Monday, June 29, 2009


(Updated, with poems.)

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys looking at the night sky, you’ll know how thrilling it is to spot the stars known to my heritage as the Pleiades, or seven sisters, a cluster of tiny sparkling stars hanging together in an otherwise dark portion of the night sky, quite visible low on the horizon during our summer holidays, if I was allowed to stay up long enough (and those blacker than black night skies in August, away from the lights of the city, were a magical thing unto themselves).

This is the cluster known to Māori as Matariki, and I’ve been aware of its significance and the month-long festivities attached to it for a few years, but it wasn’t until last winter, when I attended with my oldest child one of the star labs organised by Rangimoana Taylor at our national museum, Te Papa, that I grasped something approaching the full, living sense of the occasion.

I like the fact that it was through Joseph’s passion for the subject, his very natural childlike thirst for mythology, that I came to this discovery. And we sat there equally and joyfully awed as Mr Taylor and one of his colleagues explained the cultural history of these celestial events, the heavenly correspondences between the constellations above and the human labours below. Some time after the arrival of winter had been announced by the star that bears its name - Takurua, or Sirius - the first appearance of Tau-toru (‘the three’) would signal to fowlers that the time had come to set their snares. One of these snares, the waka kererū, even looked like that group of stars, the three in a line - known to my European eyes as Orion’s belt - with Puanga, or Rigel, above, standing for the berry of the miro tree that makes the kererū drunk and such easy prey.

(As our host explained, you’d get the birds used to the berry juice in the vessel for a few days, and when enough of them showed up, you added the strings that would serve as nooses.)

Later the cluster that I grew up calling the Hyades, and that at these latitudes looks like the blade of a matamata-kāheru, or pointed spade, indicated that it was time to tend to your plants, again projecting in the night sky the very tool that was needed by day down below.

By contrast the final piece of the picture, the pre-dawn appearance of Matariki in the North-Eastern sky, didn't remind people of essential work that had to be done, except perhaps retrospectively, for by this time the meat had better be cured and sealed in its gourds, the pātakas had better be full, or else you’d starve. But if the enduring symbolic import of Matariki is any indication, the period of celebrations and instruction that it ushered in fulfilled no less vital a role for the community.

In my culture we're likely to have had something similar, and it too might well have coincided with the appearance of the Pleiades in our skies, but it's by now an unrecoverable past, buried under layers of other rites that have acted as screen memories. The mid-winter festival co-opted first by the Romans, then by the Christians and finally by Coca-Cola, has long since ceased to convey the simultaneous sense of remembrance, continuation and renewal that it must have had in times past. We have been, besides, and for quite some time, a far less cohesive and more diverse and complex culture; it was literacy that relieved us from having to transmit knowledge in mythical or poetic form, while commerce, technology and the division of labour made the catching, growing and storing of food a far less communal experience.

The same transformations naturally have occurred in Aotearoa, and the Matariki revival doesn't gloss over nor conceal the observable fact that some of the connections have been severed and many of the daily and seasonal practices of sustenance largely abandoned, if only by a matter of a handful of generations. Māori people live in the same society and in the same economy as everybody else, and these leave little space for Mennonite-like attempts to preserve and crystallise the past, if you even wanted to go there. But I would argue that Matariki is not in fact a traditionalist, conservative, or even a predominantly past-oriented celebration, and it is most emphatically not culturally exclusive. It seeks to recognise the knowledge base accumulated by Māori before the arrival of the Europeans, yes, and to acknowledge and perpetuate its own history, and the many forms and regional variations in which it has been practised over time. But even as it affirms the value and relevance of the indigenous culture, it strives to integrate those of the newcomers, principally by means of the sharing of food, stories and waiatas. As Taylor explained, and I paraphrase from memory, 'people come to my house and they bring their own food and it becomes our food, and they share with me their stories, be they from Greece or China or India, and they become our stories, because they are here'. This sense of place and how it gets permeated by the culture of its inhabitants is to my mind the essence of Matariki, and what makes it uniquely inclusive and open to reinvention.

Keri got in touch during the last week to share what Matariki means for her whānau, and I think it speaks precisely to those characteristics:

We are a bastardised kind of tribe (I'm talking personal, whanau rather than iwi here) so we grab all reasons to festivate - thus, Hogmanay, AND Lunar New Year, AND Matariki-

different food for each, but commonalities-

*always fire (bonfires, fireworks, the small fires with food on top you offer to wan star groups)
*always food - the delicacies of the season (hey! Note our cunning! We get different sets of deliciosity!)
*always family & friends - and chance people, who happen by
*always rememberance of the dead (and lights, as well as fire for that)
*always singing, however drunken ("Shall auld acquaintance be forgot") or hymnlike ('Pipiri te whetu/te marama i te raki") or just plain lusty ("And I upped and I showed 'er the way arr harrr!")

