Posts Tagged ‘Jim Rossignol’
“WORK IN PROGRESS”
Those little bits of text I sometimes post are, for the reader, I imagine, a lot like visiting the set of a film. The scene you see shot, and remember, may not be in the film when it’s released. Or, owing to the editing process, or even reshooting, it may be there but not remotely resemble what you saw shot.
For example, I titled an earlier fragment “The Gabriel Hounds”. In it, a character sees some dogs (of sorts). Those dogs no longer have anything at all to do with that which is called “the Gabriel Hounds” in the draft today.
Apophenia. Faces in clouds.
And I’m actually rather careful not to put up enough to allow you to figure out what’s really going on, in terms of the broader narrative.
Posted on William Gibson’s blog Wednesday, March 04, 2009 at 6.05pm
The work in progress became a novel, Zero History, released this week. The Gabriel Hounds became a “secret brand” of denim clothing. In April he answered a question from a reader on his blog about his supposed ability as a seer:
“I don’t actually buy that, the mighty thunderer and shaper of technology thing. I think I’m more of an interpreter of technologies, an amateur anthropologist. I’m a sort of Victorian weekend naturalist of technology, who somehow found a way to make a living doing that (and a bunch of other things at the same time).”
The “Victorian weekend naturalist” reference stayed with me. And I thought of William Gibson’s novels being like the journal that Joseph Banks kept while he was sailing with Captain Cook, that was then carried by Matthew Flinders on his own explorations of Australia.
The old media reviews of William Gibson’s book describe its plot and themes, give a potted description of his career, making sure to mention that he coined the term cyberspace, fully explaining it, but the readers, posting quotes and observations from readings, take a different path. They treat his book as a world and they go off to investigate a particular corner. One reader at Powell’s Bookshop posted William Gibson’s response to a question about cyberpunk:
“When I started, my model was not the Sex Pistols. I was fired up for the idea of a roots movement: Waylon and Willie going to Nashville and saying. ‘You fools, get this plastic shit off the table, this can really kick some ass.”
I’m fascinated by how he revealed the map co-ordinates to the novels subject matter as he was writing. I could imagine a scenario where a feature writer would begin exploring the world and an interview would become a reconnaissance mission as they looked for points at which their paths overlapped.
There’s a new territory to be mapped for reporting about the Arts. There’s some new form possible that respects scholarship and well-crafted writing (preferably burnished by an editor) that can be much simpler and more powerful because it doesn’t need to provide, within the text, exposition that can be linked to or Googled.
Last August I wrote a post on my blog about Blade Runner. A few years ago I was astonished by how much paper there is in the movie: files and photographs and newspapers. It seemed like a bum note. But last year, when I rented Ridley Scott’s most recent re-edit of the movie, he started to seem infallibly prescient again. By now books, and even newspapers, while their business models collapsed and they ceased to be dominant forms, have became, to borrow a description from Peter Lunenfeld: “theoretical fetish objects.”
I started to realise that there was a subtle negotiation happening, a not quite return to analogue but a definite swing away from the relentless forward arc of technological innovation and consumerism. Away from stuff and towards experience.
There were a few observations about urban design in my post. I don’t think of Blade Runner as a movie. It’s become a real city to me, a part of Los Angeles I never lived in but know well enough that I no longer need a guide to move around in it. The world is the story, Ridley Scott said in 2007. “I’ve gradually realised that what I do best is universes,” he told The Independent this year.
My post was linked to by Dan Hill on his blog City of Sound and my site started receiving traffic from a gaming site called Rock Paper Shotgun that had linked to my post through Dan’s link. I became an admirer of the writing of one of the site’s founders, Jim Rossignol, particularly his book, This Gaming Life. I don’t play games but I started to realise the effect that playing games is having on people, and how that’s shaping our view of the city and other artforms. Steven Johnson wrote about this in his book Everything Bad Is Good For You. Television shows are becoming more complex, he said, something to watch over and over again on DVD, and game playing is activating a problem solving part of the brain.
My guiding principle is something David Simon wrote about The Wire in an introduction to a book on the series by one of the screenwriters, Rafael Alvarez:
Swear to God, it was never a cop show…
It was about The City.
