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.

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.

A place that exists only in moonlight

Visiting Turner Contemporary, Margate and Katie Paterson’s new show for the Financial Times, 30 January 2019

Cyril Connolly, literary lion of the 1930s, reckoned that the surest way of killing off writers was to baff on about their promise. Calling artists “visionary” might have the same effect now.

A new show at Turner Contemporary in Margate juxtaposes JMW Turner watercolours with work by Scottish-born conceptual artist Katie Paterson. The fit seems reasonable. Both artists are fascinated by light. But Turner was a visionary artist, while Paterson, born 1981, is not.. Her value (and it’s considerable) lies elsewhere.

Turner’s deft atmospheric squiggles hang next to an airfreight parcel, a shelving unit full of light bulbs and several thousand photographic slides depicting nothing. Paterson defends the wheeze with spirit: “I don’t find my work itself scientific,” she writes, on wall information at the head of the exhibition. “It deals with phenomena and matter, space-time, colour and light, the natural world as materials. Like Turner’s work, it is rooted in sensory experience.”

True, you can find sensory experience if you go looking for it. Her 2007 piece “Earth-Moon-Earth” used Morse code to bounce the score of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata off the Moon. An automated piano performs the rather gappy version that survived the round-trip. The moment you wonder where the missing notes went, you enter dreamland. 289 replacement light bulbs sit ready to power Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008) through the course of an average human lifetime. They are tuned to exactly recreate the effulgence of a full moon. I stepped into the installation expecting nothing, only to be propelled in my imagination back to the night walks of my childhood.

But sensory experience doesn’t sit at the heart of every Paterson work, or even many of them.

There’s lots of precision. “It needs to be accurate to be imagined,” says the artist of a 2008 wheeze in which people phoned up Iceland’s Vatnajökull glacier to hear it melting in real time. If all you got was the artist splashing about in her kitchen sink, what would be the point of the work?

Her literalistic approach pushes Paterson into entertaining contortions. Alongside her concern for accuracy and truth, I think we should add a love of logistics. Second Moon (2013-14), a fragment of the Moon sent on a year-long journey counterclockwise around the earth via air freight, is a game of scale in which human and astronomical perspectives vie for contention. Other projects haven’t gone as smoothly. For five years Paterson sent letters of condolence to friendly astronomers, marking the deaths of individual stars. Dying Star Letters (2011-present) threatened to overwhelm her, however as improvements in observation caused her inbox to overflow with stellar deaths.

A core of necessary failure is present in many of Paterson’s pieces. Some projects are threatened by technological obsolescence. The 2,200 slides of empty space that make up The History of Darkness (begun in 2010) can only be added to for as long as someone makes slides (they’re already difficult to get hold of). A brand-new piece for this exhibition is a spinning wheel depicting the overall colour balance of the universe throughout its history. Its inks are pinpoint-accurate for now, but in two years’ time, when they have faded ever so slightly, what will The Cosmic Spectrum (2019) be worth?

Turner never had this problem. His criterion of truth was different. Paterson cares about measurement. He cared about witness. An honestly witnessed play of light against a cloud can be achieved through the right squiggle. An accurate measurement of the same phenomenon must be the collaborative work of meteorologists, atmospheric scientists, astronomers, colour scientists, and who knows how many other specialists, with Paterson riding everyone’s coat-tails as a sort of tourist.

As a foil for Paterson, we need someone who invents the world out of words, who thinks in conceits and metaphors, and who explores them with an almost naive diligence.

We need John Donne. “On a round ball / A workman that hath copies by, can lay / An Europe, Afric, and an Asia, / And quickly make that, which was nothing, all”. These lines from A Valediction: of Weeping come far closer to defining Paterson’s practice than anything Turner can offer. Donne’s Holy Sonnets, especially, are full of the sorts of questions that power Paterson’s art. “Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?” “Why are we by all creatures waited on?” “What if this present were the world’s last night?”

