The Singing Sculptures of Churchill Square

I've been in Brighton long enough to remember the old Churchill Square: concrete everywhere, with dingy corners like the one where the computer shop, Softcenter, skulked by the toilets. At the center was William Mitchell's sculpture, The Spirit of Brighton. A 30 foot high piece of concrete, it looked like a strange climbing wall. According to Timothy Carder, author of the Encyclopedia of Brighton, it was "intended purely as a 'piece of fun'.. but in reality it epitomises the dreadful concrete redevelopment of Brighton in the 1960s and 70s".


The old Churchill Square was opened in 1968 and the current center opened in the late 90's. It is hard for me to overlay the old version on top of the new one – there's something overwhelming about the new building, with its strange subterranean light.  The Spirit of Brighton was demolished as part of the redevelopment. 


Outside the new Churchill Square are two sculptures called The Twins. It was only recently that .scribe told me that this scuplture is interactive. According to the artist Charlie Hooker's website, "Sounds emanating from it, and images etched into its granite and bronze surfaces are derived from graphs produced by weather patterns specific to its location which were produced over the full year prior to the work's installation. The gentle sounds are produced by solar-controlled electronic devices which attatch to the bronze panels, causing them to produce sound. The piece is at its loudest on bright, sunny days".


One evening recently I stopped to listen to the sculptures. Putting my ear right up to the metal panels I could hear low tones. People notice when you listen to sculpture, and I saw one kid trying the same himself. I explained about the music but he shrugged. "I swear, I can't hear nothing," he said, and put his headphones back on.

A Cheeky Walk through Southease and Rodmell


The Cheeky Book of Walks was released last month and I only just got hold of my copy after sending it to the wrong address. On Sunday I set out with @vickymatthews and @booleandavid on the 'Suicide Stroll' a 5 mile circular route from Southease Station. The route passes Virginia Woolf's house and follows the walk she made on the way to take her own life.


It was a hot day and Sussex looked beautiful. I don't venture into the countryside as often as I should. And every time I take a rural walk I curse this fact and promise myself I'll do it more in the future. The Downs are so beautiful that I should make more of them.


My grandfather won prizes for his ploughing. I'm sure he would have done a better job than whoever ploughed this field:



In Rodmell village, opposite the Abergavenny Arms pub, is a small 'shrine' to Frank Dean. One of the posters lists his favourite sayings including "To justify spending money on oneself: there are no pockets in a shroud" and "Well blow me down, I'll go to Peacehaven in a rowing boat". It was a touching memorial.



I wondered why someone had nailed burlap sacks onto a wall. I found out from @MattPope on twitter: "repointed mortar on a wall repair. It must dry slowly or it'll turn to sand and blow away in the wind."


The route passed Monk's House, where Virginia Woolf once lived. According to our guidebook, the house was closed and the gardens only open on a Wednesday and Saturday afternoon. We were in luck, however, because this has changed since Cheeky Walks was printed – we could tour the gardens on a Sunday and also wander around the house.


A small display showed some of the visitors who had come to the house. Among the photos was one of EM Forster with TS Eliot. I would love to have had a chance to hear some of their conversations. 


Resting under a tree in Virginia Woolf's garden, I felt incredibly relaxed. Vicky had bought some curried vegetable soup so we had a discreet picnic…


…then quickly washed up in the garden.


From Monk's House it is a short walk to the River Ouse, where Woolf took her life. The stretch of the Ouse near Southease is a scummy, brown, ugly river. I don't know what it was like in the 40s, but it seems a sad place for someone to die.




"If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been." (from Virginia Woolf's final letter to her husband Leonard) 

Psychogeography Workshop


On Saturday I held a psychogeography workshop at the Artist Residence Hotel as part of Kate Shields' Different Ways of Seeing events. It was an incredibly hot day, so it was good to be able to hide in the hotel. We had a discussion about the history of psychogeography then set off to the beach for a couple of practical experiments.

The group divided into pairs and walked along the seafront blindfolded. The promenade was incredibly busy but, typically for Brighton, nobody paid any attention to the people in blindfolds. The pairs were then sent off with maps to explore different routes through the town.

Considering most of the attendees had no idea what they were in for, everyone was very enthusuastic. It was a fun session to run and hopefully I will do another in the near future.


Below are some photos taken by Frankie on her ramble about town. Frankie also pioneered the concept of wearable psychogeography, returning to the hotel wearing a new hair decoration, a child's toy windmill she'd found on the way.






2400 years of technology panics

I remember a stand-up comic (I think it was Chris Rock) describing his grandmother's complaints about modern life. She felt that young men were less polite than they used to be, no longer smiling or opening doors. The comic explained the reason for this – the young men were no longer trying to sleep with her. While crude, the joke illustrates the danger of using personal experience to make judgements about the world as a whole.