This is all stuff one could work with, no? And in fact every year it seems that a little more noise is made to adopt Matariki as a national holiday, either to replace Queen's Birthday or add a new festivity, a suggestion that most recently our beloved Prime Minister shrugged off, jesting that if it's a day off in winter that we're after, we might as well mark his own birthday, in early August. (Not that he's an idiot or anything.) I think it's significant however that the Matariki revival of the last decade has been spearheaded by the Māori Language Commission, for it is a logical next step: using te reo, the language, to tell stories.

Here's one. According to one reading of the Māori firmament, the appearance of Matariki completes a picture spanning a large portion of the night sky: Te Ra o Tainui, 'the sail of Tainui', a vessel in which Orion is the keel, Matariki the bow, the Hyades the sail proper, the Southern Cross the anchor, and from which is cast - but aren't we mixing stories at this point? - Te Matau a Maui, the fish hook, known elsewhere as the tail of Scorpius, with which Maui caught the North Island of New Zealand, and that in certain times of the year looks like it's doing that very thing, pulling the land out of the sea.

There is a lot of poetry in that image, but also a store of knowledge of how to navigate by the stars, the same stars that, woven into different narratives, were used to mark the passage of time and the changing of the seasons: factual, empirical knowledge that sustained and defined a people, wrapped into complex mythologies that facilitated its cultural transmission. It is difficult to imagine a time in history when the ability to make sense of and think narratively about our world would have been more relevant than it is now. Matariki can be our key to just that.


By way of update. Regular readers who venture into the comments section will know that this blog is much enriched by, if not in fact a thin excuse for, the weekly contributions of a poet in residence, Harvest Bird. I shall update soon the Compendium of her works to date, but this week she was joined by Keri and both poems really need to be included in the post - they are beautiful and moving and of course capture the spirit of the occasion much better than I could.

So then, from Harvest Bird

At Seven Sisters I changed
(I think) to Edmonton Green.
To the north of North London.

There was a low-rise mall, with
market traders. You could walk
(I think) to Enfield Lock.

It wasn't a long visit, but I forced
some decisions.

They may not have been the best,
but they were mine.

From Keri h

A long time ago, before I was adolescent, I met an old lady who fed the stars.
I knew of her - she was lame with arthitis; her two sons had died
at El Alamein
and her daughter had
'gone up north for a while'
and never come back-
she was never Taua- just Mrs' Looney'
and while she knew us beach-wild mongrels
she only liked one of my younger sisters
-who was winsome and blond (and scared)

when I came out that frosty night
-I saw a tiny spark fire up on Raumoa and it
might be just my shady shaky eyes again-
and I hated that idea, so-
and there she was, old Mrs Who
wobbling around her stick and trying
to get the fire to really go

I got cracklekelp, and sticks
and huffed, and all the while
she dirged in the background-
o! run the soundtrack of that past
reciting of truly ancient words
-again? Please-

and eventually
my breath & the sea sufficed
to cook and send
whatever she had put in that accurate kete, sizzled and fried and went to smoke to feed those stars
who otherwise would have died-

and as she staggered back down that strange historic hill she howled-

"Only you! No-one really else!

She would not take my hand.
She would not hold my shoulder.


Thanking Keri also for her contribution to the post proper, here are some links for some of the best online resources for Matariki that I came across:

Firstly, the Starlabs at Te Papa, naturally. You'll find the programme here.

Two videos on Matariki (the second and third on the list), one featuring Rangimoana Taylor

The beautiful Matariki page on the Korero Māori

The Matariki Festival page for 2009, including information on how to spot it.

The Matariki page on the Māori Language Commission website

Māori Astronomy page curated by the Phoenix Astronomical Society

The Matariki page at Te Ara

Whai Ngata's Matariki collection at NZ on Screen (hat-tip to Kowhai, from her post on Matariki at Wellingtonista). I'd go straight to the excerpts from Ngati.

ū and Māori

star and constellation names

(Also, to those who might have noticed the lack of macrons - they didn't work on one of my browsers so it seemed risky to adopt them. Does anybody have any advice about compatibility? Update this was solved by Alan - thank you Alan! - unless you find that they don't work on your browser, in which case please let me know.)

