Monday, April 28, 2014

The idea of London

I was always in a hurry to leave London as a young man. It was the place that was far too expensive. The place I couldn’t speak the language. It was intimidating, coolly grandiose but never charming. Then I got to know it again in the last decade, through the bloggers who made me want to write about memory the way they did about architecture, music and philosophy: which is to say always critically, always politically, aspiring to a relevance that wasn’t tied to a place. Not even London.

I got to meet some of those writers this month. They all knew each other, just like I always imagined they did. I caught up with Nina Power and Owen Hatherley – both major influences on what I do here – and Alex Niven, Dominic Fox, Douglas Murphy, Carl Neville (my wonderful host); Philip Challinor, who brought a copy of his latest book; Daniel Trilling; Anindya Bhattacharyya. It was all rather special, and it changed the London of my mind again, into another place still – one that I’d like to visit again soon, but probably won’t.

Yet it’s hard to deny the other, somewhat more objective London, of old stone imperial buildings, modern finance company headquarters and hyper-real tourist hotspots. I’ve taken to calling this fucking London, the same way I think of fucking Venice as a distinct place from Venice in the more general, fuller sense of the toponym. Every one of these too-famous cities has a fucking version made of the iconic. Suddenly you are there, inside a postcard, caught up in a slow-moving river of tourist flesh. The fucking Thames.

Fucking Saint Paul’s.

The fucking Old Royal Naval College.

And so forth. For the first time I enjoyed it, too, this fucking city, thanks to a combination of the leisure, the amity, and an improbable string of frankly gorgeous spring days.

I don’t know if it was Nina who invented the blog photo-essay, but hers are the ones I encountered first. In that spirit, these are some photographic impressions. My borrowed London.

'We are moving, business not affected.'

Phallic industrialisation. (Part of the very impressive power station in Deptford.)

The ubiquitous anti-climb paint. I was dying to test its effectiveness.

Digging for treasure on the shore of the Thames.

I developed an obsession for the small doors of London. This one is smaller than I am.

This one is just pretty.

The “T” is silent.

What passes for modern architecture.

Detail of the building at the back. It has a sheer concave face of glass so naturally they found it melted cars. A child of five could have told them this, but maybe they couldn’t find a child of five.

I enjoy this image.

Imperial Mean Time.

The corpses of modern buildings: a brilliant art installation in the art of London, if that’s what it is.

Another view of same.

The London park bench, designed to prevent people who sleep rough to lie down on it (as Daniel explained).

Not far from Carl’s place.

Ellie was here.

The Elgin Obelisk. It was elgined by one Erasmus Wilson in the 19th century, encased in an iron cylinder (the obelisk, not Mr Wilson). Canny fellow.


The back of the public library near Victoria Station.

More doors.

Milano’s Pizza & Chicken.

Ask me how much I love this decorative motif.

Oh, stop showing off! (Alternatively, the fucking Guardian.)

The Trafalgar Tavern.

The fairly strange bronze of Isaac Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi in the courtyard of the new British Library.

Something tells me that when they built St. Pancras they really thought that the sun was never going to set on the British Empire.

At the British Museum, even the architecture is stolen.

The Mayor of fucking London.

Chris Marker seen through a glass door.

Lastly: ‘With Nail and I.’ And we're done.

Monday, April 14, 2014

In search of found time

Originally published at Overland

Three different projects dealing with presence, absence and the passage of time. The first one is straight photography: no tricks. Irina Werning’s Back to the Future features adults posing as their childhood selves in replicas of old picture that they sent in ahead of time. At first glance, another exercise in the knowing, ironic nostalgia that is one of the aesthetic markers of our age.

Pancho 1983 & 2010, Buenos Aires. More images on the project’s website.
There is craft and playfulness in the photographs in the series. In one of the image pairs, a little girl wearing comically oversized boots is replaced by a young woman who fits the boots just fine. These little gags aside, however, the images are emotionally opaque: the mimicry of infantile expressions by the adult subjects negates the reaching of maturity. It’s often the case, in the retronaut genre, that time is compressed into a saturating, everlasting present. Everything is now that can be digitised; even interior states of being.

