Archive | August, 2013

TOBIAS REVELL confronts bitter reality

29 Aug

At Thursday’s Improving Reality conference, Revell – an artist, designer, and an associate at Superflux – explored the future of infrastructure. Armed with new materials and techniques, we may be able to grow our way out of our current problems. The thing is, do we dare?


Humans can build worlds. So far as we know, we are unique amongst our fellow animals in that simulative ability; to animate a fiction in our mind and place within it the matrix of anxieties, fears, hopes and aspirations that we each have. We take a god’s-eye-view of this imaginary space and annotate the lives of the people and artefacts we have put in it.

Children are the best, most promiscuous and most fastidious world-builders. They construct startlingly complex micro-universes to play out fictional interactions and stories that, inadvertently, grow in them an empathy with the world. Play and fantasy become the weapons children use to fight the fog of solipsism they are born with from distorting and blurring reality.

I think it’s time we re-armed ourselves. Between the catastrophe of the past we’ve wrought and the so obvious and raw, almost-unspeakable terror of the centuries to come, we’re rediscovering that we are still children, humbled and gazing in wonder at the scale of our futures.

And now the fog is starting to come into focus: that obfuscating haze of progress and technology, of gadgets and celebrity that so seamlessly blurs the background and hides the dizzying depths of reality. The world-builders we left in charge of our future figured that we didn’t need to know the details.

So now we live on someone else’s world: the world of the Stacks, the NSA, the Troika, the Smart City, the Cloud, Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Scoop.

Slowly our complicity in this construction is becoming clear. We realise that the only way to get what we wanted out of our brave new capitalist paradise was to give our consent to living in a fiction – a fiction thinly-layered on a world of incredible depth and complexity that we let the fog creep into.

Humans can build worlds and I think it’s time we re-armed ourselves. At some point we decided that this was a childish thing, or that no-one has the right to build worlds, or that it meant nothing. And while we were staring at the fog, the weapon we thought a toy was used against us.


We’re watching ELYSIUM by Neill Blomkamp

25 Aug

Maybe Hollywood’s better off getting the future wrong, says Sumit Paul-Choudhury


Spoilers below.

Why can’t sci-fi films get to grips with what the future might actually be like?

So asks Joe Queenan in The Guardian“More than a century into the future, the characters talk like people from the early 21st century, dress like people from the early 21st century, sport tattoos like people from the early 21st century, and wear cobalt trouser suits like people from … 1987,” he writes of Elysium, the long-awaited second film from District 9 creator Neill Blomkamp“And, oh yes, in 2154, unemployed thugs will still be walking around in vests. I don’t get it. I just don’t. Does anyone seriously believe that, 141 years from now, people will still try to scare anyone by wearing tattoos?” 

There is, of course, a ready line of argument against such criticisms, namely that science fiction movies – at least “intelligent” ones such as Elysium – are intended to allegorise the present, not illustrate the future. And that allegory is only resonant with a mass audience when dressed up in familiar signifiers: thug tattoos for scofflaws, sharp suits for one-percenters. Futuristic, not futurological.

So let’s set aside Elysium‘s alleged failure to portray a plausible vision of the future – at least for the moment. Matt Damon’s Max, an ex-jailbird trying to keep his nose clean in the slums of Los Angeles, has just days to live after an accident at the factory where (irony alert!) he assembles the droids that now keep the Earth’s downtrodden population in line. An exoskeletal graft transforms him into a “favela ninja” determined to infiltrate Elysium, an orbiting space station lined with McMansions where the champagne flows freely – and more pertinently for Max, so does the medical care.


So far, so good. Plenty of allegorical plates are set spinning in the first act: homeland security, boat people, total surveillance, universal healthcare. Alas, they all come crashing down as the film dissolves into little more than a long – not to say interminable – chase sequence.

When Max does eventually reach Elysium, his time is spent battling his way through a variety of vacant medical and industrial facilities: we get a well-worn physical clash, rather than an intriguing culture clash, with Elysium’s occupants. Most disappointingly, his nemesis ultimately turns out not to be Jodie Foster’s icy security director Delacourt, who is as implacably determined to protect Elysium as Max is to penetrate it; but the bestial rōnin Kruger, played with scenery-chewing gusto by Sharlto Copley.