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Supermarket of Babel

The glut-of-information idea is simply a primitive, misleading, cheap shot of neo-Luddites. There can never be enough information. We ignore so many important things. And on a planet largely illiterate, and ignorant (including widespread ignorance in a large segment of the American people – for instance, who knows what DNA does?), to speak of information glut is simply an insult to intelligence.
Manuel Castells (1)

I said a while ago that I was going to take issue with this pronouncement by the most estimable Professor Castells, and I’m an eventual keeper of promises, not to mention (apparently) a primitive, misleading, cheap-shooting neo-Luddite. So - and this is really the entirety of my argument - here goes: We don’t need more information; we need to be better informed.

I could stop right there, and not write a long, meandering post that contributes to the problem, but that would be far too coherent a position to take. So allow me to expand. Beginning, naturally, with the words that we use. Those who argue that there might be an excess of information in our culture(s) speak generally of either a glut or an overload, two metaphors that converge on the notion that the situation is inimical to the health of our collective mind-body. Neither metaphor actually goes as far as questioning that information in itself is a good, something that in the proper quantities can sustain us, but rather that, just as the fourth consecutive helping of roast chicken no longer constitutes nourishment, so too perhaps the millionth web page you’ve visited this month no longer constitutes a cognitively enriching experience.

I find the food imagery richer than the sensory one, and it is further complicated by the fact that information is so inextricably linked with how appetites are marketed, our actual diets sold to us. One could write this in short-story form, and entitle it The Supermarket of Babel. Imagine a supermarket with an infinite number of aisles, stocked with every grocery product ever made as well as those that are yet to be made, and imagine further that each aisle is infinitely long, and that the mythical tills and cashiers that must of necessity exist are like the gates of heaven, nobody who’s seen them has ever returned, and you could crawl and then walk every day of your life from the moment you’re born till the minute you die, and you wouldn’t be any closer to them than you were at the beginning, condemned as you are to spend your entire life in the cereal aisle, pondering the difference between crispies and pops.

Something like that. Except if one were to write such a story there’s a significant risk it would get shelved under non-fiction. I’m not going to be the first to claim that supermarkets are designed like casinos: there are no clocks, no windows, just a maze of enticements designed to keep you inside and spending for as long as humanly possible. And if the panopticon is the organising principle of the disciplinary society, so is the supermarket vis-à-vis the consumer society. To maximise the time that our credit cards spend outside of our wallets: that is the task of the advertising and marketing industry, whose budget is every bit as bone-chillingly large as that of the military-industrial complex. Even semi-ironic, whimperish anti-consumerist slogans these days get printed on three-dollar T-shirts that retail for $29.99. We don’t stand a chance.

It’s not just competition for our dollar - in the sense of the finite budget dictated by what we need and how much money we possess - but pressure to consume more; not only more than we can afford, obviously (hello, global financial crisis), but also more than is good for us. It is at this juncture that ‘information glut’ ceases to be a metaphor altogether. Marion Nestle, professor of the department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, as well as the editor of the US Surgeon General’s 1988 Report on Nutrition and Health, has chronicled in her book Food Politics the role played by the US food industry in misinforming the public about what constitutes good nutrition, in spite of the fact that, as she puts it, ‘dietary recommendations for the prevention of chronic disease have hardly varied for the past half-century’ (2). These recommendations are disarmingly simple: eat a varied diet with an emphasis on plant foods - fruit, vegetables and grains - and avoid excessive intake from any one food group, particularly the ones that are high in fat. What could be easier to remember than that? While in the aftermath of WWII these guidelines meant that the still predominantly undernourished citizens of the United States should eat more, a piece of advice enthusiastically supported by agriculture and food interests, now the public health imperative is that they eat less.

According to our best science, this message truly constitutes, pace Mr. Castells, ‘enough information.’ Any more than that, and the message starts to lose its bite (all these puns are intended, by the way, unless stated otherwise). Hence, according to Nestle, the strategy of the food industry has consisted in lobbying the government not to be quite so direct in telling people to reduce their food intake, but also in fracturing and multiplying that advice, helping promote the virtues of so many alternative dietary regimes that it has become very difficult, by all measurable standards, for people to remember what the basic message has always been. And this is not even getting into the part played by the news media, who are always hungry for new information to share about dieting, also for entirely disinterested reasons you understand, and the more it breaks with the conventional wisdom, the more newsworthy it is. So one morning you might wake up and learn over breakfast that

Now you CATCH obesity ...spreading fat cells are linked to a virus

The Adenovirus Ad36 implicated in human obesity.
Either that, or a ball of crochet with needles stuck in it.

