Situated: Space Films Programme

Last weekend I curated (in absentia) a short film programme with other ex-residents of the White Building around the theme of Situated. I prepared a couple of short films about space, and since I never got to see them all together as I coughed up bits of lung from my bed and there was some interest in the programme, I've decided to post them here. Enjoy.

A Trip To The Moon - Georges Méliès - 1902

This film precedes a gargantuan list of 'firsts' - almost definitely the first science fiction film at least. It was an adaptation of various works by Jules Verne and HG Wells and kind of epitomises the fantasy of the era with space and the unknown. The film was made at a time of peak imperialism and you get a pervasive sense from the film that the makers realised the world was conquered and it was only a matter of time before we were aiming outside our gravitational well - perhaps there was a message hidden in the way the explorers are chased off by the angry lunar natives. It's only ten minutes but includes some fascinating animation and artistic direction.

NASA Space Colonization - NASA - 1975

73 years later and we're introduced to a new projection of space colonisation. This one isn't born of colonialism but of science-fiction. This may as well be a low-budget Kubrick fan flick for all they lifted from them. The swagger of NASA at this point is beginning to wane as the moon missions fall out of popular approval and so NASA began to aim higher in terms of PR by promising us all utopic orbital platforms and space craft. I wonder how many at NASA gritted their teeth at the watering down and selling of sci-fi for another public relations distraction to prop up the cold war.

Mars One Introduction - Mars One - 2013

And here we are in the real state of space colnisation now. Perhaps the most realistic vision. A competition funded by angel investors, big tech and reality television. The watering down of all those colonial dreams through the golden age of sci-fi and into the golden age of celebrity. Of course, they skirt round this stuff in the promo but the point is that what we're looking at here is the real, rather unromantic and brutal reality of the beginnings of our galactic empire.

The One Way Ticket - Joseph Popper - 2012

Joseph Popper was examining this idea of the one way trip that the Mars One 'astronauts' will undertake last year when he was using space psychology, architecture and Hollywood special effects techniques to work on his idea of 'zero gravity with zero budget.' The point here is that much like the NASA colonisation film, most of the impression we have of space is lifted from science fiction, and it's sold that way. We have very little grounding or concept of the realities of life and psyche under different physics.

Into Orbit - Joseph Popper - 2011

I actually prefer some of Popper's earlier experiments with his 'zero gravity with zero budget' hypothesis. This one sees our lone fantasist re-enacting his perception of space and we're transported to his dream space with him. I think this taps into something more grounded about our dreams for space. And about how the normal can be made fantastic through this science fiction lens.

Attention Weightlessness - Arts Catalyst - 2000-2003

Attention Weightlessness documents the journeys of several of the groups artist's experiments in weightlessness. I first saw Gravitation Off! - the original version of this film - at Kosmica some time ago. Although it's not an amazing film, it does bring into focus the interest in space amongst artists and the seriousness with which we can take these little forays into zero gravity as portents of the future.

(Space Exodus - Larissa Sansour - 2011)

I didn't actually get to put this in because we couldn't find a hard copy but I really wanted to. Sansour takes the role of a Palestinian astronaut, planting the flag of the demi-country on the moon. There's not much more you can say really. She's raising issues around sovereignty and the domineering vision of the west, but as with all the best stuff dealing with the Middle East, it's humorous and easy to grapple with.

Space Oddity - Chris Hadfield - 2013

For this first time in half a century we have a new space hero. Recently I watched Paxman berating the British replacement for Hadfield for not being charismatic enough. Hadfield came to represent a new face of space travel. Not so elitist, not so distant, not so alien. His very simple broadcasted experiments and live chats were a far cry from NASA's beaten, scratched record of 'give us money for stuff you couldn't possibly understand.' It became 'give us money because we're meant to do this stuff. Because it feels right.'

Other interesting reading/watching/seeing that I didn't get to include in the programme includes Peckham Outerspace Initiative's Ships Not Shelters - GTFO of Earth, extolling the virtues and necessity of getting used to living a transient life through space, Vincent Fournier's Space Project exploring the day-to-day life of NASA and First on The Moon, a 2005 Mockumentary about a 30's Soviet moon landing. Do also consider Agnes Meyer-Bradnis' Moon Goose Analgoue which is being shown around the UK this year and Cristina De Middel's Afronauts, which made it's Kickstarter target to be turned into a film.

Weeknotes 12: Limited Content Edition

This one's been in incubation for about three weeks. Not all news is guaranteed fresh. Here we go again...

Who Even Needs Countries?

A question I've often asked. My spin on it is usually more positive. I've always considered countires to be inherently conservative mechanisms, designed to preserve tradition and support worst-case hypothesis. Part of my distaste is framed in the fact that we each have enough individual agency for some type of techno-anarchism to prevail. Or some sort of drastic localism. Or mass-something or other. Regardless, world leaders of the political nature are usually bad news in a basket.

