Shift is Happening
[a talk I delivered at Shift Happens in York yesterday. Thank you to everyone who contributed to it via twitter, facebook, anonymous text messages and notes thrust into my pocket]
I’m afraid I’m going to have to read from my notes, in part because a lot of this was written on the train this morning (though there’s a reason for that) and in part because a lot of this wasn’t actually written by me at all. But more on that later.
Before that I want to offer you some swashbuckling hyperbole. More rhetoric than fact. The kind of sweepingly generalisations that probably would have gone down a storm a turn of the century French salon, but would see me killed on the internet.
Imagine yourselves back to the first decade of the 20th century. We’re learning how to fly. Everyone is having roughly the same ideas at roughly the same time. You might say some kind of shift is happening.
On July 25 1909 the French engineer Louis Bleriot crossed the channel in his home-made plane, a delicate-looking arrangement of gently curving lines with two spindly bicycle wheels sticking out underneath it. When he landed in Dover he became the first person to fly across a large body of water in a heavier-than-air craft.
News of this latest boundary-redefining voyage quickly spread. When he heard of Blériot’s flight the great French architect Auguste Perret charged into the room in which his young then-employee Le Corbusier was working.
And he said.
Blériot has crossed the channel! Wars are finished! No more wars are possible! There are no longer any frontiers!
5 days later on July 30 1909, Wilbur and Orville Wright successfully completed test flights at Fort Myer for the Wright Military Flyer. The army bought the plane for $30,000.
Auguste Perret’s impossible vision for of the future has fascinated me since I first heard it. For a start it might very well be the worst prediction of all time. If any of you can come up with something more catastrophically wide of the mark let me know.
But I think there’s more to it than that. It’s a cracking open of the long march of history. A signal flare fired up into the sky that says ‘for a while here, it wasn’t all so cruelly inevitable as it might seem.’ For a moment the world seemed rich with potential futures. Change was taking place beyond the control of leaders and governments. People were learning how to fly anywhere they wanted, beyond the reach of officialdom. Charging ever forward with wild-eyed, breakneck speed just because they could. Suddenly the boundary between one country and the next is defined by where you take off and where you land. Centuries of reinforcing borders, building walls and fortifications, appears to be rendered totally redundant.
At points like this when technology overleaps those with power the world seems to briefly shimmer. Solid, rational realities appear to melt slightly. And in those ephemeral moments of shift, before everything concretizes once more, everything almost does feel possible. That shimmer is empowering. When an invention outgrows its makers or its controllers, it offers space for everyone to interpret what the result of that radical shift might be. An opportunity for artists and architects and whoever else to imagine improbably hopeful, radically different, desperately romantic ways of reconfiguring the world.
We’ve been all a-shimmer for a while now, though things are starting to settle. According to all prevailing metaphors we are still just about pioneers, even if we’re the last to the party. Our means of relating to each other, to the world around us, to power and authority have all been shaken up and have yet to settle into familiar patterns. Assured realities still, just about, appear soft and malleable.
Are we as artists, as creative people, as the young and the restless, making the most of this opportunity? Are we thinking improbably enough about what the new technologies that we’re all grappling with might mean? Are we being too rational? Too realistic? Where are the deranged visions of a world re-imagined? Why do we only seem interested in seeing these technologies revolutionise what we already have? E-books, E-newspapers, theatre beamed to a cinema near you.
Do we, as people involved in the arts have a responsibility to dream naive ideas about how technology is going change the world? To document the experience of being around at the beginning of the internet age. Should we desperately scribbling delirious transformations that still seem like faint but real possibilities for the future? Not because those things will come true, but as a reminder – a spectre to haunt the crushing, utilitarian reality of whatever might become of all this great new dawn in its maturity, once the Wild West has finally be settled.
Or, put another way, broadcasting your show live to cinemas is great, but can we also bring art and technology together to dream stupid, impossibly grand visions of what the future might look like?
Because there’s not much time left.
Back again briefly to the first decade of the 20th century. We’re learning how to make moving pictures. Everyone is having roughly the same ideas at roughly the same time. Some kind of shift is happening.
We’re back in France (again), and the Lumiere brothers are stalking around the country filming almost everything they see. The content is constantly shifting but the form remains the same. Even when they’re dealing with fiction, their cinema is about capturing fragments of the real world. They grew tired of this: they saw no future in the film business – considered it only a novelty – an extension of photography.
Georges Melies didn’t see cinema like photography. He saw it like he saw magic. It was his magician’s brain that caused the first real meaningful shift in film history. That transformed cinema from a device into a medium.
Rather than fragments of events that actually occurred (whether they be real or theatrical) Melies turned cinema into an imaginary place. He butchered his film reels – cutting and splicing to create dazzling on-screen magic tricks, carefully colouring his pictures frame- by-delicate-frame to invent new technicolour landscapes.
Through his fiddling he created the modern cinematic vocabulary, creating the processes that dictate the relationship that we have with what we think of as cinema.
What I’m asking for is for us to try harder at imagining the new technologies surrounding us serving as a radical means our re-ordering our relationship to each other and the world, rather than simply amplifying the world as we already understand it.
