The coasts of Britain and why to avoid them

A piece for the Financial Times to mark National Maritime Museum Cornwall’s Monsters of the Deep exhibition, 14 March 2020 

In February this year, even as Stuart Slade was in Falmouth assembling the exhibits for a new museum show on sea creatures, a 60ft fin whale was washed up and died on a nearby beach. “Nothing compares to seeing such an animal up close,” he says. “You come away awed, and full of wonder, and just a little bit afraid.”

The objects filling Slade’s gallery for the mysterious Monsters of the Deep exhibition are by turns terrifying, wonderful and funny — sometimes all three. Some are real, some reconstructed, some, like the worrisomely convincing corpse of a mermaid, are assembled out of parts to entertain or gull the public.

The show, at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, marks the moment Falmouth’s “local” museum learns to punch well above its weight, embracing global phenomena and potentially difficult themes, such as the discomfortingly large role imagination plays in how we see the real world.

Hoaxes, which you might think would be something of an embarrassment here, prove central to the exhibition’s vision. In any event, they can’t be ignored, not while Falmouth’s very own sea monster, Morgawr (first sighted in 1975), could be prowling the bay. According to a report from around the time in the Falmouth Packet: “Mrs Scott said she would ‘never forget the face on that thing’ as long as she lived.”

It transpired that Morgawr was mischievously fabricated from coordinated fictional “sightings”, but the lines between fact and fiction tend to be blurred whenever sea monsters are involved. On September 25 1808, on Stronsay in the Orkney Islands, a large carcass was washed ashore. Edinburgh’s leading natural history society, the Wernerian, decided it was a new species, probably a sea serpent.

By the time the London anatomist Sir Everard Home realised it was more likely a decayed basking shark, the Beast’s reputation had firmly rooted itself in local folklore. Google (if you dare) pictures of dead basking sharks. Their jaws, dorsal and caudal fins disappear first, leaving them with tiny heads and long necks, like ancient reptiles transported from some deep corner of the Mesozoic.

Most sea monsters are real animals, misidentified under extreme circumstances. In 1493, Christopher Columbus “quite distinctly saw three mermaids” off the coast of Haiti. “They are not so beautiful as they are said to be,” he remarked in his journal, “for their faces had some masculine traits.” They were in fact manatees: four-metre long marine mammals with prehensile upper lips and widely spaced eyes (it had been a long voyage).

Most useful to the Falmouth show are the depictions of sea monsters in art, because it’s here that we get to grips with the key question: why have creatures that do not exist persisted in our imaginations since we first put pigment to cave wall?

Some believe sea monsters are a folk memory of creatures long extinct. Native Australian legends of the fearsome Bunyip (head of an emu, body of a dog, tail of a horse) might just scrape by as descriptions of extinct Australian marsupials such as the diprotodon or Palorchestes. But what are we to make of Mishipeshu, which terrified generations of Anishinaabe in the Great Lakes region of Canada? This was an underwater panther, for whom, needless to say, no fossil records exist.

These forms of wonder and fear change across time. The Kraken is supposed to be an octopus, at least according to the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. But in 13th-century Greenland, the Kraken was more like a giant crab. Slade, who has been head of public programming in Falmouth for 15 years, says: “The conversations I’ve had about this exhibition tend all to go the same way. People point out that only 5 per cent of the oceans has been explored. From there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to saying, ‘There must be something else out there that hasn’t yet been discovered.’”

The inference is mistaken but not obviously so. Back in 1893, the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley wrote in The Times: “There is not an a priori reason that I know of why snake-bodied reptiles, from fifty feet long and upwards, should not disport themselves in our seas as they did in those of the cretaceous epoch which, geologically speaking, is a mere yesterday.”

Palaeontologist Darren Naish, who is lead curator of the Falmouth exhibition, is willing to entertain Huxley’s theory: “His was the right attitude to take at the time, because the life of the deep oceans was only just being discovered.” (Monsters of the Deep makes much of the groundbreaking research expedition led by HMS Challenger, which between 1872 and 1876 discovered a staggering 4,700 new species of marine life.) “Large fossil dinosaurs and early whales, and some amazing gigantic living animals, had been discovered only relatively recently,” Naish points out. “The whale shark, the world’s biggest fish, was a mid 19th-century discovery.”

In an effort to make the new findings comprehensible, folkloric sea monsters were associated with ancient reptiles. Accounts invariably began with the observation that, for years and years, people have talked about giant serpents in the oceans and long-bodied monsters, then go on to point to the actual fossil evidence that such things were a reality. The earliest artists’ impressions have the plesiosaur (50ft long; extended neck; four oar-shaped flippers on a broad, flat body) as a giant, coiling serpent.

How, then, can we be certain that such beasts aren’t out there? In 1998, Charles Paxton, an aquatic ecologist at the Animal Behaviour Research Group at Oxford university, used a statistical technique to estimate the current diversity of large marine animals, based on their rate of discovery.

Extrapolating on data from 1830 to 1995, Paxton produced a graph showing the rate at which these animals are coming to light. He estimated that at most there are around 50 new large species still waiting to be discovered and, according to his graph, we’re likely to come across one every five-and-a-half years or so.

What will they look like? Cryptozoologists — researchers who aspire to the scientific study of undiscovered animals — have for years held out for the existence of radically novel animals, “living plesiosaurs” that have somehow survived from the time of the dinosaurs. These “cryptid” animals come with brilliant names like the super-otter and the father of all turtles (names invented by Bernard Heuvelmans, whose 1968 book In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents kick-started marine cryptozoology). They are meant to be gargantuan, more than 15 metres long, and unlike any creature known to science.

However, as Naish observes, “Of all the animals that have been discovered in recent decades, none has been radically novel.” Recent discoveries have included the Megamouth Shark and a couple of new types of beaked whale (the most recent was spotted by local whalers in Hokkaido, Japan last September). And as each new whale or shark is discovered, the chances of there still being a complete outlier in hiding — something really out there in terms of what’s possible — grow infinitesimally small.