Like Professor Nestle, and the slow food movement and a few other militant souls, Michael Pollan has done some excellent work en route to reaffirming and reclaiming that simplest of messages, which is also a way out of the inhuman Borgesian maze of the world's supermarket. To wit: eat only foods your grandmother would recognise, stay away from those whose ingredients you cannot pronounce. You'll be less informed, yet better informed, and get to the till a whole lot quicker.


I'm going to rest my case now, for it is almost too easy to argue that there is in fact an information glut in those terms, and it's not very new or interesting, nor does it properly account for the crux of the issue; namely, that information isn't the same thing as knowledge. I'll have to come back to this - my usual strategy of deferral - but soon, this time, I promise. Next week though, and begging for the patience of my New Zealand readers, I'm going to write about Matariki, so if anybody has personal anecdotes about the celebrations that they want to share, do please get in touch. In the meantime I want to encourage anybody in Wellington who hasn’t been to see the Starlab at Te Papa in the past to really try to go this year - it’s a rather wonderful event. Check the Matariki Festival museum programme for times.

(1) John Gerstner, ‘The other side of cyberspace. Interview with professor Manuel Castells,’ Communication World 16.4 (March 1999) p. 11.

(2) Marion Nestle,
Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002), p. 29.

Bat-Bean-Beam Gets Results
First in a likely one-part series

Owen Hatherley of Sit Down, Man, You’re a Bloody Tragedy fame has written a review of the Ruins of Fascism exhibition for the UK magazine Frieze. Dougal told me about the event in the context of this post and I in turn informed Owen. So since I neither found out about the exhibition nor wrote the review, I’m going to go ahead and take all the credit. And steal an image on my way out:

Dan Dubowitz, Colonia Marina della Federazione Fascista di Novara Rimini 3 (2008)

It’s a fine review, but it contains a mistake that my readers ought to be able to spot. Five points to the first one to do so in the comments below.

(And what do points mean? Prizes.)

Monday, June 15, 2009


A little while ago, over at Fighting Talk, Lyndon Hood linked to an article on the German artist and satirist John Heartfield, whose works I was surprised to discover were poorly documented on the Web. I offered Lyndon therefore to scan some of the reproductions of Heartfield's photomontages that I happen to have, and then figured I might as well share them with you all, at what is I think not an entirely inopportune time. For I don't need to tell you of the results of last week's European elections, featuring yet another of the periodical, almost ritual advances of the Far Right, including the election of BNP leader Nick Griffin in the UK and staggering results for Lega Nord in Italy and Wilders' Freedom Party in Holland.

I shall spare you yet another post on whether any of this constitutes the return of Fascism, or whether we need to rethink our taxonomies and how we deal with the root causes of these movements and the products thereof. I'll admit in passing to not being persuaded by the 'history has been forgotten' argument that gets aired - this round amongst others by the most distinguished Maps - every time the xenophobic Right notches a new victory in that particular part of the world. Of all the analyses I read or more frequently skimmed in the last week or so, none in fact came close to matching Philip Challinor's, who needed fewer than 200 words to nail it. That brevity and that poignancy are part of what I want to get to today, for compared to, say, yours truly, who couldn't tell you his street address in fewer than one thousand words, accomplished satirists such as Philip and Lyndon can be depended upon to find the elliptical image - be it in words or pictures - that gets to the heart of what they mean to say.

I am rather a fan of both of these fellows. Philip deals in words, and I think you might enjoy these almost random samples of his prose and poetry; Lyndon is also a graphic artist and is more self-conscious in the use of outmoded forms - including elaborate allegories such as the brilliant Victory Parade for John Key - that reflect his keen interest in the history of the genre. I’m pretty sure they’d both recoil at the idea of being used to introduce the work of a giant such as Heartfield, but the sense of my appeal to their example is that even in our (relatively) benign times we need people capable and willing to use satire both as an instrument of understanding and as a means of articulating the language of political dissent. Besides, there is no guarantee that the times will remain as (relatively) benign as they are for very much longer.