Mounted on the wall of Turner Contemporary, Paterson’s ideas include “The universe rewound and played back in real time;” “A wave machine hidden inside the sea;” “A foghorn set off at sea every time a star dies.” Not content with setting down her ideas in words (though you can buy a book of them here, printed in ink mixed with ground-up meteorite), Paterson tries to make the more doable ones actually happen. Her artworks are the koans of Zen meditative practice made real — or as real as the world allows.

Paterson’s out to celebrate the hugeness of our imaginations, while recognising our physical and temporal littleness. She’s not visionary; she’s metaphysical. The show’s terrific, but Turner’s not the right foil.

“The best cities are the ones that don’t leave ruins”

Talking to Arthur Mamou-Mani for the Financial Times, 22 December 2018

Sir John Soane’s Museum, on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, is very carefully arranged. This is as well. The eighteenth century architect and antiquarian made it a condition of his bequest to the nation that future custodians can’t go fiddling about with its layout.

Still, the current management contrive all manner of mischief — witness the robot playing Jenga in one uncharacteristically uncluttered corner.

Suspended from its gantry on four wires, this digitally-controlled robot is building something out of hand-size wooden blocks. It’s a slow beast, and some hours must pass before its construction becomes apparent: a dome, of the sort that John Soane produced for the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Polibot does not look like a game changer. But according to Arthur Mamou-Mani, whose architectural practice built it, Polibot’s children are going to change the world.

Mamou-Mani, who studied at the École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Paris-Malaquais, now lectures at Westminster University. He also runs FabPub, a commercial, community-minded digital fabrication space. “I think a lot of people see the work we do as not real architecture,” he says, “but I think things could be a bit different, and that’s why I have my own practice.”

When Mamou-Mani was studying at the Architectural Association, around 2003, computer-generated design was a fairly dry topic. Patrik Schumacher (the principal of the architecture practice Zaha Hadid Architects) had already given this style of working (using computers to evolve forms according to a set of parameters) — its own term of art: parametricism. “But by styling this work, we’re constraining something that, so far as I can see, hasn’t blossomed yet,” Mamou-Mani says. “I feel it’s evolving into a much more material craft. It’s not about computers. It’s about developing and understanding the craft of marrying new machines and new materials. It goes way beyond code.”

Festival-goers at this year’s Burning Man in Nevada got a taste of his aesthetic as they helped assemble — and then ritualistically burned — Mamou Mani’s Galaxia temple, its distinctive spiral shape formed from twenty timber trusses that converged towards the sky. Documentation of the project appears here alongside some of Soane’s own more jaw-dropping architectural imagery. Joseph Michael Gandy’s watercolour
A bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England springs to mind: the building rendered as ruins, laid out as though for archaeologists of the future.

Through experiments in robotics, Mamou-Mani’s practice is out to develop new ways of building that will make architects, engineers and contractors work more closely together, to the point where design, technology and construction become a single, more or less collegiate field. The point, then, is not what Polibot is, but what it could become. It’s not just a pick-and-place machine. It’s the early prototype of a universal builder.

There have been many experiments in the large-scale 3D printing of buildings. But the kinds of hefty, industrial robot arms that are usually employed for this work are far too cumbersome and delicate to wheel onto a building site. MX3D’s exceedingly elegant 3D-printed steel bridge, for example, years in the developing, will be installed on the Oudezijds Achterburgwal in Amsterdam’s red light district around the middle of 2019. It was supposed to be printed on-site, but whole business –with six-axis robots building a six-metre-wide structure from layers of molten steel — proved far too dangerous to set going in a public space.

Gigantic mecha robot arms will never spew out quick-setting skyscrapers at a single sweep, Mamou-Mani says, for the simple reason that it would make construction less, not more efficient. “Really, construction is mostly about bringing big chunks of stuff together. Currently, concrete is still the material of choice for the construction industry, but we’re slowly switching to timber, and this will be a revolution, because once you start working with timber, you’re no longer casting anything on site. You’re thinking entirely in terms of prefabrication and assembly.”

