It shows up in their popular culture. “Hold on, geologist,” ran one pop song of 1951, “hold out, geologist, you are brother of the wind and sun!” And then there are the films of Pavel Vladimirovich Klushantsev, born 1910 in St Petersburg.

Klushantsev’s documentary Road to the Stars (1957), a meticulous, scientifically accurate vision to the physics, engineering, ergonomics of space travel, was followed seven years later by Moon (1965), describing the exploration, mining, settlement and domestication of a new land. Both films feature succulent gardens glistening under space domes, and workers eager to tend them, and bowls full of peaches beside every workstation, offering a little, literal taste of home.

I was delighted to see here a screen showing *Mars* (1968), a much less celebrated effort — Klushantsev’s saturated, multicoloured vision of man on the Red Planet. It’s the film with the dog in the spacesuit: an image people who’ve never heard of this director treasure for its kitsch value. It’s the film that earned him a telegram which read: “Due to the low quality of your work, we hereby inform you that we are terminating your contract with the studio.”

So much for the Soviet imagination.

But other cultures, each with their own deep, historical motivations, have since stepped up with plans to settle Mars. My favourites projects originate in the Middle East, where subterranean irrigation canals were greening the desert a full millennium before the astronomer Percival Lowell thought he spotted similar structures on Mars. (The underground networks called khettaras in Morocco irrigated much of its northern oasis region right up until the early 1970s, when government policies began to favour dam construction.)

Having raised major cities in one of the most inhospitable regions on Earth — and this in less than a generation — we should hardly be surprised that the rulers of the United Arab Emirates believe it’s feasible to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2117. A development hub, “Mars Scientific City”, is scheduled to open in Dubai in the next three to four years, and will feature a laboratory that will simulate the red planet’s terrain and harsh environment. It will be, I suppose, a sort of extension of the 520-day Mars 500 simulation that in 2011 sent six volunteers on a round trip to the Red Planet without stepping out of the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow.

The playfulness of “Martian thinking” is quite properly reflected in this playful and family-orientated exhibition. The point, made very well here, is that this play, this freedom from strictures and established lines of thought, is essential to good design. Space forces you to work from first principles. It forces you to think about mass, and transport, and utility, and reusability. And I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that Eleanor Watson, the assistant curator on this show, has been chosen to curate this year’s Global Grad Show, which in November will be bringing the most innovative new design thinking to Dubai — a city which, in contending with its own set of environmental extremes, often feels half way to Mars already.

As I was leaving Moving to Mars I was drawn up short by what looked like some cycling gear. Anna Talvi, a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, has constructed her flesh-hugging clothing to act as a sort of “wearable gym” to counter the muscle wasting and bone loss caused by living in low gravity. She has also tried to tackle the serious psychological challenges of space exploration, by permeating her fabrics with comforting scents. Her X.Earth perfumed gloves “will bring you back to your Earth-memory place at the speed of thought”, with the the smell of freshly cut grass, say, or the smell of your favourite horse.

Those gloves, even more than that hydroponically grown lettuce, brought home to me the sheer hideousness of space exploration. It’s no accident that this year’s most ambitious science fiction movies, Aniara and Ad Astra, have both focused on the impossible mental and spiritual toll we’d suffer, were we ever to swap our home planet for a life of manufactured monotony.

There’s a new realism creeping into our ideas of living off-world, along with a resurgence of optimism and possibility. And this is good. We need light and shade as we plan our next great adventure. How else can we ever hope to become Martian?

Transports of delight

Exploring Driverless: Who is in control? at London’s Science Museum for New Scientist, 31 August 2019

Durham Cathedral’s stained glass windows inspired artist Dominic Wilcox’s contribution to Driverless, a tiny but thought-provoking exhibition at London’s Science Museum.

It occurred to Wilcox that artificial intelligence could make traffic collisions a thing of the past, which means “we don’t need the protection systems that are built into contemporary cars”, he told design magazine Dezeen. “We can just have a shell of any design.”

His Stained Glass Driverless Sleeper Car of the Future is the sort of vehicle we may be driving when road safety has improved to the point where we can build cars out of whatever we want. It suggests a future in which safety is no longer a set of barriers, cages, buffers and lights, and is instead a dance of algorithms. Rather than measuring out a bike lane, say, we will have an algorithm that decides whether to leave a smaller distance to the bicycle on its left to reduce the chance of hitting a truck on its right.

