Posts Tagged ‘william gibson’
“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.
Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy consult a computer in modern day Hammersmith in “Lost in Austen”
The Ping social networking service within the latest upgrade to Apple’s iTunes programme has been coolly received: I read venture capitalists remarking upon its failure to connect to other social networks; apparently an agreement with Facebook was thwarted at the last minute. Tech writers remarking that there were no provisions to block comment spam. Entertainment writers observing that the tweets of Lady Gaga, the famous musician shilling for the service, had been edited to remove references to homosexuality. Early users complaining about being pigeonholed by being asked to define themselves according to three musical marketing categories. And what everyone remarked upon was that Apple chose only to recognise music that had been purchased within iTunes.
How ironic. I thought back to 1984, two years after Blade Runner was released, when Ridley Scott directed an ad for Apple to be shown one time, at the Super Bowl. With Apple, 1984 wouldn’t be George Orwell’s 1984. A young female athlete ran through a hall full of anonymous, dark clad figures and threw a hammer, shattering the screen where a Big Brother figure was making a speech about conformity and corporate control.
Ping is a rare example of Apple being tone deaf. In its early days the graphical user interface cut through the awkward alphabet soup of prompts that were needed to operate other machines. And the hardware had snappy design at a time when all other machines were of a surpassing ugliness. And in Los Angeles I went to a store with a ten year old while she picked out her first computer, a Bondi Blue iMac, and at home set it up on her own and was on the internet within half an hour.
In 1984 the digital world was beginning to settle in. A few years earlier, punk rock musicians, feeling that the commercial music system didn’t reflect their lives or interests in places like Brisbane, Australia, Akron, Ohio or Athens, Georgia, recorded and pressed their own vinyl singles. They had the social networking inclinations of the coming internet era but none of the tools. It was difficult for bands and small labels to sustain a business that required manufacturing and shipping small quantities of records around the world at a time when currency translation and international money transfers were expensive and complex to arrange. The most popular musicians and labels signed contracts and formed distribution deals with the multinational record companies.
The rate of innovation became dizzying, modifications and enhancements and format changes. It was accepted that every couple of years we’d have to upgrade software and buy new hardware, and buy our music over again. Music that had been first released on vinyl became available then on cassettes and cartridges and CD’s and Minidiscs and then as MP3 files which could also be upgraded. While movies on VCR had to be purchased again on DVD and now again on Blu Ray.
On Twitter I’ve read the rumblings of a tech writer for a hip magazine thinking of buying a new computer that’s not an Apple. Today Australia’s Green Pages magazine posted concerns about Apple’s environmental standards:
“Environmental researchers still want Apple to answer some questions publicly like: are the materials in its devices obtained from conflict-free mines? What toxins, if any, are still in those iPhones and chargers? With what standards and regularity does Apple review its original equipment manufacturing partners to make sure they are operating in an environmentally and socially responsible way? How will the company curb e-waste?”
The creeping disenchantment with Apple is part of a general trend to move away from the relentless accumulation of stuff. In June I heard Rachel Botsman speak about ‘collaborative consumption’, of sharing, bartering and renting goods rather than buying them. She showed a photograph of a stack of CD cases with a cross through it. We want the experience of music not the stuff, she said.
I heard the musician Robert Forster, who has become a music critic, speak during the Sydney Writer’s Festival about how he studies the music he’s listening to, finding clues in the musicians and composers and producer’s credits, the artwork and the liner notes. None of the credits are posted with iTunes purchases of songs. Sometimes there’s a PDF booklet if an entire album is purchased.
The interface that’s important now is between the physical and digital world at street level, in communities. We need to assess and observe the limits of technology and not just its promise and commercial viability. I find more value these days in reading Rosanne Cash’s and William Gibson’s tweets than Wired cover stories.
William Gibson (as Great Dismal) “What is often described as ‘talk’ when I tour, is actually reading, Q&A, ritual scratching of screens with diamond-encrusted trowel.”
Rosanne Cash: “Looks like I have some not-quite-human and not-quite-bot followers. How adorable you are. #AndJustALittleScary.”
