Posts Tagged ‘history’


February 6th, 2011

United Artists Theater, Detroit, by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Ruins are fetishes. Ancient structures are romantic, no matter how mundane their previous functions. Modern ruins are poignant, laced with reminders of impermanence and folly. And for all this they’re powerful.

Hitler and his architect, Albert Speer, who he’d had employed to design the third Reich’s triumphal city, were fascinated by the idea of ‘ruin value’. Inspired by the picturesque weathering of Roman structures, they wanted to create structures which would still proudly stand a 1000 years on. As writer Lee Sandlin says in his essay Losing The War:

“Arches or pediments or rows of pillars could be reinforced far beyond the requirements of the load they would carry, so that they would still be standing after the rest of the structure was dust – ensuring that even the wreckage of the Reich would inspire awe.”

Fast forwarding and inverting this idea, we have Detroit, once the model of American might, which has become a fetishised ruin. Witness photographs like these, taken by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. They seem to depict the incredible – newly dead buildings, left to rot by a society that’s had to leave them behind – often seemingly in a hurry.

What they make, though, is denounced by locals, according to John Patrick Leary in his essay Detroitism, as ‘ruin porn’. Among various attitudes Leary identifies reportage about Detroit having to its subject, he focuses on ‘Detroit lament’: “mournful in tone – elegiac at best and sanctimonious at worst.” It’s a depiction of a city that emphasises emptiness, and in doing, edits out the fact that people still live here.

Leary calls Julien Temple’s 2010 documentary on the city, Requiem for Detroit?, quintessential Detroit Lament, and locals clearly don’t like his attitude. A small Facebook group called for the film to be boycotted, quoting his Guardian article to promote the film:

“Approaching the derelict shell of downtown Detroit, we see full-grown trees sprouting from the tops of deserted skyscrapers. In their shadows, the glazed eyes of the street zombies slide into view, stumbling in front of the car. Our excitement at driving into what feels like a man-made hurricane Katrina is matched only by sheer disbelief that what was once the fourth-largest city in the U.S. could actually be in the process of disappearing from the face of the earth.”

Zombies. But this really isn’t Dawn Of The Dead: Detroit is still a living city, a point that seems inconceivable in photographs which look like they’re torn from lurid post-apocalyptic films. The Facebook group’s description continues:

“Yes, Detroit has problems, indeed major problems, but the city is far from this post-apocalyptic wasteland described by the writer. I do not support this project and suggests that the writer revisits and engages with citizens for a realistic depiction of our city.”

And that’s exactly the point – you won’t find reality in ruins, only fictions that were written both when they were built and when they fell.

Science fiction and man’s future

December 20th, 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey

Perhaps conspicuously absent from my post on the need for a bit of magic in technology was Arthur C. Clarke’s famous edict, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I think it kinda supports my point, adding the one that technology and magic aren’t so dissimilar as technology’s relationship with science and magic’s relationship with mysticism might suggest.

Anyway, it also reminds me that I recently listened to an incredible group discussion that was held in May 1970 between Clarke, sociologist Alvin Toffler, who was about to publish Future Shock, and cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. It’s called 2001: Science Fiction Or Man’s Future?

Though based on the recent release of the film of Clarke’s book, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke’s preoccupation with the effects of space travel on society now sounds naive, while the other two sound brilliantly prescient. Toffler expounds his visions of a intensely participatory future and Mead worries about the aged being increasingly disenfranchised in a society that is continually going through rapid technological change.

Then, though, Clarke was focused on what society must have assumed was humankind’s future, while Toffler and Mead must have seemed boringly preoccupied by decidedly earthly concerns. Just shows how far we’ve come – well, in the sense that we’ve gone comparatively nowhere.

Incidentally, for those who are also fascinated by the past’s visions of the future, you’ll enjoy the excellent Paleo-Future Blog. Go!

Link roundup – mega edition

December 19th, 2010

Sorry for this screed, but it appears I haven’t had my Delicious links properly linked up lately. It’s worth it, I swear, if only for the casu marzu.

