I’m performing at Hammer and Tongue, October 4th

I'm going to be performing a short spoken-word 'set' at the next Hammer and Tongue. Doors open 7:30pm at the Brighton Komedia and entry costs £5. The headliners will be Rob Auton and Clayton Blizzard and there will also be the poetry slam, which never failed to be entertaining. Details are here.

I'm not sure what I will be performing. I've prepared two pieces, a psychogeographical one about Brighton and a story about clowns. When I was first booked I promised myself I wouldn't do a performance about clowns – yet, somehow, I've written a piece called The Lonely Death of Chokey Chuckles. If you want to find out which piece I end up performing, come down to Hammer and Tongue. 

13: The Art of the Unseen

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Imagine if the first live gig you saw was the Flaming Lips. You might think that every performance would be as rich and spectacular as that and be sorely disappointed to find out most bands just shuffle about a bit on stage. Or if the first superhero comic you read was Watchmen: you'd imagine that they would all be that good (spoiler: not even close).

Back in 1997 I went to see the Sensation exhibition. It was the first big gallery show I'd seen and it blew my mind. It was a publicity-baiting show, featuring works like Marcus Harvey's Myra (removed after vandalism before our visit), Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, whose A Thousand Years was amazing. The work was playful and fun and left me excited about art. 

The problem is that I've compared every subsequent exhibition to my memories of Sensation and few shows have come close. I wasn't sure if it was a problem with me or with art but I was certainly disappointed.

The Hayward Gallery's Invisible show has finally lived up to my expectations. The theme of the show was Art about the Unseen. I thought it might would be an austere show, appealing to the part of me that is currently ploughing through books of philosophy. Instead it was accessible and entertaining. People were laughing, enjoying the art and the games it played.

Early in the exhibition there is a piece by the Art and Language group that consists of an air-conditioned room. Patrons responded with amusement. What does one do when faced with what is, essentially, a cooled room? For me the piece also raised a lot of questions. How does one transport a work like the air conditioning? Does one have to pay royalites? Customs fees? 

I've already written about my favourite piece, Tom Friedman's incredible 1000 Hour Stare, but there were many other highlights. Another Friedman piece, Curse, consisted of a spherical space above a pillar that was cursed by a witch. Again, the piece raises questions – how was the piece moved to the Hayward and did the curse come with it? Did it have to be cursed again in the new location? What do I think a curse actually is?

Many of the works provoked a direct response. Roman Ondak's work More Silent than Ever, was a space which the label claimed contained a listening device. My friend and I read the sign and immediately stopped talking, the suggestion of this device enough to silence us, even though we couldn't be sure the device was present or if anyone was listening to our gallery-chatter.

The invisible works could also be moving. Later in the exhibition there was another room, similar to the air conditioning one. The machines here were humidifiers. Our first response was amusement until we read the label. Teresa Margolles is an artist who "works with the physical traces of death" and her piece Aire/Air used water that has washed the bodies of unidentified murder victims prior to autopsy. The piece's label stated blankly "The water vapour is harmless" which seemed against the spirit of the piece. It was strange to inhale this water vapour knowing its history.

The exhibition's final piece was a participatory one, Jeppe Hein's Invisible Labyrinth. The work was set in a large empty space. Visitors put on a headset with an infrared receiver and set off to walk through the labyrinth, the headset buzzing when one hit a 'wall'. It was strange to watch people navigate this space, their steps faltering despite there being no visible obstruction. When I tried I finally found myself stuck, unable to remember the way out yet resistant to the idea of simply walking through the 'walls'.

One of the most interesting works was From New York to San Francisco to… by Bethan Huws. The name refers to the manner in which people in exhibitions "tend to pass from one work to the next, as if the artworks were little islands, and the seas – white wall/concrete floors in between – go unnoticed. They pass from New York to San Francisco to…, so to speak, without noticing the surroundings". The work consisted of an actor moving among the gallery patrons "in such a way as to make the visible artworks disappear". Who was the actor? It might be anyone. What if it was my friend? Or could it even be me?

As the show's curator wrote "Whether visible or not, art ultimately comes to life in our memories and in our conversations with others…" I was excited to see a show of conceptual art that was as much fun as this, so that my memories of it are worth recounting. It's good to regain the feeling that contemporary art can be exciting, creative and moving.

11: Thousand Hour Stare

On Saturday, at the Hayward Gallery's Invisible show, I saw one of the most incredible works of art I've ever seen.

'Invisible' displayed works of art dealing with the unseen. Tom Friedman's 1000 hour stare was hung in a room with several works, all of which were blank white sheets of paper of different dimensions. I once read about an imaginary exhibition of red squares that would draw attention to their subtle differences. This room did something similar with what appeared to be (and was sometimes physically indistinguishable from) empty sheets of paper.