Mamou-Mani dreams of building simple towers from elements (“prefabricated properly, by robotic arms, like cars”), and assembled on-site by gigantic Polibots. In the exhibition that accompanies his dome-building robot show, hangs a visualisation of his practice’s “DNA Blockchain skyscraper”, soaring above its fictive city’s skyline like a monstrous chromosome. As I stare, somewhat aghast, Mamou-Mani explains his vision of buildings that can expand and contract, depending on the economy. “We don’t need to surround ourselves with buildings that we construct when everything is going well, only to leave them empty when their time is past. Why do we think that permanence is necessary?” Elsewhere in the exhibition, the wall information proclaims that “the best cities are the ones that don’t leave ruins.”

Soane’s antiquarian ghost must surely be clanking his chains over that one. Indeed, its by no means obvious at first how this exhibition relates to its hallowed venue. The more the visitor learns, however, the nicer the fit appears. This museum, in Soane’s lifetime, was more an experimental workshop than a collection of architectural curios. Soane — no slouch when it came to technical innovation — filled it with peculiar and playful juxtapositions, with originals and fakes, copies and fantasias, in his pursuit of new concepts and techniques.

Mamou-Mani — the man who would rob future generations of their ruins — puts it well: “There is a reason we protect things, and build traditions around them. It’s because these things were revolutionary. We preserve them because they still have the power to inspire us. We can’t go on like the modernists, constantly wiping the slate clean.”

If there is a contradiction here, so be it. There is never just one style of architecture at work in the world. As for the evident gap between little Polibot’s game of solitaire, and its creator’s vision of a transformed construction culture, I know better than to huff about it. All great advances in industrial culture are prefigured by model-making. Model aircraft, to take an obvious example, have been flying a great deal longer than people have. Nor is the toy and model scene any less relevant to that industry today, witness the stellar career of SpaceShip One’s designer Burt Rutan — a man who still turns up at modelling conventions to complain about the lack of balsa wood.

Mamou-Mani’s animated wooden construction kit at the Soane is both a charming toy and an important vision of our necessary future. “Depending on trees for construction will give us lots of trees, but more than that, it’ll make us think about our materials in a new way, from their growth to their assembly, to their disassembly and their reuse or recycling.” Mamou-Mani’s sense of urgency is compelling, and rooted in some hard truths. Construction is arguably the least sustainable industry on earth. “We’re going to need to rethink everything. If architects and planners think they can just continue doing business as normal, then we’re doomed,” he says. “It’s as bad as that.”

Implausible science and ambiguous art

Visiting Broken Symmetries at FACT, Liverpool for the Financial Times, 30 November 2018

In The Science of Discworld 4: Judgement Day, mathematician Ian Stewart and reproductive biologist Jack Cohen have fun at the expense of the particle-physics community.

Imagine a group of blind sages in a hotel, poking at a foyer piano. After some hours, they arrive at an elegant theory about what a piano is — one that involves sound, frequency, harmony, and the material properties of piano strings.

Then one of their number suggests that they carry the piano upstairs and drop it from the roof. This they do — and spend the rest of the day dreaming up and knocking over countless ugly hypotheses involving hypothetical “twangons” and “thudons” and, oh, I don’t know, “crash bosons”.

The point — that the physicists working at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva might be constructing the very quantum reality they were hired to study — is lost on none of the 10,000-odd scientists and engineers involved with the project. And this awareness — that the very idea of science is up for grabs here — may explain why CERN’s scientists have taken so warmly to the artists dropped in their midst.

They come on brief visits from the 22 countries that contribute to CERN’s budget. The more established of them — people like Trevor Paglen and Tomás Saraceno — stay for weeks at a time, pursuing some special project. There are joint residencies next year that will see artists shuttling between CERN and astronomical observatories in Chile. Most productive of all are the lucky few chosen for CERN’s Collide International residency programme.

Winning the Collide International gets you two fully funded months in CERN’s labs and labyrinths, rubbing shoulders with arguably the best (and certainly the strangest) minds in physics.

For the exhibition Broken Symmetries at FACT in Liverpool, Arts at CERN director Monica Bello and Peruvian scientist and curator Jose Carlos Mariategui have commissioned new work by CERN’s recent residents, runners-up and honorable mentions. It’s a celebration of CERN’s three-year curatorial collaboration with FACT, the Foundation for Art and Creative Design. Next April the show moves to CCCB , the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona, where it will effectively advertise CERN’s next three-year partnership, with Barcelona’s city council.