What if that causes more cyclists, but fewer passengers, to die every year? Such questions aren’t new. But they are having to be asked again and in a different and disconcerting form as we move more safety systems off the roads and into vehicles.

On show is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Moral Machine”, a website using more than 40 million participants’ decisions on what to do in certain situations to inform our autonomous machinery design. The findings can be unsettling: would-be designers are more likely to sacrifice your safety if you are fat, a criminal or a dog

This is a show as much about possible futures as it is about the present. Interviews, archival footage, models and some interactive displays create a series of provocations, more than a fully fledged exhibition.

I especially liked the look of the MIT Senseable City Lab and the AMS Institute’s “Roboats”, currently on trial on Amsterdam’s canals. These autonomous floating platforms form spontaneous bridges and event platforms and can transport goods and people.

The exhibition spends much of its time off-road, investigating drone swarms and privacy, flocking behaviour and mine clearance, ocean mapping and planetary surveillance.

Don’t let its size put you off: this little show is full of big surprises.

“And it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth…”

Visiting Raw Materials: Plastics at the Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts, for the Spectator, 1 June 2019

Plastics — even venerable, historically eloquent plastics — hardly draw the eye. As this show’s insightful accompanying publication (a snip at £3) would have it, ‘Plastics have no intrinsic form or texture, thus they are not materials that can be true to themselves.’ They exist within inverted commas. They can be shell-like, horn-like, stony, metallic — they do not really exist on their own behalf.

Mind you, the first vitrine in Raw Materials: Plastics at the Nunnery Gallery in east London contains an object of rare beauty: a small, mottled, crazed, discoloured sphere that looks for all the world like the planet Venus, reduced to handy scale.

It’s a billiard ball, made of the first plastic: cellulose nitrate. Its manufacture had been keenly anticipated. In the US, a $10,000 prize had been offered for anything that could replace ivory in the manufacture of billiard balls (and no wonder: a single tusk yields only three balls).

Under various brand names (Celluloid, Parkesine, Xylonite), and in spite of its tendency to catch fire (colliding snooker balls would occasionally explode), cellulose nitrate saved the elephant. And not just the elephant: plastics pioneer John Wesley Hyatt reckoned that ‘Celluloid [has] given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.’

The whole point of plastic is that it has no characteristics of its own, only properties engineered for specific uses. Cheaper than jade. Less brittle than bone. It’s the natural material of the future, always more becoming than being. Hence the names: Xylonite. Bexoid. Halex. Lactoid.

Unable to nail the material in words, one writes instead about its history, sociology, industrial archaeology or ecological impact. On remote islands in the Pacific, thousands of albatross chicks are starving because the parents mistake floating plastic debris for food. Stories like this conjure up a vision of vast islands of discarded plastic coagulating in the Pacific Ocean, but there aren’t any. Instead, plastics eventually fragment into ever smaller pieces that are ingested by marine animals and carried to the sea bottom. In the Mariana Trench, all crustaceans tested had plastics in their guts. So plastics rise and fall through the food chain, creating havoc as they go — a bitter irony for a material that saved the elephant and the turtle, made fresh food conveyable and modern medicine possible, and all for less than 15 per cent of global oil consumption.

What can be gained from looking at the stuff itself? Raw Materials: Plastics transcends the limitations of its material by means of a good story. The first plastics were made in the Lea Valley, not from crude oil, but from plant materials, in a risky, artisanal fashion that bore, for a while, the hallmarks of older crafts including baking, woodcutting and metalwork. Fast-forward 140 years or so and, under the umbrella term ‘bioplastics’, plant-based and biodegradable synthetic products promise to turn the wheel of development full circle, returning plastics to their organic roots. (Designer Peter Marigold’s FORMCard plastic, used here in an excellent school art project, is a starch-based bioplastic made from potato skins.) Then, perhaps, we can break the bind in which we currently find ourselves: the one in which we’re poisoning the planet with plastic in our efforts not to further despoil it.