It is how we in the West live at the millennium, an urbanized species compacted together, sharing a common love, awe, and fear of what we have rendered not only in Baltimore or St. Louis or Chicago, but in Manchester or Amsterdam or Mexico City as well. At best, our metropolises are the ultimate aspiration of community, the repository for every myth and hope of people clinging to the sides of the pyramid that is capitalism. At worst, our cities – or those places in our cities where most of us fear to tread – are vessels for the darkest contradictions and most brutal competitions that underlie the way we actually live together, or fail to live together.
Last night Ben Eltham tweeted: “Here’s a thought for the #critfail types: why aren’t we discussing music, design, architecture, or (perish the thought) game criticism?”
I searched back through the Twitter timestream and discovered he was referring to a series of discussions called “Critical Failure”, about theatre, books, film and visual arts criticism, staged by the Wheeler Centre.
I’m writing writing arts and food stories for The Huffington Post which is based in Los Angeles. I lived in Los Angeles for nearly 12 years and I still feel as though I’m translating Sydney back through a language module permanently set to a Californian setting. Which isn’t to say that I don’t feel at home here, or feel inspired by what’s around me, there’s just a sense of discovery to my reporting.
My rule is that anything I’m writing about has to be happening in Sydney or connected to the life of the city in some way, and as much as possible based around ordinary, everyday performances: a regular Wednesday night performance rather than an album launch, a quiet afternoon at a gallery rather than the opening party. And I try take advantage of the tools that are available to everyone: curator tours at the Art Gallery of NSW, readings at City libraries.
I appreciate the writings of Ben Eltham and Marcus Westburybecause their subject is the city too. And I like their perspective, reporting from that edge where new artforms come into connection with more traditional forms: some new things give way, some old things are renewed. I like the scale at which they seem to prefer to work, at ground level, amongst communities.
Whenever I google print-on-demand the first couple of pages of results make me despondent. They conjure up a steampunk vision of a dying industrial city ringed by nineteenth century factories filled with hulking machines. Smoke will be belching into the air from these factories and they’ll be cycling water into and out of a stagnant river with dead fish laying on its surface.
Convoys of trucks bring paper of questionable provenance and toxic glues and inks to these factories and take out boxes of heartbreakingly mediocre publications: “1,000 Recipes for Quick and Easy Dinners”, calendars decorated with portraits of kittens and puppies, “Beautiful Sydney” souvenir photobooks with tourist brochure images of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, and romance novels hastily written to cash in on the Jane Austen among the zombies trend.
Along Main Street shysters peddle services no-one needs any more: marketing guides to get your “bookstore quality” books into “27,000 bookstores worldwide”, and formats for press releases to send out to the literary editors of newspapers along with review copies of your book.
The origin of the materials and the manufacturing methods are nearly impossible to find on print-on-demand websites. The paper may be described as “premium” but you won’t be told if it’s made from old growth forests. You will have few choices of paper and printing methods and only some print-on-demand services allow you to use your own design rather than choose from their templates. If the locations of the factories are disclosed the information will likely be vague: for example, Blurb will route your order through one of a number of factories in the United States or the Netherlands.
Brightly coloured text balloons will say you can make only one book if that’s all you need, but the transaction will only make economic sense if you’re making hundreds, or thousands, of books.
Book Manufacturing is Codicology
What I want to know is why architects and designers aren’t driving this market. They design new forms and help establish new manufacturing methods for chairs and lamps and bicycles and athletic shoes and ballpoint pens and salad bowls, so why not books?
The codex form of the book as we know it is from the first century AD. You could take a Gideon’s bible from a motel bedside drawer and hand it to an ancient Roman and, issues of language aside, he’d recognise it as a bible. During the industrial Revolution huge machines were developed to automate the production of codices and not much has changed since the nineteenth century.
Twentieth century embellishments, saddle-stitched (stapled) and spiral bound documents, have promise but are repellently ugly. They’re made with ungainly plastic combs, flimsy metal spirals that always bend out of shape and whose ends unfurl to snag clothing, and staples that always look cheap in a way that drags down the quality of a document.
