On Tuesday 30th October, Nick Bostrom, Director of the Future of Humanity Institute from Oxford University ambled on to the stage of the Old Theatre at the London School of Economics with a cup of tea, joining Anne Kerr (Professor of Sociology at Leeds) and chair Kristina Musholt (LSE Fellow) who opted for the modesty of bottled water.
The subject was the ethics of human enhancement, and there was a particular stress on the role it should play in public policy. The debate quickly polarised. Bostrom was advocating the use of human enhancement (namely cognitive enhancers) and greater scientific understanding of the brain to provide ‘intrinsic’ benefits to all (such as pills that improve memory). He was quick to criticise ‘positional aspects’ of human enhancement, in which he bunched all those things that allow a sort of capital for those that can access or afford enhancement (plastic surgery, certain alteration of physical features). Kerr seemed against it all: her referencing of the eugenics of the Third Reich in her opening speech effectively tarring any scientific research in this area with a thick negativity.
The main point of tension surrounded access to human enhancements. Bostrom, with the detachment of a scientist, explained that research into human enhancement will allow scientists to be at the forefront of biomedical advance, helping humanity in its onward progress. Kerr worried that such research would lead to an enhanced-non-enhanced divide in society, similar to all those Hollywood films that lazily rely on the complete separation of ‘unreal’ and ‘real’ worlds (the Matrix, for example). She said the ‘working’ class would be left behind by a middle-class super-breed pepped up with memory pills.
The polarisation of the debate was quite reductive. Although Bostrom veered (sometimes dangerously) toward scientific determinism, Kerr seemed to criticise every element of enhancements to the body, assuming some kind of static, ‘natural’ position that was similarly deterministic. This idea of a level playing field in regards to the human body and enhancements is impossible: every human body in the world is different and every enhancement symbiotically relates to this difference. The pill that improves memory, explodes in the stomach acid of a unique human (with their own random chemical [im]balances) rather than in the ‘ideal’ anatomical model of textbooks and virtual reality simulators. You might be able to afford all the best enhancements in town, but the body responds uniquely to this hit, as it does when we might one weekend, have a combination of coffee, Pernod, and a McDonalds burger, which sends us into orbit.
The issue, not covered, was the longstanding relationship between humans and enhancements. A long history of prosthetics, marking belief on the body (tattoos for example) and imbibing liquids and food. In the twentieth century, immunisation against polio, flu, measles, etc… these are all enhancements rolled out on the national scale. In fact, we could say we were never human: just a continually changing entity of encounters between body and external (technological) enhancers.
This lack of the long view meant despite Kerr’s appropriate questioning of the social impact of Bostrom’s cognitive enhancers on public policy, she always seemed to return to a presumption of the body’s solidity and ‘naturalness’. Moreover, she seemed to pursue the argument that any experimental research and development was wasteful in comparison to other uses of public funds (she mentioned hospitals and education). Such experiments (akin to artistic projects) do need to justify their public support and there are stringent procedures any research funding has to go through before it is approved, but like the debate around University research funding, are we not prepared as a society to back activities in society that do not always provide a tangible output? Mr Bostrom’s imagined future of cognitive enhancement pills in NHS prescriptions might be a scientist’s pipe dream, but the more constructive debate would be to encourage the scientist to offer suggestions of the application of new research in society, rather than blocking any notion of enhancement as downright bad.
Check out the programme for future events of the Forum of European Philosophy and podcasts from previous events here.
In the tide of Olympics-inspired optimism a couple of weeks ago, a politician on Radio 4 said something along the lines of:
“Britain is not white or black. No, the colour of Britain is gold!”
There are plenty of other examples in the media, and expressed across the country, of how the Olympics have inspired a feel good factor and could provide the blueprint for a better society. Jackie Ashley of the Guardian commended the hard graft of Britain’s Olympians: “These people are all living embodiments of deferred gratification, putting in the self-denial and hard work for the chance of glory. They’re the opposite of the gimme-now, look-at-me, celebrity B-list fame academy set we keep being told epitomises modern Britain.” The message is clear – we need to support the excellent training of athletes, all the volunteers that helped organise the games, the triumph over adversity, and breaking the pain barrier in the pursuit of as many gold as possible. Even skeptics became addicted to the day-by-day little increments to medal tallies.
The celebration of sport certainly seems innocent – what is the harm of cheering your team to the end, with extra special adulation saved for the winner.