This is the third and for my money the most ambitious of the gallery’s ongoing series of small, thoughtful exhibitions about the materials, processes and industries that have shaped London’s Lea Valley. (Raw Materials: Wood ran in 2017; Raw Materials: Textiles last year.) The show is more chronicle than catalogue, but the art, scant as it is, punches above its weight.

I was struck, in particular, by France Scott’s ‘PHX [X is for Xylonite]’, a 13-minute collage of photogrammetry, laser scanning and 16mm film. It ought, by all logic, to be a complete mess and I still haven’t been able to work out why it’s so compelling. Is it because digital artefacts, like their plastic forebears, are themselves prisoners of contingency, aping the forms of others while stubbornly refusing to acquire forms of their own?

Bringing London’s buried rivers to light

Exploring London’s hidden rivers for the Financial Times, 8 June 2019

Early in the eleventh century, King Cnut sailed his troops from the Thames all the way up the river Effra to Brixton. But by the time Victoria took the throne, a millennium later, the Effra had vanished: polluted; canalised; in the end, buried.

The story goes that once during Victoria’s reign, a coffin from West Norwood Cemetery was found bobbing out to sea along the Thames. The Effra had undermined the burial plot from below, then carried the coffin four miles to its outflow, under what is now the MI6 building in Vauxhall.

It’s stories of this sort which make Londoners grateful for Joseph Bazalgette, the civil engineer who got London’s rivers working again. Following the Great Stink of 1858, he was given the job of turning them into closed sewers. By integrating the Thames’s tributaries into his underground system, Bazalgette sealed the capital’s noisome waterways from view, and used them to move London’s effluent ever eastwards and away.

The problem Bazalgette solved was an old one. London’s Roman founders also had trouble with its rivers. They’d first camped along the banks of the Walbrook, between the two low lying hills of Ludgate and Cornhill. “At first the river was full and reasonably fast-flowing,” explains Kate Sumnall, archaeologist and co-curator of the Secret Rivers exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands. “Twenty years later, the character of the river had completely changed.” River levels dropped dramatically while, at the same time, floods became more frequent. The Romans tried to manage the river by raising ground levels, building revetments, and straightening its course, all with the idea of getting flood waters away as fast as possible. It’s an approach urban planners copied, with refinements, well into the 1960s, and all over London the consequences run, unseen, below people’s feet

I’ve met Sumnall and her co-curator Thomas Ardill at a cafe in Smithfield Market, not far from the banks of the noisome Fleet river — a stretch of waterway no one in their right mind would ever want to uncover; a ditch that inspired Ben Jonson’s coprophilic masterwork “On the Famous Voyage”, once dubbed the filthiest and most deliberately and insistently disgusting poem in the English language.

After the Great Fire, Christopher Wren wanted to turn the Fleet into a sort of Venetian canal: the sheer number of dead dogs floating in the ooze defeated his plans. It’s has since been given a decent burial under Farringdon Road.

In the company of Sumnall and Ardill, the vanished Fleet Ditch comes to life beneath our feet. Every side street was once a wharf. Coal was piled up in Newcastle Close. Dig under Stonecutter Street and you come up with whetstones and knives. Every hump in Farringdon Road marks an old bridge.

Could things have turned out differently for London’s lost rivers? Probably not, but it’s fun to tinker. Ardill tells me about a group of artist-activists called Platform. In 1992 they set up a mock Effra Redevelopment Agency to consult the residents of Brixton about their plans to open up the local river. A sylvan wonderland awaited those who didn’t mind losing their houses.

Compare this mischievous exercise in grass-roots democracy with the paralegal shenanigans of the Tyburn Angling Society, which explores the legal aspects of restoring the river so that it flows freely through the more exclusive enclaves of west London. Levies charged on newly river-fronted properties will pay for the compulsory purchase orders. Buckingham Palace is one of the buildings the Society has earmarked for demolition.

Real-world efforts to restore stretches of London’s rivers began in 2009. Of London’s nearly 400 miles of river network, just twenty have been restored, but developers and councils are beginning to appreciate the cachet a river can add to an area, plus the improvements it can bring by way of social cohesion and well-being. Sixty more miles of waterway run through the city’s public parks and existing urban regeneration schemes, and can be restored at relatively low cost.