  • The Suits of James Bond – Well, just that, really. Good fetishism.
  • Clive Thompson: Will the word processor destroy our ability to think? – Looking at the impact of cut and paste on writing, and asking the question: has it changed the way we think? I can’t really imagine writing anything fully structured in one pass, but I must have done so when I was at school and early university. It’s strange to realise how alien the concept is now.
  • Designing Media: Interviews – Hyper interesting – a series of fantastic four-minute interviews with leading editors, designers and writers about the changing form of media, all to publicise Bill Moggridge’s new Designing Media book. Includes Neil Stevenson on making PopBitch, Chris Anderson on Wired’s relationship with its website, Ira Glass on telling narratives and Mark Zuckerberg on sharing and social connections.
  • The Twitter Hulks – From Feminist Hulk to Cross-dressing Hulk, Lit-crit Hulk to Film-crit Hulk.
  • Paleo-Future Blog: Dawn of the Wireless Phone – Professor William Edward Ayrton wondered in 1901 what it would mean to have portable, wireless telephones: “Think of what this would mean, of the calling which goes on every day from room to room of a house, and then think of that calling extending from pole to pole, not a noisy babble, but a call audible to him who wants to hear, and absolutely silent to all others. It would be almost like dreamland and ghostland, not the ghostland cultivated by a heated imagination, but a real communication from a distance based on true physical laws.”
  • Chris Burden’s Metropolis II – “It includes 1,200 custom-designed cars and 18 lanes; 13 toy trains and tracks; and, dotting the landscape, buildings made of wood block, tiles, Legos and Lincoln Logs. The crew is still at work on the installation. In “Metropolis II,” by his calculation, “every hour 100,000 cars circulate through the city,” Mr. Burden said. “It has an audio quality to it. When you have 1,200 cars circulating it mimics a real freeway. It’s quite intense.””
  • Batman symbols – Must be most, if not all of the Batman symbols. A remarkable range of shapes, but all maintain its distinctive identity.
  • NYT: The Attention-Span Myth – “At some point, we stopped calling Tom Sawyer-style distractibility either animal spirits or a discipline problem. We started to call it sick…” What exactly is an attention span? And is it really good to have one? Great piece of assumption busting.
  • Nine Eyes of Google Street View – Jon Rafman’s cuts of Street View, showing beauty and ugliness, humour and horror in momentary, sliced, sections of the world. Makes you realise that, though public, streets tend to go often unobserved. And it’s a project that seems rooted in a kind of compulsive madness of panning and zooming. Deckard surely has nothing on Rafman.
  • The Atlantic: The 12 Timeless Rules for Making a Good Publication – The Atlantic’s mid-20th century exceedingly elegant and thoughtful editorial guidelines. My favourite: “Always remember that the fastidious element in the Atlantic audience is its permanent and valuable core.”
  • Clay Shirky: The Times’ Paywall and Newsletter Economics – Guess what! Shirky doesn’t think it’s been an enormous success. Expanding on that, the venture “suggests that paywalls don’t and can’t rescue current organizational forms”.
  • On Set: Empire Strikes Back – Vanity Fair – Pictures from the set of Empire Strikes Back show the wonderful mundanity of making fantasy. Mattresses scattered beneath the platform during the climatic scene between Vader and Skywalker, model makers towering above AT-ATs. Also, check the way they created the yellow scrolling text at the start – they actually filmed it.
  • Human landscapes in SW Florida – Patterns amid natural forms in new housing estates in Florida.
  • Cheese I’m afraid of #43: casu marzu – Maggot-riddled casu marzu from Sardinia doesn’t sound like my thing. It’s eaten with thousands of maggots still in it, maggots which are not only able to jump six inches but also have mouthhooks which they can use to tear up your insides.

Showing off

December 18th, 2010

Carter Beats The Devil

Look at the journey of a new idea, from its origin in greasy workshops and grinding machinery to showroom floors, or from the inscrutable mind of a genius to a gleaming plaything in your hand. It seems to me that the biggest sign that a technology is ready to take over the world is when it starts to think about the people who will use it.

It’s something that I think is key to Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats The Devil, a book about a magician in the San Francisco of the early twentieth century. He’s based on a real person, but the story is largely fictional, a rollicking ride through scarcely credible adventures which include the death of a president, an attack by pirates and meetings with a pioneer of television and the founder of BMW. Through the eyes of Carter, a rich man with a fascination for technology, we see a time transforming through the advances in intercontinental travel, telephony, the car (and motorbike), and the future promise of mass-media.

In fact, the book makes these innovations seem a lot like magic. It’s fitting, then, that one of the book’s preoccupations is with explaining how Carter’s magic shows work. Not so much in grand explanations of the secrets behind them, but in descriptions of their staging – how they’re paced and presented – using technology. In Carter’s world, magic is a combination of technology and dramatic flourishes. Both are borrowed from other magicians and adapted and improved upon for ever more elaborate shows: in Carter’s world, presentation and the audience are everything.

And the idea that Carter can telephone his agent in New York is magic, too. It’s brute technology realised as a knurled domestic object. The same for the motorbike, a complex composite of precision engineering with knack for cool speed that Carter finds impossibly alluring. Carter knows that technology is nothing without a little drama – some mass appeal to give it meaning.

I’m sure it’s no accident that the book is set in San Francisco. Back then, this was a city that was building its own identity to challenge the cultural hegemony of the east coast – well, rebuilding, given how recently the 1906 earthquake had hit. Now, of course, it’s the thriving centre of the world’s internet. Given the death of the space race and the fact that we’re not eating food in the form of pills, the best magic today is in the instantaneous reactions and associations of data flows that San Francisco’s inhabitants have trailblazed.

What these people have learned over the twenty or so years since the internet reached the general population is the importance of presentation and audience. Magic is something that has to delight the throng – Facebook’s magical unending and ceaselessly contemporary list of your friends’ activities is sculpted from technology to celebrate the form of the social swirl. Apple calls its iPad ‘magical’ because it wows the crowd.

Revolutions, then, seem to be based on presentation. A little showmanship. They say that one of the worst problems for a great new idea is to have it before its time. I think a better way of putting it is this: one of the worst problems for an idea is for there to be no way to show it off to its audience.