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Late Capitalism

BondBourne, originally uploaded by rodcorp.

In the art bar at the RCA last night with Noam, we started discussing my recent obsession with the dematerialisation of super-villainy.

I haven’t seen the latest Bond movie, but Noam had – and he started talking about how there’s no travel in the new Bond. Or more correctly, there’s lots of travel, but no destinations.

Bond and his various nemeses live in the inter-zone, a bland Super-Cannes. As opposed to the Connery/Moore, hell – even Brosnan films, where you had long establishing shots of exotic destinations, you just feel like you are in the international late-capitalist nonplace.

We started talking about the Bourne movies, and how, particularly the first and the last are set in Schengen – a connected, border-less Mitteleurope that can be hacked and accessed and traversed – not without effort, but with determination, stolen vehicles and the right train timetables.

Again, the triumph of dematerialisation – but with a twist.

Rather than Bond’s private infrastructure expensive cars and toys, Bourne uses public infrastructure as a superpower.

A battered watch and an accurate U-Bahn time-table are all he needs for a perfectly-timed, death-defying evasion of the authorities.

As Rod has already pointed out:

Jason Bourne is the man-as-weapon, never troubled by indecision or doubt, immediately responsive, unbalancing his enemies’ battlefield underneath them. He moves forward constantly, like a shark, and lives in a fast forward that’s the exact opposite of bullet-time – blurred fragments experienced at extraordinary speed – and his reactions are all reflex-fast”

But in addition, Bourne wraps cities, autobahns, ferries and train terminuses around him as the ultimate body-armour, in ways that Old Etonians could never even dream of.

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Sir Ken Adam in conversation with Sir Christopher Frayling, V&A

I saw Sir Ken Adam, production designer of numerous Bonds, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang and Dr. Strangelove amongst other movies, interviewed by Christopher Frayling at the V&A last Friday, as part of their current Cold War Modern exhibit.

As a result, Frayling concentrated the conversation on those iconic Cold War images of the war room in Dr. Strangelove, and the numerous lairs for Bond Villains he had designed.

Frayling described these lairs with a lovely turn of phrase, paraphrasing Corbusier’s “houses are machines for living in” – that they were “Machines for being a meglomaniac in”.

Adam responded that his intention was to make the Bond Villain a contemporary creature. They should embedded in the material culture of the times – albeit with the resources of a meglomaniac millionaire or billionaire – and also able to reach a little bit beyond into a near-future as those resources allow.

Although rather than maintaining a purely high-modernist aesthetic, Adam’s villains were ostentatious, status-seeking magpies, with their old masters from a daring heist, siberian tiger rugs and priceless antiques on display next to their Eames recliners and Open-plan freestanding fireplaces.

“Gantries and Baroque” might be the best name for the look though, as this finery was, of course, all inside the ‘sanctum-sanctorum’ of their lair – generally they would have maintained such a well-appointed apartment somewhere within a more massive and industrial death-dealing facility staffed by uniformed private armies.

Frayling pointed out this repeating formula in the 60s and 70s Bond movies to the audience. A hidden fortress, that had to be discovered, infiltrated and destroyed with a girl/goddess as guide – but not to be destroyed before we could take in some of the fine lifestyle touches that supervillainy gave as rewards.

But then in an almost throw-away aside to Adam, he reflected that the modern Bond villain (and he might have added, villains in pop culture in general) is placeless, ubiquitous, mobile.

His hidden fortress is in the network, represented only by a briefcase, or perhaps even just a mobile phone.

Where’s the fun in that for a production designer?

Maybe it’s in the objects. It’s not the pictures that got small, but the places our villains draw they powers from.

Perhaps the architypical transformation from gigantic static lair to mobile, compact “UbiLair” is in the film Spartan, where Val Kilmer’s anti-heroic ronin carries everything he needs in his “go-bag” – including a padded shooting mat that unfolds from it to turn any place into a place where he holds the advantage.