Out of the works on show, the one that moved me most was Friedman's. The information for the work described the medium as "Stare on paper" with dimensions of 82.6 x 82.6. It had been carried out between 1992 and 1997.

The work is part of a series of works Friedman carried out on 'the invisible'. His work, A Curse, also in the show, is a spherical space above a pillar that has been cursed by a witch. According to Friedman, "one's knowledge of the history behind something affects one's thinking about that thing." Does this knowledge transform empty space, or a blank sheet of paper? 

A thousand hours is a long time to spend doing anything. Had the labour Friedman put into staring at this paper changed it? Unless the handling and storage of the paper over the five years of the work had changed or damaged it, a scientist could not distinguish between this work of art and another blank sheet. If I took the work from the wall, put it into a pile of similarly sized paper, it would be lost forever, all that work wasted. In what way had Friedman changed this one particular piece of paper?

And then there was the claim that Friedman had actually had performed that magical thousand hours of staring at this sheet. To put things on crass economic terms, was this sheet now worth a thousand hours of an artist's time? If I hired someone to reproduce it, paying minimum wages for every hour of their time, it would cost £6080. Yet the resulting 'work' would still be little different to any other piece of paper.

Or maybe Friedman was lying. The artist explicitly decided not to document the process, because of the tension that added to the work. Was he lying or not? Did it matter to me or not?

I stared at the work myself, trying to puzzle it out. Which raised the question of how the stares of the passing visitors affected the work. If I stared at it too long, maybe came back day after day, would I taint it in some way? Would my stare somehow be mixed in with Friedman's?

I'm certainly no expert in art theory, but I found 1000 Hour Stare provocative and approachable. It raised obvious questions and was also, in its own way, very moving. There was something incredible about the thought of the artist coming back to this blank sheet day after day. Or that he might have lied to me. All this, from what appeared to be a blank sheet of paper. Whether Friedman had put a thousand hours into the work or not, he had done something magical, transforming the empty paper into 'art'.

8: Will Self vs Creative Writing

Via a tweet from @piratemoon I found a fascinating interview with Will Self. As the final question, Self is asked "What do you feel a writer should use his twenties for?" His reply is strident:

"Just read a lot of books. I certainly did, and still do. Do anything, really. Anything which brings you into contact with the world. The big crisis for literature today is creative writing [courses], which is ludicrous at every level. It’s like these cunts like Cameron, who have never done anything but be a politician. And there isn’t a market for these creative writing graduates’ in most cases mediocre lucubrations. You are educating people to be writers who can’t make a living, who will go on to teach more writers who can’t make a living."

It's a great end to an interview but Self's rant has an interesting contradiction, claiming that creative writing is a "crisis for literature" while "there isn’t a market for these creative writing graduates". I think the crisis produced by creative writing courses is mostly confined to the field of creative writing courses. I've spoken about this a little in other blog posts (see, for example Creative Writing is a Pyramid Scheme). Literature seems able to take or leave the ouput of creative writing courses which is why there is no market for them.

Do I regret the creative writing courses I've attended (the CCE Certificate and MA in Creative and Critical Writing at Sussex)? While the professed promises and aims of both courses may be questionable, they have been very worthwhile experiences. Will Self questions the idea of "educating people to be writers who can’t make a living", but this assumes that employment/profit is the only reason to study something. While CCE (in particular their novel-writing stream) made little movement beyond the link between writing and 'success', there should be more to creative writing than publishing.

The Creative and Critical Writing MA frequently questioned the idea of Creative Writing. The course is not to everyone's taste, but I found it exciting and refreshing. How does writing relate to the publishing industry? To people's lives? This was a course that had some very big questions to ask rather than focusing on how one writes a best-selling literary novel. Why not question the meaning of life? Why not read incredibly difficult poetry? 

There is a second apparent contradiction in the Will Self interview. "Just read lots of books… [Do] Anything which brings you into contact with the world". How does fiction relate to the real world? The two are not neccessarily in contradiction, although Self's comment here doesn't consider that; but fiction is an important part of many people's real world. Julian Barnes wrote an essay in the guardian about his life as a bibliophile, the ending of which is worth quoting:

The American writer and dilettante Logan Pearsall Smith once said: "Some people think that life is the thing; but I prefer reading." When I first came across this, I thought it witty… The distinction is false… When you read a great book, you don't escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape – into different countries, mores, speech patterns – but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life's subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic.