From there, Broken Symmetries travels to Le Lieu Unique in Nantes, France and iMAL, the centre for digital cultures and technology in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, Belgium, where it finally shuts up shop in the summer of 2020. All this travelling has a point. Since the end of the nineteenth century, physics has been — out of intellectual and financial necessity — an international institution.

So there is a nice double-meaning to the title of the video made for this show by Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, who work under the name Semiconductor. The View from Nowhere refers to the scientific ideal of objective observation. But by echoing PM Theresa May’s notorious “citizens of nowhere” jibe, it just as effectively trumpets the rootless cosmopolitanism of the scientific community.

The video itself is almost pure anthropology, as the pair explore why it is that people working on the same project explain what they’re doing in so many different ways. Language is full of traps. The hidden world of particles can only be conceptualised by analogies and metaphors, which themselves are limited or misleading. The visual stylings of artists are just as unreliable, of course, but at least they supplement the vocabulary available to researchers. This is one of the possibilities that excites the architect of the residency programme, Monica Bello: “Since I began, it has been very important to me to bring artworks and experiences to the scientific community. This,” she points out, “is an audience in itself.”

Some art here addresses its patrons directly, in the eighteenth-century manner. Through narrative, memoir and archive, Taiwan-born Londoner Yu-Chen Wang explores the human scale of the CERN project. Her video installation We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there seeks to acknowledge CERN’s unsung multitudes: its technicians, analysts and engineers.

South Korean artist Yunchul Kim reveals the aesthetic elements of his patrons’ work. His sketchbooks, recently on show at the Korean Cultural Centre in London, stripped the components of the Large Hadron Collider (almost all hand-turned — there’s nothing mass-produced about the LHC) down to their design elements. Here, with a three-part sculpture called Cascade, Kim fashions a mechanism that, in homage to the LHC, makes sub-atomic activities visible. Each time a cosmic particle hits his handmade detector, a signal is sent to a gigantic chandelier-like structure. This, in response, pumps a clear, viscous liquid through countless narrow capillary tubes which trail across the floor of the gallery and up into swooping tubes of clear Perspex. Because the refractive index of the capillaries matches the refractive index of the Perspex, the capillaries vanish inside the tubes, leaving beads of liquid apparently suspended in mid-air, rather as one might imagine particles suspended in the magnetic ring of CERN’s collider.

Visitors to CERN run the risk of being inundated by information, and some artists here have saved themselves from drowning by clutching at esoteric straws. Works like Lea Porsager’s Cosmic Strike (a concoction of 3D-animated strings and a neutrino horn from the LHC stores) and Haroon Mirza and Jack Jelfs’s one1one — a bopping 100bpm disco floor drawing on incantation, ritual, and the relationship between written and spoken word — are not the betrayals of hard science they might at first seem. Physics at this extreme tips into metaphysics very easily, witness the ongoing arguments over whether elegant but untestable string theories count as science at all.

Diann Bauer’s Scalar Oscillation, a collaboration with the sound artist Seth Ayyaz, tackles the science head-on. How are we to encapsulate, in painting or poetry or any human medium, the scalar richness of the world, which is so much bigger than we are and so much more intricate than we can possibly perceive? A single sound shrinks to a click, then expands to reveal the oceanic reverberations hidden at its heart. Clean-edged, constructivist visuals try, and fail, to reduce the world to a single sign. Suzanne Treister takes an even more literal approach with The Holographic Universe Theory of Art History, which treats images like particles in an accelerator, projecting over 25,000 pictures from art history (from cave paintings to contemporary art) at 25 frames per second in a looped sequence.

James Bridle’s State of Sin simply offers the scientists of CERN something they can use: random numbers. A family of goofy tripods gathers numbers from the gallery environment: the temperature of the air, the airflow generated by a desk fan, from sounds in the gallery and from fluctuations in the light spilling from a neon tube. Bridle’s point being, CERN’s complex computations require a constant supply of random numbers, and such true randomness cannot be computed, but must be fetched from the messiness of the world.

