Sunday, 19 April 2009

Revisiting An Old Text

I wrote this a couple of years ago as a cathartic exercise through which I wanted to give form to, while also venting some frustrations, questions and feelings that I was struggling with. Every few years I reach a point at which, after slowly making my way through a few important experiences in life, and digesting their lessons; a few books that in time have proven to be sufficiently consonant with my character for them to be penetrated by my understanding, but differing in class from my habitual thought by a distance of enough extent to broaden my view of things; and a few sensual encounters of such immediacy and thoroughness, such full and uncontrollable occupation of my sensibilities, that they seem to indicate an undeniable predilection residing somewhere in the very material of my nature; after a few such moments, after these events have begun coalescing into one intermingled entity, pressing into each other with complete disregard towards contradictions and differences, the point is reached at which they together develop a mass, a weight and heaviness whose presence imposes itself on me in the form of an agitation, an anxiousness, an awareness of an uncomfortable presence that is not a part of the routine pattern of my thoughts, and that can only be lightened by attempting to describe it in words. And when a moment of fullness like this happens to arrive at a time when I am deeply frustrated, unable to actively pursue any ideas because of some external obligation or restriction, which was what happened at the time I wrote the text below, on its way out the thought tends to get mixed up with a quantity of desperation which lends it a pompous air, delivered through sweeping statements and vast generalisations. I usually try to avoid large and exposed abstractions, preferring to focus on small slices of reality, a significant minority of whose factors can at least be partially described, but I guess that when I am feeling confined and claustrophobic there is something terribly liberating about the incredible openness, the huge and vague and arrogant imprecision of the strident, but ungrounded declamation. At any other time the idea below would probably have unrolled itself through the description of a specific incident, or two, the nature of which would be comfortably analogous to the thoughts I wished to convey; but here the incident became the entire narrative thread of my life, and the thought was forced into the role of analogue for that thread, effectively imbuing a simple idea (the desire to design along the edges of sincerity, authenticity, tastefulness etc) with the rather heavy job of carrying me forward, of continuing the thread of my narrative into some exciting and open future, a role which looking back looks implausible, and clearly required the backing of all the fiery imagery that the text is so full of. But whether it is a plausible text now isn’t at issue, in fact reading it after all this time it seems very flimsy and transparent. What struck me, and where the text’s relevance lies, is in the disparity between its apparent puerility (a quality I find in most of what I write when re-visiting it), and the massive effect it had on my creative production over the two years that followed. I wrote a lot of things after this text, many of which were clearer, more grounded, more precise; many of which were formed in that same strange way in my mind, synthesizing out of a nebulous cloud of experiences; many of which led to the creation of interesting works; but none of which had a part to play in the genesis of every single piece of work in that entire time-span in the way this one did; none of which held an energy which could propel me to take up the pencil, mouse, camera or brush to a degree so opposite to the objective quality of the writing itself. But as I see it -and the reason why the work had such an long half-life- the causal relationship does not lead from the strength and quality of the text as detached object to the amount of creative energy released; but rather directly from the amount of singular emotional investment, and the level to which that investment has embedded itself within the birth of the idea to the amount of creative energy released. Sometimes an idea happens to be piggy-backed-on by a moment of personal re-orientation, and regardless of the inherent value of the idea, the chance union of the two (inflammatory language, vast abstractions an all) creates a constructive engine, a kernel of energy which can feed the flame of many following activities. I have only passed through three such chance unions, the first being an awfully long –and just awful- poem through which I faced a certain unwanted orientation of mine, and set the ground for three years of paintings and drawings; the second being a story through which I acknowledged the comfortable tyranny of habit, and set the scene for two years of stories and spaces which searched for a calibrated balance between the fearful grip of routine and the beauty of the quotidian; and this, the third, in which I adumbrated the edges of the topics of authenticity, sincerity and meaning, topics which I am still teasing out in whatever I do. Together they form a sort of ‘cloud of points’ that define the edges within which I roam.

More After The Break...

The Brain is Wider Than the Sky

The brain is wider than the sky,

For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

Emily Dickinson


“Children Find everything in nothing. Men nothing in everything.”