“There’s breaking news at the top edge of the geologic time scale today,” the Friends of the Pleistocene blog wrote in May. They were commenting on the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s report on renaming our epoch the Anthropocene, to reflect that humans are the drivers of change on Earth. I started blogging with the new Arts section of the Huffington Post this week and my beat is going to be the cultural impact of the Anthropocene Epoch.
“Who knows what might result if more people knew they were in the midst of creating and leaving behind an unprecedented impact – one that can be measured geologically?” the Friends of the Pleistocene asked. “Maybe humans could learn something from this change – if not about our impact, then at least about ourselves within a much longer geologic story.”
The Friends of The Pleistocene have drawn up a Geologic Time Viewer that graphically represents how previous epochs connect to our own. The Carboniferous period, 354 to 290 million years ago is especially significant. It’s when foliage from plants that thrived in the humid conditions fell but didn’t decay and over time was transformed into veins of coal. The Anthropocene Epoch is considered to have begun during the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century when methods for mining and extracting energy from coal were developed, transportation systems were invented to move raw materials and goods around the world rapidly in great quantities, and civil engineering projects enabled the growth of great cities. The Geologic Time Viewer draws a line from the Carboniferous Era to the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Centre and Yankee Stadium.
“It has not been science and scientists but science fiction and science-fiction writers that have anticipated some of the greatest engineering achievements of all time,” Henry Petroski wrote in The Essential Engineer. “Jules Verne had men reaching the Moon a century before the Apollo 11 mission, and Arthur C Clarke proposed a system of geosynchronous telecommunications satellites in 1945, two decades before they became a reality.”
In 1992 Arthur C Clarke published When the World Was One: The Turbulent History of Global Communications. He concluded with predicting the importance of mobile personal communications devices. “As the century which saw the birth of both electronics and optronics draws to a close, it would seem that virtually everything we would wish to do in the field of telecommunications is now technically possible. The only limitations are financial, legal and political. But have we indeed reached the limits of communications technology? Time and again the past men – even able men – have proclaimed that there is nothing more to invent, and they have always been proved wrong.”
By the end of the twentieth century science fiction was presenting the collapse of the natural world as the end result of the ingenuity of manufacturing and building technologies. “You know what? I was always aware that this whole Earth is on overload,” Ridley Scott said in 2007, on the twenty fifth anniversary of Blade Runner. “I’ve been like that for 30 years, and people used to think I was a — not exactly a depressive, but always dark about it. And I’d say, “It’s not dark, mate. It’s a fact. It’s going to come and hit you in the head.” It’s right where we are right now, where we’re still going, arguing in circles. There’s some politicians who still seriously believe that we haven’t got global warming.”
William Gibson said of his science fiction of the 1980‘s: “In some cases, I believe that I inadvertently provided “illustrations” for technologists who might otherwise have been unable to explain what they were trying to do.” In his Bridge trilogy (Virtual Light – Idoru – All Tomorrow’s Parties) of the 1990‘s he predicted the world as we know it would end as the millennium turned but no-one would notice. “We are come not only past the century’s closing,” said Yamazaki, the Japanese existential sociologist, “the millennium’s turning, but to the end of something else. Era? Paradigm? Everywhere, the signs of closure. Modernity was ending. Here, on the bridge, it long since had.” What ended was the notion that we could keep averting disaster with large scale inventions and dominion over nature.
The ingenuity and inventiveness of the Bridge trilogy was small scale, the refugee community on the ruined Golden Gate bridge created their own power and water and waste management systems from scavenged materials.
The millennium was a fork in the road. In one direction progress continued to be equated with bigger construction projects, the maniacally complex city-structures in Dubai, for example, until the world financial crisis closed them down. In January Wired Magazine declared that the Next Industrial Revolution would give individuals access to vast factories in China. 3D printers and rapid prototyping would allow people to easily and quickly devise their own products and they’d negotiate directly with factories to get one, or thousands, made up for themselves.
The other path counters the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution, the damage to the environment caused by the mining and burning of coal and the unchecked mass production of disposable products. 3D printing and rapid prototyping technologies can be used to extend the life of products by printing replacement parts and to generate prosthetic limbs. People may find personal alternative power sources. There’s a prototype of a Wellington boot that collects power generated through the heat of the feet that can be stored and used to recharge mobile phones. And the iconic construction projects are by architect Shigeru Ban, whose primary building material is humble paper tubing, reinforced and snapped together in repeating patterns for structural strength. He builds cathedrals and museums and hip designer furniture but also refugee housing.