The alternative post-state is the more nightmarish mass libertarian for-profit institutionalism outlined here. Look back at that whole spiel I did about the balance of power between nations and business and we're all on the same lines. This power is shifting. Most importantly is the outline that nation-state and government have become synonymous, when they are not. Take example from the Church, Mafia, Second Life and Facebook. Italians and Californians seems particularly bent toward extra-territorial governance, though the Italian scooter and Aperol-based ideology seems preferable to me.

Amazon's 3D Printers

Amazon is selling 3D printers from it's US store. The latest dive of normalisation for the technology. It's still buried under the 'industrial and scientific' category and as far as I can tell has missed the omnipresent 'Father's day' lists. The greatest, most dizzying heights of normalisation will be that day (quite probably this time next year) when they're knocked down to under $100 and pumped out at the top of father's day lists. You hand it to him with a brief exchange of, 'Oh yes, I've read about these.' He dutifully scans the instructions and prints off a handful of the stock objects that come with the software that day. Then it sits in the garage for ten or twenty years.

Again, much like with the Little Printer, this whole thing is backed up with headlines proclaiming 'Amazon embracing the future.' Neglecting the fact that by setting up this potential 2014 marketing bonanza, they're the ones writing the future in the first place and laying the trap for thousands of misunderstood and unused 3D printers littering suburban garages and sheds.

Space is the place.

Benedict Singleton is the kind of guy with a cheerful skip, a malevolent but harmless sense of humour and a dark glint of something genuinely terrifying and exciting in his eye. This essay for eflux is that dark glint. I share studio space with the guy so I'm often bombarded with the tail end of theories about escaping the bonds of death and gravity, but to actually read it written down and performed in text makes it eminently quotable and quite a supportable, if insane, theory.
Fedorov has no time for proclamations that human beings must “love Nature.” This was, to him, the characteristic indulgence of those he contemptuously described as “the learned”—an elite who could spend their time singing Nature’s praises, because their everyday lives were substantially insulated from it, by precisely the kinds of technology—from agriculture to medicine—that act to counter the “natural.” Out in the field—literally as well as figuratively—no such niceties prevail. This does not mean Fedorov promoted a project of “overcoming” nature, in the sense of “destroying” or even “dominating” it. He is aware that the same processes that lay waste to life are deeply implicated in life itself, even if—in the later words of a Fedorov acolyte, the economist Sergei Bulgakov—“life seems a sort of accident, an oversight or indulgence on the part of death.” His mission is instead to convert or transform the natural, to bring reason to it, carving out a larger and more hospitable environment for life.

A New Dawn

A few weeks back I spoke at the New Dawn event hosted by ArtEZ university in Enschede in the Netherlands. Video's out now, here it is.

Dirigible Fantasies

'Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon.' - Winnie The Pooh

Around The World In Eighty Days is famous for it's balloon. Google the novel and you'll find a wealth of book covers, adverts for musicals, films and pantomimes and cosplay depicting Phileas Fogg's famous balloon adventure. The irony of course is that Jules Verne never wrote about a balloon. It was put into the 1956 adaptation of the film and has gone on to reverse-engineer the narrative ever since - it now appears on the cover of most editions of the book.

Film producers aren't the only ones to falsely impress memories and narratives of balloons on us, In fact, the idea of a balloon ride has been historically popular in experimentation with false memories. There's something about the strength and simplicity of the imagery of ballooning that makes it particularly powerful on the mind. Probably another reason why it proliferates in advertising despite ballooning having very little connection to anything except ballooning.

Google even popped it into their Google Glass video. Because ballooning is something you'll probably do more of when you're the type of person who buys Glass. Or maybe because you can only buy Glass if you're the type of person with interesting, real memories to record. Or maybe the balloon isn't real and this is some proposal for some 'life fulfilling' AR program in the works and we've just read it wrong.

Of course, the balloon was always associated with business. For years I lived in a place surrounded by fields that would populate with balloon enthusiasts on clear, windless weekends for what could essentially be called an intense aerial advertising campaign over rural England. Most of the owners of the balloons paid for them with sponsorship from local business. In the US, the Goodyear blimp has, over the decades achieved lustful fame with consumers as something to aspire to. They cement this relationship by only allowing corporate guests to ride in the three balloons they have. Maybe one day that could be you. If you work hard enough, or buy enough product. The sky, is quite literally, the limit.