The second project, Imagine Finding Me by Chino Otsuka, is bolder. This time the childhood pictures are of Otsuka herself, who appears in them also as an adult. ‘I become a tourist in my own history,’ she explains, except one who appears to be invisible to the country she has travelled to. Her younger self cannot see her. They stand together, but make no contact.

Imagine Finding Me 1976 and 2005, Kamakura, Japan. More images on Otsuka’s website and at Sploid.
The effect is a mounting, unsettling tension, as if placing the two differently-aged Chinos within the same picture had increased the distance between them. Internet time nears breaking point, threatens to collapse upon itself. But there is no resolution, and we are left instead to admire the craft again. The perfect blending of tones and colours, of contours, of styles. We are so good at this.

There is a particular genre of internet photography, one that is focused on the bridging across time not of people, but of places. Take a photo of a busy metropolitan street in 1900 and then reproduce the shot from the same angle and with the same lens; then place them not side by side, but within the same frame. A street in Paris then and now. Or New York, or Glasgow. I call it internet photography because it’s a genre that has flourished on the web and circulates most intensely through the channels of social media. It usually leaves me fairly cold, in the particular way that these meticulous exercises do: as much as anything, in fact, because of their meticulousness, always seeking to efface itself through the effortless digital perfection of the product. A modern sprezzatura.

It usually leaves me cold, save for this one time. The set on Leningrad then and now, in which ‘then’ was during the blockade. One image above all: of two women – one young, one old – dragging a shrouded corpse on a blanket, out in the open, on the pavement (Leningrad then); while just metres away, pedestrians walk alongside a modern tram (Leningrad now). Then and now are cut off from each other, like in those pictures by Chino Otsuka, except to a much more dramatic effect: the indifference of the present for the past this time is intolerable (won’t anyone help those women?). However, there is another level at which we are forced to interpret the picture. That is, as the side by side representation of two quotidian experiences: one, of residents walking and using public transport, confident, unhurried; the other, of women dragging a lifeless body onto the pavement, possibly not their first. Both are pictures of daily life, on the same piece of Earth, at but a few decades remove. It is the work of history to reconcile them.

That wasn’t the third photographic project I had in mind, however, but rather a link into it. Gustavo Germano’s Ausencias (‘absences’) begins with a picture of four young brothers. Gustavo (the youngest), Guillermo, Diego and Eduardo. Then a second one, of the brothers as grown men, but with an empty space where Eduardo ought to be. He was kidnapped in 1976 by the military, aged 18, and now figures as a victim of the ‘guerra sucia’, Argentina’s dirty war. In another, Orlando René Mendez and Leticia Margarita Oliva are sitting in the sun on the shore at ‘La Tortuga Alegre’, Rio Uruguay. In the next picture, taken on the same location in 2006, Orlando and Leticia are gone.

Image from Germano’s website. More photographs on the BBC website.
Like Irina Werning, Germano does not resot to photographic manipulation, yet his image galleries – unlike hers – are all about marking history and the passage of time, along with the loss of innocence and life. Germano has no interest in reproducing the exact perspective or style of the original images. He’ll often switch to colour when the ‘before’ picture was in black and white. What counts is those captions. In this place, at this time, who is there, and who is not.

How the person, or persons, came to disappear, is not revealed to us, and is likely not known, adding a further layer to Germano’s remarkable catalogue of pain and loss. This isn’t photography that seeks to assert itself over the social real, bringing people together across impossible distances of time or space. On the contrary, it is photography that measures the irreducible gap in our knowledge and points to the places we cannot go. In the age of the retronauts, it’s a sobering, timely reminder that the past will always be a foreign territory.