Without wishing to sound self-helpy about it, creative writing should be lead its students to become better readers living richer lives. Creative writing offers an opportunity to deepen one's experience of life, regardless of publishing success – education should be about more than vocation. The Oxford philosopher, John Alexander Smith, apparently opened a 1914 lecture course with the following words: "Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life – save only this – if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education."

6. You’re Not My Babylon

One of the greatest songs ever recorded is You're Not My Babylon by These Animal Men (video on youtube). Released in 1994, it peaked at number 77 in the UK charts.

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It makes me sad that some of my favourite songs are almost unknown. Songs from bands like Leicester's Perfume, who I heard a few times on Radio 1, bought a single, and never heard of again. Or Nilon Bombers, a band whose Britpop-era support slots blew me away but never went beyond a first album. And These Animal Men, a Brighton band who wrote one of the greatest songs ever.

The Animal Men were part of the New Wave of New Wave, described by Wikipedia as "a sub-genre of the British alternative rock scene in the early 90s, in which bands displayed punk, post-punk and New Wave influences". It has been cruelly mocked by John Harris as "Britpop without the good bits".

The time before Britpop was fascinating. The British music scene was flooded with American imports but in the background something was happening. The music press were desperate to create a scene and jumped the gun a little when they invented the New Wave of New Wave which roped in bands like Sleeper, Echobelly and Menswear who later successfully jumped ship to Britpop.

At the time the New Wave of New Wave seemed contrived. For a start the name was unwieldy – even the abbreviation NWONW was unwieldy. It might have gone better if New Wave of New Wave had a snappier name – like, say, Britpop. (Or, um, Romo, another synthetic scene that didn't fare at all well but somehow has a much longer wikipedia page than New Wave of New Wave (although, to be fair, history has proved Simon Price right))

(The pre-history of Britpop is more interesting than Britpop itself, filled with characters like Luke Haines who toured with Suede in 1992 and lost the first Mercury prize to them in 1993. By 1995, as the country revelled in fake cockernee celebrations, Haines had moved to darker places. His Christmas 1995 release was an EP featuring songs about child murder, followed by a funk concept album about terrorism. Haines' contempt for commercial opportunity seems heroic).

These Animal Men were one of the bands who failed to move from New Wave of New Wave to Britpop. John Harris's history of Britpop, The Last Party, makes a single mention of the band on page 98, in a section about the retro bands that were around pre-Britpop. In a list of bands it mentions These Animal Men, "whose camp macho poses were redolent of the Clash".

I wasn't a huge fan of These Animal Men as a band. Their interviews were funny but they seemed an example of style over substance. It didn't help that their early single, Speed King, was a tabloid baiting hymn to amphetamine use. Still, they were entertaining enough and I saw them once supporting Carter USM at Sussex University's Mandela Hall. Most of the stage was taken up with Carter's equipment but These Animal Men used the cramped space they had as if they were the Who at Wembley. (Carter's gig was reviewed by Everett True in that week's Melody Maker. True ignored the gig itself in favour of reviewing a discussion he'd had with Carter beforehand about authenticity or something, which seemed a little unfair).

I may not have been a fan of These Animal Men, but I love their single You're Not My Babylon. It tells the story of Billie Frechette, who spent two years in jail for hiding the notorious bank robber John Dillinger. I don't really know the story, and I have no idea what it means to be someone's Babylon, although it sounds epic and important. The lyrics tell a story of last stands, misplaced loyalty and domestic violence, looking back on the past with sadness.  

When I hear the song it brings back a flurry of memories of being younger, with a million futures bursting from every moment. You're Not My Babylon is as great a song as Halleluliah or Hey Jude. It is a greater song than any single track Nirvana ever wrote; a song as great as Hole's Malibu or Le Tigre's Eau de Bedroom Dancing or the Beach Boys singing Wouldn't It Be Nice or Luke Haines singing Bad Reputation. It is one of the greatest records ever made.

The song reached number 77 in the charts. And I wonder how many songs I would love as much as this one if only I'd heard them.

This could be the greatest moment of your life: don't make it your last

4: Luck

The problem with history is that it only happens once. Explanations about why things happened can never be tested.

When I was younger, the only people on television were famous people. When interviewed, they explained how hard they'd worked and that they'd always known they would be famous. It was only with the arrival of reality TV that I got to see how many people were certain they would be famous and yet never made it. Following the work-hard-and-be-certain method didn't guarantee success, rather a selection effect meant the people who failed were invisible, a sort of celebrity dark matter.

There are other problems with recipes for success. Another is that they are protected from critiscism because people don't follow them perfectly and any deviation can be pointed to as the reason for failure. I often hear this when extreme and agile programming projects fail and it is suggested that they did not follow the methodology perfectly. But successful projects also break some of the rules. What if a large factor is simply luck?