Returning to Google, they just released Google Loon. Put aside the Boris Johnson-style titular self-deprecation in the face of the fact that we recently realised they rule the world, and you actually have a pretty good idea.  You send the Internet around the world on balloons to places that don't have the necessary infrastructure to get it themselves. It's easy to adopt cynicism here. Facebook recently found out that it's reached peak Western users and, without better communication infrastructure, is struggling to reach out to new markets to ensure the continued growth it promised shareholders. I would imagine that most of the big stacks find themselves in similar positions.

If this is ringing bells, think of Liam Young and Superflux's collaboration for Electronic Countermeasures (above) - a temporary network of drones carrying wi-fi for pirating media around the city. And here is where we can draw the delineation. Just as the drone has  in recent years become a symbol of shadowy agency, secretive motives and often para-legal, para-moral activity, the balloon seems to have cropped up as a sort of idyllic and earnest hero. I used the Winnie the Pooh quote because there's something of the Pooh about balloons. They seem to lack urgency and velocity, and with that they become quite helpless. It's quite hard to extract a sense of viciousness or sinisterism from a balloon. They're slow, susceptible to wind, bad weather and damage. They're hard to hide and have limited application. Hark back to the Second World War where balloons were our trusty defence against the Nazi bombing raids or the early twentieth century where skyscrapers were erected with balloon moorings, earnestly believing that the future of flight was in these imperfect dirigibles.

That dream seemed to have died at some point. Probably for the best and probably about the time of the 1956 Around The World in Eighty Days adaptation. Aeroplanes were safer, faster and ultimately cheaper. It was that simple. The balloon became a thing of novelty, for hobbyists or for advertisers to park their logo over the cityscape or sometimes, rural England, population 3.

But now the Golden Age of Ballooning returning. Perhaps not in reality but certainly in speculation. Dunne and Raby's recent United MicroKingdoms (left) features a group of Anarcho-Evolutionists that have evolved tall and slender bodies to live in balloons in the air. This semi-Utopian fantasy is faltered by the struggle to find fuel and resources and is perhaps not as idyllic as the balloon-as-sold would seem.

The architecture world is littered with hot air balloon projects. Cloud City by Studio Lidfors involvs quite literally raising New York in the face of rising sea-levels. The amazing Zeppelin's Swarm by Hector Zamora (above) looks at, again, falsifying a history of Zeppelin airshows in Venice through the power of the imagery of a Zeppelin (the Zeppelin itself has quite a fascinating history as a series of determined and failed experiments.) More recently, at Goldsmith's This is War graduation show, Stephanie Jedek's Vertical Geography imagines a populated future sky of balloons and dirigibles of commmercial and residential value in a slightly milder version of Theo Games Petrohilos' Air Futures.

Not only designers and architects, but novelists turn to the symbol of the dirigible. Steampunk is positively cluttered with them and one of my favourite books of the recently deceased Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist, concerns a race of dirigible creatures, passive and friendly, ancient and buried in custom who seemingly hold the secret to galactic domination but are reluctant to use it.

Perhaps there's something in here of the unreachable irreality of space colonisation. A balloon doesn't feel like a method of transportation. There are other, better, cheaper, easier ways of moving through the air and the drone, having shrugged off human cargo is perhaps the finest version of that. The balloon feels like it is built for us. Not something to move in, but something to be in, to be on. To be floated high and away from the overcrowding, the technology of motion and living and into a space seemingly without time or allegiance. Perhaps, and I think all these projects talk about this, we want that lack of agency. That ability to relinquish control that a balloon seemingly gives, to be a part of the world and observe it but to escape from it while the drone slinks under the skin and corrupts form the inside.

There are practical considerations too. Lighter-than-air aircraft are much more environmentally friendly and the thinking goes that with more and more goods becoming immaterial, what's left as physical will happily be transported slower and for lower cost - a story very reminiscent of the death of the Concorde and the birth of the Internet partnered with huge, cheap passenger craft. With Google Loon we're staring to see these futures become real but in a deceptive form. Google looks to appeal to our fantasy of dirigible flight in order to justify filling the air with data and cutify the technology of its ongoing market dominance. If this is really the start to the real Golden Age of Ballooning then it may end up more sinister than we imagined.

*check out this Darth Vader balloon I saw in the Netherlands a few weeks back.

PRISM, Secrets, Internal Liars and the New Aesthetic

The other week I made what I could contingently call a 'reckless' purchase.  I bought a patch from the 432nd Wing Hunters from ebay. The one with drones one and the four horseman of the apocalypse. At the time I thought that if I didn't get it, then I'd miss the chance at an artifact that exists at a point of the normalisation of drones.

James Bridle has published a defense of the New Aesthetic. Roughly two years one from its inception (and remember where we were two years ago) it's interesting to see an idea so founded on the roaring breaker of technology defend itself still. There are many much more indefensible things out there. Bridle has always framed his vision that he wishes to observe pattern, to spot the points where the network amplifies itself into the physical and becomes briefly visible in short-lived artifacts and images. To him, his drones are the loudest amplification and it's easy to see why. 