So where did they all go, those writhing sea serpents, gargantuan crabs and city-block-sized squid? An article in an 1875 edition of the West Briton (a local Cornish weekly, still in print) offers clues. It tells the tale of two fishermen, setting nets in Gerrans Bay near Truro, who discovered a serpent “coiled about their floating cork. Upon their near approach, it lifted its head and showed signs of defiance, upon which they struck it forcibly with an oar”. Later, they pursued it and dragged it ashore for a look-see, “after which, it was killed on the rocks and most inconsiderably cast out to sea”.

Which is to say, if sea monsters existed, we must already have killed them. It’s something we’re worryingly good at. “It’s difficult to be tremendously optimistic about the persistence of ecosystems and many animal species,” says Naish, looking to the future of the oceans. “I find it hard to think that marine mammals and ray-finned fishes and sharks will persist into the future.” Instead, the sea monsters of tomorrow are going to be small and numerous, as the oceans, ever warmer and more acidic, fill with cephalopods, jellies, nematode worms and algae.

We can, however, look forward to some new invasions from the deep before that. With whole ecosystems shifting poleward as the planet warms, lionfish, sea snakes, crown-of-thorns starfish and at least three species of shark (hammerhead, ragged tooth and blacktip) are already heading for UK beaches.

Meanwhile, octopuses and squid will fill the niches vacated by over-harvested fish. Their life cycles are so short that they’ll be able to adapt faster than anything with a backbone. Right now, squid are multiplying crazily in British waters, although they’ll eventually lose out to the true inheritors of the oceans: the jellyfish.

In 2009, in the Sea of Japan, the giant Nomura jellyfish (up to two metres in diameter and weighing 200kg) began clogging and bursting fishing nets. This was deemed worthy of headlines at the time, but the jellyfish — most little more than gelatinous bags containing digestive organs and gonads — had barely begun their campaign of conquest. These days, they’re just as likely to be found blocking the seawater intake valves of British nuclear power plants.

For the future, Naish envisions a massively simplified food chain dominated by fast-growing things that can survive in warm seas where there’s very little oxygen. “You’re talking about a vast biomass but made of small detritus feeders living on algae,” he says. Given a few billion years of natural selection, some jellies may evolve into colonial super-organisms quite big enough to stride about on. “I like the idea of giant colonial jellies — like enormous but squishy islands,” he muses, “or big serpentine things that move slowly, drifting along on the weaker, less oxygenated currents of the future.”

That’s not all. A new surface fauna may evolve from mid-water and deep-water plankton, says Naish, “in which case your large surface-dwelling animals would be weird, spiny and translucent. A sea full of translucent, floating crustaceans; I see some merit in that idea.”

Mind reeling, I walk out of the exhibition past a Jenny Haniver. That’s the carcass of a ray or a skate that someone has cut and folded and dried, so that it ends up looking like a fairy, or a mermaid, demon, or dragon. No one really knows what they’re for. In some places, they’re said to have magic powers; most often they were simply made as curios for sailors. You find these sorts of things all over the world, from Mexico to Japan.

Morgawr may be a fake, and the Stronsay Beast just a hillock of rotten fish meat. Still, the monsters of the deep live. And for as long as human beings tread the earth, they cannot die.

Over-performing human

Talking to choreographer Alexander Whitley for the Financial Times,  28 February 2020

On a dim and empty stage, six masked black-clad dancers, half-visible, their limbs edged in light, run through attitude after attitude, emotion after emotion. Above the dancers, a long tube of white light slowly rises, falls, tips and circles, drawing the dancers’ limbs and faces towards itself like a magnet. Under its variable cold light, movements become more expressive, more laden with emotion, more violent.

Alexander Whitley, formerly of the Royal Ballet School and the Birmingham Royal Ballet, is six years into a project to expand the staging of dance with new media. He has collaborated with filmmakers, designers, digital artists and composers. Most of all, he has played games with light.

The experiments began with The Measures Taken, in 2014. Whitley used motion-tracking technology to project visuals that interacted with the performers’ movements. Then, dissatisfied with the way the projections obscured the dancers, in 2018 he used haze and narrowly focused bars of light to create, for Strange Stranger, a virtual “maze” in which his dancers found themselves alternately liberated and constrained.

At 70 minutes Overflow, commissioned by Sadler’s Wells Theatre, represents a massive leap in ambition. With several long-time collaborators — in particular the Dutch artist-designers Children of the Light — Whitley has worked out how to reveal, to an audience sat just a few feet away, exactly what he wants them to see.

Whitley is busy nursing Overflow up to speed in time for its spring tour. The company begin with a night at the Lowry in Salford on 18 March, before performing at Sadler’s Wells on 17 and 18 April.

Overflow, nearly two years in the making, has consumed money as well as time. The company is performing at Stereolux in Nantes in April and will need more overseas bookings if it is to flourish. “There’s serious doubt about the status of the UK and UK touring companies now,” says Whitley (snapping at my cheaply dangled Brexit bait); “I hope there’s enough common will to build relationships in spite of the political situation.”

It is easy to talk politics with Whitley (he is very well read), but his dances are anything but mere vehicles for ideas. And while Overflow is a political piece by any measure — a survey of our spiritual condition under survellance capitalism, for heaven’s sake — its effects are strikingly classical. It’s not just the tricksy lighting that has me thinking of the figures on ancient Greek vases. It’s the dancers themselves and their clean, elegant, tragedian’s gestures.

A dancer kneels, and takes hold of his head. He tilts it up into the light as it turns and tilts, inches from his face, and, in a shocking piece of trompe l’ioel — can he really be pulling his face apart?

Overflow is about our relationship to the machines that increasingly govern our lives. But there’s not a hint of regimentation here, or mechanisation. These dancers are not trying to perform machine. They’re trying to perform human.

Whitley laughs at this observation. “I guess, as far as that goes, they’re over-performing human. They’re caught up in the excitement and hyper-stimulation of their activity. Which is exactly how we interact with social media. We’re being hyperstimulated into excessive activity. Keep scrolling, keep consuming, keep engaging!”

It was an earlier piece, 2016’s Pattern Recognition, that set Whitley on the road to Overflow. “I’d decided to have the lights moving around the stage, to give us the sense of depth we’d struggled to achieve in The Measures Taken. But very few people I talked to afterwards realised or understood that our mobile stage lights were being driven by real-time tracking. They thought you could achieve what we’d achieved just through choreography. At which point a really obvious insight arrived: that interactivity is interesting, first and foremost, for the actor involved in the interaction.”