As the writings on power laws by people like Clay Shirky show, there will always be people promoted to celebrity ("Freedom of Choice Makes Stars Inevitable") and this may not be completely based on merit (whether quanitifable or not). Popularity breeds popularity and a superstar is not neccessarily the best at something. During Britpop there were other bands with songs as good or better than Oasis, but only one band had 2.6 million people apply for tickets to see one of their concerts. The very popularity of Oasis became a selling point – it was great to be listening to a band that everyone else was, to hear the songs on radios and in clubs. 

There are, of course, books about how one can work to gain importance in a networked world, such as Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, but that still doesn't guarantee success. One of the funniest books on music ever written, The Manual by the KLF ("HOW TO HAVE A NUMBER ONE – THE EASY WAY"), is not going to work if everyone follows it, since there can only be 52 number ones in a year, although it did work for the band Edelweiss. Not everyone gets to be the best.

History only happens once, and writers can offer explanations without worrying about contradiction. There was a recent article in Wired, The Story of Steve Jobs: An Inspiration or a Cautionary Tale?, which looked at this issue of interpretation. Was Jobs' success down to his personality or not? Should one emulate his bad behaviour to be as 'great' as him? What if it comes down to luck?

A recent article by Martha Gill in the New Statesman, First the Worst, Second the Best, discussed research from the Said Business School that concluded "we should be more careful about dismissing the failed and praising the exceptional", suggesting that luck, particularly early in a career, was a major factor in success. Gill suggests we should not aim to copy 'greatness' but instead "we should strive to copy the second- or third-in-command"

(While written as a self-help tome, Richard Wiseman's Luck Factor is an excellent book on the psychology of luck. Wiseman suggests that luck is a skill and can be honed, giving clear examples of this. Of course, even being lucky won't allow everyone to have a number one record)

Mowing the lawn at the end of the world

At the weekend I saw Seeking a friend for the end of the world. The final rescue attempt has failed and a 71 mile wide asteroid will strike the Earth in three week’s time. The movie follows two characters through the last days.

The film is a quiet apocalypse. The characters don’t have to struggle against other survivors and most utilities stay running (notably excluding airlines and telephones). The film sets aside the usual logistic questions about the apocalypse for the question 'what would you do if you had three weeks left'?

It's something people sometimes ask without thinking too much about it, but the question is ever-present – one day, for every person, the world will end. The oldest verified age is 122 but most people's health fails long before that.

In the film, Steve Carell’s character spends the first few days at his job as an insurance clerk. He tells his cleaner that he has wasted his life and does his best to salvage something from his disappointment. The news of Armageddon forces people to assess what they are doing with their lives, and to treat each moment as something precious. 

‘Live each day of your life as if it’s your last’ is a cliché – but one day it will be. My favourite moment in the film is when the main character drives through New Jersey. The car passes a man mowing his lawn. In the face of the world’s end he is carrying on with his normal routine: taking the same satisfaction from mowing his lawn as he did before the end of the world.

I guess that’s something to aspire to – the sort of life you’d carry on with just the same if an asteroid was on its way. Gardeninng and going to work, just as you did before.

Prometheus and Catastrophic Project Management Failure

(This post contains spoilers for Prometheus.)

When I say I expect science-fiction to be realistic, it’s probably worth defining what I mean. I’m willing to overlook the existence of AI robots and starships in a film set 70 years in the future. I’m willing to overlook inappropriate design decisions in the space ships and user-interfaces. But I expect the characters to behave like people. Characters should be consistent and make sense to a reasonable cinema-goer.

Which is what annoyed me about Prometheus. You’re sending a space-ship two years and unthinkable distances from Earth to contact an alien civilisation. I expect the team chosen to show the basic competency one would expect from people at the top of their field. The film’s plot was entirely dependent on the incompetence of the characters.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at some of the disasterous errors made by the Prometheus crew. Seriously – I wouldn’t cross the road with these people, let alone contact alien races. Look on this as a helpful project review.

Lack of clearly defined goals Setting aside the differing agendas, nobody had a clearly defined aim. While it’s valid for metaphysical concerns to inspire your project, you need to define a goal so that everyone can share it and evaluate decisions against it. It’s also hard to tell whether your mission has succeeded unless you know what you’re trying to do.

No contingency planning Most projects have undecidables, even without encountering alien races. You should probably have some idea what you might do when certain things go wrong (biological contamination being an obvious one). Rather than sleep the two years before arriving on the planet, I’d have had some of the crew watching science fiction movies and working out what they would have done in those scenarios, and then producing appropriate processes.