The old slogan of the "new" Reich: BLOOD AND STEEL (1934)

John Heartfield was born Helmut Hirtzfeld and anglicised his name in 1916, at the same time and one must suppose for similar reasons as George Grosz (formerly Georg Groß). The two had met in Berlin in 1913 as art students and together with Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann went on to form the Dada movement in Germany. At the end of the Great War they joined the Communist Party and were involved in the Spartacist uprising. In the early Twenties they founded the Satirical magazine Die Pleite

January 1920, cover by George Grosz.
The Capital and the Military Wish Each Other "A Merry New Year"

and in 1929 Heartfield began his collaboration with the weekly Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ), in which between 1930 and 1938 he published the 238 photomontages for which he is chiefly remembered today. These works, which weren’t rediscovered until the 1950s, document the extent in which some Germans understood from the outset the true nature of the National Socialist movement, the collusions with the existing centres of power that allowed Hitler’s party to gain the ascendancy, and the full extent of the atrocities committed throughout the Nineteen-Thirties. They also happen to be stunning pieces of art. So in lieu of my yapping on about them any further, I leave you to enjoy the small selection below and, if you so desire, click on to the three-part gallery linked to at the bottom of the post where I put all of the scans (28 images in total) at a higher resolution. Allow some time for loading, and all that. Here we go.

An Instrument in God's Hand?
A Toy in Thyssen's Hand!
AIZ, 10 September 1933

The nation is fully behind me.
I know no political parties, just prisoners!
AIZ, 13 July 1933.

German Acorns 1933
AIZ, 21 September 1933.

Justice and the executioner. Göring at the trial for the burning of the Reichstag. "Law to me is a bloody affair". (1933)

The meaning of Geneva: Where there is capital there cannot be peace. (1932)
(note the detail of the Swiss flag on the League of Nations building morphing into a swastika)

The one thousand year Reich. (1934)

The images are sourced from the catalogues of the following exhibitions:
Fotografia della libertà e delle dittature - da Sander a Cartier-Bresson 1922-1946. Milan, Mazzotta 1995.
Arte della Libertà - antifascismo, guerra e liberazione in Europa, 1925-1945. Milan, Mazzotta 1995.

Sites were you can find more of Heartfield's works:
The Heartfield site at Towson University
Heartfield versus Hitler
Heartfield's entry on Artcyclopaedia

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Pixel Years

There has been a disconcerting uptick in the number of visitors to this blog in the last few weeks, and I am determined to put a stop to that. Welcome therefore to week one of Bat Bean Beam's Readership Abatement Programme, in which I promise to discuss a series of topics that nobody could possibly be interested in and use irksome words such as 'uptick'. If that doesn't work, I might start talking about my dreams, or the children. It's your choice.

This week: arcade games I used to play as a kid. Seriously. Although part of the blame should be apportioned to my Tokyo bureau chief, who keeps sending annoyingly pertinent links and ideas, including a pointer to this article by John Lanchester on the video game industry, semi-provocatively entitled 'Is It Art?'. This in turn reminded me of some grand old Usenet discussions on it.cultura.fantascienza around the time when the first instalment of the Matrix trilogy was released and in which I dismissed the film as a glorified videogame, only to be taken to school by several posters on the kinds of philosophical not to mention socio-political speculations that contemporary videogames were known to engage in, and how they deserved equal treatment alongside other cultural products such as films or novels. Which, as Lanchester points out, is true to a point, seeing as, despite the massive turnover of the industry - which has surpassed cinema and publishing - and its equally large audience, 'from a broader cultural point of view, video games barely exist'. Whether as a result of self-segregation or culpable cultural myopia, you'll find no mainstream newspaper or magazine whose books and film reviews are matched by the attention paid to the latest video game titles. And no, the ritual article about how the new instalment of Grand Theft Auto is going turn your children into sociopaths doesn't count.

But then, that really says more about the politics of the mainstream than anything else. I actually have no doubt that games as old as this one - soon to be the subject of another readership-abating post - are complex texts deserving of proper consideration and broad cultural appreciation, and of course the burgeoning discipline of games studies, which is wholly absent from Lanchester's analysis, recognises just that. You could say that the piece is in fact more symptomatic of the time it took for the London Review of Books to catch on to this aspect of the culture than anything resembling a bold statement of critical re-orientation. Nor am I going to even pretend to be able to offer enlightening insights myself, having given up all meaningful gaming activities some time in the early nineties. But I have children now, so a new opportunity knocks, both to evaluate retroactively whether all the time spent in front of those particular screens as a young person was in any way formative or just a colossal time-sink, and to replay that particular time in my life with the excuse of spending quality time with said children and sharing their experiences.