Plenty of very real things happened in 1982: planes crashed, ships sank, Israel invaded Lebanon, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands (or ‘Las Malvinas’), and the USSR invaded Afghanistan. A lot of people died: and that is without mentioning all the proxy wars that were keeping everybody south of the equator clutching their Uzis and Kalashnikovs close to their chest, in case of the very real need of protecting themselves from some marauding warlord or other, intent on murdering their political and ethnic enemies at will in the name of ‘freedom’ or ‘brotherhood’.

A lot of very real events, and these events were keeping everybody on their toes like never before thanks to an innovation of two years before: twenty four hour news service. On June 1, 1980 Ted Turner’s CNN news channel began telling us all about everything sensational that was going on in the world at the time, in real-time, in film, in colour, with flashy graphics, with music full of gravitas and tension, with live satellite link-ups to whatever region in the world was host to whatever awful trauma, cataclysm, or crisis happened to be most thrilling at that given moment. No longer was there the filter of opinion and distance inherent in print, which had up until that point maintained news as something more literary and imaginative -something worked into by the reader and accessed via a level of effort; even tabloid articles require readers to paint the scene of their rhetorical rants in their heads. Now news became immediate. The power of the image, the power of belief that is forced upon us when we see something rather than have something described to us meant that doubt began to creep out of the presentation of events; or rather that it was precisely because it seemed that it had become presenting rather than recounting: subjectivity seemed to have been replaced by a visceral objectivity.

But at the same time as it seemed that people were gaining access to the reality and the immediacy of events around the world, the medium itself was creating a schism. A major difference between the mediums of television and film and that of print and the still image is that with the former one cannot peruse at will, there is no potential for idly accessing some areas in depth and glancing over others, one cannot create the order in which one absorbs; these are qualities Inherent in mediums whose form is static but whose content is dynamic (print etc). With television a stream of images is presented which, by virtue of the gullibility of the eye satisfies the viewer, and because of the necessary quantity of images, of stories, of events (the news channel maintains its reputation by “bringing you the news as it happens, where it happens” and there is a lot of news to keep up with), and the lack of ability of the viewer to be able to slow down the stream and focus in any way, all images become equal, they become flattened in terms of the affect that they have on the viewer. With CNN, form became dynamic and content became static: more and more events, but less and less message, less and less content, just constantly changing places, faces and things. But with one overpowering cumulative effect: a vague, general, but extremely strong sense of unease (well what else when we are confronted with continuous disaster?).

So plenty of very real things happened in 1982, but they started to seem less real, more immediate visually, more worrying, but less independent and discrete to people living with access to Ted Turner’s new channel. Why 1982? My apologies, but I had to pick a year and it happens to be the one into which I was born: that being an event which although I am sure never made it onto CNN, was pretty important for me.

So I was born, and being born into a business-oriented family, (the new generation of people for whom all the places in the world were like the news stories in CNN: flashing past each other with such rapidity that they merged into something new) the aforementioned channel was forever flickering in the background -it was the wallpaper to fights about haircuts and holidays, school results and infidelity. But until reasonably late I was unaware of the arrival of its cultural twin, of its beautifully decked-out sister.