Process not present or ignored Which is the next thing: clearly defined processes are a life-saver in stressful situations. Checking in code or handing over between teams can be difficult under pressure, so strict processes are used to maintain good standards. And one would expect clear processes about handling potential xeno-biological contamination – not to simply allow the crew to wander off for sexy-time.

No chain of command or teambuilding The team had no clear idea who was in charge. And having such an important team meeting one another for the first time in another solar system is insane. Everyone needs to be comfortable working together before going to meet alien races.

No data collection or analysis The crew woke up shortly before landing on the planet. This is a place that has been waiting millenia – there is no harm orbiting a few times collecting data. Or maybe sending the mapping probes into the caves before a full team follows. Take your time to gather information and think about the next step rather than blundering forward because you’re stressed or excited.

Undefined roles Several of the team didn’t know what they were doing there – why was the geologist in the first team when he didn’t need to be (he also seemed somewhat enthusiastic about rocks – you think he’d have been more excited about the structure of the caves). And those who did have a role were ignored. A security expert is employed for a reason – if he says you’re taking guns then no-one else should overrule him except a clear superior. Domain experts should have authority over their domain.

Quite frankly, the crew of the Prometheus were a shabbily organised embarrassment to the human race. It is a good thing that real life companies run more efficiently than this.

How not to have a dull life

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I love non-fiction books that are written about a very specific area yet have something to say about life in general. A good example is Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn. It's about how buildings adapt after they're built, but has a lot to say about things like the importance of maintenance versus repair. Another example is Keith Johnstone's Impro. Subtitled 'Improvisation and the theatre', Johnstone also takes the opportunity to discuss the influence of his art on his life.

I discovered the book through Michael Coveney's biography of Ken Campbell, The Great Caper. Coveney describes a bizarre weekend course inspired by Johnstone's Impro and the Dice Man that Campbell put on during a period of "volative personal life". A quote from Impro led me to buying the book and I was not disappointed.

Johnstone writes in great detail about acting but he is never overly technical or boring. He also makes some curious and fascinating asides. My favourite comes during a discussion of blocking in improvised scenes. Johnstone describes how many actors 'close down' a scene, ignoring the possibilities introduced by other players, giving detailed examples of actors blocking the 'offers' they receive. He then concludes:

"People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding. A student objected to this view by saying, ‘But you don’t choose your life. Sometimes you are at the mercy of people who push you around.’ I said, ‘Do you avoid such people?’ ‘Oh!’ she said, ‘I see what you mean."

It's a single paragraph at the end of the discussion but a thought-provoking one. Johnstone suggests that life itself can be seen as an improvisational game. Having an interesting life is not something that happens by chance, but a skill that can be learned.

A beautiful article about programming for non-programmers

While I was on holiday, I had a conversation with my friend Emily about programming. She's not a particularly technical person and felt overwhelmed by the things she didn't know about computers. She could use them but she didn't understand them.

While computers are embedded in everyday Western life, most people don't know how to program. I guess it's a manifestation of the two cultures problem. When I was studying for my BSc in Theoretical Physics at Sussex there was an Arts/Science programme. 5% of science degrees were assessed on a pair of arts courses. I was told that a similar Science/Arts programme had never got off the ground because the humanities departments were so resistant.

Personally, I think that an understanding of ideas like evolution and the big bang, basic statistics knowledge and a concept of how a computer works are as important as knowing the story of Hamlet, familiarity with canonical poems such as Ozymandius and Dulce and Decorum Est or a working knowledge of English history. I don't expect everyone to be able to program, but everyone should know enough that they feel they could if they needed to.

Apparently Slate allow their writers a month each year to work on an ambitious project. Annie Lowrie used this opportunity to learn to program, resulting in Where's _why an amazing article about programming, which threads together the story of _why the lucky stiff with a discussion of an non-programmer's first steps in programming.

You may not want to become a programmer, but the article is worth reading. One particular quote from _why sums up the sort of excitement I felt when I first compiled a C program: "[Programming] will teach you to express your ideas through a computer. You will be writing stories for a machine … All you need to know thus far is that Ruby is basically built from sentences. They aren’t exactly English sentences. They are short collections of words and punctuation [that] encompass a single thought. These sentences can form books. They can form pages. They can form entire novels, when strung together. Novels that can be read by humans, but also by computers.

Journalism as a trade is in a lot of trouble, as demonstrated by Nick Cohen's excellent book Flat Earth News. At the same time, we are in the midst of a golden age of journalistic writing, as showcased by sites like longform (where I found this article). Annie Lowrie's piece could, I think, stand among the pieces collected in Wolfe's New Journalism collection.