Tonight the World

Visiting Tonight the World, Daria Martin’s new show at the Barbican, for the Financial Times, 5 February 2019

The terrible thing about dreams is that you cannot look away. You cannot peek around corners. You cannot glance at your feet. You must see – and cannot unsee – what you are given.

And while video games sometimes offer you the opportunity to shift from first to third person, so that you can see your avatar operating in the game, for the most part you’re suspended, disembodied, in a dream.

Daria Martin’s gallery-sized installation Tonight the World, now occupying the Barbican Centre’s Curve Gallery, begins with a video game. In an eleven-minute screen capture, we explore a monochrome, abstracted version of the house in Czechoslovakia where Martin’s grandmother, Susi Stiassni, spent her early childhood.

The house is real enough: a modernist redoubt just outside Brno, built by architect Ernst Wiesner in the late 1920s for Susi’s father, the Jewish textile manufacturer Alfred Stiassni. Later, the house was home to a string of Czech presidents. House guests included Fidel Castro.

Students from Oxford University and from the University of Masaryk in Brno recorded the building using photogrammetry, and it’s their data that powers Martin’s videogame. They scanned most of the rooms, and more or less all the furniture, but none of the objects. This is one reason why the gameable villa Stiassni is furnished but unadorned. Blank white canvases in white frames hang from white walls. The shelves lining the library are empty. The only objects here are game objects, seeded into the scene so as to reveal, on a click, glimpses of the house’s history.

At this point, Martin’s show could go either way. We could be in for a rather stilted, tech-heavy exploration of her family’s fraught history. (Susi Stiassni fled Nazi occupation with her family in 1938, first to London, then to Brazil, finally to California.) But the way gallery has been decked out suggests (rightly) that a warmer, more intimate, ultimately more disturbing game is afoot. Past the first screen, fellow gallery-goers bleed in and out of view round a series of curved wooden walls painted a warm terracotta. Is the colour a reference to interwar architecture? All I can think of is the porn set in David Cronenberg’s existentialist shocker Videodrome. There is something distinctly fleshy going on.

Tonight the World turns out not to be a show about Susi Stiassni’s life; not, anyway, about those parts of her life that anyone else could have witnessed, or participated in. It’s about Susi’s dreams, which she recorded year after year in a colossal typewritten diary. We get to see some of her work, hung up like a vast storyboard, through a gap in one of the walls.

This diary provides the storyline for five short films, looping on a huge curved screen at the farthest end of the gallery. In each dream, four actresses play Susi at different life stages; chief among them, and the eldest, is Hayley Carmichael. She was the eponymous Hunger Artist in Martin’s 2017 film, which won the Film London Jerwood prize last year. Carmichael is extraordinary: she serves up pathos by the yard just by standing still and staring.

In one film Susi confronts an army patrol; in another, she discovers a proletarian man living in a wall space behind her living room. The page from Susi’s diary which describe these dreams are pinned on a wall nearby. In one, Susi writes: “I call in that we are the Korean army… Actually the Korean army isn’t us but they are just outside the house.”

We’re not just talking about disembodiment here. We’re talking about the dislocation of the survivor; about the strategies of identification and alienation by which a human psyche eludes mortal threat. These dreams are about being several people at once, in the hope that at least one of you will survive.

An episodic film about dislocation with four actresses playing the same person: what, one is tempted to ask, could possibly go right? But Martin maintains control — indeed, makes the dreams both comprehensible and gripping, in a way that other people’s dreams almost never are — by keeping an iron grip on the viewpoint. You never feel as if you’re looking through a camera; you’re always looking through the eyes of one or another Susi. Now and again, points of view are established before the characters doing the looking step into the appropriate part of the frame. It’s a neat trick and one that’s quite difficult to pull off: the same bit of film grammer Andrei Tarkovksy played with in Mirror.

Given her previous work — a Kafka adaptation, films about mirror synaesthesia, intimacy and robots — it’s hardly a surprise to find Daria Martin’s current show steeped in the uncanny. But how well does it all hang together?

Better in the viewing than in the telling, I suspect. Words imply chronology, and that’s very much not what this show is about. Susi’s dreams were shaped by her history, but they don’t depict that history. The men coming in through the windows of her half-forgotten family home are as likely to be Koreans as Nazis. They could be tourists, or players of a video game, or a Californian child (Daria Martin herself, perhaps) dressed as a cowboy. All times are one; all fears are universal.