How many visitors will “get” Bridle’s work? How many, resting their chins on the frame of Juan Cortes’s ingenious clockwork galaxy Supralunar, will realise that the sounds shivering through their jawbones are drawn in real time from the movements of optic fibres inside the clockwork, and that they echo with surprising accuracy the patterns in astronomical data from which scientists have inferred the existence of dark matter? The answer to such boorish questions has traditionally been, “You get out of art what you bring to it, so it doesn’t matter.”

But with this sort of art, I think it does matter. Art that derives from other cultural production must always contend with a creeping sense of its own bankruptcy. Pop art succeeded in making art out of pre-existing media because it flaunted that bankruptcy, chose mass media, and was prepared to laugh at itself.

The art of Broken Symmetries, on the other hand, feeds off highly abstruse media — off bubble-chamber drawings and statistical analyses, all of them generated in pursuit of one fixed and timeless standard cosmological model. This art can’t but struggle to find a purchase in a world full of (indeed, glutted with) other, more familiar, more lively aesthetic vocabularies.

My uneasy feeling is that the artists have done rather too good a job of pointing up the existential implausibility of the whole enterprise. I was reminded of John Gardner’s short, savage novel Grendel, which tells the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view.

“They only think they think,” grumbles Grendel, who has the measure of both our intellect and our vanity. “No total vision, total system, merely schemes with a vague family resemblance, no more identity than bridges and, say, spider-webs. But they rush across chasms on spider-webs, and sometimes they make it, and that, they think, settles that!”

 

When science becomes performance art

Watching David Morton’s play The Wider Earth at London’s Natural History Museum for the Financial Times, 19 October 2018

Science discovered show business long before a 22-year-old Charles Darwin set off on a round-the-world mapping expedition aboard HMS Beagle. The Royal Institution had been staging public lectures for more than a decade before he was born, and was notorious for its hazardous stagecraft. Audiences regularly contended with toxic fumes, safety lamps plunged into explosive gases, powerful electromagnets dangled above their heads, and model volcanoes altogether more pyrotechnic than anything you’ll find at a school science fair.

Audiences for The Wider Earth, David Morton’s puppet-populated play about Darwin’s voyage, are treated more kindly in the brand-new 350[CHK]-seat Jerwood theatre at the Natural History Museum in London. The worst you can say about this show is that it’s a bit loud.

The Wider Earth’s whirling set (ship. mountain, house on a hill, cliff, jungle…) is, like the script, the direction, the puppets and the production, a creation of David Morton and his Dead Puppets Society. A superior animated map-cum-sketchbook, provides backdrops at flicker-book speed for an annoyingly televisual script (Oh, for a decently written monologue!) which is rather more clever than it seems. Once I was done wincing at all its many eillisions and simplifications, the absence of fellow evolutionary pioneer Alfred Russel Wallace and all the rest of it, it dawned on me that this jumped-up family-friendly puppet show (the iguana deserved an ovation) succeeded where many longer and more scholarly treatments fail. It put the then-controversial geology of Charles Lyell [SP?] front and centre of its story, arguing that Darwin’s theorising was not merely inspired by Lyell’s work, but was a conscious and deliberate exploration of its implications. Together, Lyell and Darwin provided the evidential backbone for our materialist view of the universe, and Morton’s thunking, didactic narrative nevertheless turns this talk into the sort of staggeringly radical nonsense it must have seemed in Darwin’s day.

The Wider Earth sold out Sydney Opera House before arriving at London’s Natural History Museum for its European premiere. Considered purely as theatre, it’s surprising it did so well. As a hybrid science entertainment, however, it’s virtually faultless, a welcome innovation from a museum that, lumbered as it is with the task of keeping school-kids occupied during wet half-term holidays, decided (from around the time of 2016’s exhibition Colour and Vision, if memory serves) to communicate unashamedly through spectacle, beauty and wonder.