Another example – the queen was once asked about her travels. What was the main impression she had of the world? The queen is supposed to have replied that it smells of fresh paint. The queen's personal experience is very different to yours or mine.

I think that a similar lack of perspective occurs when people talk about new technology. Recently there have been a number of books about the dangers of social media, such as Sherry Turkle's Alone Together, Jaron Lannier's You are not a gadget and Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur. Similar books have been written about texting, television, computer games and the Internet in general. This sort of doomsaying seems to be an effective way of selling books.

Debates about the dangers of new technology go back to at least as early as Plato's time and arguably haven't changed much. In the Phaedrus, Plato describes the risks of writing. While writing works as an aid to memory, Socrates claims that writing is a remedy for reminding, not remembering… with the appearance but not the reality of wisdom. People can read about a subject without understanding it whereas a human teacher can make sure someone truly understands – writings are silent; they cannot speak, answer questions, or come to their own defense. According to Socrates, the technology of writing would undermine civilised society.

Similar issues have been raised with other new technologies – children using text speak will be less competent with language; using Google to research facts results in shallower understanding. I believe there was even debate about the problems with listening to music alone on a gramophone. New technologies come, they're absorbed, and the world continues.

I think that part of the problem is a lack of historical perspective about technology, something discussed in David Berreby's essay The Myth of 'Peak Attention'. We tend to think of our position in history as special, that the challenges we face are greater than any in the past, rather than the latest in a continuing series. One good example is the claim that the amount of information in the world is constantly rising. This results in discussions of our society as uniquely stressful and the coining of buzzwords like 'information diets' and 'peak attention'. The biological bandwidth of the human mind has not altered in the last few decades, so we have not suddenly increased the amount we can absorb. So, in what way is modern information different?

In his essay, David Berreby refers to the Copernican Principle. In short, it suggests not assuming that you're in a special place unless you have a very good reason: It may be that we live in an era unlike any other in its demands on the human mind. But it's not probable. And in fact there have been other eras in which people thought demands on attention were outstripping human capacities.

When people talk about increasing amounts of information they need a clear definition of 'information'. Are we, perhaps, ignoring other types of information that would have taken for granted in the past, so much that they are rarely explicitly referred to? It's too easy to assume that people in the past were much simpler because they didn't have the same technologies as us. Regular people three hundred years ago probably had as rich and meaningful an inner life as we did, even without blogs, Twitter and mobile phones.

When we predict the effect of a new technology, the main comparison point we have is to our own experiences. As Chris Rock points out, we need to be careful that we are not comparing our early life to the present and using that to draw conclusions about the wider world. Another example: as people grow older they become more physically vulnerable. Youths on the street seem more threatening, leading to a feeling that society is more dangerous than it used to be, despite a trend of falling crime rates.

Any useful new technology will be disruptive. Technologies such as cities, farming, plumbing and supermarket supply chains have all produced changes to social frameworks and such change is often threatening. Such disruptive change is a common experience throughout human history – and it always feels as if each new change is more significant than any other.

When considering the threats and challenges of a new technology, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective. Any new technology is one in a long line. Is it any more of a threat than other changes that have been harmlessly absorbed? Will your argument date quickly and seem ridiculous when people go back to it in fifteen years time? (Much of the critical theory about the video revolution in the 80's and 90's was rendered obsolete and ridiculous by the widespread adoption of the Internet.)

To quote the philosopher Jacques Derrida what is changing the face of everything on the face of the world in this way is but a little fraction of a fraction of a second in a history which has been transforming the relationship of the living organism to itself and its environment… what we are living through and talking about… occupies the time and place of a miniscule comma in an infinite text. (Paper Machine, p18)

Ambient Literature

Facebook and the End of Literature is a short essay about the internet's effect on writing. A download is available here.

The essay is informed by a number of things, such as my PhD studies, Kenneth Goldsmith and the KLF, but most of all by Warren Ellis. Ellis coined the term ‘ambient fiction’ on his Bad Signal Mailing list, and the essay’s format and tone are explicitly inspired by his short book Spirit Tracks.

I wanted to talk about how literature might be changed by social media as well as the idea of ‘ambient literature’. This focusses on texture above plot and characters, and direct progression is less important. The essay is therefore divided into a series of short sections, each independent but building with the others to create a larger experience. The order of these sections should be unimportant so I wrote some software to shuffle them each time the PDF is downloaded. The argument would be less effective if presented in a single, static version of the text.

It will be fairly obvious that this isn't intended as an academic piece of writing – there's a lack of clear citation for a start. Quotations are obvious, however, and all accessible through a decent search engine.

I may make changes to the document in the future. Any significant alterations will be noted at the end of any future versions.