My good friend Tassos Stevens has said repeatedly that we should consider social networking and SMS as communication channels – just like the telephone and the telegram and the letter were before them. And he’s most like right – but can we spend some time dreaming that he’s wrong. Like August Perret, can we imagine that they are actually going to radically change everything?
Perhaps artists and theatremakers and incorrigible meddlers of all kinds might be able to facilitate this kind of dreaming. Like Melies, perhaps they can turn their anarchic gaze on our now-familiar new technologies and find thrilling ways of using them for which they weren’t intended.
Let’s explore ways in which art might be the key that unlocks some new, as yet-unknown, radical potentials in text messaging, or facebook, twitter, GPS.
Which is not to say this doesn’t already happen. The work of everyone from Blast Theory, to Tim Etchells, Improv Everywhere, The Yes Men, Ambient TV and Duncan Speakman. But I’d like more. I’d like to see a whole panoply of approaches to this same question.
I’d like to see everyone finding a way to make Twitter do something it’s never done before.
And in that spirit I had an idea at about 2am last night to see if Twitter couldn’t write this presentation for me.
I invited them to complete the line ‘art is…’ and promised that if I managed to collect 100 responses I’d abandon this talk and just read them out instead. I’ve got them here and I’m going to read as many as I can get through before my time runs out:
Art is going to be an all important compass as we transform into a more life-sustaining civilisation
Art is made by artists
Art is the playground of the imagination
Art is looking
Art is communicated
Art is a purposeful creative act
Art is what works when other things didn’t
Art is four steps from a lucky mistake
Art is what you do with an idea
Art is things that make people smile and/or think
Art is the way we can reimagine our way to live with and for the biosphere
Art is the fact that I want to make sweet sweet love to every goddamn person in this room
Art is the diagnostic of its culture. Creating art does not create culture, it is a reflection and commentary upon it only.
Art is the cure. Art is my hustle. Art is a tart. Art is the top 3 suggestions on google.
Art is a switch to adjust the way we look at the world: the more we looking through the art-lens = the more connections we find
Art is waking up in the middle of the night with a cool idea, and being unable to sleep until you’ve written it down
Art is the manifestation of abstractions formed beyond the material boundary
Art is really going to suffer is 40% cuts are imposed
Art is communication. That is all.
Art is second only to my family when it comes to things worth living for.
Art is anything that makes you think, even when there might not be an answer (or even a discernible question)
Art is the oldest language still spoken
Art is easy
Art is short for Arthur
Art is what keeps me alive
Art is a mixture of inspiration, craft and chutzpah
Art is trying to generate a visceral reaction in another country from your own creativity
Art is whatever you can get away with
Art is a secret garden, a magical looking glass, a glorious telescope to the soul.
Art is what people make for their own pleasure and that of others, to meet primarily aesthetic, rather than practical criteria.
Art is not the droid that you are looking for.
Art is what you do that others ask you to justify.
Art is where the home is.
Art is short for Arthur
Art is uhm, see you in York later.
Art is subjective, but that doesn’t stop some art being good and some art being bad
Art is the ace-est, most big up, bad and mashingest thing one could comprehend
Art is the heat of the lightbulb
Art is not optional and cannot be avoided
Art is football in a church
Art is the bead of sweat on a crisp morning ride
Art is asking questions without pretending to know the answers
Art is rubbish, a lot of the time.
Art is necessary
Art is boundless
Art is a plate falling out of a cupboard for joy
Art is what we do to remind ourselves we’re still human
Art is young people exchanging ideas and contacting the world
Art is what finally ended an unhealthy and troubled relationship and then fired up an increasingly rewarding and fulfilling one
Art is like the sea; cruel, beautiful, magnificent and ultimately vital.
Art is heartbreaking beauty
Art is just like sport, except with more arguments about who won.
Art is how we create our selves
Art is a way of connecting people in a disconnected world
Art is a poster of two kittens in a shoe. This is what Athena the poster company taught me in the 80s and its still true today.
Art is anything with which one can get away.
Art is the thing I wish I had the talent and drive to be doing, instead of being compromised and distracted by earning a living.
Art is possibility
Art is how I make my living
Art is indulgence, pain and katharsis; everything else is craft
Art is a human right
Art is a play by some French lady; the sequel God of Carnage was awesome too
Art is knowing what you’re doing without explanation, or not knowing what you’re doing but knowing why
Art is what you’ve got when you remove the ‘he’ from ‘heart’
Art is bridges and road signs and space and ships and football. It’s Mayan temples and floating trains. It is anything made by anyone that is beautiful to someone else.
Art is fearless
Art is Andy Field
Art is £10 an hour, or £800,000 for 80cm x 70cm, or £16.99 for 100 mins run time plus featurette and interactive menu for free.
Art is where the home is
Art is anything you want it to be
Art is generally irrelevant
Art is great if you can afford it
Art is the opportunity to lose yourself in the moment
Art is saving your soul
Art is reducing the chaos of existence to a more manageable and coherent form.
Art is how we make sense of the world, our lives
Art is abstraction of real time
Art is somewhere between reflection and refraction
Art is precious
Art is transport for the mind
Art is what happens when you recognise that generosity is the most important currency
Art is getting in the way of art
Art is anything you want it to be
Art is the illumination of the human condition