In Overflow, that the audience feels left out is no longer a technical problem: it’s the whole point of the piece. “We’re all watching things we shouldn’t be watching, somehow, through social media and the internet,” says Whitley. “That the world has become so revealed is unpleasant. It’s over-exposed us to elements of human nature that should perhaps remain private. But we’re all bound up in it. Even if we’re not doing it, we’re watching it.”

The movements of the ensemble in Overflow are the equivalent of emoji: “I was interested in how we could think of human emotions just as bits of data,” Whitley explains. In the 1980s a psychologist called Robert Plutchik stated that there were eight basic emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust. “We stuck pins at random into this wheel chart he invented, choosing an emotion at random, and from that creating an action that somehow embodied or represented it. And the incentive was to do so as quickly and concisely as possible, and as soon it’s done, choose another one. So the dancers are literally jumping at random between all these different human emotions. It’s not real communication, just an outpouring of emotional information.”

The solos are built using material drawn from each dancer’s movement diary. “The dancers made diary entries, which I then filmed, based on how they were feeling each day. They’re movement dairies: personal documents of their emotional lives, which I then chopped up and jumbled around and gave back to them as a video to learn.”

In Whitley’s vision, the digital realm isn’t George Orwell’s Big Brother, dictating our every move from above. It’s more like the fox and the cat in the Pinnochio story, egging a naive child into the worst behaviours, all in the name of independence and free expression. “Social media encourage us to act more, to feel more, to express more, because the more we do that, the more capital they can generate from our data, and the more they can understand and predict what we’re likely to do next.”

This is where the politics comes in: the way “emotion, which incidentally is the real currency of dance, is now the major currency of the digital economy”.

It’s been a job of work, packing such cerebral content into an emotional form like dance. But Whitley says it’s what keeps him working, ” that sheer impossibility of pinning down ideas that otherwise exist almost entirely in words. As soon as you scratch the surface, you realise there’s huge amount of communication always at work through the body and drawing ideas from a more cerebral world into the physical, into the emotional, is a constant fascination. There are lifetimes of enquiry here. It’s what keeps me coming back.”

Breakfast with Ryoji Ikeda

Meeting the artist Ryoji Ikeda for the Financial Times, 29 November 2019

At breakfast in a Paris café, the artist and composer Ryoji Ikeda looks ageless in a soft black cap and impenetrably dark glasses, dressed all in black so as to resemble the avatar from an indie video game.

His work too is severe, the spectrum reduced to grayscale, light to pixels, sound to spikes. Yet Ikeda is no minimalist: he is interested in the complexity that explodes the moment you reduce things to their underlying mathematics.

An artist in light, video, sound and haptics (his works often tremble beneath your feet), Ikeda is out to make you dizzy, to overload your senses, to convey, in the most visceral manner (through beats, high volumes, bright lights and image-blizzards) the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world. “I like playing around with the thresholds of perception,” he says. “If it’s too safe, it’s boring. But you have to know what you’re doing. You can hurt people.”

Ikeda’s stringent approach to his work began in the deafening underground clubs of Kyoto. There, in the mid-1990s, he made throbbing sonic experiences with Dumb Type, a coalition of technologically adept experimental artists. And he can still be this immediate when he wants to be: visitors to the main pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale found themselves squeezed through “Spectra III” (first assembled in 2008), a white corridor so evenly and brightly lit your eyes rejected what they saw, leaving you groping your way out as if in total darkness.

These days, though, he is better known for installations that go straight for the cerebral and mathematical. His ongoing “data-verse” project consists of three massively complex computer animations. The first part, “data-verse 1”, is based on static data from CERN, Nasa, the Human Genome Project and other open sources. “data-verse” contains animations, tables, graphs, matrices, 3D models, Lidar projections, maps. But what is being depicted here: something very small, or very big? There’s no way to tell. The data have peeled away from the things they represent and are dancing their own pixelated dance. Numbers have become rivers. At last the viewer’s mind surrenders to the flow and rhythm of this frenetic 12-minute piece.

It would be polite to say that “data-verse” is beautiful — but it isn’t. Rather, it is sublime, evoking a world stripped back to its mathematical bones. “If it’s beautiful, you can handle it; the sublime, you cannot,” Ikeda says. “If you stand in some great whited-out landscape in Lapland, the Sahara or the Alps, you feel something like fear. You’re trying to draw inform­ation from the world, but it’s something that your brain cannot handle.”

Similarly, the symmetrical, self-similar “data-verse” is an artwork that your mind struggles to navigate, tugging at every locked door in an attempt to regain purchase on the world.

“You try to understand, but you give up — and then it’s nice. Because now you are experiencing this piece the same way you listen to music,” Ikeda says. “It’s simply a manipulation of numbers and relationships, like a musical composition. It’s very different from the sort of visual art where you’re looking through the surface of the painting or the sculpture to see what it represents.”

When we meet, Ikeda is on his way to Tokyo Midtown, and the unveiling of “data-verse 2” (this one based on dynamic data “like the weather, or stock exchanges”). The venue is Beyond Watchmaking, an exhibition arranged by his patron, the eccentric family-run Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet. The third part of data-verse is due to be unveiled next year.

It is a vastly ambitious project but Ikeda has always tended towards the expansive. He pulls out of his suitcase an enormously heavy encyclopedia of sonic visualisations. “I wanted you to see this,” he says with a touching pride, leafing through page after page of meticulously documented oscilloscoped forms. Encyclopedia Cyclo.id was compiled with his friend Carsten Nicolai, the German multimedia artist, in 1999. Each figure here represents a particular sound. The more complex figures resemble watch faces. “It’s for designers, really,” Ikeda shrugs, shutting the book, “and architects.”

And the point of this? That lawful, timeless mathematics underpins the world and all our activities within it.

Ikeda spends 10 months out of every 12 travelling: “I really work in the airport or the kitchen. I don’t like the studio.” Months spent working out problems on paper and in his head are interspersed with intense, collaborative “cooking sessions” with a coterie of exceptional coders — creative sessions in which all previous assumptions are there to be challenged.