The New Aesthetic is not superficial, it is not concerned with beauty or surface texture. It is deeply engaged with the politics and politicisation of networked technology, and seeks to explore, catalogue, categorise, connect and interrogate these things. Where many seem to read only incoherence and illegibility, the New Aesthetic articulates the deep coherence and multiplicity of connections and influences of the network itself.

Suddenly, the human error of mistaking pattern for reason comes to mind. But I suspect Bridle isn't looking for reason, I'm not sure there is a single reason for the patterns he observes and I wonder how he might elevator pitch the project in those terms. Perhaps the New Aesthetic becomes about disassociating pattern from reason. Slightly earlier he refers to popular protest's obsession with the face and individual of the cause, the Mannings, Assanges and more recently, Snowdens. In this itself is a critique of the 'crowd' looking for the reason in the pattern while ignoring the idea that the very content of the disclosed secrets is the reason.

It's in the secrets that the New Aesthetic becomes interesting for me. My fascination has always been with power, where power lies and how it shifts and moves. Secrets are a tool of power and one of the oldest but they're bi-lateral.

I was struck by multiple thoughts watching the NSA's revelations unfold. First was total lack of surprise. After all the NSA is for secrets, why should we be so appalled that they kept them from us? With decades of fictions of sinister plotting and international espionage should we be surprised? Every film from Batman to the Bourne Identity has some giga-network in play. So, perhaps there is a sense here that we knew what the NSA were doing and the content is not exactly what inspires ire but the fact that it was released. The fact that it became explicit. We were happy for it to be implicit, shady and grey because it implies that we have a certain power over them. With secretive operations, all parties are aware that there is a reason for their secrecy - their moral, legal or political 'wrongness.' Once they're released, they become real and no longer wrong, defenses and marketing campaigns can be mounted to turn that wrong into a necessity - into a 'right' or blame can be offset, to terrorists, fear and necessity. The Cold War of Complicity between state and citizen erupts into a hot war that we cannot possibly win. We have more power in the Cold War, there's an imposed limit on the amplification of secret activity where it cannot become 'real' in the eyes and ears of the crowd. A secret is safe to everyone as long as it remains a secret.

To analogise what I mean, think back to the early Iraq war. Before the invasion was mounted it was easy for Hussein - whom we can equivocate to our ego - to boast that he could crush any invasion, that he was armed to the teeth, that his followers were loyal. To his people - which we could equivocate with our own internal baying mob - he could win, he was better. Once the invasion began - the secrets are released - the illusion falls away, Hussein is exposed as a weak deception and the people are forced into reactionism and fear.

This is, I think, the root of the outrage at the PRISM revelations. Not the fact that we were being spied on (which we knew already) but the fact that our own lie - that we have power over the state has been exposed. 

The second thing to happen, and go relatively unnoticed, was very surprising. The NSA admitted to the program within days and Obama went on the defensive. In the UK, Hague tried to distance the government from it and defend the freedom of UK citizens. GCHQ came under attack and again started trying to re-frame the program much as would be expected. But the tech companies, who were really at the heart of the secret, simply flatly denied it's existence.

Despite world government recognising the program and scrambling PR machines to make it palpable and definitively win the war of power over the secret, world tech and business stood, po-faced and smug and assured us that no such thing exists. There was initially a confusion of trust. Where the government should be the one in denial and these role-model stacks championing our own cause against the authoritarian tyranny of government, they broke the expected pattern of behaviour. With the stacks accusing and the government denying we would have a clear vision of the truth. The resources and connections of the stacks mean that whatever they say can become a truth to the crowd, and equally we know to distrust government spin at this stage and so the argument began to feel a little like the governments trying to tease the stacks into admission only to receive a flat 'no' in response.

I've said a few times that there's a reformation going on with the balance of power, one not of faith, state and money but of technology, state and power. This marks a decisive turning point at which the stacks can leapfrog the international community's line and draw their own, higher narrative. Not only that, but it shows the nature of that higher power. Government has learned over the last hundred years that it no longer has the power to effectively deny. Even the most denied secrets (think JFK) are constantly berated up the decades to look for cracks. Government does not hold the monopoly on weapons in the 'information war.' But the stacks do. And perhaps this is where we can draw back to Bridle's aim. The pattern, the mechanisms, the machine, the network is so well embedded and so well hidden and so unreadable and so inscrutable that Google simply can stand there and go 'No. This is not True.' And they write that truth as they go. They control the very framework within which the secrets and the lies are hung and I think with PRISM we've seen that partly exposed, not for the first time, but certainly in what of the most unsettling shows of power.