Monday, July 28, 2014

Making the past strange: Justine Fletcher's '607'

It begins with a list of 607 names, and you might not know who they are and what it means. So perhaps the point of the exercise is how to restore that meaning. Because each one of the names, taken individually, may mean a variety of different things, but taken all together, they only mean one. Something the women to which those names belong all took part in, one after the other, over the course of some weeks in 1893.

Justine’s exhibition opened at Aratoi in Masterton ten days ago, but before then the pieces – 607 cast pendants, each named after one of the Wairarapa women who signed the Suffrage Petition delivered to Parliament on 28 July, 1893 – had been on display in the four local districts in which the signatures had been gathered: some at the Greytown Town Centre, some at a cafè in Masterton, some the Memorial Hall at Eketahuna, and some at the West Taratahi Hall.

I was especially fond of the last installation, which involved forty or so pieces hung in the window of what had once been the local primary school, and is now a community space run by a private trust. The grounds have been converted into a paddock for sheep, and the small shelter under which the local children would have played on rainy days has become theirs. It’s one of those special little New Zealand places in which history speaks as wry understatement. Justine took some pictures inside.

The installations, and the pieces themselves, condensed and made visible again a social event whose effects are concrete and lasting, yet difficult to apprehend. Nowadays the vote for women is something that exists, a right that we have. But to acknowledge how it came about at the time that it did is not simply a ‘celebration’. The symbolic connections are more complex than is accounted for in that word, the tendrils that reach back in time more intricate.

Speaking the names of people who once lived is always a fraught act. This is why the power of memorials is immediately and near-universally understood. There will be descendants, for one thing. There will be questions you didn’t anticipate or prepare for. Justine found this: people reacting in ways and with an intensity that she didn’t expect. But even I – who had scant knowledge of the history and the places and none of the people, outside of what she told me – was touched by the experience of travelling from one location to the other in search of those pieces and of what they signified. It’s not always we get an opportunity to connect geography with history in that particular manner, as a form of play. It caused me to redraw my inner geography of the region.

I love this photo that Geoff Walker took at Aratoi, unstaged, of women’s hands lifting the pendants, touching them. I also love that Justine and I came through completely different routes and mediums to grapple with roughly the same set of concerns – with memory, politics and the social transmission of history. It was exciting to see this project of hers take shape. I hope she’ll get more opportunities like this one.

The work of memory consists sometimes in making the past strange in order to reveal it. A list of names, in and of itself, is a very opaque thing. But if you assign each name to an object, and then display those objects according to an explicit design, then the list will become a kind of performance and the past, made strange, will make itself known in a way that is new, or different, or unexpected.

Before having to hurry back to Italy, I had been planning to write about Paul Janman and Scott Hamilton’s Great South Road geocaching project, which is quite differently structured but I find similarly inspiring. A parallel of yet another kind comes for me in the permanent and temporary displays at Foxton, a town that is constantly – and problematically – at play with its own history. But of course, in this colonised land, history can never be anything but a problem, and our lessons need to be lessons not in how to read it more simply, but again, and differently. That remembering is always an act of reinvention is one of those things that art needs to teach us from time to time.

‘607’ by Justine Fletcher will be at Aratoi in Materton until August 4.

All the photos in black and white are by Geoff Walker, the ones in colour by Justine.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Sweet Dreams Maisy vs. Global Warming's Terrifying New Math

June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I've spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we're losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.

To grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the past year, an easy and powerful bit of arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts in the U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental conferences and journals, but it hasn't yet broken through to the larger public. This analysis upends most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows us to understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless – position with three simple numbers.

The first number [is] 2° Celsius. […] So far, we've raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.) […] At the Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: "Some countries will flat-out disappear."

The Second Number: 565 Gigatons Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. ("Reasonable," in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.) […] Study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year – and at that rate, we'll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years, around the time today's preschoolers will be graduating from high school.

The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons This number is the scariest of all – one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma. It was highlighted last summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report in an effort to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses to their stock portfolios. The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain. […]

If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn't pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. […] John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today's market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you'd be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren't exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won't necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can't have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That's how the story ends. [...]

The numbers are simply staggering – [the fossil-fuel] industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they're planning to use it.