However, “data-verse” is likely to be Ikeda’s last intensely technological artwork. At the moment he is inclining more towards music and has been arranging some late compositions by John Cage in a purely acoustic project. As comfortable as he is around microphones, amps and computers, Ikeda isn’t particularly affiliated to machines.

“For a long time, I was put in the media-art category,” he says, “and I was so uncomfortable, because so much of that work is toylike, no depth to it at all. I’m absolutely not like this.”

Ikeda’s art, built not from things but from quantities and patterns, has afforded him much freedom. But he is acutely aware that others have more freedom still: “Mathematicians,” he sighs, “they don’t care about a thing. They don’t even care about time. It’s very interesting.”

Nam June Paik: Doing away with structure once and for all

Visiting Nam June Paik at Tate Modern for the Financial Times, 24 October 2019

In 1963 one of the more notorious members of Darmstadt’s new music community, Nam June Paik, stuck around fifty strips of audio tape to the wall of the Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal in Germany.

“I wanted to let the audience… act and play by itself,” he wrote, “so I have resigned the performance of music… I made various kinds of musical instruments… to expose them in a room so that the congregation may play them as they please.”

Exhausted and alienated by the difficult musics coming out of Darmstadt — Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, serialism and all the rest — visitors lapped up Paik’s free-wheeling alternative. You’d go up to the wall and rub the playback head of a dismantled tape recorder along the strips, back and forth, hunting for sounds, scratches, white noise, and hey presto! you almost became a composer.

“You have to be a lot rougher with this than you think,” a gallery worker explained, showing me the Tate’s recreated Random Access. “Really scrape.”

So I scraped. And I still couldn’t get much of a sound out of the wall-mounted speakers, and now the gallery wall is covered in dirty brown ferrous oxide streaks.

The original wasn’t very effective, either. The point was that Paik was giving you permission to play, to experiment. The Swiss artist and career eccentric Josef Beuys took Paik at his word and destroyed one of the the pianos in Paik’s first solo show with an axe. And Paik dug it; they became lifelong friends.

How do you represent an artist whose chosen medium is the audience? Who spends his time chivvying it into life by gestures, situations, shocks, pornography? How do you preserve Zen of Head (1962), in which Paik dipped his head in black ink and used it to draw a line on a length of paper? How do you honour his nearly thirty-year collaboration with the cellist and performance artist Charlotte Moorman, when Variations on a Theme by Saint-Saens (1969) involves her climbing up a ladder and vanishing into a water-filled oil drum?

The many representative works gathered by the Tate can only go so far to represent Paik’s whole practice. TV Buddha (1974) is a statuette of a seated Buddha, gazing at its own televised image. Three Eggs (1975-82) — one real, one nested in an empty television, and the third a televised image of the first egg — goes beyond mere solipsism to suggest something more complex. There are robots made from TV sets here, lines of code from early experiments at Bell Labs in New Jersey, abd TV bras and TV spectacles that seem to have fallen out of one of the calmer moments of the Japanese cyberpunk horror flick Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Newcomers would be left hopelessly at sea were it not that the Tate has also assembled a huge amount of documentation, and arranged it in a fashion that is not just informative: it’s revelatory.

Programmes. Posters. Photographs. Snatches of 8mm. Mostly they record events in tiny rooms, the visitors all crammed together, everyone laughing, having a good time. Wall by wall, case by case, we begin to understand what we missed.

Paik was a collector, a collaborator, an impresario. He urged others to enact the strangest dreams. In New York, in 1964, a topless Charlotte Moorman saws away at her cello, and Alison Knowles sheds her panties and shoves them down the throat of the least talented art critic in the room.

But Paik had other dreams, too, which which for years he kept strictly to himself. As early as 1961 he had given up studying art and was avidly reading Popular Mechanics. In Tokyo, with the engineer Shuya Abe, he co-invented the Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer. This added single-colour channels to broadcast images in real time, distorted, colorised, and superimposed multiple images, and was in essence the technology that would soon give Top of the Pops and the MTV music channel their visual signature.

Paik’s use of TV as a medium is now what everyone most remembers about him, thanks mostly to his monumental “matrices”: sculptural video collages assembled using steel gantries and neon tubing and multiple cathode-ray televisions. There’s a late example here called Internet Dream (1994), and nearby, a recreation of the video installation Sistine Chapel, which in 1993 graced the pavilion of a newly-unified Germany at the Venice Biennale. Thrown across walls and ceiling by TV projectors, disembodied David Bowies and Janis Joplins, Lou Reeds and Ryuichi Sakamotos jostle for space with parties of Gobi desert Mongolians. It’s intoxicating. Dated. Kitsch. It’s the fruit both in flower and in rot.

“Thanks to Paik,” he wrote about himself (never a good sign) ” we discover that our entire world can become sound — or rather that it *is* sound… he does away with structure once and for all.”

And, oh dear, just look where that liquefaction has led. By giving us permission to create, Paik stripped away the structures that let us receive, appreciate, and judge. His mentor John Cage did much the same for music. And around Cage and Paik, Moorman and Beuys swirled a loose, revolutionary band of brothers and sisters who, under the banner of a movement called Fluxus, abandoned the commodified single art object and sought to create democratic art; an art of the everyday.

The idea that audiences also knew something about art filled these self-appointed shamans with impatience. The audience’s ideas were third-hand, third-rate, bourgeois prisons from which they might yet be liberated.

Liberated into what, though? Into boredom? Into consumption? All you can do with this work is participate in it. Swallow it. Go see In Real Life, Olafur Eliasson’s collection of kid-friendly novelties, if you want to see where this attitude leads. It runs next door till January 5.

As I left Paik’s show, I paused by a wall-mounted TV, where pianist Manon-Liu Winter plays her own composition on Paik’s prepared piano (now too fragile to travel). The one with the barbed wire, whose keyboard once triggered sirens, heaters, ventilators and tape recorders.

Now, though, it’s just a ruined piano. Winter picks her way across its atrocious keyboard like Jack Skellington, trying to discover the secret of Christmas by measuring the presents under the tree with a tape measure. This is indeed a revelatory exhibition — but you may come away liking Paik less.

Human/nature

Was the climate crisis inevitable? For the Financial Times, 13 September 2019

Everything living is dying out. A 2014 analysis of 3,000 species, confirmed by recent studies, reveals that half of all wild animals have been lost since 1970. The Amazon is burning, as is the Arctic.

An excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, meanwhile, has not only played havoc with the climate but also reduced the nutrient value of plants by about 30 per cent since the 1950s.

And we’re running out of soil. In the US, it’s eroding 10 times faster than it’s being replaced. In China and India, the erosion is more than three times as bad. Five years ago, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization claimed we had fewer than 60 years of harvests left if soil degradation continued at its current rate.

Why have we waited until we are one generation away from Armageddon before taking such problems seriously?

A few suggestions: first, the environment is far too complicated to talk about — at least on the tangled information networks we have constructed for ourselves.

Second, we’re lazy and we’re greedy, like every other living thing on the planet — though because most of us co-operate with each other, we are arguably the least greedy and least lazy animals around.

Where we fall down is in our tendency to freeload on our future selves. “Discounting the future” is one of our worst habits, and one that in large part explains why we leave even important, life-and-death actions to the last minute.

Here’s a third reason why we’re dealing so late with climate change. It’s the weirdest, and maybe the most important of the three. It’s that we know we are going to die.

Thinking about environmental threats reminds us of our own mortality, and death is a prospect so appalling we’ll do anything — anything — to stop thinking about it.

“I used to wonder how people could stand the really demonic activity of working behind those hellish ranges in hotel kitchens, the frantic whirl of waiting on a dozen tables at one time,” wrote Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer-winning meditation The Denial of Death in 1973.

“The answer is so simple that it eludes us: the craziness of these activities is exactly that of the human condition. They are ‘right’ for us because the alternative is natural desperation.”

Psychologists inspired by Becker have run experiments to suggest it’s the terror of death that motivates consciousness and all its accomplishments. “It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in Manhattan,” is the memorable judgment of the authors of 2015’s best-selling book The Worm at the Core.

This hardly sounds like good news. But it may offer us, if not a solution to the current crisis, at least a better, healthier and more positive way of approaching it.

No coping mechanism is infallible. We may be profoundly unwilling to contemplate our mortality, and to face up to the slow-burn, long-term threats to our existence, but that anxiety can’t ultimately be denied. Our response is to bundle it into catastrophes — in effect to construe the world in terms of crises to make everyday existence bearable.

Even positive visions of the future assume the necessity for cataclysmic change: why else do we fetishise “disruption”? “The concept of progress is to be grounded in the idea of the catastrophe,” as the German philosopher Walter Benjamin put it.

Yes, we could have addressed climate change much more easily in the 1970s, when the crisis wasn’t so urgent. But the fact is, we’re built for urgent action. A flood. A drought. A famine. We know where we are in a catastrophe. It may be that our best is yet to come.

Will our best be enough? Will we move quickly and coherently enough to save ourselves from the catastrophes attendant on massive climate change? That’s a hard question to answer.

The earliest serious attempts at modelling human futures were horrific. One commentator summed up Thomas Malthus’s famous 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population as “150 pages of excruciatingly detailed travellers’ accounts and histories . . . of bestial life, sickness, weakness, poor food, lack of ability to care for young, scant resources, famine, infanticide, war, massacre, plunder, slavery, cold, hunger, disease, epidemics, plague, and abortion.”

Malthus, an English cleric driven up the wall by positive Enlightenment thinkers such as Godwin and Condorcet, set out to remind everybody that people were animals. Like animals, their populations were bound eventually to exceed the available food supply. It didn’t matter that they dressed nicely or wrote poetry. If they overbred, they would starve.

We’ve been eluding this Malthusian trap for centuries, by bolting together one cultural innovation after another. No bread? Grow soy. No fish? Breed insects. Eventually, on a finite planet, Malthus will have his revenge — but when?

The energy thinker Vaclav Smil’s forthcoming book Growth studies the growth patterns of everything from microorganisms to mammals to entire civilisations. But the Czech-Canadian academic is chary about breaking anything as complicated as humanity down to a single metric.

“In the mid-1980s,” he recalls, “people used to ask me, when would the Chinese environment finally collapse? I was writing about this topic early on, and the point is, it was never going to collapse. Or it’s constantly collapsing, and they’re constantly fixing parts of it.”

Every major city in China has clean water and improving air quality, according to Smil. A few years ago people were choking on the smog.

“It’s the same thing with the planet,” he says. “Thirty years ago in Europe, the number-one problem wasn’t global warming, it was acid rain. Nobody mentions acid rain today because we desulphurised our coal-fired power plants and supplanted coal with natural gas. The world’s getting better and worse at the same time.”

Smil blames the cult of economics for the way we’ve been sitting on our hands while the planet heats up. The fundamental problem is that economics has become so divorced from fundamental reality,” he says.

“We have to eat, we have to put on a shirt and shoes, our whole lives are governed by the laws that govern the flows of energy and materials. In economics, though, everything is reduced to money, which is only a very imperfect measure of those flows. Until economics returns to the physical rules of human existence, we’ll always be floating in the sky and totally detached from reality.”

Nevertheless, Smil thinks we’d be better off planning for a good life in the here and now, and this entails pulling back from our current levels of consumption.

“But we’re not that stupid,” he says, “and we may have this taken care of by people’s own decision making. As they get richer, people find that children are very expensive, and children have been disappearing everywhere. There is not a single European country now in which fertility will be above replacement level. And even India is now close to the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family.”

So are we out of the tunnel, or at the end of the line? The brutal truth is, we’ll probably never know. We’re not equipped to know. We’re too anxious, too terrified, too greedy for the sort of certainty a complex environment is simply not going to provide.

Now that we’ve spotted this catastrophe looming over our heads, it’s with us for good. No one’s ever going to be able to say that it’s truly gone away. As Benjamin tersely concluded, “That things ‘just go on’ is the catastrophe.”

Turning over new leaves

Contemplating Trees at Fondation Cartier, Paris for the Financial Times, 1 August 2019

Trees, a group show at the Fondation Cartier in Paris featuring artists, botanists and philosophers, screams personality — by which I mean eccentricity, thought and argument. Appropriately, it’s an exhibition that lives and breathes. I hated some of it and walked out of the gallery grinning from ear to ear. It absolutely does its job: it makes trees treeish again.