The workhorse museums of Albertopolis — the V&A, the Science Museum and the rest — have to work harder than most to realise new aesthetic and artistic opportunities. In a city that can sustain shows like the V&A’s recent Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, which boasted a working replica of a baroque theatre, it’s easy to forget how hard it is for our most venerable institutions to innovate. Nothing kills the spirit of experiment quicker than high visitor numbers, and the legalities and expenses around venerable bricks and mortar have a deadening effect of their own.

If younger institutions find it easier to combine exhibitions with events of all kinds, including dramatic performance, it’s usually because they inhabit newer buildings. Also, the prevailing culture isn’t expecting them to act as agents in some great global stocktaking exercise. The Science Gallery network, which opened a new gallery in London this September, places more emphasis on audience involvement than on the acquisition and preservation of objects. None of its galleries, existing or under construction, have plans to acquire a permanent collection. Neither has The Shed, a huge multi-arts venue due to open in New York next year.

The great storehouses of our culture are now, for good and for ill, in the cloud. Good: a museum can print an archival-grade sculpture or painting to inform an exhibition. Bad: no-one can remember the password.Good: a VR entertainment called Hold the World, in which a more than passable David Attenborough avatar leads you round the laboratories of the Natural History Museum. Bad: you have to be a Sky subscriber to enjoy the trip.

Meanwhile the museum becomes a place of interpretation, more than of preservation, and to do this well, new forms of address are always welcome, particularly among institutions on limited budgets. The Darwin Museum’s lovely but tiny show Darwin: Man of Science is immeasurably expanded by tours-in-character, actorly recitations of famous mysteries, and an authentic magic lantern show. The other day, in the even more crammed environs of University College London’s Grant Museum of Zoology, Tom Bailey’s solo show Zugunruhe made politics of ornithology, combining Eritrean, Egyptian, Iranian and Sudanese songs shared by residents of the Calais “Jungle” with calls from globally migrating birds.

Introducing performance to the museum space goes back at least as far as Kenneth Clark’s stint as director of the National Gallery in the 30s and 40s. But its contemporary currency is something new, and it’s encouraging the development of new kinds of curation. Never mind the museological mischiefs of artists like Mark Dion and Salvatore Arancio (whose show Surreal Science is currently running at London’s Whitechapel Gallery). Young curator-artists are placing performances, debates, workshops and even discos at the heart of the museum and gallery experience. Again, money is part of the story, since this kind of programming is best left to a self-renewing supply of guest curators. In the last couple of years Shrinking Space, a science-event production company consisting of just two people, Andy Franzkowiak and Mary Jane Edwards, has created a son-et-lumiere for Kew Gardens Wakefield, arranged an exhibition about blood for Science Gallery London, strung a sonic solar system across the Royal Albert Hall and staged various world-ending events (or at least, the war-rooms for same) in festivals up and down the country.
Just as we once asked, “Is it art?” we may very well want to ask, is this sort of thing museology? Only posterity can give us an answer. What is apparent is that very many creative people are bringing serious thought to bear on what museums can do for a technological era that has made knowledge simultaneously accessible, and boring.

Pierre Huyghe: Digital canvases and mind-reading machines

Visiting UUmwelt, Pierre Huyghe’s show at London’s Serpentine Gallery, for the Financial Times, 4 October 2018

On paper, Pierre Huyghe’s new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London is a rather Spartan effort. Gone are the fictional characters, the films, the drawings; the collaborative manga flim-flam of No Ghost Just a Shell; the nested, we’re not-in-Kansas-any-more fictions, meta-fictions and crypto-documentaries of Streamside Day Follies. In place of Huyghe’s usual stage blarney come five large LED screens. Each displays a picture that, as we watch, shivers through countless mutations, teetering between snapshot clarity and monumental abstraction. One display is meaty; another, vaguely nautical. A third occupies a discomforting interzone between elephant and milk bottle.

Huyghe has not abandoned all his old habits. There are smells (suggesting animal and machine worlds), sounds (derived from brain-scan data, but which sound oddly domestic: was that not a knife-drawer being tidied?) and a great many flies. Their random movements cause the five monumental screens to pause and stutter, and this is a canny move, because without that  arbitrary grammar, Huyghe’s barrage of visual transformations would overwhelm us, rather than excite us. There is, in short, more going on here than meets the eye. But that, of course, is true of everywhere: the show’s title nods to the notion of “Umwelt” coined by the zoologist Jacob von Uexküll in 1909, when he proposed that the significant world of an animal was the sum of  things to which it responds, the rest going by virtually unnoticed. Huyghe’s speculations about machine intelligence are bringing this story up to date.