In fact as it turns out I've gone the whole nostalgic retro hog, and initiated my oldest - now seven - to the very same games I used to play as a child. We don't need a Playstation to take over the lounge quite yet (we might not, ever), and it turns out these days you can get yourself an emulator, called Mame, and turn your old computer into an even older arcade machine. If you're not familiar with this phenomenon, a look at this particular shrine will give you an idea of the possibilities that are open in this area. And, in spite of the thing with the Pac-Man plushes, I don't want to knock or ridicule any of it. In all honesty when I first stumbled upon Mame, back in 1997, my first reaction upon recapturing those old sights, sounds and gestures, was of genuine exhilaration. It was pure memory in performance, with sound effects including, but not limited to, little gasps of pleasure when I discovered that I still knew how to swerve at the end of a particular stage of Vanguard, or where the best spots for ambushing the ghosts in Ms. Pacman are.

So in no particular order, and for no other reason that I feel like it, here's a little gallery of my favourite games from back then.

Asteroids (Atari Inc., 1979)

This wasn't my first videogame, but only just. I have never been able track down the first one, it was a very primitive naval battle affair I encountered during a summer holiday in - I believe - 1978. So Asteroids was probably the second. And what magnificent graphics! I distinctly recall the pure, giddy aesthetic pleasure of seeing the asteroid you had just hit burst into a cloud of vector geometries. In terms of playability, it still holds its own more than most later offerings in the classic era of arcade games.

Ms. Pacman (Midway, 1981)

Pac-Man is justly celebrated for the breakthrough that it was, but Ms. Pacman to me will always be the best title of the franchise. Plus, I believe I got to play it first, even if it came out a couple of years later, and again, I can almost recall, or perhaps creatively imagine, the shock of the new, as well as the feeling of inhabiting a virtual space made possible by the perfection of the gameplay and the transparency of the interface. For as long as you managed to stay alive, you really were that yellow globule gliding around labyrinths in search of nutrients. I also remember, or, again, imagine, how it felt the first time I went through the tunnel on the right and reappeared on the left side of the screen. That was me just then, teleporting! Nothing that I had experienced in life or play had ever come close to resembling that.

I'll let you explore where people have taken that iconic notion of virtuality through projects such as Human Pacman and Pacmanhattan all by your very pretty selves.

Vanguard (TOSE, 1981)

Unique in this personal gallery, Vanguard really, really sucks, and always has. But it makes the list anyway because I played it an awful lot. It was one of the very first videogames to reach my grandparents' village, but there must have been something wrong with the lease because it stayed there for years. So if it was raining and my grandfather headed for the pub to play cards, I'd go with him and a coin or two would guarantee a solid half hour of entertainment at least. The owner, possibly at the instigation of some of the octogenarians in attendance, kept the volume to a minimum, so it was only much later that I discovered that the game's soundtrack didn't consist solely of the crisp slaps of the cards on the table and my grandfather complaining that his partner ought to have played the three of clubs much earlier in the game, since obviously nobody had picked up the ace yet.

Over the years I racked up a ludicrous high score, several orders of magnitude greater than the one published as the semi-official national record in our first videogame magazine. Barring some further accomplishment or international honour, I plan to have this fact engraved on my tombstone.

Galaga (Namco, 1981)

You could take your pick between Galaga, the much earlier Space Invaders or Phoenix. At the end of the day, they were all very enjoyable to play and taught you a valuable lesson: when the aliens invade, we're all doomed. They're going to come in waves and there's always going to be another wave after the one you just destroyed. Which is also a lesson in capitalism, if you think about it.

Pengo (Sega, 1982)

It might not have been the absolute peak of originality, but Pengo was just a stupid amount of fun. Although it did completely spoil Gershon Kingsley's Popcorn for me.

I also played this at my grandparents', but I could last far less then on Vanguard, and my grandfather wasn't the most eager person in the world to part with his money, even in spare-change form. Thus the cost-benefit analysis involved in choosing between the two games was sophisticated, once you factored in the queue behind each machine and other externalities. People who believe that videogames don't teach kids stuff should think about that.

Gyruss (Konami, 1983)

My favourite space shooter ever, tipping Xevious to the post. Clever game dynamics, and an inspired J.S. Bach soundtrack. I never quite worked out if you were flushing an invading alien force out of the solar system, or in fact invading the solar system yourself. Not that it mattered a jot.