“Having an idea is different to the infinitely harder and longer process of invention” James Dyson says. “At Dyson we’re inspired by the ingenuity and tenacity of the great inventors. For me, design is about how something works, not how it looks. It’s what’s inside that counts. The best designs come from someone questioning everything. Designers, engineers look at the same things as everyone else. But they see something different. And they think what could be – and make it happen – even if it takes 5,127 prototypes to succeed.”
Sharing and renting products is becoming prized more than owning them. Utility and reliability matter more than design and brand. Two new models of the Dyson vacuum cleaner, the DC24 and DC25 Drawing resemble prototypes and are annotated with the tests on the various components and how long it took to develop them: “Tri-Lobular Handle. Development time: 7.5 months. Result: maximum transmission. Steering feels as light as possible.” “Hose Stretch Test Pneumatic rig stretches hose assembly. Repeated for 150,000 cycles.”
In the twenty first century William Gibson abandoned the conceit of placing his novels in the future, and stopped inventing devices and technologies for his books. As Great Dismal he tweeted a quote today from computer pioneer Alan Kay: “You can’t fix a natural system. You can only negotiate with it.”
His new trilogy (Pattern Recognition – Spook Country- Zero History) is set in the present. “The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone”, he recently told a Booksellers convention. “Ahead of us, there is merely…more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidian … If Pattern Recognition was about the immediate psychic aftermath of 9-11, and Spook Country about the deep end of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq, I could say that Zero History is about the global financial crisis as some sort of nodal event, but that must be true of any 2010 novel with ambitions on the 2010 zeitgeist. But all three of these novels are also about that dawning recognition that the future, be it capital-T Tomorrow or just tomorrow, Friday, just means more stuff, however peculiar and unexpected. A new quotidian. Somebody’s future, somebody else’s past. Simply in terms of ingredients, it’s about recent trends in the evolution of the psychology of luxury goods, crooked former Special Forces officers, corrupt military contractors, the wonderfully bizarre symbiotic relationship between designers of high-end snowboarding gear and manufacturers of military clothing, and the increasingly virtual nature of the global market.”
Nick Cave released his first solo album, From Her To Eternity in 1984.
The first song, Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche”, contains the principles that guide Nick to this day. All of his songs are love songs. They all deal with question of the soul’s survival. They’re all compassionate.
“You who yearn to conquer pain, you must learn what makes me kind” wrote Leonard Cohen in “Avalanche”. It has echoes of the conversation God had with Job that changed His relationship with the human race. God had killed Job’s family and servants and livestock, destroyed his property, and stricken him with disease to test his faith. You can make me fear you, Job said to God, but why not inspire me to love you? God fell silent, and created Jesus Christ, to live among humans and suffer with them.
Several years later when Nick’s first collection of lyrics was published the epigraph would be “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee” from the Book of Job. Nick’s perspective is that of one of Job’s servants, spared by God to report what had happened to Job. Here’s what joins Nick’s songs to the works that define the mythology of our time: he’s a witness not the main protagonist. He places himself in the world. The world is the story.
“So, in this instance, my special effect, behind it all, would be the world,” Ridley Scott, about Blade Runner
Ridley Scott released the movie Blade Runner in 1982. The world is the story he said. William Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer, was released in 1984. He considered using the phrase “Watch out for worlds behind you” from the Velvet Underground song “Sunday Morning” as an epigraph.
And in 1984 Ridley Scott directed a commercial for the release of Apple’s Macintosh personal computer that referred to George Orwell’s novel, 1984. A young woman who looked like an Olympic athlete ran through a hall full of soulless, suited people to smash a screen where Big Brother was giving a speech about technology’s ability to create uniformity of thought.
“Upon arriving in the capital-F Future, we discover it, invariably, to be the lower-case now,” William Gibson told a bookseller’s convention recently. “The best science fiction has always known that, but it was a sort of cultural secret. When I began to write fiction, at the very end of the 70s, I was fortunate to have been taught, as an undergraduate, that imaginary futures are always, regardless of what the authors might think, about the day in which they’re written. Orwell knew it, writing 1984 in 1948, and I knew it writing Neuromancer, my first novel, which was published in 1984.”