The French state’s funding for the arts is generous in quantity but conservative in taste. It doesn’t fund the Fondation Cartier, leaving it free to be playful — to hang so-called “outsider” and indigenous artists alongside established names; to work with artists in the long term, developing and acquiring pieces as collaborations grow. In other words, Paris’s first private foundation for contemporary art is free to behave as a private patron should and to learn on the job.

Trees is the latest in a line of exhibitions conceived by the Fondation Cartier that seek to decentre humans’ view of ourselves as overlords of creation. In 2016, The Great Animal Orchestra exhibition (which visits London in October) sought to establish common intellectual ground between species. Trees goes further, seeking a rapprochement between two kingdoms, the animals and the plants.

Trees are weirdly hard to see because they hide in plain sight. “The tree is the chair on which we sit, the table we use to write, it is our cupboards, our furniture, but also our most ordinary tools,” as Parisian philosopher Emanuele Coccia writes in the exhibition catalogue.

Tree-blindness is made worse by a western intellectual inheritance. When Aristotle asserted in his De plantis that vegetable life is insensate, he was going against Plato, Anaxagoras, Democritus and Empedocles. And he was wrong: plants detect and react to temperature, humidity, air pressure, vibration, sound, touch, trauma and chemical information that we have no short names for. They respond to these sensations as quickly as any animal. They are not less than animals, but they are radically, mind-bendingly different.

A life among trees does things to the eye. Perspective is not much help in reading a treescape, while pattern recognition is vital. Work here by Kalepi, Joseca and Ehuana Yaira, Yanomami artists from the Amazon rainforest, explores the architectonic quality of trees, expressing them as entire bodies rather than (as the western eye prefers) complex assortments of twigs and leaves. The Paraguayan artists of the Gran Chaco region included here, meanwhile, express their forest home more through typology than through aesthetics. Theirs is a forest as well-stocked and well-ordered as a supermarket. Count all the little animals and plants laid out in rows: this is not a wilderness but a tally of self-renewing plenty. The general lesson seems to be that a forest is an environment that’s easier to read for what it contains than to swallow in one gulp.

Drawings and diagrams by contemporary botanist Francis Hallé honour natural history, a European tradition in which aesthetic knowledge and scientific knowledge run parallel. Twentieth-century laboratory-based science finds its way on to Fabrice Hyber’s huge canvases — like wall-sized notebook pages annotated with multicoloured scribbles, graphs, colour wheels and wave forms. In each, Hyber reduces the trees to a single trunk, or a trunk and a branch: a world of abstractions and generalis­ations. Cesare Leonardi’s meticulous drawings reveal the architectural potential of trees — a potential mischievously misappropriated in Peruvian photo­grapher Sebastian Mejía’s pictures of trees strained through fence wire, incorporated into walls or otherwise appropriated by the unliving city.

Some works here protest against the world’s breakneck deforestation. Thijs Biersteker, in collaboration with botanist Stefano Mancuso, offers a salve, wiring two trees in the Fondation’s extensive garden to scientific visualisations to help us empathise with what trees are sensing in real time. (This is more than a rhetorical flourish: the sense data that the piece collects are being corroborated and fed into scientific research, in a work that fulfils a dual artistic and scientific function.)

The lion’s share of the show is given over to Brazilian artist Luiz Zerbini, whose muted, simple monotypes and huge, complex, colourful canvases surround a table herbarium and a tree. The paintings are an Anthropocene jungle of sorts in which urban and natural forms hide in plain sight within a fiercely perpectiveless, rectilinear grid. Give your eyes time to adjust, and you find yourself in a city/forest of the future, where nature is exploited but not exhausted, and beauty and utility coexist.

These canvases suggest that we humans, having crafted our way out of the trees and developed those crafts on an industrial scale, can perhaps learn an even neater trick and make the whole human adventure last beyond this current, rapine moment

I came out of this show happy. I wasn’t just enthused. I’d been converted.

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.

The most blatantly artificial landscape in Europe

Mucking about on Windermere for FT Magazine, 31 March 2019

The Osprey, a steam launch built in 1902, carries me out on Lake Windermere. The ride is smooth, fast, virtually silent. I glance behind me, and for a few disconcerting seconds I am lost.

Where did we launch from? Where is Windermere Jetty, the region’s new “Museum of Boats, Steam and Stories”? Where are its enormous glass walls, to reveal its full-time restoration work to public view? Where are its gigantic eaves, to shield visitors from the rain?

There’s an art to hiding in plain sight. Windermere Jetty — a series of unostentatious sheds designed by architects Carmody Groarke — is clad in copper, and even before its greenish patina appears, it’s blending easily with the darker tones of the surrounding trees.

Even if their colour made them stand out, these sheds would not immediately draw my eye. conditioned as I am by Arthur Ransome’s stories, and the Swallows and Amazons films, and a school syllabus besotted by the region’s literary history. I know what to expect from this view. The Jetty’s low, dark, massy wharf buildings, stuck right on the edge of the lake, obviously belong. The nearby Windermere Marina Village (a perfectly pleasant array of holiday apartments, carefully tucked away) obviously doesn’t.

In 1909, the zoologist Jacob von Uexküll proposed that animals only see what they need to see: the rest goes by virtually unnoticed. Tourism probably wasn’t at the forefront of his mind when he said this. But people are animals too. When we visit a place, we see what we already know about it, or what we have already been told about it, and the genuinely unexpected — especially in a place as loaded with expectation as the Lakes — is as likely to disappoint or irritate us as delight or surprise.

Why do the Lakes generate such strong feeling? Because they’re endangered? Or because they’re already spoiled? Spoiled how? By afforestation, by sheep, by the clumsy application of preservationist aspic? They’re not what they were, on this we can agree. But what were they? At Windermere Jetty, alongside elements of familiar Lakeland lore — steam kettles, childhood boating holidays, Beatrix Potter’s rowing boat mounted on one wall — other, more disconcerting aspects of the region are revealed: the Lakes as mining region, as testbed for new technologies, as strenuously guarded zone of wartime production. Sublime this place may be, from the right angles. But those scarps aren’t all ancient glacial erosion, and those hills, which haven’t seen a tree in eighty years, aren’t naturally bare. This is one of the most blatantly artificial landscapes in Europe.