Dave Webb, the ecologist who chairs the London River Restoration Group, began his working life trying to ameliorate the effects of engineering projects that canalised and culverted “unsightly” and “dangerous” watercourses. Now he’s bringing these formerly dead rivers back to light and life.

One difficulty for advocates like Webb is in conveying what restoration actually entails. “Architects have a habit of dreaming up a lovely wildlife space, only to insist that it mustn’t then change. Restoring a river is not like restoring a table. You’re reawakening a natural process. You’re enabling the river to adjust and move around.”

Webb has been energetically promoting London Rivers Week, a festival to promote London’s stretches of restored river. The point is not just to prettify the city. It’s to make London sustainable as the climate changes. If the capital leaves its waterways running underground in concrete channels much longer, flash flooding will start to erode its infrastructure. Toxins concentrated on road surfaces during droughts will enter the water system after a single downpour, poisoning everything downstream. Not that much would survive a drought anyway, since smooth concrete surfaces do not provide plants and animals with sanctuary in dry weather, the way a river’s pools and puddles will.

Webb shows me an alternative to London’s existing bleak, brutalist riverine architecture: the restoration of the Quaggy River in Sutcliffe Park, in the Royal Borough of Greenwich. The park works as a giant sponge, against the day a flood-swollen Quaggy threatens to inundate the neighbouring borough of Lewisham. In normal weather the Quaggy also overflows, less spectacularly, to feed a small wetland which you can enter along a boardwalk. There are dragonflies and mayflies. There are fish, and kingfishers to eat the fish. Above all there are people — twice as many as there used to be when the park was flat and dry. Plus they spend double of the amount of time here that they used to.

“I remember walking along one London river when it was still a concrete channel,” Webb recalls. “I asked what all the iron railings were for and I was told it was to stop kids falling into the water, which was about five inches deep. ‘Well,’ I was told, ‘there’s also the business of them throwing shopping trolleys in it.’ I’ve found that if you give people a river, they won’t spoil it.”

And sure enough, in this not very affluent and fairly unprepossessing stretch of south London, the river shimmers under the dappled shade of self-seeded willow trees. Webb reckons there was nothing particularly heroic about the engineering involved: “In a lot of cases, there’s not even any need for planting. The ecologies of the river’s headwaters will work their way downstream in the course of a few seasons, and birds and insects follow very quickly.”

Webb also recommends a walk along the Wandle, which passes through Croydon, Sutton, Merton, and Wandsworth to join the River Thames. This chalk stream was once the heaviest-worked river in the capital, driving mills to produce everything from paper to gunpowder, snuff to textiles. Declared dead in the 1960s, now it’s a breeding spot for chub and dace and brown trout. From certain angles, it will fool you into thinking you’ve hit a particularly idyllic nook of the South Downs. Turning a corner will quickly remind you of the city’s presence, but that’s the peculiar, liminal charm of an urban river.

While Thames 21, the charity behind London Rivers Week, organises citizen science projects, clean-ups and campaigns, the Museum of London Docklands’ Secret Rivers exhibition has scheduled a series of guided walks to enjoy over the summer. On 8 June you can follow the track of the the Walbrook, the river that made Londinium possible. In July you can sneak off from the line of the Tyburn to go shopping in Bond Street, or follow the gruesome Neckinger, the foul, lead-poisoned stream in which Bill Sykes got his just desserts in Dickens’s Oliver Twist. And I’m particularly looking forward to mid-August, when stretches of the Wandle will dazzle in the sun.

In the realm of mind games

By the end of the show, I was left less impressed by artificial intelligence and more depressed that it had reduced my human worth to base matter. Had it, though? Or had it simply made me aware of how much I wanted to be base matter, shaped into being by something greater than myself? I was reminded of something that Benjamin Bratton, author of the cyber-bible The Stack, said in a recent lecture: “We seem only to be able to approach AI theologically.”

Visiting AI: More Than Human at London’s Barbican Centre for the Financial Times, 15 May 2019.

A series of apparently impossible events

Exploring Smoke and Mirrors at Wellcome Collection for New Scientist, 1 May 2019

ACCORDING to John Nevil Maskelyne, “a bad conjurer will make a good medium any day”. He meant that, as a stage magician in 19th-century London, he had to produce successful effects night after night, while rivals who claimed their illusions were powered by the spirit world could simply blame a bad set on “unhelpful spirits”, or even on the audience’s own scepticism.