Move beyond film and I immediately think of my favourite supervillain of the year, Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Stane from Matt Fraction‘s masterful run on the comicbook Invincible Iron Man.

As Fraction puts it:

Zeke is a post-national business man and kind of an open source ideological terrorist, he has absolutely no loyalty to any sort of law, creed, or credo. He doesn’t want to beat Tony Stark, he wants to make him obsolete. Windows wants to be on every computer desktop in the world, but Linux and Stane want to destroy the desktop. He’s the open source to Stark’s closed source oppressiveness. He has no headquarters, no base, and no bank account. He’s a true ghost in the machine; completely off the grid, flexible, and mobile. That absolutely flies in the face of Tony’s received business wisdom and in the way business is done. There are banks and lawyers and you have facilities and testing. Stane is a much more different animal. He’s a much smarter, more mobile and much quicker to respond and evolve futurist.

Zeke has no need for specialised infrastructure beyond commodity gear than he can improvise and customise. He doesn’t need HeliCarriers or giant military-industrial infrastructure like Tony Stark. He just needs his brain and his hate. As Fraction says in an interview:

I was trying to figure out what a new Iron Man would look like, and I figured, well, there wouldn’t be a suit anymore. The user would be the suit. I just started to riff on that, on cybernetics and riffing on weaponized bodymod culture stuff. Tony’s old money, old world, old school and old model manufacture. So where would Stane, a guy that had no manufacturing base and no assembly facilities, get his tech? Everything would need power sources, so how would that work? Where would the surgeries be performed? How would he pay for it? What’s his ideology? I started reading up on 4G war and warfare. And on and on until I understood Stane’s reality, and how Stane would wage war on Stark Industries and Tony both.

So – for a “4th generation warfare” supervillain there aren’t even objects for the production designer to create and imbue with personality. The effects and the consequences can be illustrated by the storytelling, but the network and the intent can’t be foreshadowed by environments and objects in the impressionist way that Adam employed to support character and storytelling.

But – what about materialising, visualising these invisible networks in order to do so?

Dan Hill just published a spectacular study of his – into the ‘architecture’ of wifi in a public space. They make visible the invisible flows of the network around tangible architecture, and the effect that has on how people inhabit that tangible space.

Interesting, deeply-interesting stuff.

Me, I just think that’s what’s fluxing and flexing around the 4th Gen Bond Villain.

That’s what could telegraph to us, the audience their bad intentions. That’s what communicates their preference, and their potency. Could it do it as effectively, immediately, seductively as Sir Ken could with Cor-Ten and Cashmere?

Probably not. Yet.

The visualisations he’s made Dan freely admits make more than a nod to Cedric Price‘s Aviary at London Zoo. Price himself being no stranger to creating intangible, mobile, flexible architectures – I bet he would have been bursting with ideas for 4th Gen Bond Villain UbiLairs…

In the mean-time, in the real world of all-controlling superpowers, we seem to be coming full circle, architecture professor Jeffrey Huang has been investigating the all-too-tangible architecture of what we rather-wishfully call the cloud: server farms.

These hydropowered, energy-guzzelling megastructures seem to have all the ‘Gantry’ but not a lot of ‘Baroque’ panache to qualify as good old-fashioned Bond Villain SuperLairs.

But, perhaps Larry and Sergei are working on it…

This summer, Google put a patent on floating data centers cooled and powered by the ocean.

Sir Ken was always ahead of his time.

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Aeros Airship
^ Photo: The Aeros Aeroscraft ML866 Concept

Imagine my surprise reading today’s Grauniad finding George Monbiot coming out as a fan of airships, and more broadly – of advanced technological solutions (“like most greens I’m prepared to try almost anything, as long as it works.” – really George? Shall we go properly nuclear then?)

I’ve long been Col. Blimp in arguments with m’colleague Cheathco on the future of global transport. George’ll be hot for space elevators next, then I’ll really have to find a new schtick, or make him my best mate.