You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can't do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we're now leaving... in the dust.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The politics of 'we must change the government'

It’s the time in the election cycle when the left unites behind whoever’s in charge in the name of either kicking the Tories out of office or preventing them from forming the next government. This year there’s no realistic prospect of the Greens being kept out of a centre-left coalition, so the lesser evil looks less grim than usual, but it’s still dispiriting to be reminded that criticism is to be curtailed in the name of a dubious common good. Thus for instance, having voiced my frustration at the fortunes of Labour and the quality of its leadership, I was met with this rejoinder from a First Union executive:
terrific so low paid workers have to suffer another 3 years because you have the pip
Some interesting assumptions about my personal circumstances there, and a remarkable narrowing of the Left’s constituency, but also the implication that it is incumbent upon left-leaning people to shut up and toe the line (as if my loose lips could sink any ships!). Unless of course – the conversation continued – one were only ‘professing to care’. This emotive, moralistic approach to politics (the people, they will suffer) is what inspires much of the rhetoric concerning the steadily growing number of non-voters – who are assumed to be disinterested and apathetic as opposed to feeling unrepresented – but also the reduction of poverty to the poverty of children: the only kind, it seems, that is worthy of consideration and outrage.

It is that suffering, and the greater evil of Tory rule, that demands we settle for the lesser evil of the other, more humane parties of business. Yet, when faced with it, I don’t fully reject this logic. I’m a Marxist, which in the current climate is one of the most futile and impractical things a person can be – almost as much as an intellectual. I do indeed have a strong case of the pip. And whatever aversion I feel towards our current government is balanced by the conviction that Labour and the Greens (and as of now quite possibly Mana, too), are in fact more committed to capitalism and invested in it than National, convinced as they appear to be that it holds the key to a sustainable future and our very survival as a species. To me, it’s not a matter of lesser but of different evils. But I also get that concerning people’s so-called everyday lives, including my own, National is – to flip the adage – like Labour, only worse. That it will never raise benefits. That it will only reduce workers’ bargaining rights and entitlements further. That it will continue to critically weaken our environmental protections and democratic institutions. That it will be reluctant to accept social change and in all things be more racist, more sexist, more homophobic. All these may be matters of degree, large or small, but the weaker the working class is, the worse the conditions in which it lives, the more small differences become a matter of outright survival, until social justice grows in the imagination to become a sneering, grey concept, and not something that can be concretely aspired to and worked towards.

I am, in other words, not insensitive to the call that ‘we must change the government’, even as I recognise how it acts to forestall criticism and create the myth – evidenced most strongly in New Zealand by the terms of the widespread nostalgia for the Clark government and the person of Helen Clark as leader – that winning elections and keeping National out is the perpetual engine of progress itself, never to be critically evaluated or questioned.

But I still insist to know what it means. I would like to hear people’s reasons, to try to grasp which ones lead by implication to the blind alley of reforms that never even aspire to incrementalism, and which ones might point to a deeper engagement with the categories of the political. If only as a stratagem to combat the crushing dullness of this election campaign, I figured that asking the question might be of some use, so last week I posed it to my twitter timeline and compiled the answers in a raw sequence, which you can read here.

It’s a very partial survey, naturally, even relatively to the skewed politics of my followers. But you can always learn something from a list of grievances. Which are the things that, as we reject them, define the society we want?

The single reason that featured most strongly was Christchurch, often without the need for further qualifiers. This was interesting to me, partly because the absence of a counter-factual centre-left response, and partly because the reconstruction of a city is a project that draws upon the social and political imagination like no other, and that demands a commitment to democracy like no other. We should want to have done that very differently.

Then came education, taking money out of rape prevention and support, roads, roads, roads, the Search and Surveillance Bill, welfare reform, this quip by the Prime Minister, a catalogue of some of the most ghoulish Tory personalities, as well as acknowledgments of the slippery nature of the question (Lew Stoddart: ‘it’s banality-of-evil margin-calls all the way down’) and of its greater urgency if one were to turn it to toward Messrs Abbott or Cameron. Most people who responded genuinely engaged with the assignment, instead of dismissing it as too obvious or using it as an opportunity to sloganeer. The result was an interesting little catalogue, a document of this moment in our national politics. Or a baseline for future three-yearly surveys.