Where are the Vitra’s and Arteks?
The architecture and design world has a rich tradition of independent publishing. The architects association bookshop in my neighbourhood sells expensive casebound monographs next to the modest Pamphlet Architecture series. There’s already a well-established market for independent design publications, so why aren’t architects and designers approaching their books as they’d approach other design projects: introducing new materials and formats and working with companies that will figure out how to manufacture them and bring them to a wider market?
I want to google print-on-demand and bring up hundreds of different options. In the world I want to inhabit there’d be companies making book formats that are whimsical meditations on the book from counter-intuitive materials: the book equivalent of Shiro Kuramata’s epoxy coated nickel-plated steel How High The Moon armchair.
Tom Dixon would engage Shigeru Ban to make a book format for Artek that’s a set of components that can be taken apart and reconfigured into new books, where the patina that covers and spines acquire over time becomes an essential part of the character of the design.
And the bespoke hardware company E. R. Butler would make handsome, durable metal spirals with screw-on end keepers, manufacture a minimal hole punch mechanism, and commission artists to work with cover materials so that we could make our own spiral bound notebooks or printed books.
Arup’s ReIndustrial City
He wrote scenarios in the style of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. This is from “The ReIndustrial City”:
“The advances in various light manufacturing technologies throughout the early part of the 21st century — rapid prototyping, 3D printing and various local clean energy sources — enabled a return of industry to the city. Noise, pollution and other externalities were so low as to be insignificant, and allied to the nascent interest in digitally-enabled craft at the turn of the century, by the early 2020s suburbs had become light industrial zones once again … In an ironic twist, former warehouses and factories are being partially converted from apartments back into warehouses and factories. Yet the domestic scale of the technologies means they can coexist with living spaces.”
Architecture and Design Publishers Can Build Upon Online Networks to Create New Styles of Publications
Design and architecture writers took to the internet early. It’s always been possible to find writing of excellent quality and depth online. Now architecture and design writers are refining and extending the possibilities of online criticism. The Storefront for Art and Architecture gathers bloggers together in different cities for real-world conversations with Postopolis.
Geoff Manaugh, who writes Bldgblog decanted some of his posts, reworked them, added new material, and published a book. Mammoth is reinventing criticism by linking several bloggers to review The Infrastructuralist City, providing different perspectives on readings of the book and updates and links to sources that expand upon the reviews. I read Mimi Zeiger and Alexandra Lange’s tweets, which are frequently observations about design and architecture as a part of the life of the city. It’s city desk reporting as a conversation.
It’s incredibly expensive to manufacture monographs in small numbers and ship them around the world, so it should be possible for the Princeton Architectural Press say, to form alliances with those who’d sell their books in other countries to manufacture exquisite print-on-demand books where they’ll be sold. Perhaps selling the text electronically as a redemption code bundled with pamphlet style print-outs of key images and drawings from the books that can’t be fully experienced online. Or even using 3D printing to sell models with the books?
What about crowdfunding design books that might have a small, but worthwhile market. A Publishing Company could list possible books (or take suggestions) to see if a book is worthwhile to produce.
Games as the Design Monographs of the Future
In the twentieth century we used to say of novel or incredible life experiences “it was like a movie”. Now we should be saying “it was like an app” or “it was like a game”. Location based smart-phone apps seem like the logical progression from shelter magazines:
With Tranquility we can find calm and spiritual places in the city (the Rubin Museum or Walter DeMaria’s floor of a building covered with dirt). Phantom City generates imaginative, speculative concepts for where we stand in Manhattan.
The Museum of London generates photographs of historical views of where we stand in London.
Jim Rossignol is one of the most astute chroniclers of the cultural impact of games and how they’re influenced by and in turn influence the built environment. A couple of weeks ago on his blog he wrote:
“This week I’ve been constructing a piece that examines how a book, a film, a videogame might all deal with the same topic, and how the technological differences between these formats changes both the experience as well as the subject that is being explored. Beyond that I’ve got some plans to look at how books, the moving image, and the interactive experience are all connected, and how the 20th century coughed them up to give us the culture we have today.”