If the colour of Britain was gold, and if sport was able to unify the fragmented social, cultural and ethnic make-up of the country, what society would we live it.
Thankfully, French novelist Georges Perec has already envisaged a society organised around Olympian ideals in his semi-autobiographical novel W, or the Memory of Childhood (1975). The author recounts a story that he made up in his childhood based on an island in the South Pacific called ‘W’ founded and run according to Olympian ideals. Sport in this society is not just a weekend activity - ”the glorification of success has a concrete expression in daily life”. Winners are not just awarded with gold medals but better food, drink, and social status, compared to woeful treatment of the losers. People’s names are determined by what medals they win and how often, children are kept away from society until they become novices in the athletic communities, women are largely excluded from events, and judges invent arbitrary rules to spice up competition and make it more interesting.
Perec’s ‘W’ is a warning against the unabashed celebration of competitive sport. The Athletes become de-humanised in their effort to win, to train, and secure for themselves the substantial rewards that come from victory. The judges toy with the competitors, imposing arbitrary rules. Perhaps the best example, is how they occasionally yell out ‘Stop’ in a race forcing the competitors to hold the pose they are in – like the children’s game ‘Grandmother’s footprints’ – the winner being the one who can stay still for the longest. In ‘W’ sport elucidates the depravity of humankind: Perec has the chilling analogy with the concentration camps of the Second World War in mind.
What prevents sport from descending into this barbarian (and logical endpoint if competition is taken to the extreme) is the amateur element of sport – the occasional, voluntary, playful, type of practice that we witness in our everyday lives: football teams, gym clubs, yoga sessions, jogging in the park, taking part in a marathon, etc. etc., in short, those occasions where winning is not the point.
In the 2012 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies the ideals of fair play and taking part were loudly pronounced, but in the games themselves this spirit was eroded by the greed for gold medals. Maybe it was because the stolid and granite Jacques Rogge delivered this message. Hardly the most emphatic messenger.
Cynicism does not underlie these words. The 2012 Olympics were quite an occasion and brought out the British love of carnival. The intention is merely to accentuate what Perec indicates in his book: that sport needs to maintain its voluntary and playful elements, rooted in the everyday. I would much prefer my role models to be the sportsmen who practice in their free time, rather than the ones that are selected by nationally funded bodies and whisked off to international training programmes, altitude training in the Himalayas, strict dietary programmes, and privation, all for a succession of short moments of greatness or psychologically scarring failure.
Competitive sport is not the pure and simple retreat from a complex world of in-fighting, endless politics, diplomacy, negotiation, and compromise. It is not a break from the rules that govern our everyday lives, it is an accentuation of its values. The competition on the race track is a troubling overarching metaphor for the understanding of life: not everyone is focused on the top spot, on victory. Most people are just taking part.
I have written a response to Marilyn Zapf’s article ‘When craft isn’t subversive’ on the Unmaking Things blog, an online platform set up by students of the RCA/V&A History of Design course last year.
To read, please follow this link.
As I watched the first episode of Grayson Perry’s ‘In the best possible taste’ on 4OD a question entered my mind. Will Grayson make the mistake of many others who have navigated this difficult terrain? I hoped that he would beyond stereotype and artfully reflect the nuanced picture of taste in Britain.
Alas, Perry with his repeated use of the words ‘clan’ and ‘tribes’ assumed that class identity is a static entity, with solid boundaries. He makes the mistake of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who although categorised taste in a huge, comprehensive and detailed book - Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste - adopted quite a regimented structure for his taste groups.
The stereotypes in Perry’s programme abound. For a start, his analysis of British working class taste is based on Sunderland. Surely not all of Sunderland is working class?
Also, a community of men in souped up cars is seen as representative of male working class matcho-ness, and all working class women want to live in a ‘glossy present’ of fake tans and short skirts. Perry too quickly attaches a performance of a class identity with the notion of an authentic community, reducing internal differences within groups to a static homogenous whole. Many types of people get together and share an interest (creating a special-interest community), and this is rarely only defined in class terms (what about race, religion, age, education, or gender).