From the polished deck of the Osprey, I slip under the spell of that period when wealthy industrialists built great houses along Windermere’s lake shore and ordered ostentatious steam launches to carry them to the railway head at Windermere. Men like Charles Fildes (Manchester: tin plate), who in winter took boiler and engine out of his private paddle steamer to use in his miniature railway. Or Col. John George Miller Ridehalgh (“King of the Lake”), who lit one of his several steamers with gas generated on board with a device straight out of a Heath-Robinson cartoon, driven by clockwork and a weight. Or William Henry Schneider (Barrow-in-Furness: iron production), who was so in love with his 65-foot steam yacht that he fitted it with an ice-cutting bow for winter use.

Like all seemingly timeless moments, this one lasted hardly any time at all. Windermere became a playground for Midlands industrialists around the middle of the nineteenth century and by the 1880s their great houses were already too big to manage. Henry Schneider turned Belsfield into a hotel while he was still living there: Ridehalgh’s seat, Fell Foot Park, was demolished in 1907.

Boats of better provenance than the Osprey are kept in dry dock. The Branksome cost around four times as much as the Osprey when it was built in 1896. The hull is constructed using 50 foot long lengths of varnished teak. The leather seats, the walnut panelling, the velvet upholstery and carpets are original.

It’s hard to hold in mind how advanced these craft were, and how important to the boating industry. Their designs, which derive ultimately from Windermere’s char-fishing boats of the Seventeenth century, were copied across Europe. (Their combination of stability and steerability also set the style for rowboats in every decent pleasure park in Britain.) “They could only have arisen in this place, at this moment,” says Rachel Roberts, head curator at the Jetty. Money was one ingredient in their manufacture. Because their backers were pioneer industrialists, an ambition to innovate — to be the fastest on the lake, or the most ostentatious — was another spur. Innovations from overseas were trialled here: the first American Chris-Craft boats. Planing hulls from Italy. World Speed records were broken here, repeatedly.

Windermere’s radical engineering culture long outlived the era of grand houses and their masters. On the Jetty’s roster for renovation is the steam launch Bat. In 1891, Jack Kitchen and Isaac Storey, two local radio pioneers, achieved a world first by steering it around the lake by radio remote control. (Kitchen already had form as an inventor: his reversing rudder, which could bring small ships to an almost complete stop in an instant, was picked up by the Royal Navy. His gas-powered gramophone and an elliptical wheel for difficult terrain fared less well.)

The region’s experimental engineering grew ever more baroque. The first British-built flying plane, the Waterhen, launched from Windermere in November 1911. It flew tourists around the lake safely for years, even as rival prototypes were falling out of the sky. Eleven years later someone thought it would be a good idea to build a power boat around a Rolls Royce 85 HP Mk1 Hawk airship engine. The Canfly looks terrifying enough in the museum. On the water it was a monster. You had to point the thing carefully down the centre of the lake before you cranked it to life because once the boat got moving there was no easy way to steer. The only way to stop it was to cut the engine.

Roberts leads me to exhibits that reveal where all this well-funded innovation was ultimately bound: the killing fields of the following century. Sail lost its dominance on the lake when local sailmakers were put to manufacturing sand-bags in the First World War. Over the course of the Second World War, 500 people were employed to turn out 35 gigantic Shorts Sunderland Flying Boats: key machines in the Allies’ airborne Atlantic defence. “These,” she says, pointing to a picture of the factory, which stood not far from here, “were the largest single-span buildings in Europe.”

Defended by D company, 9th Lakes Battalion, who patrolled Lake Windermere with four speed boats and two houseboats, all equipped with machine guns, the workers lived more or less over the shop in the purpose-built village of Calgarth. Afterwards, the village was used to house and recuperate 300 child victims of the Holocaust.

“Wars transform the whole character of a place,” says Roberts, though she doesn’t mention the biggest wartime transformation of all.

More or less everything we think about the Lake District is an artefact of the Napoleonic Wars. Between 1799 and 1815, conflict brought to a halt the sort of comfortable European travel young intellectuals expected from their Grand Tour.

With the wonders of the mainland put out of bounds, the Lakes provided a homegrown locus for the cultivation of finer feeling — and it’s a role the region still fulfils today, at least for those of a sufficiently Romantic temperament. “Here,” wrote the publisher Rudolph Ackerman, in his Picturesque Tour of the English Lakes (1821) “we have valleys of the utmost softness and beauty, luxuriantly wooded and watered by these enchanting lakes and the crystal streams which flow from them, deeply embosomed amidst lofty mountains, whose sides exhibit wild rocks majestically piled on each other, with yawning gulfs between, down which foaming torrents descend from dark and gloomy Tarns…”

But by then, the natural Lakeland landscape was already a thing of the past. From about 1300 the monks of Furness Abbey had been scouring the hills for iron and felling woods for charcoal. Iron, to feed the first factories of the Industrial Revolution, drove the Lakeland economy for decades. Copper was another important mining activity, turning the whole massif of the Coniston Fells to scree. The blighted wildernesses of Old Man of Coniston and Honister Pass are what’s left of the trade in slate, to roof the houses of 19th-century Midlands towns during the boom. There’s much local opposition at the moment to plans to construct a zip-wire across the Honister Pass, from Borrowdale to Buttermere. But it’s not such an outlandish idea: blocks of slate were once removed from the mountain but just such a wire. There are photographs. There was also an incline system, and the Honister Crag Railway, and a tramway which ran right up until 1962.

We assume the Lake District is under threat by throngs of tourists. In his Guide to the Lakes in 1810, Wordsworth lamented how his “Republic of Shepherds and Agriculturists” was ceding ground to a culture of railway tourism. Nowhere in the index, however, will you find any reference to coal, copper, industry, iron, or mines.

Today 18 million of us clog the narrow lanes of England’s Lake District each year, and Carlisle Lake District Airport, a half-hour drive from Penrith will only add to the burden when it opens this July. Still, we tend to blank the fact that the Lake District is an industrial site, characterised (in George Monbiot’s memorable formulation) by “quad bikes, steel barns and absentee ownership”.