The potential for a thoughtful, mutivalent encounter between between heaven and earth evaporates, a cyborg slugfest taking its place. And the ending, in which Elysium’s bleeding-edge healthcare system is transformed at the click of a button into SpaceObamaCare, without so much as a nod to resource or population constraints, rings hollow. (Parallel criticisms could also be made of District 9; but what’s excusable and even exhilarating in a scrappy underdog debut is less enticing in a megabucks sophomore effort.)

So Elysium not only fails as prediction but also, in large part, as allegory, for all that it may succeed as a box-office friendly summer blockbuster. But perversely, its failure of futurology – or more accurately, its indifference to it – is one of its strengths. Queenan may decry its contemporary and palaeofuturistic motifs, but they give it visual and symbolic heft: while the film’s narrative doesn’t satisfactorily explore the intersection of its utopian and dystopian futures, its design does – and it does so precisely through carefully cultivated atemporality. 

Elysium’s spoked Stanford torus is taken directly from Seventies concept illustrations of space habitats, its groomed lawns strolled by manicured inhabitants against a horizon that rises to become the sky. But the imagery is détourned neatly by the knowledge that its inhabitants are the TIME 100, not NASA’s envisaged 10,000 homesteaders. And there’s the further contrast with the collapsonomic milieu of Children of Men down below.

Then there’s its juxtaposition of Syd Mead-sleek personal shuttles with Chris Foss-style gunships and tramp steamers. Max’s painfully installed cyborg tech harks back to cyberpunky offerings like Richard Stanley’s Hardware; his promised salvation, on the other hand, lies within the Elysians’ pristine and magical medipods.


Elysium offers a collage of futures, then: none of them individually credible, but collectively redolent of possibiity. Like Rian Johnson’s Looper, it mixes and matches to make its point; fans of the future can amuse themselves filling in the interstices and charting out the intersections. And like the Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion, which met with a similarly lukewarm critical response earlier this year, its context is more interesting than its content. 

Maybe that’s where we are with the new wave of “intelligent” science fiction blockbusters: what smarts they have take the form not of prediction, nor of allegory, but of palimpsest: overwriting yesterday’s futures with today’s preoccupations. It’s hard to imagine a film that set out to be purely predictive being anything other than preachy or pedantic; drawing on our collective imaginings, in visual codes we can readily grasp, creates visions that are all the more powerful for their imperfection. Megabucks design fiction: perhaps that’s all science fiction films can ever aspire to be, after all. 

Why don’t sci-films get to grips with what the future might really be like? Perhaps because it’s more interesting to get it wrong.

We’re IMPROVING REALITY with Honor Harger

18 Aug

On September 5, Reality gets Improved in a day-long conference organised by Lighthouse, an arts agency in South East England that supports, commissions and showcases new work by artists and filmmakers.

Now in its third year, the conference explores how artists and designers are shifting our perceptions of the world. Keller Easterling, artist and synthetic biologist Daisy Ginsberg, and futurist Justin Pickard head the bill.

Arc is Improving Reality’s media partner and will be covering the event in real-time. The day’s already sold out, BUT we have five tickets to give away as prizes. Just email with a tweet-length (140-character) response to the following question:

“Which bit of your day-to-day reality needs improving today, and what imaginary machine would accomplish this?”

Tickets will go to the five best replies we’ve received by the time we get into work on Tuesday 27 August.

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be running guest blogposts from some of the speakers. But to kick things off, Arc’s editor Simon Ings asked Lighthouse’s director Honor Harger, the New Zealand-born curator and artist, why she wanders about with her head in the Cloud.


Photo: Ivo Näpflin / liftconferencephotos

ARC     Before we talk about the conference, or Lighthouse, I want to know how you got started.

