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The Spectacle

Excel centre

Channel4 News’s estimable Jon Snow on the psychogeographic-significance of the G20 summit being held in the Excel centre in London’s Docklands.

“Even in the best of times, this is a dump, a warehouse in which absurdly large events are staged. Devoid of character, nestling the City airport, it is stuck in the middle of a place that appears never to have seen a shop, never to have seen a pint pulled, never to have seen a baby born, let alone a body buried.

It is the waste tip of east London. And presumably now that the Olympic site has been cleared, basks alone as a gateway to nowhere.

Travelling in here on the security-strewn media buses, I wondered how a Mexican or a Brazilian, or indeed a German or a Frenchman would view this taste of England. Imagine if your only glimpse of Europe was this ghastly pile of metal and concrete. You would think that development meant some voyage into outer Hades.”

The choice of the Excel is strangely emblematic of the current condition, isn’t it. A megashed, in an artificially-regenerated remote, unconnected area of a world capital of Capital, surrounded by a moat of effluvia from Canary Wharf… Jon Snow should get Iain Sinclair on the show tonight…



What Anarchists Drive, originally uploaded by Ben Terrett.

“The sequence of events in the successfully waking world was generally more or less as follows. The starting point, it will be remembered, was a plight like that in which our own Earth now stands. The dialectic of the world’s history had confronted the race with a problem with which the traditional mentality could never cope.

The world-situation had grown too complex for lowly intelligences, and it demanded a degree of individual integrity in leaders and in led, such as was as yet possible only to a few minds. Consciousness had already been violently awakened out of the primitive trance into a state of excruciating individualism, of poignant but pitifully restricted self-awareness. And individualism, together with the traditional tribal spirit, now threatened to wreck the world.

Only after a long-drawn agony of economic distress and maniac warfare, haunted by an increasingly clear vision of a happier world, could the second stage of waking be achieved. In most cases it was not achieved. “Human nature,” or its equivalent in the many worlds, could not change itself; and the environment could not remake it.

But in a few worlds the spirit reacted to its desperate plight with a miracle. Or, if the reader prefers, the environment miraculously refashioned the spirit. There occurred a widespread and almost sudden waking into a new lucidity of consciousness and a new integrity of will.

To call this change miraculous is only to recognize that it could not have been scientifically predicted even from the fullest possible knowledge of “human nature” as manifested in the earlier age. To later generations, however, it appeared as no miracle but as a belated wakening from an almost miraculous stupor into plain sanity.”

– Olaf Stapledon, Starmaker, Chapter Nine.

I thought that delivering my webstock talk, and finishing reading Welcome To Mars, Cold War Modern and The Bomb while on holiday would let me escape my obsession with the post-war and the high-modern. I had reckoned without James Coburn.

Obsessed with the production design of "The President's Analyst"

Tom Armitage picked up on my love of the Derek Flint movies, and suggested that I had not really experienced Coburn at the height of his powers until I had experienced him in “The President’s Analyst“. The plot is a thing of gossamer, and the dialogue is probably best described as “very much of it’s time”, but the production designs and way that product and environment is photographed is wonderful.

I watched it on my flight to Etech, and went a little crazy taking screengrabs of every beautiful detail I saw…

Obsessed with the production design of "The President's Analyst" - a set on Flickr

The complete set is here, but I want to just point out a couple of wonderful moments.

The Archigram-esque travelling gate-lounges of Dulles, shot to echo the infrastructure of Apollo, and foreshadowing somehow the decaying post-future of Lebbeus Woods. Obsessed with the production design of "The President's Analyst"

The classic Cold-War combo of the long fluoro-lit corridor with tiny psuedo golf-cart.

Obsessed with the production design of "The President's Analyst"

Amphibious vehicles and long-zooms…

Obsessed with the production design of "The President's Analyst"

Headquarters of Corporate Evil, designed by Bruce Goff?

Obsessed with the production design of "The President's Analyst"

With corporate communications by DePatie-Freleng. (What was the first in this line of ‘hi-modern corporate communications animation vernacular’ as parodied eventually in Jurrasic Park amongst others?) Obsessed with the production design of "The President's Analyst"

My absolute favourite detail however, has to be – The Networked Shoe: Obsessed with the production design of "The President's Analyst"

That controls the corporate automatons Obsessed with the production design of "The President's Analyst"

Look at this… the way they are curled, and nested, and converging to a central control point… This might just be the ne-plus-ultra of command-and-control cybernetics of the cold war meets the high-modern consumer culture! Obsessed with the production design of "The President's Analyst"

As Coburn himself might say “Beautiful… BEAUTIFUL!Obsessed with the production design of "The President's Analyst"

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was being shown on TV this weekend. I happened across it accidently, and sat glued to it for a couple of hours, realising perhaps how burnt into my subconcious some of the images in it are for me.

I started watching it not for the story (of which there is not much, admittedly) but trying to watch the imagery, the iconography.

Obsessing over the production design in the last 20min of Close Encounters

So many of my hot buttons pressed! One of the first issues of Starlog I ever bought, about 1978/79 / a classic 2000ad cover by Brian Bolland / The Goodies / Syd-Mead-esque prefabricated pods and silky tracksuits / 1975 NASA Ames /Stanford Torus research illustrations / the italian-supermodern furniture aesthetic of Space 1999 /

Obsessing over the production design in the last 20min of Close Encounters

I’m currently reading Ken Holling’s excellent “Welcome To Mars”, in which the golden age of flying saucer culture is juxtaposed with the rise of suburbia and the military-industrial-entertainment complex.

Obsessing over the production design in the last 20min of Close Encounters

One could conside Close Encounters as the end of that trajectory – and the end of other trajectories: the last freak-out LSD scifi, the last ‘serious’ 70’s scifi before/during the starwarsification of the scifi movie.

Obsessing over the production design in the last 20min of Close Encounters

And the beginning of trajectories: the scifi conspiracy movie, the beginning of the industrial light-and-magic revolution, and an in-joke that would play out more than 25 years later in Alias.

Obsessing over the production design in the last 20min of Close Encounters

Aside from being lost in the imagery, one piece of dialog I had never heard before floated through as soon as I’d switched on. It’s the scene  where a young boy, Barry is about to be abducted.

His mother tries to block all the doors, windows and ducts but cannot stop screws being unscrewed and their hiding place being unwrapped by light, noise and apparent unseen malevolence.

Obsessing over the production design in the last 20min of Close Encounters

Barry stands smiling, points at the UFOs and cries with joy: “TOYS!!”

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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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