The Lake District knows what to do with visitors. It builds industries around them. The first public steamer on Windermere, the Lady of the Lake, was launched the same year the Great Britain sailed from Liverpool to New York. A rival company sprang up to take advantage of the fast-improving technology. Its flagship used to shoot past the Lady with the band playing “The Girl I Left Behind Me”.

Today the region responds similarly: by swinging squealing youths from wires that in another age would have carried stones. By trialing driverless pods, so as to prise visitors out of their cars. On nearby Coniston, a steamer restored by the National Trust vies for trade with two ferries driven by solar power.

Stephen Beresford, Windermere Jetty’s senior conservation boat builder, shows me round the working part of the museum, where local apprentices will learn how to build and restore a collection whose provenance stretches from 1780 to 1983. “The trick,” says Beresford, a civil engineer turned historic boat restorer, “is to know what you can and can’t replace.” Time is real, and cannot be frozen. Imagination, technique and craft are the way we connect to the past. Every vessel in this museum could go back on the water if he replaced everything. “And by the time we got it back into the water there’d be so little of it left, it’d no longer be historic. Would it?”

The three-dimensional page

Visiting Thinking 3D: Leonardo to the present at Oxford’s Weston Library for the Financial Times, 20 March 2019

Exhibitions hitch themselves to the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci at their peril. How do you do justice to a man whose life’s work provides the soundtrack to your entire culture? Leonardo dabbled his way into every corner of intellectual endeavour, and carved out several tasty new corners into the bargain. For heaven’s sake, he dreamt up a glass vessel to demonstrate the dynamics of fluid flow in the aortic valve of the human heart: modern confirmation that he was right (did you doubt it?) had to wait for the cardiologist Robin Choudhury and a paper written in 2014.

Daryl Green and Laura Moretti, curators of Thinking 3D at Oxford’s Weston Library, are wise to park this particular story at the far end of their delicate, nuanced, spiderweb of an exhibition into how artists and scientists, from Leonardo to now, have learned to convey three-dimensional objects on the page.

Indeed they do very good job of keeping You Know Who contained. This is a show made up of books, mostly, and Leonardo came too soon to take full advantage of print. He was, anyway, far too jealous of his own work to consign it to the relatively crude reproductive technologies of his day. Only one of his drawings exists in printed form — a stellated dodecahedron, drawn for his friend Luca Pacioli’s De Divina Proportione of 1509. It’s here for the viewing, alongside other contemporary attempts at geometrical drawing. Next to Leonardo, they are hardly more than doodles.

A few of Leonardo’s actual drawings — the revolving series here is drawn from the Royal Collection and the British Library — served to provoke, more than to inspire, the advances in 3D visualisation that followed. In a couple of months the aortic valve story will be pulled from the show, its place taken by astrophysicist Steven Balbus’s attempts to visualise black holes. (There’s a lot of ground to cover, and very little room, so the exhibition will be changing some elements regularly during the run.) When that happens, will Leonardo’s presence in this exhibition begin to feel gratuitous? Probably not: Leonardo is the ultimate Man Who Came to Dinner: once put inside your head there’s no getting rid of him.

Thinking 3D is more than just this exhibition: the year-long project promises events, talks, conferences and workshops, not to mention satellite shows. (Under the skin: illustrating the human body, which just ended at the Royal College of Physicians in London, was one of these.) The more one learns about the project, the more it resembles Stephen Leacock’s Lord Ronald, who flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions — and the more impressive the coherence Green and Moretti have achieved here.

There are some carefully selected geegaws. A stereoscope through which one can study Arthur Thomson stereographic Anatomy of the Human Eye, published in 1912. The nation’s first look at Bill Gates’s Codescope, an interactive kiosk with a touch screen that lets you explore the Codex Leicester, a notebook of Leonardo’s that Gates bought in 1994. Even a shelf full of 3D-printed objects you are welcome to fondle, like Linus with his security blanket, as you wander around the exhibition. This last jape works better than you’d think: by relating vision to touch, it makes us properly aware of all the mental tricks we have to perform, in order to to realise 3D forms in pictures.

But books are the meat of the matter: arranged chronologically along one wall, and under glass in displays that show how the same theme has been handled at different times. Start at the clean, complex lines of the dodecahedron and pass, via architecture (the coliseum) and astronomy (the Moon) to the fleshy ghastliness of the human eyeball.

Conveying depth by drawing makes geometry comprehensible. It also, and in particular, transforms three areas of fundamental intellectual enquiry: anatomy, architecture, and astronomy.

Today, when we think of 3D visualisation, we think first of architecture. (It’s an association forged, in large part, in the toils of countless videogames: never mind the plot, gawp at all that visionary pixelcrete!). But because architecture operates at a more-or-less human-scale, it’s actually been rather slow to pick up on the power of 3D visualisation. With intuition and craft skill to draw upon, who needs axonometry? The builders of the great Mediaeval cathedrals managed quite happily without any such hifalutin drawing techniques, and it wasn’t until Auguste Choisy’s Histoire de l’architecture of 1899 that a drawing style that had already transformed carpentry, machinery, and military architecture finally found favour with architects. (Arguably, the profession has yet to come down off the high this occasioned. Witness the number of large buildings that look, for all their bulk, like scale models, their shapes making sense only from the most arbitrary angles.)

Where the scale is too small or too large for intuition and common sense to work, 3D visualisation has been most useful, and most beautiful. Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome (1543) stands here for an entire genre of “fugitive sheets” — compendiums of exquisite anatomical drawings with layered flaps, peeled back by the reader to reveal the layers of the body as one might discover them during a dissection. Because these documents were practical surgical guides, they received rough treatment, and hardly any survive. Those that do (though not the one here, thank God) are often covered with mysterious stains.

Less gruesome, but at the same time less immediately communicative, are the various attempts here to render the cosmos on paper. Robert Fludd’s black square from his Utriusque Cosmi (1617-21), depicts the void immediately prior to creation. Et sic in infinitum (“And so on to infinity”) run the words on each side of this eloquent blank.

Thinking 3D explores territories where words tangle incoherently and only pictures will suffice — then leaps giggling into a void where rational enquiry collapses and only artworks and acts of mischief like Fludd’s manage to convey anything at all. All this in a space hardly bigger than two average living rooms. It’s a show that repays — indeed, demands — patience. Put in the requisite effort, though, and you’ll find it full of wonders.