HH     I guess my interest in ephemeral networks and the data space of the air comes from a lifelong interest in radio. My first job was working in a radio station, Radio One in Dunedin in New Zealand. One of its strengths was programming experimental sound and experimental music. So this interconnection between sound art and radio has been there for me from the beginning, along with the realisation, which you learn when you start out, that radio is an entirely natural phenomenon: the radio waves that we harness here on earth to use for communication are effectively caused by the activity of the sun, Radio is part of physics, part of science, part of the natural world. Yet it’s also inherently connected to the development of modern human civilisation. It’s very hard to imagine our world now without radio technologies. They underpin everything from communication to navigation; we literally wouldn’t have the civilisation that we understand today without them. And everything that we speak about now when we talk about data infrastructures and the Cloud – all of these types of metaphors and technologies – they all began in the nineteenth century with development of telegraphy.

ARC     The conference has a very specific angle on this, though. It’s about how media infrastructures create our reality. How did that come about?

HH     We conceived Improving Reality for the very first Brighton Digital Festival that Lighthouse was involved in, back in 2011. It was intended as a companion event to dConstruct, which is one of the country’s key events for discussing the future of digital design in the UK. It regularly brings to Brighton around a thousand people from around the world. What we wanted from our event was to show how artists are part of this conversation, and how they can act as catalysts and imagineers, helping us think about how science and technology affect our experience of reality.

The artistic practice of one of the keynote speakers that year, an artist called Julian Oliver, was pivotal. For some time he’d been dealing with augmented reality and the ethics of augmented reality, and he’d developed a project which quite playfully and quite critically claimed that, rather than augmenting reality, we should be improving upon reality. His project, The Artvertiser, used a headset to edit out the advertising from public spaces. Go into Time Square or Piccadilly and you’re confronted by the kinds of billboards used by Coke and Nike. With the headset on, these big advertisements vanish, replaced by art. It wasn’t just an idea. It was a fully operational piece of kit. And through that project he developed this discourse around how we can affect and improve our environments by hacking reality.

ARC     Of course, you could call that sort of “improvement” simply the secession of the privileged. Those with the headsets get the improving pictures, while the rest of us…

HH     Well, that’s the thing. As soon as you start bandying around terms like improvement you’re immediately in political, ethical, social territory. And we’re very deliberately confronting those issues. We certainly don’t want to suggest that an artist’s use of technology can, if you like, uncritically lead to improvements. We’re really trying to dig into people’s perceptions about what technology does in their daily lives and whether it does create improvements, or whether it creates difficulties or obstacles. So we’re very active in surveying that kind of political territory and the conference, as it’s developed over three years that we’ve run it, has deliberately brought in some radical political thinking as well as the more traditional sort of technology and art presentations. And that’s going to be a major thread running through this year.

ARC     So what’s the theme of this year’s conference?

HH     We’ll be looking at political, social and technological infrastructures: the dark matter that underlies our contemporary life. We’re interested in the way that artists, designers and architects are helping make these infrastructures more visible. After all, if we can’t see these structures, then it’s very difficult for us to be able to comprehend them, let alone critique them.

I’m also interested in how artists, designers and writers imagine the future of infrastructure. There’s a kind of a parallel discipline to design fiction emerging, which we can call speculative design. Objects are being made for the specific purpose of creating conversations. Now, can we apply that same type of thinking and come up with something called infrastructure fiction? I want to see if dreaming up fictional infrastructures inspires conversations around what infrastructures should be, who they should be for and how should they be used. What are the political and social issues that attend these massive and invisible systems?

ARC     What inspired this approach?

HH     A couple of things. First, you’ve got the work of the filmmaker and designer Timo Arnall, which we’re showing at Lighthouse at the same time as the conference. Timo’s work is all about making invisible systems visible. GPS, radio frequency ID: these things that pervade our everyday lives but we can’t see them. Timo creates films and objects that make those technological infrastructures visible. And, secondly, one of the keynotes this year is an architect and urbanist called Keller Easterling, who’s a professor of architecture at Yale in New York and has written extensively about both physical architectural infrastructures but also political and social infrastructures and how the two relate. She’s got a book coiming out called Extrastatecraft which looks at the interconnection between physical space and the network. So my hope is that, between these two perspectives – one from design and visibility, the other from politics and sociology, will act as the poles for our conversations this year.