Tonight the World is certainly an “immersive” experience, for what that word is worth. A dark, echoey interior, objects seen through chinks, and single pages that stand for whole manuscripts: there’s a little bit of Punchdrunk theatre company’s Tunnel 228 about the enterprise. There’s also an attempt, which doesn’t quite pay off, to have a piece of imagery from Martin’s video game bleed into the gallery space. This invasion comes across as more of a joke than a psychic rupture: a measure of how monomaniacally exact you have to be, if you want to conjure fantasy in real space.

What of that video game? Though it’s a chilly, jerky and rather daunting way to open the show, the mathematically rendered villa Stiassi — stripped of objects, provenance and affect — sets the right tone, I think, particularly in relation to the very next object Martin offers us: a chink in a wall, housing a small family photograph of the villa as it really was: a home filled with lace and rugs and books and bric-a-brac and life. The world is empty, until we ourselves enchant it — with monsters, or delights.

This way lies madness

Playing Hellblade for New Scientist, 29 August 2017

You are Senua, a Pictish outcast whose lover has been sacrificed to the gods by homicidal Norse invaders. To release his spirit, you must enter Hel, their underworld.

But is this all real?

Three years ago, Paul Fletcher, a psychiatrist at the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute in Cambridge, UK, took a call from games company Ninja Theory. The firm wanted help creating a character who suffered from severe psychosis.

“My defences were up,” Fletcher admits, “but quickly I realised I was in serious company. We started by discussing the kinds of hallucinations people experience, and within two or three sessions we were into the neuroscience.”

Senua’s world blurs as she moves. The walls crawl as she passes. When she looks in her mirror, the wrong voice comes screaming out of her reflected mouth. “But more interesting,” recalls Ninja Theory’s co-founder Tameem Antoniades, “was the way someone in psychosis will make sense of their world by making associations: ones that outsiders might find very strange.”

Players will enjoy the way that runic images and the features of Senua’s landscape conjoin in perspectival games that further or frustrate her progress. And there are incidental delights: at one point, the embers of a distant fire pulse to the rhythm of Senua’s breathing.

Hellblade is more than a journey through a hallucinatory landscape (and hallucinatory it is, passing from flaming killing fields through sun-kissed meadows to a corridor of withered arms). It’s about a rational hero desperately trying to make sense of her world. “Most of us are pretty bad at that,” Fletcher points out.

He’s referring to a paper he co-wrote a couple of years ago, showing that people in the very early stages of psychosis are actually better at interpreting ambiguous visual information (think spotting the Dalmatian illusion, in which you see a dog image from the dots) than the rest of us. “Someone — I’ve never been able to find out who — said that perception is controlled hallucination. This is true. You bring what you know to bear on what you sense. That is how we recognise things.”

Not all people who experience hallucinations consider them a problem. Some who hear voices, for example, have joined networks dedicated to removing the social stigma attached to the phenomenon. “A lot of people suffer not because of the content of their hallucination, but because of being ostracised,” Fletcher says.

At the same time, games are becoming increasingly immersive. Hellblade’s binaural soundtrack, placing Senua’s intrusive voices in distinct locales for the player, is a case in point. Fletcher’s hope is that psychiatrists and designers can work together to create immersive environments tailored to the needs of specific individuals.

Avatar therapy“, which uses a screen-based, computer-generated figure to represent, normalise and quell an aggressive intrusive voice, is already proving its clinical worth.

For Antoniades, meanwhile, “video games are becoming alternate digital realities”. Hellblade’s 8 hours of gameplay are a gruelling experience, made compelling by a staggering motion-capture performance by Melina Juergens, a freelance video editor who was initially just filling in for a “real” actress.

Certain players will find the game rather restrictive, and some of those limits are imposed by the psychological realism. Senua’s demons are consistent, staying more or less the same. Psychosis is not a variety show

It’s worth noting, though, that the game’s most traditional element is also its most radical: while Senua may be in the throes of psychosis, she is also a hero.

Creative. Interactive. Wrong.

People are by far the easiest animals to train. Whenever you try to get some bit of technology to work better, you can be sure that you are also training yourself. Steadily, day by day, we are changing our behaviours to better fit with the limitations of our digital environment. Whole books have been written about this, but we keep making the same mistakes. On 6 November 2014, at Human Interactive, a day-long conference on human-machine interaction at Goldsmith’s College in London, Rodolphe Gelin, the research director of robot-makers Aldebaran, screened a video starring Nao, the company’s charming educational robot. It took a while before someone in the audience (not me) spotted the film’s obvious flaw: how come the mother is sweating away in the kitchen while the robot is enjoying quality time with her child?