Q*Bert (Gottlieb, 1982)

Q*Bert is a little gem or pure quirk, a precursor of Tetris but with enemies. The eponymous creature, a red nose on legs prone to cursing, has to change the colours of cubes stacked in a pyramid by hopping around on them, first once, then twice, then three times per cube, as the game advances, whilst dealing with a variety of obstacles and foes. Think you hate that purple snake? Wait until you come across the guy who changes the colours of the cubes back. And in spite of all that, I'm still not sure if I loved Q*Bert more for itself or for the pleasure it gave to my best friend.

Here's an interesting promotional poster aimed at would be lessees.

And check out this Q*Bert quilt. Genius.

Marble Madness (Atari, 1984)

Hush now, people, we're moving into the sublime. Marble Madness to me was the pinnacle of the classic arcade era, and there's no other game I've loved as much before or since. It was, quite simply, a work of art, and it was art that you could inhabit and discover, that made you eager to reach the next stage not in order to better your score, but rather to see some more. The objective, as in all of these early games, is extremely simple: navigating a marble by means of a trackball through a series of mazes within the allotted timeframe; and the mazes themselves are little masterpieces of imagination and guile populated by an inspired array of enemies, none more so than those dastardly moving puddles of acid.

But description will only get you so far: nothing matches the feeling of being there, moving in that mental space, gliding through that architecture of sound and colour, in a perfect little act of machinic gestalt consummated through the sacrifice of a little metal disc, and the occasional bit of flesh pinched by the trackball when the going got especially tough.

I've discovered with a certain amount of delight that optical mice do a passing job of emulating the original trackball (minus the flesh-pinching), but I don't expect to recapture the experience of playing Marble Madness way back then. Early forays into the virtual, be they literary or cinematic or computer-mediated, are part of a personal history of perception and experience - it's how we learn to live outside of ourselves, and each act is by definition unrepeatable. I have little doubt that these experiences are formative, even profoundly so.

And yes, of course it is art. What a silly question.

(With thanks to Marco for helping me get re-started on Mame on my current PC.)

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Museum of You (3): Something You Lost

I once had a friend who liked to participate in the auctions held from time to time in our hometown of objects found in railway carriages. He enjoyed the exercise very much and was always full of stories about the scarcely believable things that people would forget on board - oil paintings, large farming implements, furniture, complete dinner sets. I suspected some of these finds to be apocryphal, and none more so than the urn with the ashes of an unknown deceased, if for no other reason that I couldn't believe the authorities would put that particular item up for auction. Ditto the inflatable sex doll. However, over the years I received some independent verification that a) this auction actually exists, although it is held in a very out of the way location and you have to know somebody who knows somebody since it isn't advertised anywhere, and b) people do in fact lose the most bizarre things on trains. (Including, yes, dead relatives).

According to this forum of railway enthusiasts, Milan is the only Italian city where such objects are sold; elsewhere they are donated to charity. Imagine then the surprise of the drug rehab centre that earlier this year received a backpack found to contain 64 dynamite sticks weighing 12 kilograms in total. It later transpired that the backpack had spent up to two years in the lost luggage office of the in Genoa railway station, and the police is still working on figuring out how it came to be lost, and by whom. But of course in stations and airports elsewhere, most loudly and proudly in the US, you are reminded that if you so much as leave your luggage unattended for a few minutes, it will be seized and destroyed. It is best to beware of contents unknown.

There may be some deeper cultural undercurrent here than the straightforward fear that something may have been abandoned with malicious intent. When people come to be separated from their stuff, it is an alienation of sorts - a very literal one, in terms of the word's etymology, as well as the inverse of the Marxian sense, that inscribes alienation in capitalist relations and notions of property. In the cultures that establish a strong correlation between who you are and what you own, the idea of things being lost is psychologically disruptive, regardless of the raw material value of the thing lost.

The act of losing money - either because of theft, or a stock or property market misadventure, or the loss of one's job - is pertinent but requires separate treatment. The wonderfully worded notion of one's 'personal net worth', that naturally originated in the United States, can be brought to bear here, but money isn't stuff. It exists on a much more abstract plane, changes in value as a result of its own special dynamics, and the nature and psychology of its ownership are quite unique. One can of course think of examples of how money can be turned back into stuff, such as this exchange in Buster Keaton's Sherlock Holmes Jr:
"I lost a dollar"
"Can you describe it?"
Or the classic image of Uncle Scrooge swimming in his money.

Or again the tradition of the lucky penny. But for most intents and purposes, and even as it allows to acquire things, or buy some more life in the bizarre lease arrangement that governs human existence and subsistence in capitalist societies, money is an abstraction, a number, not a thing, and certainly not something you'd ever be so crass as to display in the museum of you, or that can be lost irreplaceably - any amount of money of equal or greater denomination will do.