“The sky above the port was the colour of television tuned to a dead channel.” The first line of Neuromancer.
Joseph Campbell said that the images of Earth beamed back from the Moon’s orbit and surface by the Apollo astronauts created a new horizon for mythology. For the first time we could see our whole world and comprehend that our fates are connected. The new era would be guided by a global mythology. All stories would connect together to create one story.
In this new era the communications and satellite imaging tools of the astronauts would become commonplace and shrink to fit inside our mobile phones. The images from space would increasingly show the damage we’d done to the Earth. Our impact would be deemed so significant that by the year 2,000 geologists would be calling this new era the Anthropocene.
“I was always aware that this whole Earth is on overload,” Ridley Scott told Wired on the 25th anniversary of Blade Runner. “I’ve been like that for 30 years, and people used to think I was a — not exactly a depressive, but always dark about it. And I’d say, “It’s not dark, mate. It’s a fact. It’s going to come and hit you in the head.” It’s right where we are right now, where we’re still going, arguing in circles.”
Mythology is Source Code
Mythology is source code. Artists translate the timeless stories that harmonise the stages of our life with our time in our place. But our time is atemporal William Gibson said, we “access the whole continuum”. Artists provide a context for the stories that chronicle our life experiences which today is as much a curatorial function as one of creation. William Gibson tweets prolifically as Great Dismal. He provides and weeds links, and steers paths through swathes of information.
“I say “truths,” however, and not “truth,” as the other side of information’s new ubiquity can look not so much transparent as outright crazy,” William Gibson wrote in a New York Times editorial about George Orwell’s 1984. “Regardless of the number and power of the tools used to extract patterns from information, any sense of meaning depends on context, with interpretation coming along in support of one agenda or another. A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and a quotidian degree of madness. We may be able to see what’s going on more quickly, but that doesn’t mean we’ll agree about it any more readily.”
Terraforming the Bad Seeds
Looking back at Nick’s first solo album, twenty six years after it was recorded, what’s remarkable is the broad context he created for his songs with the formula he developed for assembling a band around him. It was like he was terraforming a world.
The Bad Seeds expand upon Nick’s ideas and may even contradict them. All of the Bad Seeds either lead their own bands or have sideline projects that are unlike Nick’s music. There will always be at least one musician who is a skilled multi-instrumentalist with some traditional training, who can guide arrangements and understands the workings of the recording studio. And there will always be at least one highly experimental musician with a unique perspective. “I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it,” Patti Smith said of artists she admires in her book Just Kids. The avant garde Bad Seeds are transformative.
Nick explained his attitude towards collaboration in a pocket sized book about the lightbulb sculpture Sue Webster and Tim Noble created for the cover of DIG!!! LAZARUS, DIG!!! Nick considered the title a slogan. He played the title song for the artists but it wasn’t finished so he didn’t leave a copy with them. “I think it’s often better to work with only a small amount of information” Nick told them.
They created an artwork that could have been the billboard for a church or casino along the Las Vegas strip. It could have hung in Times Square as Jenny Holzer’s slogans, for instance, “Protect Me From What I Want”, have done. A few months after the release of the DIG!!! LAZARUS, DIG!!! album Sue Webster and Tim Noble created an LED light sculpture of a fountain at Rockefeller Centre that was so realistic that water seemed to be flowing through it.
“You brought an uncharacteristically playful atmosphere to the project,” he told them … “you brought the sunshine into it – the colours, the reds and the oranges and the yellows … That’s often one of the good things about collaborating with other people. Sometimes you get nudged into different and unexpected areas.”
“As Rimbaud said, ‘New scenery, new noise.’ ” Patti Smith. Just Kids
Music became one of the private layers of reality we were able to impose on the city after the Sony Walkman was intoduced in 1979. “The walkman allows us to integrate the music of choice with virtually any landscape,” said William Gibson. “The Walkman changed the way we understand cities. I first heard Joy Division on a Walkman and I remain unable to separate the experience of the music’s bleak majesty from the first heady experience of the pleasures of musically encapsulated fast forward urban motion.”