But the real problem with this episode is that Perry presumes all middle classes sneer down at working class taste – its obviousness, its gaudiness and kitsch. This leads to some gross generalisations – the worst being that a tear shed at the Heppies music hall bar in Sunderland is somehow more authentic that those rolling down the cheeks of audiences at the Glyndebourne opera. Middle classes like spectacle and kitsch, and in a way that’s not always the derogatory “its so bad its good” kinda thing. Perry’s contemporaries in the art world have seen to it that kitsch has taken its rightful place at the centre of the contemporary art scene. One good example is Jeremy Deller’s Folk Archive, whose photos of village festivals, dual carriage-way lay-by signs, decorated cakes and street art show how kitsch straddles the boundary between working and middle class. If only Perry with this documentary could do something similar.
Yet Perry’s design for his tapestries, laden with art historical references are pretty good.
It took me a while to pluck up the courage to go and sit in Jeremy Deller’s recreation of Valerie’s Snack Bar in his retrospective Hayward show last week. I spent a long time looking at the mindmap by the side of the Snack Bar, flitting my eyes between the illustration and the red seats, looking for a moment where there was a free space where I would not inconvenience an existing sitter.
There was a couple of young mums bottle feeding their babies (as if from Stoke Newington) on one of the tables, a couple of men (one of whom looked like Julian Assange) having an in-depth political conversation, and a small family on their day off.
I walked into bar, asked for a tea and slotted into one of the plastic seats. It was cosy, snug. The design put you close to other people, closer than most cafes (probably as it is a recreation of a snack bar in a market). It was a level of proximity only seen in galleries when you are pushing past people in one of the capital’s exhibition blockbusters.
There was an art student writing on a napkin opposite me, many individuals reading the gallery guide, people chatting, watching the video of the procession in Manchester which the recreated snack bar was originally a part. What was common to all the participants in this installation was a level of self-consciousness that even the proprietor and her waitresses could not efface with their chat about baking and a friend who was applying to study at the Courtauld. This seemed to prompt those eye avoidance actions most common to lifts and being on the tube: reading, playing with mobile phones, and in this case watching other people outside the cafe. When you did catch the eyes of gallery-goers ambling around the piece you felt complicit in Deller’s act, when you spotted them looking at you slurping on your builder’s tea you felt a bit like an object denied of anonymity, in the background to someone else’s tourist photo.
Photography was used by people within the installation to render their experience static. The napkin writer opposite me took a picture of her off-the-cuff prose with her ipone (perhaps to send immediately to someone else online or blog in some way) and there were lots of people taking pictures of their free teas. Hardly normal behavior in a cafe, although interestingly not that rare given our increasing photo-mediated world.
Director of the Hayward, Ralph Rugoff associated Deller with the 1990s re-definition of what art is, working in a ‘different’ way, ‘working collaboratively, working with different kinds of social groups’. Surely Rugoff has in mind the artists Nicolas Bourriaud mentions in his work Relational Aesthetics (Tiravanija, Gonzalez-Torres, Beecroft, etc.)
So what of this ‘situation’ that Deller has created (alongside the comfy discussion space next to his 2009 project ‘It is what it is’ which involved touring a burnt out car from the Iraq war through the heart of America). Its clearly an unusual cafe experience. Not only is the tea completely free, but you are aware of some outside force (maybe a combination of Jeremy Deller, the Hayward institution and the form of the cafe) telling you to behave as if you are in a cafe. This level of self-consciousness this encourages is common to the participants of artworks that create a situation: the work does not make art out of an existing social experience, but puts a frame around this social experience, isolates it in some way, and creates entirely new social and aesthetic conditions.
Unfortunately, this metamorphosis of social act to performance is often flattened by artists, galleries and funding bodies who want to claim that art can be radically inclusive, and that a social act can be art. As Julian Stallabrass claims there is a mythology to this that helps prop up a status quo in the globalised art market. Yet if we emphasise the obvious displacement that happens in participatory art we might move to a different critical terrain.
For example, the Deller’s cafe in the Hayward is clearly unreal in many ways, but being within the displaced cafe draws the participant’s attention to what exists within cafes, within one’s own memory (imagined, viewed or experienced). By what is absent and conspicuously recreated we recall something tangible. The glimmers of social action – chat, laughter, texting, avoiding eye contact – alert us to those other social experiences within cafes, and like well-placed brushstrokes on a painting provide an insight in to what the artist is trying to say about something. With Deller’s work, one suspects he is praising the carnival-esque, familial status of British greasy-spoon, working-man and motorway lay-by-type cafes.
The feeling of displacement in the recreated cafe alerts us to the social experiences of cafes in our mind within a specific historical-social existance, and this is not an insignificant ambition for an artwork.