A year after CNN, on the first of August 1981 (as everyone in my generation knows) MTV was launched by Warner Entertainment. Sputtering into existence with few viewers, it soon became to pop-culture (which for my generation became Culture) what CNN was to politics and current affairs. Novelty reigned supreme here as well. A heady combination of music, fashion, dance and graphics began to swirl so violently that people not only got swept up in it, but began to live it: where the news convinced the viewer of gravity through image, MTV created whole identities, created exciting genres of what one could be. These identities, like news stories, were originally taken up from the surrounding culture, and having been stripped of any content, were transmitted as novelty to the waiting viewers: but as the speed of necessary change increased, as the appetite for shiny newness grew (because when something is devoid of content it only lasts as long as it seems fresh, exciting, and then its hollowness eats outwards and it must be discarded), so the surrounding culture became insufficient… identities (complex images) needed to be fabricated. This tendency was exemplified by Madonna, a singer whose initial record in 1982 (woohoo, again!) began a prolific career in which, marching from identity to identity in rapid succession she mined the past, the future, every type of music, every type of clothing, and almost as many beliefs, in unending combination to constantly keep herself interesting and new. She is the epitome of massively dynamic form whose dynamism itself stems from its static -or rather here, almost entirely nullified- content. Madonna is however exceptional in personifying the system, there was a danger in her very existence: by virtue of her being the same person and whirling through all these identities, she revealed the way in which the cultural machine works, and a fundamental motor which keeps it working is either suspended disbelief, or genuine belief in each of these passing images and identities. Madonna’s existence and success screamed out that every identity is just part of an unceasing, cascading collage. However, rather than instilling any doubt by virtue of her success, her ‘type’ moved people on from believing their whole youth in one identity (punk or New Romantic etc), or simply enjoying the cascade discreetly as if watching the news, to themselves believing in one thing after another after another after another… themselves dressing one way after another, themselves being one thing after another, like Madonna going from Bohemian-Gypsy to Punk-Antoinette to Disco-Baroque to Skater-Rap to Folk-FuckYou-Mod to NewAge-Rave etc, and being each of these things in earnest. Just like the news service elevating each event to extreme crisis and therefore dissipating all events and leaving only a ‘sense of unease or fear’, so MTV elevated every passing persona to the heights of adulation, and thereby dissipated persona itself, leaving only a generalised and widespread ‘sense of lost identity,’ which itself drove us all to seek the next persona more desperately.

And this brings me to a confused teenager. By the time I was fifteen I had for a while been making the mistake of earnestly believing in either the eminence or the superiority of whatever groups I had been in or whatever music I had been listening to; I had made the mistake of taking the news and current affairs to heart and being in continual mourning for half the world; and by the time all my sympathy had been eaten up by the thirty seventh war or the fiftieth natural disaster, by the time all my youthfully ardent passion had been frittered away on espousing one image of myself or another (skater, raver, art-knob, queen), by that time, with all that lost energy which could have been focused on something of content, I became tired, bored, apathetic. The flow of images had eaten up my energy and I was left doubting if indeed anything that had been held up to me by my peers and by our media was meaningful at all, whether anything could hold anyone’s attention for more than a millisecond, could genuinely affect them, and whether if indeed it did affect them, whether it could do more than just batter them repeatedly like some bully with ADHD.

Towards the end of my schooling, when all of my friends were disappearing off to Africa, South America or India, to find out who they truly were (I guess they were all like me: seeing the world through a lens that could observe nothing but surfaces, and, aware of the fact, desperately searching for a way in which to see more), I happened upon architecture: it seemed so solid, so sturdy, its books seemed to spit and shout and scream with real war cries, and if not that then they seemed to confidently speak of eternities, of understandable systems, essentially it all seemed reassuringly old fashioned and ideological: it seemed real. So for a period I stepped out of the confusing torrent and was convinced in turn that function=truth, form=rehabilitation, structure=craft, digitalisation=complexity, complexity=nature, one after another -not all being mutually exclusive- but rather quickly beginning to cancel each other out. I had been taken in by the seductive combination of simple answers and concrete outcomes: where previously the images on the television wreaked havoc with my heart by virtue of the gullibility of the eye, now I had been convinced by all of my senses together. How can something as material, as real, as concrete as a building -a space- in any way not have substance to it? A building seemed like such an irrefutable presence (you don’t only look at it, but can touch it, smell it, hear it), such an incredible act of human will and ideas manifesting themselves in the physical world that all the vapid reasonings used to define their genesis were things to be forgiven, to somehow be believed in and apologised for because they led to the holy grail of the manifestly physical. But what was the significance of being manifest physically?

Just as before I had been taken in by form. Here it had seduced me more completely by a smattering of specious arguments that tarted it up just enough that one could allow oneself to give in to credulity. But just as after a certain number of images, so after a certain number of physical specimens one loses that credulity: I had been so desperate for content and realness that I had not seen that empty arguments masquerading as content are even worse than none at all, and that even something physical can be eaten from the inside out by hollowness. Outside of architecture there was the force and power of locomotion, of incessant flashing change, of novelty, newness and excitement to distract from the emptiness of everything; architecture -with its plodding gait- was not only without this placebo, but encumbered by arrogant moralising (“you won’t save your soul just painting everything white!” cried Sottsass against this). Even as their work is swept up and used as just-some-more-fuel in the world of images, even as architects are benefiting from being presented as novelty, they somehow continue to see through a lens that stuffs their work full of ‘principles’.