Generations of musicians and architects have been drawn to Blade Runner and Neuromancer. “I had one of the biggest — now maybe the biggest — one of the top six architects in the world tell me he used to run Blade Runner regularly in his office once a month,” said Ridley Scott.
“One of the things that encouraged me when I published Neuromancer was that I started getting letters from musicians I listened to and architects, and they would start with I never read science fiction BUT … I kept those for years, to prove that I was reaching the audience I wanted, who read all literature as speculative fiction,” said William Gibson.
The new mythology was chronicling the winding down of the Industrial Revolution. We were becoming aware that we’d destroyed our world by turning it into a factory and that our dominion over nature was destroying nature. The cityscapes in Blade Runner and Neuromancer are overbuilt, polluted, and denuded of nature but they were received as romantic visions. There was a glamorous film-noir edge to both works. Ridley Scott was inspired by movies of Raymond Chandler’s books. William Gibson adopted Dashiell Hammett’s granular detailing.
Barry Adamson and Blixa Bargeld were the first extraordinary experimental musicians Nick brought into the Bad Seeds. They brought to the music representations of the city that are in alignment with Ridley Scott’s and William Gibson’s. In 1989 Barry Adamson released an album called Moss Side Story, named for the area of Manchester he grew up in. He described Moss Side Story as an imaginary soundtrack for a film noir movie. It has a backdrop reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story where rival gangs rough one another up. There are homages to Alfred Hitchcock and Henry Mancini.
There are arrangements that are big and brassy and sexy and swinging and some that are quiet, sad and spare. There’s a story of sorts, a fragment or two of dialogue, some sound effects. It doesn’t seem like an accompaniment to a film though, the whole world is there, in the music.
Manchester was the place where the Industrial Revolution began. “Manchester lay at the confluence of several world-historical rivers: the nascent industrial technologies of steam-powered looms; the banking system of commercial London; the global markets and labor pools of the British Empire,” wrote Steven Johnson. “The story of that convergence has been told many times, and the debate over its consequences continues to this day. But beyond the epic effects that it had on the global economy, the industrial take off that occurred in Manchester between 1700 and 1850 also created a new kind of city, one that literally exploded into existence.”
The city self-organised out of chaos and patterns emerged out of unco-ordinated local actions, Steven Johnson wrote in his book Emergence: the Connected lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software. “Not all patterns are visible to every city dweller, though. The history of urbanism is also the story of more muted signs, built by the collective behaviour of smaller groups and rarely detected by outsiders.”
There were many bands in Manchester during the punk rock era and their music has become a part of the pattern of the city’s life, its landmarks.
“Manchester is a very musical city–but it’s not a literary city–I mean there’s lots of book readers there, but hardly any writers–and certainly not writers who are trying to like paint a new map of the city,” said the novelist Jeff Noon, whose novels are defined by music and do paint a new map of the city. His novel Automated Alice is a version of Alice In Wonderland set in Manchester’s industrial cityscape and is purely wondrous. Alice meets Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis who are reimagined in a Lewis Carrollian way.
It’s obvious how Nick’s lyrics are symbolic. He makes reference to ancient Greek myths, religious stories, quotes from literature, and uses imagery with symbolic associations: the Moon, for instance, can symbolise the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But Barry’s arrangement for Red Right Hand carries the symbolism of the song. The song began with a mapping of an industrial city. Nick’s notes are reproduced in the catalogue for the exhibition of his notebooks initiated at the Arts Centre in Victoria. Barry’s arrangement brings to mind the new horizon for mythology suggested by the first photographs of Earth taken from the moon’s orbit by the Apollo 8 astronauts. The photo was often rotated to make it seem as though we’re standing on the moon’s surface looking at Earth. As it was taken the photo produces a queasy, disorienting sensation of being afloat without anything to hold onto.
“There are no horizons – that is the meaning of the space age,” Joseph Campbell said in 1979. “We are in free fall into a future that is mysterious. It is very fluid and disconcerting to many people.”
The translation of the name of Blixa Bargeld’s band Einsturzende Neubuaten is “collapsing new buildings”. There’s a story I heard in Los Angeles in the early 1990’s that’s probably an urban myth but is so charming that I don’t want to have it disproved. I was told that when Einsturzende Neubauten toured they’d be driven to the town dump when they arrived in a new city to find discarded jackhammers and chainsaws and rubble and building materials to use as instruments at their concerts.
