[I’ve been asked to give a talk at Blast Theory today about my residency down here and the piece I’ve been making First and Second Wilderness]
Welcome to Blast Theory.
I’m sure many, if not all of you have been here before, but I thought that perhaps the best thing to do would be to entirely disregard that and take you on a tour anyway. A place is not made up of geography it is the experience of it. As such I know a different building to even the people that work here. The people that leave at six, or sometimes at eight, sometimes later.
I am a late night worker. I work best under artificial light. In a quiet room. It’s not that I am at my most creative or productive in these circumstances. Just my least distracted. So this is a tour of time as well as of space. And it starts at about five o clock on Monday evening.
Here are Blast Theory. They are working.
Sometimes proximity alone is an incredibly productive environment. I walk through the space and I hear snippets of conversation. Ways of thinking. Fragments of a process. Things I don’t do. Like posting yellow notes on white paper. The son of a computer programmer with a fiery zeal for anything with an LCD screen – I am a slave to the laptop. My notes are cascades of digital bullet points, hyperlinks and quotations.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Robert Morris and his attempts at collapsing process and product into each other. Performance being not a discrete finished event but an expression of a way of being in the world. The artist is not a maker of things but a host of experiences. Encouraging you to re-imagine the way you exist in the world.
In that sense the experience of being at Blast Theory has been one of enjoying a quiet performance. Being hosted here I am encounter people going about the daily business of making things in a different space, to a different rhythm, with different strategies. The building is a stage on which I can discretely watch all this going on, and then come six or seven o clock, it is left for me. I wander. I stare at the photos on the wall. I mimic. I try things out. And slowly I challenge my own way of working. I test it. I change it.
This is Blast Theory’s store cupboard.
It as much as anything has helped to shape the piece I’ve been working on here.
I guess I like to think of the things I make revelling in a kind of wilful technological crudeness, seeking to unpick the daunting impenetrability of the digital. That feeling that all this technology seems to exist in some other world, dislocated from the materiality of people and things. Hidden. There are no moving parts. I like technology that shows its workings. Technology that is very obviously bound up in the mess of the real. I like technology that people are familiar with, that they acknowledge as part of their world. Televisions. MP3 players. Phones. Email.
My expertise in using various technologies is patched together from things I’ve learnt as I’ve needed to do them. From panicked conversations with my Dad, from watching what other people have done, trying to learn the right names. In 2008 I had to become defacto technical director of the venue I co-direct in Edinburgh because the person who was doing it got an actual job. It was an invaluable education.
Without wanting to sound like I’m parading this ignorance around like an ugly dog on a string, I am quite happy with how this works. It maintains a balance – a giddy excitement at discovering and exploring new technological possibilities reigned in by the limits of my understanding. It is always about playing with the technology I’ve managed to figure out to make it do the things I want it to do. Learning how to make it speak for me. I like exploring the limits of what the things I know how to do allow me to achieve.
At Blast Theory I’ve learnt new things. And I’ve had the space and opportunity to play around with new things. With simple things like cables and adaptors. With little cameras. With connecting things up in new patterns – poking curiously at what’s possible. When I put on a sharing of this piece at BAC last week I spent the afternoon playing around with televisions, AV cables, Laptops, projectors, amps, sampler keyboards, HD video cameras and more besides. It felt exciting, sitting in the lobby surrounded by cables and monitors – piecing together this wilfully anachronistic mechanism. This great image-making machine that still at its core housed five or six people playing around in sand, creating beautiful, horrific things.
Discovering how to use this technology is learning a new vocabulary. A new way of speaking. Being here has definitely expanded the things I can say, though they are still hopefully said with a coarseness I definitely find appealing.
This is the empty office. This is quarter past eight.
In London I live in a space with eight other people. I had nestled myself into a corner of the city where I could be sure there’d always be someone around.