The best of music writing has the keen powers of observation and deductive reasoning of Robert Downey Jr’s sweetly wild slapstick Sherlock Holmes.
William Gibson’s review of a Steely Dan concert:
“A Steely Dan concert is akin to witnessing the passage of a single multiplex vehicle the size of a motorcade or convoy, its various segments comprising limousines, ice-cream wagons, hearses, lunch-carts, ambulances, black marias, and motorcycle outriders, all of it Rolls-grade and lacquered like a tropical beetle. The horns glint, as it rolls majestically past, splendid, a thing of legend, and utterly peculiar unto itself.”
Alex Ross’s book on twentieth century classical music, The Rest Is Noise:
“At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Schoenberg’s music no longer sounds so alien. It has radiated outward in unpredictable ways, finding alternative destinies in bebop jazz (the glassy chords of Thelonious Monk have a Schoenbergian tinge) and on movie soundtracks (horror movies need atonality as they need shadows on the walls of alleys). With the modernist revolution splintered into many factions, with composers gravitating back to tonality or moving on to something else, Schoenberg’s music no longer carries the threat that all music will sound like this. Still, it retains its Faustian aura. These intervals will always shake the air; they will never become second nature. That is at once their power and their fate.”
The Way Holmes Thinks
One minute and forty six seconds into Guy Ritchie’s version of Sherlock Holmes we see Holmes thinking out loud, diagramming how he’ll take down a bad guy: ‘Head cocked to the left: partial deafness in ear. First point of attack.” And then he lunges, following through on his thought. Time has the tempo of jazz for him, shifting forward or in reverse for a few syncopated seconds then swinging sharply back to the present.
Holmes’s Home Laboratory
This is from the Kindle edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes: “Holmes loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.”
Ten minutes and nineteen seconds into the movie, in his magnificently disordered study, clad in a motheaten smoking jacket, Holmes engages in tart banter with his landlady. With a Grouchoesque lift of his eyebrows he asks if she’s poisoned the tea. “There’s enough of that in you already,” she replies. She walks to the door past a bulldog stretched out on the floor. “Killed the dog,” a moment’s comic pause, “again?” she asks. It’s the setup for a running gag. Gladstone the bulldog will repeatedly be Holmes’s straight man, out for the count as the result of some wild experiment or other.
The snappy bickering between Holmes and Watson and Holmes and Irene Adler is like music to my ears:
Irene: “Why are you always so suspicious of me?”
Holmes: “Would you like me to answer chronologically or alphabetically?”
Actual London is set-dressed and populated with period-clad extras and carriages against a computer-generated London in a frenzy of industrial revolution construction, rendered with the hyperspecific granularity of Holmes’s own observations, an accretion of minute things:
Watson’s fiancee Mary. “You’re making these grand assumptions out of little details.”
Holmes. “That’s not right is it? The little details are by far the most important.”
A Real And Imagined London
Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes story is literally mapped onto London, the murderer geo-tagged his crimes, but it feels like just one path through this world. There’s a sense that there are other stories and other characters lurking in the shadows and around corners. It has the completeness of a child’s imaginary world. In the making of feature on the DVD Guy Ritchie says Sherlock Holmes stories were a reward for good behaviour when he was at boarding school.
This London – half-real / half-myth – brings to mind the game that Jim Rossignol wrote about in a guest post on BLDGBLOG a couple of weeks ago.
The Zone Of Alienation. This 30km area of Ukraine and Belarus remains poisoned and largely off-limits to mankind, thanks to the radioactive caesium that dusted it after the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986. While it has remained quarantined and closed to (legal) habitation, it hasn’t kept out sight-seers. The production team at GSC Gameworld, a games studio based in nearby Kiev, intended to use the derelict zone as the basis for environments in their action shooter, STALKER: Shadow Of Chernobyl. The team went into the zone and photographed urban dereliction: a snapshot of an abandoned Soviet Union. They would go on to fill their game world with the zone’s rusting fences and collapsing grain silos, but that was not all that came with the material: the landscape and its decaying architecture was already charged with mythology—with narrative. Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky shot a movie, called Stalker, which told a story based on that of Roadside Picnic. A glacially slow, almost event-free film about landscape and longing, it’s a work that lingers for long minutes over broken wastelands of abandoned industry. It encapsulates Tarkovsky’s style, as well as his interest in dereliction and decay—themes that would be revisited by the STALKER videogame, thirty years on.