After searching for meaning for so long, after being duped so many times, after realising that what the eye sees is not any kind of rounded reality, that the physical and tangible doesn’t’ necessarily mean the substantial, that form isn’t identity; after searching for so long it was just a swapping of gaze from one side of the equals-sign to the other that provided so much material of substance, so much richness and meaning that I would never be left wanting for the rest of my days. With the news-channels, the individual event no longer matters, it is the cumulative effect which is important, just as with MTV and pop-cultural programming, also advertising (the individual advert doesn’t’t have so much significance, it’s the cumulative effect, the need to fulfil oneself through products), and so on. The meaning is the cumulative. The meaning, the content is the requisite social mechanisms that keep our society more stable and contented than any combination of state and church could ever achieve: people are kept busy, kept forever distracted, kept eternally desiring by an exquisite, beautiful, complex and ultimately serene (when seen from this angle) nothingness, emptiness.

And then there is pleasure. One can sit back and enjoy the most fabulously ornate, embellished, complex and busy construction of artifice that man has ever seen. Relish the adverts and music videos as they flutter past like they were delicate butterflies, savour the current political crisis like you would a distant thunderstorm, delight in the latest exhibition as you would waking up and seeing the city covered in snow: because this colourful, floating edifice of ours is a para-monde, a new reality, supplementary to that of nature but very much springing from it. And just as one can revel in the meaningless comings and goings of nature (the way that lights falls, the vagaries of the weather, the dawdling of animals, the ever fascinating behaviour of people in the streets etc), just as one can be kept busy by the infinity of trivialities in the immediate world around us; so we can enjoy the world of images, the great construction of man. We do not question what we see in nature because we do not doubt its essential realness, we accept it all as equally significant, we allow ourselves the luxury of assigning meaning to the things and happenings that we see, we allow our minds to seize on it all as material which we appropriate to construct our own little metaphorical narratives; and if one sees our meaningless world of novelty in this way, it becomes a continuous joy to watch, it becomes a vast mine of material from which one can construct as many narratives and forms as one could ever want. With this liberation of all that form by realising and being aware of its meta-content (/meaning), and separating all its manifestation therefrom, we enter the realm of the sculptor given infinite subjects and inexhaustible stone.

So real things still happen, only each of them has an extravagant twin in the mirror-world of our Culture. Each event has its own ‘Joanna-on-the-weekends’ to its James. Susan Sontag describes the appreciation of this specular world as being the ‘Camp’ sensibility and describes how she is “strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.” She realises that “One is drawn to Camp when one realises that “sincerity” is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness.” Being drawn towards a certain sensibility, being able to understand its logic, she has not yet managed to see the possibilities inherent within it. It draws on and enjoys frivolity, but is not frivolous in itself. As a New York liberal she also cannot reconcile herself to the fact that “Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence,” but she also points out that “Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature.” What I am trying to describe in this essay is not entirely the same as Sontag, it is however something of its Siamese twin, sharing a deep well-spring of continuous amazement as its shared heart.