That UUmwelt turns out to be a show of great beauty as well; that the gallery-goer emerges from this most abstruse of high-tech shows with a re-invigorated appetite for the arch-traditional business of putting paint on canvas: that the gallery-goer does all the work, yet leaves feeling exhilarated, not exploited — all this is going to require some explanation.

To begin at the beginning, then: Yukiyasu Kamitani , who works at Kyoto University in Japan, made headlines in 2012 when he fed the data from fMRI brain scans of sleeping subjects into neural networks. These computer systems eventually succeeded in capturing shadowy images of his volunteers’ dreams. Since then his lab has been teaching computers to see inside people’s heads. It’s not there yet, but there are interesting blossoms to be plucked along the way.

UUmwelt is one of these blossoms. A recursive neural net has been shown about a million pictures, alongside accompanying fMRI data gathered from a human observer. Next, the neural net has been handed some raw fMRI data, and told to recreate the picture the volunteer was looking at.

Huyghe has turned the ensuing, abstruse struggles of the Kamitani Lab’s unthinking neural net into an exhibition quite as dramatic as anything he has ever made. Only, this time, the theatrics are taking place almost entirely in our own heads. What are we looking at here? A bottle. No, an elephant, no, a Francis Bacon screaming pig, goose, skyscraper, mixer tap, steam train mole dog bat’s wing…

The closer we look, the more engaged we become, the less we are able to describe what we are seeing. (This is literally true, in fact, since visual recognition works just that little bit faster than linguistic processing.) So, as we watch these digital canvases, we are drawn into dreamlike, timeless lucidity: a state of concentration without conscious effort that sports psychologists like to call “flow”. (How the Serpentine will ever clear the gallery at the end of the day I have no idea: I for one was transfixed.)

UUmwelt, far from being a show about how machines will make artists redundant, turns out to be a machine for teaching the rest of us how to read and truly appreciate the things artists make. It exercises and strengthens that bit of us that looks beyond the normative content of images and tries to make sense of them through the study of volume, colour, light, line, and texture. Students of Mondrian, Duffy and Bacon, in particular, will lap up this show.

Remember those science-fictional devices and medicines that provide hits of concentrated education? Quantum physics in one injection! Civics in a pill! I think Huyghe may have come closer than anyone to making this silly dream a solid and compelling reality. His machines are teaching us how to read pictures, and they’re doing a good job of it, too.

Spellbound at the Ashmolean: Sensible magic

Visiting Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft at the Ashmolean for the Financial Times, 3 September 2018

Some wag has propped a ladder in front of the entrance to the Ashmolean Museum’s new autumn show Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft.

Visitors are more than likely to walk around that ladder, rather than under it. This demonstrates no mere quirk of psychology — no half-way embarrassing propensity to superstition. It reveals something fundamental about us: that we rely on symbols, and often these symbols carry more weight than our raw perceptions.

Perhaps someone told you, most likely in a quite unserious way, that it’s unlucky to walk under a ladder. Whether or not you ever took it seriously, this notion has enriched your idea of what a ladder is. Literally: it helps you recognise ladders. That’s why walking around the ladder seems natural, while walking under it requires a small conscious effort.

The world is big and it doesn’t come pre-labelled. We need to enchant the world in order to manoeuvre through it. For every daft superstition we pick up along the way, we acquire a hundred, a thousand meanings that do make sense, and without which we simply could not function.

To explain magical thinking from first principles is hard. To do so with exhibits is a real challenge. Spellbound proceeds by discrete steps, and the first of its three rooms seems to be introducing us, not to magic at all, or ritual, or witchcraft, but to cosmology.