A Bridge Between Worlds: Games And Movies And Art
The sky is not falling. In many ways, the weather has never been better. It just takes a new kind of barometer to tell the difference. Steven Johnson: Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Popular Culture is Making us Smarter. (2006)
The tracking shots in Sherlock Holmes feel like the way I’d move through a game world. I’m not looking at Victorian London, I’m immersed in it. The whole thing feels modern and sexy and effortlessly smart. I watched it again to concentrate on the characters, and then again to look closely at the engineering of the buildings and bridges. I want to re-read books set in the period – William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine and Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map - while I have Sherlock Holmes running on my computer screen, and have open the Museum of London’s iPhone app with views of Victorian London pinned to a street map.
The way that Sherlock Holmes is a traditional artform that resonates with an emerging artform reminds me of Animal Crackers, the second movie by the Marx Brothers. It was made in 1930. The first talking movie, The Jazz Singer, had been made in 1927. It was the last of their movies to be based on a show that they’d performed on stage. It was the last of their movies to be shot on sound stages in New York. It was structured like a vaudeville show: a slender story built from topical references from the newspapers, a bit of irony – the “strange interludes” Groucho spoke directly to the audience mimicking Eugene O’Neill’s play, the Pultizer Prize winner of that year – creaky light operatic songs and clunky choreography. But the Marx Brothers are in an entirely different universe, their performances are electrically fresh, their surreal idiocy and illogical wordplay and antic physicality are exactly right for this dynamic new medium.
Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of Sherlock Holmes is my proof that we’re already in a new world. People should be saying in response to a shocking or novel or intensely wonderful event “it was like a game.” We can stop wringing our hands over whether games are art. And wondering if e-books can deliver a satisfyingly undistracted literary experience. And hoping for a renaissance of long-form traditional journalism held tight within magazine-applications developed for tablet devices. And wondering if we are witnessing the slow march to extinction of publications on paper. And worrying, as film-critic Roger Ebert is, about whether Twitter is eroding our capacity to concentrate. These questions are irrelevant: the way we read and the way we watch movies has already changed, we just haven’t stopped to acknowledge it. We’re already on the other side of those divides.
“Homo sapiens are about pattern recognition” William Gibson writes, “Both a gift and a trap.” Steven Johnson observed four years ago that our television shows and movies are already complex and we respond to them by appealing to the “deep seated appetites in the human brain that seek out reward and intellectual challenge.” He’s already countered Roger Ebert’s fears. In his introduction to Everything Bad Is Good For You he doesn’t shy away from the poor writing and objectionable tone of some games and television shows. It’s a valid argument, he says, he doesn’t disagree with it. But he also sees a rising tide of smartness, a different kind of concentration. “Just as important – if not more important – is the kind of thinking you have to do to make sense of a cultural experience,” he writes. “Today’s popular culture may not be showing us the righteous path. But it is making us smarter.” Jim Rossignol’s book This Gaming Life picks up there and eloquently takes this argument to the next level.
Guy Ritchie’s presentation of Holmes’s mind recalling finely-observed details which spark together and explain how Lord Blackwood disguised his murders as supernatural acts reminds me of the diagram of an idea forming in The Invention of Air, Steven Johnson’s study of the amateur chemist Joseph Priestley.
Holmes: “There was never any magic, only conjuring tricks. The simplest involved paying people off, like the prison guard who pretended to be possessed outside your cell. Your reputation and the inmates’ fear did the rest. Others required more elaborate preparations like the sandstone slab that covered your tomb. You had it broken before you were buried and had it put back together using a mild adhesive. An ancient Egyptian recipe I believe, a mixture of egg and honey, designed to be washed away by the rain …”
Watson. “How did you see that?”
Holmes. “Because I was looking for it.”