Thinking About American Utopia

Kate Shields will not shut up about Talking Heads. At lot of this time it’s been about the 1984 movie Stop Making Sense. This year, David Byrne released a new movie with the great Spike Lee, and it was obvious that something had to give. Kate and I have been friends for over a decade and I’ve yet to see Stop Making Sense; but on Christmas Day we watched American Utopia.

(It might not sound like a Christmas movie, but I asked Kate to pick the films. I have a bit of a tradition of watching incredibly bleak movies over Christmas – Threads being a nadir. This was not an option as far as Kate was concerned)

The main innovation in the American Utopia show is that the band’s 12 performers are not tethered to a particular location. This requires the use of harnesses to attach their instruments, and three independent percussionists. Seeing the emptiness of the stage, and the movement that the show allows, I was impressed. I wondered why no-one had done this before.

When I thought about it, the answer was obvious. Allowing the performers to move like this requires a load of technology. You need consistent wireless connections and good batteries that are small enough to be unobtrusive. The best thing was that the technology was used invisibly, even while it was essential to the show.

One of the things I miss from my MA was being exposed to culture I would not watch off my own back. American Utopia is a perfect example of this, and it made me think a lot about how I can use technology in similar ways in my own work. Through email and social media, text has become a far more significant experience in most people’s lives, yet fiction doesn’t seem to have benefitted from this.

There is also the question of what a book is in this age (something Craig Mod and James Bridle have both interrogated at points). The boundaries of the covers no longer exist in the same way – I can switch between audiobook, Kindle and hardcopy. A physical book isn’t so important as a way of enjoying stories.

And much of the text we read is fragmented. I’ve long been fascinated with micro fiction and fragments. These should be a much more successful medium in a world where we can ricochet between baby photos, doom scrolling and parody memes. (One example of this working being, of course, creepypasta).

The web is a much more complicated place than it was before, and much harder to navigate technically. But there should be interesting ways to use this technology – but while also placing it in the background.

American Utopia was simply a recording of a concert show, but it has inspired me and made me think. I am going to watch Stop Making Sense soon. But I want to think a lot more about this one first.

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