I arrived at Blast Theory almost immediately following the Edinburgh Festival, where the venue that we were running had been crawling with people every night until three in the morning. Where at least two people are constantly trying to ask you something that was probably quite important. Where the streets outside are a sea of faces. Where even on the top of a very big hill a man with a plastic bag full of props wants to do a show for you.
I will admit it was somewhat of a change.
I spent the first week or so reeling around with a kind of social tinnitus – my whole body ringing with the echo of this deafening over-stimulation. Now absent.
I decided I could probably never live on my own. Then I decided that maybe it was the healthiest thing imaginable.
In the end it has undoubtedly been a brilliantly productive opportunity. A space of focus and calm. A place where without the unrelenting noise you can hear the quieter things. This show exists because of a series of little things that I would have normally missed.
A computer gaming magazine idly picked off a coffee table in the lobby. The soldiers in desert fatigues staring out from the front page of the Sun every day in tescos as I went to get my lunch.
A tiny plastic figure sat on the side in my bedroom. The first thing I saw when I came in out of the rain when I arrived.
And I think (I hope) this quality is reflected in the piece itself. It longs for a loudness, for spectacle, for the big screens of Piccadilly Circus and the for the bright lights of Hollywood, for the feeling of being right there in the middle of it all as its happening, for but at its heart it is something intimate and delicate happening in a little room between a small group of people.
So this is where I have got to. This is First and Second Wilderness.
This is only the second time I’ve tried this out. It’s still in its very earliest state.
It’s born out of a wondering about playing at war. About how it has changed. How it is still changing. It was born out of a magazine article about the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – already, before Keith Vaz MP decided to rather crassly lambast it in the pages of the Daily Mail, hotly tipped to be the biggest selling video game of all time. It began with a piece by Michael Kirby from the 1960s a civil war game with giant chess pieces and harrowingly real anecdotes. It came out of a small soldier left on my desk, my eye constantly drawn to him as I sat typing and thinking.
In the past we have played as tabletop generals. We have enjoyed our simulated godliness, looking down on the massed ranks of soldiers below us. Our satisfyingly utopic view of the battlefield is akin to the dislocation that Michel De Certeau describes when we gaze down at the maze of the city from the top of its tallest tower. It is the illusion of control, of understanding – of being able to read everything all at once. To control everything. We do not see the faces of those below us, only their heads, their tiny blank painted faces show no fear or personality.
War was messy, chaotic, horrific. So war gaming was strategic, neat and gentlemanly.
However, despite its lingering popularity, the success of games like Call of Duty suggest that this ‘God/General’s eye-view’ has been superseded by a new form of war play. We now fight in the first person.
War is now cinematic. It is about shaking cameras, and shots through trees and enemies appearing oh the horizon. We are down there, on the ground, in real time. We fire the guns, we run, we see blood spatter, explosions, bodies flying around us. This is visceral. Real. But it’s a pornographic kind of reality – focussed only on the visual – on things looking real. But our hero dies many hundreds of times, has swathes of equipment, goes wherever he wants.
Video game technology, improvements in graphics, gameplay and AI (artificial intelligence) have allowed us to be the man on the ground. And yet at the same time similar computer-led technologies have increasingly eliminated the presence of that man on the ground from real warfare, for most of us on our side at least. Battles happen in digital. Drone aircraft, targeted missile strikes. Now the grainy images we see on our television screens are those very same table-top images, the dislocated birds-eye shots (often in the even more unreal greeny hues of night vision) of buildings evaporating in a burst of vivid, lime green flame.
And perhaps this is what war games have always done. They have acted as a pleasant fantasy of war. It tidies its grimmer edges with neat metallic figurines and polite chess-like strategic manoeuvres in times of monstrous chaos and brutality. And today in an ever more digitised world of war, it returns some sense of the visceral and the immediate and the competitive to the cruelly systematic processes of modern war. The ‘soldier on the ground’ is imbued with a fantastical autonomy, an objective and a chance of winning.
So now we’re going to get a chance to do it, which I hope you’ll all enjoy. So thank you very much for coming and thank you to Blast Theory for making it all possible.