John Dee’s purple crystal ball is here; the astrologer and antiquary claimed that the angel Uriel gave it to him in 1582. Dee’s reputation as one of Europe’s most gifted mathematicians was not in the least dented by his claim. The scientific spirit was abroad by then, but no one had any very clear idea which bits of the world would succumb best to scientific analysis.

Not far away is a French brass prognosticator used to calculate bloodletting times. It’s a handsome, precision-made scientific instrument, owing its existence to laws, then common throughout Europe, requiring physicians to calculate the position of the moon before conducting an operation.

The manuscripts and books here are less about what we would now call science, and are actually much more to do with love. For the Medieval mind, love is a cosmological principle: all parts of the universe, according to this alchemical vision, are striving towards union and self-fulfilment. Young things strive towards adulthood. Base metal strives to become tarnishless gold. Union generates at least the promise of perfection. Even the elements marry.

In the second room, we confront the obverse of this universal yearning: namely, unbridled anxiety. Becoming the best you can be does, after all, imply defending yourself against the worst.

A shoe hidden up a chimney breast; a mummified cat in the attic, a child’s cap in a wall cavity: the trouble with these objects is their simplicity. They can be touching. But many are ordinary to the point of tawdriness, and you can’t help but wonder whether we’re being invited to overinterpret these scraps of cloth and leather, discovered in walls and cellars and foundations. The point isn’t lost on the curators; a “witch’s ladder” — a long string tied with feathers — most likely began life quite innocently, we are told, as a device to scare off deer. Scholars of witchcraft are wise to, and no doubt coolly amused by, the salacious imaginations of amateur collectors.

Curated by artist Marina Wallace and Sophie Page, a medieval scholar from University College London, Spellbound treats with high seriousness a subject that’s often trivialised. Original artworks have been commissioned. (My favourite is Katharine Dowson’s Concealed Shield — a huge glass heart in a walk-in hearth-space, pierced with ruby-red lasers.) The exhibition seeks to distil much of a major three-year collaborative academic research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, into the interior lives of ordinary people between 1300 and 1900. The venue is, to say the least, appropriate. Dr Xa Sturgis, the Ashmolean’s director, was once a magician (“The Great Xa”, no less). The museum’s founder, Elias Ashmole, was a university astrologer whose clients included Charles II.

High seriousness can, of course, get awfully dull, and it says much for their nerve that Wallace and Page have saved so much of the connective tissue in their argument for the final room. The historian Malcolm Gaskill has had a hand in the arrangements here, and has pulled off something remarkable: a series of cases that comprehensively pricks our assumptions, humanising not only those accused of witchcraft, but also their accusers.

Most suspected witches, it transpires, were not isolated figures hounded by their hysterical communities. They were their accusers’ elderly relatives in the main. They were rarely ever prosecuted, since trials were discouraged and expensive to boot; and if they were ever brought to trial, it was to answer charges that (setting aside some notorious outliers) had far more to do with personal relationships and intense emotions than hysterical superstition. Even if you were found guilty, you had an evens chance of being let off.

My favourite object here is a 17th-century “witch balance” in which people accused of sorcery were weighed against a bound copy of the scriptures. If you weighed more than a couple of hardbacks, you were deemed innocent. This fearsome-looking device was, in truth, a ritual exoneration machine.

With its final spaces focused on two witchcraft trials from the English fens in the 1640s, Spellbound turns out to be, quite unexpectedly, a show about grief, and how it festers. When we are hurt, we find it easy to blame others. Now picture the intensity of hurt that holds sway in small communities absent antibiotics, and clean water, and refrigeration, and any real clue about the causes of disease.

Spellbound is about being poor and discontented so that, in the words of one clergyman in 1587, “she might seek vengeance when refused alms, whereafter he doth think himself unhappy that he was so foolish to displease her”.

It’s about watching your children die, one after another, and struggling to understand why. It’s about how, far from being brutalised, ordinary people harnessed every scrap of cosmological meaning — every hope, fear, rumour, bit of lore and priestly urging — in an effort to handle misfortune.

Spellbound is an unsettling show, and not in the ways you expect. You may hope to be titillated with all its talk of Satan and his little devils. What you don’t expect is that Spellbound will make you want to be a kinder person.