With many thanks to Kathy Korcheck for helping me find again Gustavo Germano’s work.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Inside Sherlock's mind palace

That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

(Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘A Study in Scarlet’)

It was an interesting choice, on the part of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, to make their Sherlock Holmes wired. In Conan Doyle’s original, Watson was frequently the eyes and ears of the detective, most notably perhaps in The Hound of the Baskervilles, which largely consists of reports sent by the doctor back to Baker Street. Now not only Holmes gets out of the house a lot – with the effect of making his assistant frankly quite irrelevant, other than as a comic foil, blog biographer and occasional dude in distress – but also intervenes on the outside world through his mobile phone (hello, Blackberry product placement) and queries the information networks to make sense of clues by means of his laptop.

The original Holmes, by contrast, had to rely mostly – if not solely – on his well-cultivated memory. In the famous passage in ‘A Study in Scarlet’ excerpted above, he describes the human mind to Watson as an empty attic to be carefully furnished. He explains:
A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.
As a consequence, Watson wryly observes upon first meeting Holmes that ‘his ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge’.

There is very little of that epic, deliberate forgetting left in the new Holmes. There are also interesting questions surrounding his actual need for information technology, since he appears to be carrying Google inside his head anyway. In ‘mind palace’ mode, as first evidenced in the episode The Hounds of Baskerville, Holmes is able to tap into a virtually limitless amount of information, and form semantic connections that would elude an ordinary search engine, were it to be interrogated in the customary way. The rather dull approach used to visualise this activity is to show Holmes standing in a room with his eyes closed, manually sorting through floating electronic text in a manner reminiscent of the console operated by Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

(From here on in, a global spoiler warning to the finale of series 3 applies.)

Of much greater effect is the dramatisation of the mind palace in the long sequence of His Last Vow in which Holmes gets shot in the chest and has to quickly mobilise all of his knowledge and intellectual resources in order to give himself the best chances to survive. As Watson had muttered to another non-playing character in Baskerville, Sherlock’s mind palace operates on the principle of the classical art of memory, that is to say by means of places or loci in which to deposit the things to be remembered within an intimately-known imagined architecture. In the episode, we actually get to visit the palace, which partly consists of the building in Baker Street (also symbolising safety) and partly of a series of locations hidden behind closed doors along a corridor. And because the particular knowledge to be retrieved is literally a matter of life or death, the urgency turns the palace into a memory theatre in the Renaissance tradition, in which to stage dramatically the knowledge process.

Impressive as the sequence is, the show’s best riff on the history of the arts of memory comes at the end of the episode, when Holmes learns to his dismay that the vast library of incriminating information held by his adversary in his sanctum at Appledore is in fact a mind palace even grander than his own; and that those glasses that he imagined to be cybernetically connected to a remote index of this library were in fact just an ordinary pair of glasses, put on and removed as a tic, or for effect. It is a very satisfying twist, which leaves Holmes utterly outdone: not only because the lack of a physical or digital archive means there is nothing for the secret service cavalry that he has summoned to seize, but also because he has been shown the proper use of a mind palace, which consists not in supplementing the technology, but replacing it.

The ancient art of memory inaugurated – as the legend goes – by the poet Simonides of Cheos, was conceived of and practised long after the invention of writing. By seeking to restore the primacy of the oral/visual mental faculty, it was a paradoxical attempt to do away with the technology altogether, as if nowadays somebody suggested taking up calligraphy as a replacement for word processing and computing. In filling up his ‘mind attic’ as if it walls really were elastic, contra Conan Doyle, the latest Holmes is possessing of a similar hubris. But he never takes it to its logical consequence by disconnecting from the networks altogether and taking up proper residence in his grandiosely furnished palace.

In a grimly disappointing resolution, Holmes’ response to this revelation is to shoot the villain in cold blood, thus sealing his own defeat. By destroying that brain, he has destroyed the mind palace within and every trace of the sinister and damaging information it contained, forever – but he has also extinguished an ancient cultural project that he himself cannot see through. What that act of violence ultimately signifies is how hard it is to come to terms with the idea of a mind unplugged.