The days of the texting keypad on the mobile phone are surely numbered. Smartphones are gradually replacing buttons in the world of telecommunications, and with it, the concept of the text keypad where each number doubles up as a series of letters (1 standing in for punctuation; 2 – abc; 3 – def; 4 – ghi; 5 – jkl; 6 – mno; 7 – pqrs; 8 – tuv; and 9 – wxyz).
Anticipating its future decline, and as I own one of these phones myself at the moment, I thought to bring attention to this particular system of texting. Not only does my phone limit me to the 9 buttons of the keypad but it does not have predictive text, meaning I have to press buttons repeated times to get to the letter I need. This makes texts with heavy use of the ‘s’ very time-consuming, having to press 7 four times before you get there. And then there are the words with the ‘ight’ ending that take an age because the middle three letters are all on the 4 meaning you have to wait each time for the cursor on the text screen to compose itself. You not likely to get a text that says ‘I take flight, at the fright in the light night’.
To illuminate the limitations of this texting lexicon I will play a game: how many words can be made on the button-mobile phone without pressing the same button multiple times (so therefore using only the first letter on each number button) and without the clever magic of predictive texting. There are only a limited a number of letters – a, d, g, j, m, p, t, w – but when you make a word from a combination of these letters on these old phones it is very satisfying, as if you’ve stumbled on a convenience that is taken for granted on smartphones.
Just as extra rules: no repetition allowed (so no ‘aa’ or ‘dd’); and the words below exclude abbreviations – apart from ones that amused me. The dictionary used is a widget on my mac OS X operating system, and are sometimes elaborated upon by this author.
(This word game is inspired by chapter 60 of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. This chapter concerns a man called Cinoc, a name whose spelling caused problems for the concierge and residents of the block of flats that is the principle subject of this seminal work. Perec wrote twenty alternate spellings of this name based on how you pronounce different parts of the word – for example is the ‘c’ pronounced ‘s’, ‘sh’, ‘ts’ or ‘ch’, and is the last ‘c’ pronounced ‘ts’, ‘ch’ or ‘k’. Like other parts of this novel, Perec accounts for diversity within rigid schema, patterns and pre-determined rules, and in the process illuminates everyday concerns in all their richness.)
- ad – prefix, denoting motion or direction to.
- adam – the first man
- adapt – make something for a new use or purpose, modify (perhaps the best word on the list, the high pointer!)
- am – 1st person singular present of be.
- amp – unit of electrical current.
- ap – variant spelling of ad- assimilated before p, as in ‘apposite’
- apt – entirely suitable. ‘This blog is apt for the age of fast-paced communication’.
- at – expressing location or arrival in a particular place.
- aw – exclamation used to express mild protest.
- dad – father, one who begot you
- dada – art movement of the early twentieth century including Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia among its followers. Playful, yet serious, this movement raised fundamental questions as to what constituted artistic skill and labour. Also the French for hobby.
- dag – Australian/NZ, informal – an unfashionable or socially conservative person.
- damp – slightly wet, good description of English weather, most of the time, or ‘how it should be’.
- dap – fish by letting the fly bob lightly on the water.
- data – facts and statistics, information.
- daw – another term for jackdaw.
- gad – go around from one place to another in pursuit of entertainment.
- gag – a thing, usually a piece of cloth, put in or other a person’s mouth to prevent speaking or crying out. Think Pulp Fiction or the recent super injunctions in political life – ‘gagging orders’
- gaga – overexcited or irrational, typically as a result of infatuation. Appears in Queen song. Pop star of our age.
- gam – a leg, especially in reference to the shapeliness of a woman’s leg.
- gamp – dated British phrase for a large umbrella (again topical word for a very wet season – April 2012)
- gap – a break or hole in an object or between two objects. Fashion label.
- gat – a revolver or pistol.
- gawp – stare openly in a stupid or rude manner.
- jag – a sharp projection.
- jam – sweet, fruity substance on toast or a to squeeze or pack into a tight space.
- jat – a member of people widely scattered throughout the northwest of the Indian subcontinent.
- jaw – bones that form the framework of the mouth.
- mad – mentally ill, insane.
- madam – used to address a woman in a very polite way.
- mam – one’s mother (british) or polite address for a woman
- mama – one’s mother (especially as a child’s term).
- map – a 2d representation of an area, land or terrain. Verb – to record detail in the spatial arrangement of things, both geographic, chronological or philosophical.