A gaffe-ridden performance in the UK by one set of spiritualists, the US Davenport Brothers, drove Maskelyne to invent his own act. With his friend, the cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, he created an “anti-spiritualist” entertainment, at once replicating and debunking the spiritualist movement’s stock-in-trade effects.

Matthew Tompkins teases out the historical implications of Maskelyne’s story in The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the paranormal and the complicity of the mind (Thames & Hudson). It is a lavishly illustrated history to accompany Smoke and Mirrors, a new and intriguing exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.

Historical accident was partly responsible. In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi sent long-wave radio signals over a distance of a couple of kilometres, and, for decades after, hardly a year passed in which some researcher didn’t announce a new type of invisible ray. The world turned out to have aspects hidden from unaided human perception. Was it so unreasonable of people to speculate about what, or who, might lurk in those hidden corners of reality? Were they so gullible, reeling as they were from the mass killings of the first world war, to populate these invisible realms with their dead?

In 1924, the magazine Scientific American offered $2500 to any medium who could demonstrate their powers under scientific controls. The medium Mina “Margery” Crandon decided to try her hand, but she reckoned without the efforts of one Harry “Handcuff” Houdini, who eventually exposed her as a fraud.

Yet spiritualism persisted, shading off into parapsychology, quantum speculation and any number of cults. Understanding why is more the purview of a psychologist such as Gustav Kuhn, who, as well as being a major contributor to the show, offers insight into magic and magical belief in his own new book, Experiencing the Impossible (MIT Press).

Kuhn, a member of the Magic Circle, finds Maskelyne’s “anti-spiritualist” form of stage magic alive in the hands of illusionist Derren Brown. He suggests that Brown is more of a traditional magician than he lets on, dismissing the occult while he endorses mysterious psychological phenomena, mostly to do with “subconscious priming”, that, at root, are non-scientific.

Kuhn defines magic as “the experience of wonder that results from perceiving an apparently impossible event”. Definitions of what is impossible differ, and different illusions work for different people. You can even design it for animals, as a torrent of YouTube videos, based largely on Finnish magician Jose Ahonen’s “Magic for Dogs”, attest.

Tricking dogs is one thing, but why do our minds fall for magic? It was the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, who argued that there is no metaphysical glue binding events, and that we only ever infer causal relationships, be they real or illusory.

Twinned with our susceptibility to wrongly infer relationships between events in the world is our ability to fool ourselves at an even deeper level. Numerous studies, including one by researcher and former magician Jay Olson and clinician Amir Raz which sits at the exit to the Wellcome show, conclude that our feeling of free will may be an essential trick of the mind.

Inferring connections makes us confident in ourselves and our abilities, and it is this confidence, this necessary delusion about the brilliance of our cognitive abilities, that lets us function… and be tricked. Even after reading both books, I defy you to see through the illusions and wonders in store at the exhibition.

Writing (or, How the dead lord it over the living)

Visiting Writing: Making Your Mark, an exhibition at the British Library, for New Scientist, 26 April 2019

Writing is dark magic. Because the written, or even better, carved, word can effortlessly outlive the human span, it enables the dead to lord it over the living.

There are advantages to this, of course. It’s handy not to have to reinvent the wheel generation after generation.

But let’s be clear who wields the power here – much as the ancient Egyptians, who used to channel the divine power of words into spells that would animate carved servants, or shabti, ready to do their bidding after their death. “Here I am,” reads the inscription on one poor put-upon shabti, ready “when called to work, cultivate fields or irrigate the riverbanks.”

Poetry be damned: writing is first and foremost about control.

This is very apparent in a new exhibition at the British Library, London, called Writing: Making your mark. It’s been launched to celebrate a technology that’s a bit under five millennia old, so you’ll find everything from carved stone slabs to the first ever use of an italic typeface, to (my favourite) an eye-wateringly vituperative telegram (in four parts) from the 20th century British playwright John Osborne to a hostile critic.

It’s comprehensive, thoughtful and eye-catching, with a design that has you wandering through what looks like some peculiar 3D cuneiform from the future. Best of all, the show makes narrative sense: we learn how various writing and printing forms evolved independently at different times and places, to fulfil changing social and cultural functions.