We still obsess over the “labour-saving” capacities of our machines, still hanker after more always-elusive “free time”, but we never think to rethink the value of labour itself. This is the risk we run: that we will save ourselves from the very labour that makes our lives worthwhile.

Organised by William Latham and Frederic Fol Leymarie, Human Interactive was calculated (quite deliberately, I expect) to stir unease.

Beyond the jolly, anecdotal presentations about the computer games industry from Creative Assembly’s Guy Davidson and game designer Jed Ashforth, there emerged a rather unflattering vision of how humans best interact with machines. The biophysicist Michael Sternberg, for instance, is harnessing the wisdom of crowds to gamify and thereby solve difficult problems in systems biology and bioinformatics. For Sternberg’s purposes, people are effectively interchangeable components in a kind of meat parallel-processing system. Individually, we do have some merit: we are good at recognising and classifying patterns. Thisat least makes us better than pigeons, but only at the things that pigeons are good at already.

Sternberg would be mortified to see his work described in such terms – but this is the point: human projects, fed through the digital mill, emerge with their humanity stripped away. It’s up to people at the receiving end of the milling process to put the humanity back in. I wasn’t sure, listening to Nilli Lavie’s presentation on attention, to what human benefit her studies would be put. The UCL neuroscientist’s key point is well taken – that people perform best when they are neither overloaded with information, nor deprived of sufficient stimulus. But what did she mean by her claim that wandering attention loses the US economy around two billion dollars a year? Were American minds to be perfectly focused, all the year round, would that usher in some sort of actuarial New Jerusalem? Or would it merely extinguish all American dreaming? Without a space for minds to wander in, where would a new idea – any new idea – actually come from?

Not that ideas will save us. Ideas, in fact, got us into this mess in the first place, by reminding us that the world as-is is less than it could be. We are very good at dreaming up scenarios that we are not currently experiencing. We are all too capable of imagining elusive “perfect” experiences. Digital media feed these yearnings. There is something magical about a balanced spreadsheet, a glitchless virtual surface, the beauty of a symmetrical avatar under perfect, unreal light.

Henrietta Bowden-Jones, founder and director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic, is painfully aware of how digital media encourage our obessive and addictive behaviours. Games are hardly the new tobacco — at least, not yet — but psychologists are being hired to make them ever-more addictive; Bowden-Jones’s impressively understated presentation suggested that games may soon generate behavioral and social problems as acute as those thrown up by on-line gambling.

The day after the conference, Goldsmith’s College hosted Creative Machine, a week-long exhibition of machine creativity. In a church abutting the campus, robots sketched human skulls, balanced pendulums, and noodled around with evolutionary algorithms.I expected still more alienation, a surfeit of anxiety. In fact, Creative Machine left me feeling strangely reassured.

Those of us who play with computers, or know a little about science, harbour what amounts to a religious conviction: that that somewhere deep down, at the bottom of this messy reality, there is an order at work. Call it mathematics, or physics, or reason. Whichever way you cut it, we believe there’s a law. But this just isn’t true. Put a computer to work in the real world, and it messes up. More exciting still, it messes up in just the ways we would. Félix Luque Sánchez’s simple robots on rails shuttle backwards and forwards in a brave and ultimately futile attempt to balance a pendulum. Anyone who’s ever tried to balance a book on their head will recognise themselves in every move, every acceleration, every hesitation – every failure.

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Even a robot who knows what it’s doing will get entangled. Patrick Tresset has programmed a robot called Paul with the rules of life drawing and draughtsmanship. Paul, presented with a still-life, follows these rules unthinkingly – and yet every picture it churns out is unique, shaped by tiny, unrepeatable fluctations in its environment (a snaggy biro, a heavy-footed passer-by, a cloud crossing the sun…).

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If an emblem were needed for this show, then Cécile Babiole provides it. She has run the phrase “NE DOIS PAS COPIER” (literally: “one shouldn’t copy”) through a 3-D copier, over and over again, playing a familiar game of generational loss. And it’s the strangest thing: as they decay, her printed plastic letters take on organic form, become weeds, become coral, become limbs and organs. They lose their original meaning, only to acquire others. They do not become nothing, the way an over-photocopied picture becomes nothing. They become rich and strange.

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Maths, rationality and science are magnificent tools with which to investigate the world. But we commit a massive and dangerous category error when we assume the world is built out of maths and reason.

With a conference to beat us, and an exhibition to entice us, Latham and Fol Leymarie have led us, without us ever really noticing, to a view of new kind of digital future. A future of approximations and mistakes and acts of bricolage. It is not a human future, particularly. But it is a future that accommodates us, and we should probably be grateful.