I don’t make claims to any great clarity. Let’s be honest: wanting to kick the Tories out of government is one of the noblest of human feelings, and saying that it isn’t nearly enough, the most banal of statements. In the end we're still left to face those different evils.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Arjen Robben, or the art of the hyperreal football dive

Originally posted at Overland

Were it possible to suspend Greek statuary in the air somehow, Phidias himself might have sculpted Arjen Robben as he launches himself skyward, his face contorted into a mask of stupefied pain as a result of brushing his back foot against that of another human being.

Twenty minutes earlier, Robben, untouched, had leaped in the air as if a dog had bitten him.

Such gestures, while designed to simulate the effects of being tripped or otherwise fouled by an opposition player, look, in fact, nothing like the consequence of an actual trip or foul but are actually highly codified theatrical actions. They are to tell the referee, who is not there to feel the pain of being kicked in the legs, that someone’s been kicked in the legs.

The display has to be visual: screaming might not get you heard in a noisy stadium or if the referee is far away. And so you exaggerate the effects, just as an actor would on a stage, so that everyone can see. You raise your arms. You arch your back, propelling yourself forward as if to clear a ditch full of fire. You let your entire body splash onto the ground, as you would on water, to emphasise your utter inability to maintain or regain an erect posture.

Finally, you lie there, waiting for the whistle. And, if the whistle doesn’t come, the second act consists of your disbelieving reaction at being disbelieved. How could this be? You are astonished, aghast that the referee could have failed to see what just happened, and that anyone might think you faked any of it.

Arjen Robben may be the foremost current practitioner of the art of the football dive, which dates all the way back to I couldn’t exactly tell you. No-one seems to be able to go back very far. This list of the 9 top football divers of all time, this one of the 10 worst football dives in history, and this one of the 25 top football divers of all time feature players who are almost all still active. The oldest among the exceptions is the still relatively-recent Jurgen Kilnsmann, author of a shocking dive during the 1990 World Cup final that saw Argentine defender Pedro Monzon sent off.

But surely diving existed long before that.

As a matter of fact, the first competitive match I ever attended, a Juventus–Perugia played in the spring of 1981, featured a dive by – I think – Pierino Fanna that netted Juventus a penalty and the game’s equaliser. I couldn’t find any footage, but my recollection is that Fanna jumped over the tackling player’s legs and fell to the ground, without flailing his arms or much else by way of embellishment.

The modern dive, which I would call hyperreal, may have been pioneered by the aforementioned Klinsmann.

In the hyperreal dive, you are always faking – whether or not you are actually being fouled. Faking is the condition for arguing that something real has just happened, or worse, the only way that the real can be apprehended. While it may seem paradoxical that the hyperreal dive has flourished when television technology has increased several-fold our ability to slow-down and magnify sporting actions, it is not much of a paradox at all. Not only because the primary audience for the dive is still the match officials, who have no immediate access to technology (although the review panels who occasionally punish divers do), but also because the nature of the spectacle has evolved in the direction of hyperrealism. Think of the montages that follow most international fixtures, in which the highlights of the game are played in slow-motion to the latest dirge, often emphasising the emoting of players of spectators, as if what has just happened has already become an object of nostalgia or historical appreciation and has to be hyperremembered.

To the extent that any of this is a problem in sport (or a problem of sport), it’s because sport as an organised human activity owes much of its appeal to its claim to truth. Most of us laugh at professional wrestling – or more accurately at its fans – because we know that professional wrestling is a scripted spectacle. By contrast, football and other proper sports purport to stage performances that obey certain rules but whose outcome isn’t predetermined. That is why accusations of match-fixing, even more so than drug cheating, hit at the heart of any sport: they undermine that claim to truth.

The hyperreal dive occupies a more ambiguous place.

On the one hand, it may be seen as simply a part of the game: if you can fool the referee, your team will gain an advantage; otherwise you might get a booking.