There is the enjoyment of this artificial world, and there is the freedom to use all its wealth of form, but then there is the difficulty of dealing with great wealth… as a creator, as designer, what does one do with this embarrassment of riches? Memphis, a collaborative design group formed in February 1981 attempted to tackle this head on by plunging into the flow. From the very beginning, being hyper-aware of what they were dealing with, they decided to access and utilise all the energies of what they called popular culture’s “embryonic languages” and forms, to explode orthodox design’s “expressive poverty”. They hoped to lay the foundations for “a future, more flexible and sophisticated stylistic syntax” by being as “enthusiastic, explosive, exalted, elated, as striking as neon in a tropical night.” They managed to capture something of a moment in the world around them, but from the beginning they recognised that they could do no more. From the initiation of the project they were “all sure that Memphis furniture will soon go out of style,” they “saw the fact of being a fad, of moving a la mode and comme la mode as a sign of great vitality,” they went into the experiment seeing their own creations, seeing “Memphis objects, like fashion, [as] purely tautological, [as] ‘immoral.’” Essentially they were intrepid intellectuals dipping their toes into the water to test its temperature. They tremulously began to start formulating a way in which thoughts, speculations, constructions, and content can deal with dynamic form. Even as they denied it, statements like: “Memphis has taken the first step towards the recomposition of an open and flexible design culture that is aware of history, conscious of consumption as a search for social identity and of the object as a sign through which a message is conveyed,” reveal their serious goals. The solution that they arose to, and which itself (as they had predicted) became just a fad, a flash in the reel of images, was formulating each unit of design as something unique and fresh: constructions composed of different elements which when smashed together spoke dynamically to people through their senses, which through a shocking combination of kitsch, loudness and sophistication powerfully conveyed a feeling, an impression. The trade-off was that although they had managed to genuinely start harnessing and exploring the creative energy of what they called ‘marginal culture’ and ‘consumer society’, they were ultimately swallowed by it and swept away; their unique and fresh objects stood alone and empty in the glare of time with only their sensual impressions, their surfaces as guardians. From the beginning they treated Memphis as an experiment, their designs were “anti-ideological”, empty of content and so destined to be swept away and only left as colourful flotsam. They made the mistake of thinking that not being ideological meant that one could only be consciously devoid of content (and cerebrally grappling with form). Like Sontag with her attraction and horror towards Camp, their whole experiment was tinged with the ambivalence of designers seduced by the world around them, but unable to reconcile content with form in vicious flux (the very mention of morality and their work being “immoral” seems to place them within a framework where they were Satanists, devoid of the moralizing prerogative of politicized designers, pissing with colour and pattern on the Sacramental Bread of the Neo-Modernists’ righteous whiteness), and so they only dealt in form.

Coming rpidly to the age where I will be spat-out at the world and be allowed to begin dropping material objects from the confusion of my thoughts, I thought it pertinent to begin framing a general problem for myself and anyone who would like to come along for the ride. If one goes beyond that immediate earnestness where gullibility forces us to take everything at face value; if one saves one’s energy for relevant problems and releases enjoyment and imagination to feed upon the rest; if one takes the turn beyond meaninglessness and sees that there is meaning -only that it is manifest in the cumulative; if one recognises that our wedding-cake world is in no way in contradiction to nature, and reality; if one is stuffed full of ideas and is unsated by simply standing back and enjoying, then it is a good moment to add a new layer to design culture, to access the possibilities of another turn in perception already in motion. We are in a world of incandescent, cataclysmic form, at the heart of which sits the meta-content of systemic distraction/pacification/production. Memphis dabbled in the furnace of dynamic form and was gloriously incinerated, now, there are extended and multiplying possibilities for creating forms of dynamic content, of setting in motion meanings that tumble and crash and explode in turn just as rapidly. One can already mindlessly watch the forms fly-by like so many pigeons in the park, but what of more? what of the possibility that just as every real event has its fabulously decked-out but vacuous twin, so every fabulous twin should have its own fabulous inverse: its own incandescent personality, its own garlanded meaning? It would be madly chaotic, and is becoming so as amongst the hundreds of thousands of blogs and tweets and websites and empty but re-appropriated shops, there are emerging overlapping clouds of new meanings and content fashioned from and in response to, but not in the same nature as -of a higher and more complex construction than- anything that could have been forged under the first generation of digitized media. As a trained architect and someone fascinated with the nature of meaning, with the lull in rapaciousness that we are seeing now, but with the continuing march of our powers to represent, communicate and create, I am looking forward to a bonfire worthy of the intellect as well as the senses, a potentially delirious vessel which in parts is spectacle, but as a whole could be deeply real: dynamic-form and dynamic-content. As a designer I look forward to the opportunity to make something, to make things that are more complex, more rounded than ever before, things that are not unitary but must exist in a rich and ambiguous multiplicity, that are at once floating somewhere at the end of the Long Tail, in someone’s pocket, on youtube, on a phone, in a zine, in print, and perhaps even -possibly, one day- occupying a plot in a street (a plot that will be filled by infinitely more than just a physical presence…).

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