Once I’d calmed down from the initial flush of general airship lust though – the point that stuck with me from the article was this:

“Paradoxically, the other major constraint could be an environmental one. Airships are one of several green technologies which might be killed by a shortage of materials. A new generation of solar panels relies on gallium and indium, whose global supplies appear close to exhaustion(8). The price of platinum, which is used in catalytic converters, has tripled over the past five years(9). Beyond a few natural gas fields in Texas, economically viable supplies of helium are rare; even there they might be exhausted in 50 years at current rates of use, or much faster if airships take off(10,11). If there is a God, he isn’t green.”

And that’s the worrying thing – this really seems like a game of what resource will run out – the cheap energy to do the R&D into The Gordelpus, the rare materials to make The Gordelpus, or the sociopolitical will to make The Gordelpus.

It’s like the early stages of a resource-trading game like Settlers of Catan.

If we can just get enough of the vital stuff, we’ll have a runaway advantage later in the play. Which bets shall we make with which resources in order to get that runaway multiplier before it’s too late in the game?

I guess I am with George after all – making some audacious bets mid-game looks pretty good right now.

It’s how we roll.


P.s.: “The Gordelpus” is Olaf Stapledon‘s quasi-nuclear magical/religious/scientific endless-power mcguffin of the First Men in his awe-inspiring Last and First Men.

From Chapter 4 of “Last and First Men” (Project Gutenberg version)

A century after the founding of the first World State a rumour began to be heard in China about the supreme secret of scientific religion, the awful mystery of Gordelpus, by means of which it should he possible to utilize the energy locked up in the opposition of proton and electron. Long ago discovered by a Chinese physicist and saint, this invaluable knowledge was now reputed to have been preserved ever since among the elite of science, and to be ready for publication as soon as the world seemed fit to possess it. The new sect of Energists claimed that the young Discoverer was himself an incarnation of Buddha, and that, since the world was still unfit for the supreme revelation, he had entrusted his secret to the Scientists.

Bonus (self)link: Olaf Stapledon’s amazing timelines he drew up while conceiving the book.

Skateboarding and The City, originally uploaded by blackbeltjones.

“The triumph of non-labour, however, does not entail an absence of effort but an even more profound redefinition of what ‘production’ might mean, and it is here too that skateboarding strikes at the heart of the business city. At first sight, skateboarders’ labour produces no ‘products’ beyond the moves skaters make, a ‘commodity’ exchangeable only by means of performative action. Furthermore, skateboarders, like students, offer a potential labour force but they deny this by undertaking seemingly meaningless productions, and so appear to waste effort and time. But that ‘principle of economy’ which sees a ‘waste’ of energy as abnormal is itself a reduction of life to mere survival. Skateboarding, in contrast, undertakes a release of energy that either creates or modifies space, espousing play, art and festival.”

– Prof Iain Boarden, Skateboarding and The City

A week or so ago, Ryan of Adaptive Path conducted a long, looping interview with me over IM where we covered the above and beyond.

Of course, this was meant to be something punchy, level-headed and action-packed as a promotion for their upcoming MX event, where people want to hear about the business-like practicalities and opportunities of ‘design thinking’ etc.

Instead they got something that Peter accurately described as ‘DVD-extras’, and I’m pretty comfortable with that.

For me, at least, and YMMV of course – crispy, crunchy blue-shirt and chinos bullet-points don’t do it. Design, invention and making comes out of play, punning and rambling on – generative, diverging and looping and splicing.

I’m very glad that Ryan decided to do the interview in IM, rather than emailing me questions that I could respond to as if in an exam. It’s a fun mess, that I’m glad to say Peter returned to and found a seed of something to advance further himself: the influence that our new ability of visualising shared behaviours has on our old ability as a social species to flock.

I’m hoping that my talk at MX will have a little more discipline to it, but still have enough DVD extras there for people to pick out and run with. If you register for MX, then use the discount code AP have given me: “MXMJ”, you’ll get 15% off the
registration price…