- mat – thing you lay on, protective.
- matamata – a grotesque South American freshwater turtle.
- maw – the jaws or throat of a voracious animal.
- pa – informal for father.
- pad – soft material to reduce friction, notebook, or preceded by ‘i’ to name a recent technology.
- pajama – American spelling of bedclothes.
- pap – bland, soft or semiliquid food as that which is suitable for babies.
- papa – one’s father.
- pat – touch quickly and gently with the palm of the hand.
- pawpaw – another term for papaya.
- ta – thanks
- tad – to a small extent, somewhat.
- tag – a label attached to someone or something for purposes of identification.
- taj – a conical cap worn by a dervish
- tamp – pack a blast hole full of clay or sand to concentrate the force of an explosion.
- Tampa – Florida city.
- tap – a device that regulates the flow of water.
- tapa – the bark of a paper mulberry tree.
- tat – make decorative mat or edging by tying knots in thread.
- taw – make hide into leather without the use of tannin.
- twa- a member of a pygmy people inhabiting parts of Burundi, Rwanda and Congo.
- twat – a person regarded as stupid or obnoxious.
- wad – a lump or bundle of a soft material.
- wag – in reference to animals, move or cause to move rapidly to and fro.
- wagamama – restaurant chain (it had to be in there)
- wat – a Buddhist monastery or temple.
Have I missed any?
“Decadence”, “opulence”, “sex”, “curves”, “glamour”, “luxury”, “nature”, “butterfly”: these words fly around the first episode of Stephen Smith’s BBC documentary on Art Nouveau with the same abandon as the legs of a fin-de-siècle cabaret dancer. Smith, assisted by the medley of five-second splices of Paris (in which he often figures), seems intent on whipping viewers up in a frenzy, in trajectories familiar to the sinuous iron curves that spread from Guimard’s Parisian Metro entrances. This is not a comfortable fit for Smith, whose deadpan delivery and style of disinterestedness is better suited for mocu-mentary style reports for Newsnight (like the brilliant one on the government’s Big Society programme). The summarisation of an art movement seems too broad a subject for him and this leaves the impression that he is reading from someone else’s script.
The clichés are inevitable in a programme of such scope, but the lack of contextualisation was surprising. Art Nouveau was accepted at face value as being completely new. Artists always insist that their work is new but surely art history programmes should interrogate these assumptions: of course Alphonse Mucha’s grandson will say he was the first to bring art to the masses through his ebullient posters.
Why were the links between Art Nouveau and Impressionism, Post-impressionism and religion ignored? There was no mention of the Nabis – the trained fine artists who first turned to the decorative after meetings with the ‘wild’ Gauguin – and the absence of any discussion on the huge influence of Japanese imports on late-nineteenth century French art and design was almost criminal. The opening of art dealer Siegfried Bing’s Maison de l’Art Nouveau in Paris in 1895 reflects the importance of Japonisme and general love of the Orient in this movement. He employed Tiffany, Toulouse-Lautrec and Maurice Denis in designing his store, but more importantly played a major role in bringing Japanese art and design to France (see Nancy Troy, Modernism and the Decorative Arts in France: Art Nouveau to Le Corbusier New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). Even the wavey iron that is much admired as new has its precedent in the earlier nineteenth century Parisian arcades. Paris by the 1890s had been a spectacle for quite some time.
The second half of the programme introduced more complexity. We heard about Gallé’s commitment to social justice and his defence of the disgraced Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus, who was wrongfully accused of treason in 1894.
And when Smith stressed the movements obsession with the hybridisation of insect and female form he is animated, stating how the last interior he visits seems like it is produced by a hyper-evolved bee. This link to evolving perceptions of science and nature hints at the palpable anxiety behind Art Nouveau: biomimicry hinting at the increasing realisation in the modern world of an unstable barrier between nature and human, object and subject; a concern that stays with us today.
Art Nouveau was an unusual movement: artists associated with its rise did not write a manifesto stipulating its intentions like later cubists, futurists and surrealists. This leaves it up to art historians to find their own ‘unofficial’ starting points. Yet perhaps a lack of coherence is what Art Nouveau is really about. Often thought of as composite, an attempt to synthesise the confusion of different styles that had been gathering apace throughout the nineteenth century, Art Nouveau in Paris was a fluid, ambiguous term, not completely consistent with the seductive, l’art pour l’art, sexy, guide book-esque image presented by this programme.