If I may be allowed a little autobiographical moment, I have in fact lost an item that nicely illustrates the difference between semiotic and material value, insofar as this difference can be said to exist. It seems that some time during my fourth year on this planet I taught myself to read and write, something that my parents only became aware of one night when I left a note on the dinner table and made it with a scowl for the door of our apartment. The note said


Which, minus the typos, translates as follows


As it happens, it was dark in the landing outside and I ventured no further. In typical fashion, however, my mother took the fact that I wanted to leave the family entirely in her stride, and opted to celebrate instead my cognitive prowess. She therefore tucked the note in her handbag and proceeded to show it to all and sundry. In fact, if you resided anywhere in the Northern Emisphere during the Nineteen-Seventies, I'd say you've probably seen it. Then we lost sight of it for, oh, fifteen years or so, until I found it amongst some junk in a drawer and possibly even chastised my mother for being so careless with it (you can see where this is going), then took over the curatorship of the precious childhood artefact. And I can tell you exactly how I lost it: I put it inside a tacky but fond copy of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and in the flurry of activities that preceded our emigration to New Zealand the book must have ended up in the wrong box, because it never reached us down here.

I am genuinely sorry about that, and seeing as mum and I remember the note's contents word for word, hence there is no loss in that regard (although a bibliographer might beg to differ), the reason must be that I see intrinsic value in the object itself, some sort of material validation of my having been a precocious pain in the arse. The metaphor of the museum is a good test here, for I have no doubt that I would have included it in my personal exhibit. But it wasn't to be.

If the book ended up in the wrong box, it would have made its way to a second-hand bookshop, so chances are somebody eventually came into its possession. I wonder what they made of it, if they chucked it away or kept it as a curio, perhaps to be used as a bookmark for the flamboyantly bound works of that man from Baltimore. I'm thinking probably the former. But as it happens, that note is exactly the kind of thing that would have tickled the fancy and curiosity of the readers of Found Magazine, seeing that it is not too dissimilar for instance from this entry on Found, the work of an unknown primary school child in Brooklyn:

'Holla. This world is going be ruined. Finish.'

Creators Davy Rothbart and Jason Bitner explain that at the magazine they
collect found stuff: love letters, birthday cards, kids' homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, doodles-- anything that gives a glimpse into someone else's life. Anything goes.
I shall freely confess to finding the magazine itself exquisitely boring, but it's quite the phenomenon, with books and tours (featuring songs inspired by the finds), a dirty section, international beachheads and a lively community. By all accounts its creators are smart people who are quite aware of participating in a culture that, in the words of Eric Karjala,
insists that certain things be popular, and it doesn’t necessarily matter what: a hideous dancing baby, the senseless engrish from an obscure video game, a random 1980s pop hit by Rick Astley. We are so desperate for commonality that any random cultural artefact can become a shared experience, and this is especially true on the internet, which is viral not just in nature but in consequence, making us nauseated from the absurdity.
The little spice that Found adds to the mixture is that its artefacts are collected around, in the incongruously named Real World, and dematerialised, beamed into cyberspace to provide momentary occasions of reflection and contribute a whole new source of material to the ever expanding uber-text that so many of us read every day looking for meaningful signs. As if the information already there wasn't enough, and these 'glimpses into someone else's life' contained special kernels of truth, otherwise missing pieces of whatever puzzle it is that the culture is trying to solve by means of the Internet.

Or maybe people read Found because it's innocent fun. Either way, it leaves me fairly cold: there is so much more in the world that gets meaningfully lost, instead of just being crumpled and discarded, as most of Found's finds are, indicating that perhaps they had ceased to be significant to the owners themselves. If I have to go looking for glimpses, I'll browse the lists of items recovered by the Carabinieri, or by the city of Turin, the two largest online repositories back home, and there, hidden amongst hundreds of cellphones and personal organisers and umbrellas and sunglasses, discover candelabras, exquisite antique jewellery, a vest pocket watch inscribed 'from your friends', magnificent old coats, but also - and overwhelmingly - items of little or no value, that yet some officer has bothered to archive and describe, often in painstaking detail, just in case they might have, for their owners, a meaning that they themselves can't see.

There is much there to fantasise about the personal histories, and the connections lost, but also something to commend in that idea of service, the effort spent with very little statistical chance of reuniting anybody with anything.

In that spirit, did you happen to lose this in Cusano Milanino some time in 2004?

I know whom you can call about that.