On the other hand, it calls attention to the ways in which football and pro-wrestling aren’t quite so unlike each other as we might like to believe. The aspects of performance that have little to do with athleticism or footballing talent, the power and influence of some footballing nations as opposed to others, and all the respects in which that claim to truth – that a winner will emerge from a fair competition among the world’s playing nations – can be peeled back, layer by layer, until we see how in almost all ways it just isn’t so.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The yellow magician

Ladies and gentlemen, observe carefully these four balls, one blue, one red, one black and one green. I’m going to turn over my hands and the balls will disappear. Pay attention now, one… two and…
Bruno Munari had been a futurist, and as part of a futurist exibition in the 1930s he produced a series of pioneering mobiles, which he called useless machines. Delicate, finely balanced contraptions I saw exhibited once. He also wrote and published a set of very detailed instructions and specifications on how to make them. Now, in 1945, he designed a series of eight books for his son Alberto, who was five years old. Libri animati, he called them. Animated books. Including this one. Il prestigiatore giallo. The Yellow Magician.

…three. The balls have disappeared, and now in their place there’s a small pack of guards. Let’s look at them. This is the ace of hearts.
This is the two of hearts…
By Jove, the three of hearts is missing! Where could it be?
Let’s look for it.
When I was growing up, I knew Munari him for his illustrations of Gianni Rodari’s books – including Fairy Tales Over the Phone and my favourite, The Book of Mistakes – as well as two books of his own: L’arte come mestiere (literally ‘art as a craft’, but changed in the English edition to Design as Art) and Disegnare un albero, ‘how to draw a tree’. I still have my copy of How to draw a tree. Ostensibly designed to help teachers help children to learn to draw trees, the book is really an extended meditation on the art of drawing, and how to avoid clichés in art. Even classroom art. I am very fond of it still, in spite of the fact that to this day I cannot draw trees very well, or anything else for that matter.

It may be under the top hat of that gentleman wearing glasses. Excuse me, sir, would you mind taking off your hat?
Whereas Design as Art is a collection of dazzling illustrated essays which could equally be a chanced-upon volume of a much larger, omni comprehensive book, like one of those encyclopaedias in Borges. Sample chapter titles: ‘What is a designer’; ‘Telegrams and poetry’; ‘Worn-out objects’; ‘The square’; ‘The circle’; and my favourite: ‘Cutlery’. (Munari once invented a fork language based on varying the configuration of the prongs.)

Thank you, but! How can it be! There is a rabbit here. So where’s the three of hearts?
He wrote this other book called Little White-Riding Hood, in which every page is white, and some of them are cut out to form shapes, but the last page is just blank, except for the line of text: ‘I had never seen that much snow before’. I’d like to get hold of it some day. Milan’s Fog is not too dissimilar: an illustrated book about invisible or concealed things.

If you care to excuse me for a moment, I have just received by express post a letter from my friend Alfonso. I wonder what’s up with him.
Dear Yellow Magician, I’m sending you the three of hearts that I found in one of my shoes. If you’re looking for the four coloured balls, look in the pockets of that barefoot man.
As for the rabbit, I’m keeping it for certain experiments…
Yours, Alfonso
But all that came later. In 1945, when his son Alberto was five, Munari thought up animated books for children. I don’t know how novel that idea was. Pop-up books had existed for a number of centuries. Tunnel books since the 18th. The Yellow Magician is a lift-the-flap book, and those had been around as well, at least since Pat the Bunny (1940), probably earlier. In Italy, however, even discounting Fascist propaganda and those chilling rewritings of the story of Pinocchio, the state of the literature was appalling. And so Munari made his own.

Called up on the stage, the barefoot man pretends to be someone else. He concentrates on the flight of a butterfly, which he had brought to the theatre for this express purpose. But let’s look inside his pockets.

There are those four balls, which the child will dutifully uncover one by one, lifting every flap until he or she is satisfied. The child knows the trick – the child is the trickster, and in that complicity lies the pleasure of such books. Yet the best ones, the ones that don’t resort to cliché, always leave open the possibility that the last pocket of the barefoot man may be empty; the chance, however slim, of a lack of resolution, or a leap of imagination. And that may just be why you lift every last one of those flaps every time.

In a most unexpected turn of events, I was interviewed by the wonderful Kim Hill last Saturday. You can listen to the whole thing here and frankly I don't see why you wouldn't. 
Also, my column for issue 215 of Overland is now online