Granted, the story does not and cannot start with much of a bang. As the wall information concedes, the act of writing is just a recreational by-product of accounting. The first written records were tallies, calendars and contracts. Set aside their great age and the earliest objects in the exhibition (among them the oldest in the Library’s collection, an Egyptian stela (carved stone) from around 1600 BC) make for dull reading.

But amazingly early, suspicion, and even downright hatred, of the written word crept in – to run like a secret history beneath the course of Western culture. In the dialogue Phaedrus, composed around 370 BC, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates complains that writing things down 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… they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing”.

Plato, Socrates’ pupil, listened to his master’s diatribe intently. Indeed, he took down every word. Plato’s obtuse disobedience has paid huge dividends. For one thing, it means that Socrates’ wisdom is available to us all. Millennia hence, we are still reading Phaedrus, and smiling at the quaint bits.

But a few of us (we meet in dank basement rooms: check your pens and smartphones at the door) agree with Socrates. We reckon that putting pen (stylus, chisel or moveable type…) to paper (stone, slate, clay, or peeled bark) has set the lot of us on the road to everlasting perdition.

Our current all-too-well founded panics around trust, authority, truth and fake news feed the gloomy suspicion that the written word makes us lazy and shallow, that for all our modern, information-driven wonders, our space rockets and our antibiotics, it makes us less than we might be: a people earnestly conversing with themselves.

Writing: Making your mark does its best to win us round to the cause of literacy and preserved thought.

Who knew that the story of written forms would prove so epic? Or, indeed, so touching? There’s a sandstone sphinx sporting a prototype letter “A”, and a Greek child’s second-century homework scratched, laboriously, on a clay tablet.

But with their final room, about the future of writing, I feel the curators may finally have woken to doubt. A black box, and virtually empty, this space whether new media may undercut our surprisingly resilient written culture.

I’m surprised the curators’ confidence should have been so shaken. After all, written and printed forms continue to proliferate: emoji have provided us with a whole new writing system to combine with our alphabetic language. Instagram, once the home of unadorned selfie snaps, now wobbles and sparkles with photos smothered in animated annotations and one-liners in a form that’s so new it hasn’t really got a name yet. Writing continues to be one of our most plastic and fast-changing forms of self-expression.

Though with each innovation, we retreat, chattering, ever further from Socrates’ dinner party ideal of society driven by good conversation.

Stanley Kubrick at the Design Museum

The celebrated film director Stanley Kubrick never took the future for granted. In films as diverse as Dr. Strangelove: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick’s focus was always savagely humane, unpicking the way the places we inhabit make us think and feel. At the opening of a new exhibition at the London Design Museum in Holland Park, David Stock and I spoke to co-curator Adriënne Groen about Kubrick’s most scientifically inflected film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and how Kubrick masterminded a global effort to imagine one possible future: part technological utopia, part sterile limbo, and, more than 50 years since its release, as gripping as hell.

You can see the interview here.

How Stanley Kubrick‘s collaboration with science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke led to 2001 is well known. “The ‘really good’ science-fiction movie is a great many years overdue,” Clarke enthused, as the men began their work on a project with the working title Journey Beyond the Stars.

For those who want a broader understanding of how Kubrick gathered, enthused and sometimes (let’s be brutally frank, here) exploited the visionary talent available to him, The Design Museum’s current exhibition is essential viewing. There are prototypes of the pornographic furniture from the opening dolly shot of A Clockwork Orange, inspired by the work of artist Allen Jones but fashioned by assistant production designer Liz Moore when Jones decided not to hitch his cart – and reputation – to Kubrick’s controversial vision.

But it’s the names that recur again and again, from film to film, over decades of creative endeavour, that draw one in. The costume designer Milena Canonero was a Kubrick regular and, far from being swamped, immeasurably enriched Kubrick’s vision. (There’s a wonderful production photograph here of actor Malcolm McDowell trying on some of her differently styled droog hats.)

Kubrick was fascinated by the way people respond to being regimented – by the architectural brutalism of the Thamesmead estate in A Clockwork Orange, or by a savage gunnery sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, or by their own fetishism in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s fascination with how people think and behave is well served by this show, which will give anyone of a psychological bent much food for thought.