I saw a concert Einsturzende Neubauten gave in Los Angeles in 1992 that was majestic and formal. The band was dressed in black pants and black turtlenecks. Blixa poured gravel slowly and with ritual grace from one bucket to another. A jackhammer solo sounded as if it were transposed from an arrangement for the cello. Their performance and music had the refinement of a chamber music recital. I thought it was a fanciful association. I have little knowledge of contemporary classical music. But a couple of years later I went to a concert of new music at the Hollywood Bowl performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa Pekka Salonen. It brought to mind the Einsturzende Neubauten concert.
And a few years after that I read in Alex Ross’s book, The Rest is Noise, that Esa Pekka Salonen’s generation of Finnish classical musicians had been inspired by Einsturzende Neubauten.
“Magnus Lindberg made his name with a gripping piece called Kraft (1983 – 85), whose orchestra is augmented by scrap metal percussion and a conductor blowing a whistle. At any given point, it sounds nothing like Sibelius — Lindberg cites the influence of noise-rock bands such as Einsturzende Neubauten — but the accumulation of roiling processes from microscopic material feels like a computer-age reprise of Tapiola.”
What Nick shares with Blixa is a tremendous curiosity, that Blixa formalises in experiments whose results he turns into music. Einsturzende Neubauten’s Tabula Rasa album had several songs in English that make reference to cosmology, and biology and physics and theology and philosophy.
There’s great refinement and melodic strength in much of Einsturzende Neubauten’s music. The way that they consider the noise of the city as a species of music, and the questioning of the power and effect of noise, can be compared to the studies twentieth century classical composers made of the science of sound and its effect on the mind and body that Alex Ross describes in The Rest is Noise:
“Neuroscientists have analyzed the phenomenon of the ‘musical chill’ – the ambiguous tremor of otherness that runs through the body when, for whatever reason, a particular sound overwhelms the reasoning mind … Mahler’s chills often arise from collisions between music and noise, music and silence. They imitate the sublimity of nature – eruptions, thunderclaps, the roar of waterfalls – and thereby trigger an instinctive shiver of awe and fear.”
Lately my favourite novelist William Gibson has been championing the quality of being atemporal, accessing the whole continuum. It started me thinking about how I might have been an ineffective music critic in the early 1980’s because I pushed the continuum all the way back to the Big Bang. I grew up in the Flinders Ranges region of South Australia where outlandish fossils are always being dug up. I remember looking up at the night sky, as a child and wondering what existed before the universe. Cosmology and palaeontology and the Harlem-era jazz of Duke Ellington weren’t a great preparation for evaluating breaking news in popular culture.
After a couple of years I switched to writing about architecture and design and, once the world had opened up to me and I’d moved to New York and then California, began specialising in writing on engineering, and carving out a hyperspecific microniche writing about remotely operated robots.
I’d always thought of punk rock as a phenomenon of urbanism, young creative people moving into downtrodden parts of cities worldwide and creating their own worlds. Maybe it’s cyclical. There was a story today in the New York Times about arty types moving into abandoned industrial parts of cities and giving them a new life having reached a ‘critical mass’: a restaurant in a coffin factory in Paris, the fish-packing district in Iceland aping the makeover of the meatpacking district in New York as a place where art galleries and cool cafe’s and boutiques are congregating. I don’t know if it was in New York, but I read about a Comme des Garcons ‘guerrilla’ boutique in a former butcher shop where the clothes were hung on meathooks and the screens for the changing room were the fringes of heavy-duty plastic that act as flyscreens in butcher shop walk-in fridges.
The new life being brought to ruined and abandoned parts of cities worldwide was the most fascinating aspect of the punk rock era to me. But it wasn’t a city-council backed urban-renewal strategy with arts grants and marketing slogans and chambers of commerce collecting friends (customers) on Facebook. St. Kilda in Melbourne and Darlinghurst in Sydney and the Bowery in New York, for example, to the extent that the wider cities considered these areas at all at the time, weren’t considered to have been improved by punk rock.
I was obsessed with the holy trinity of the era: The Sony Walkman, William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer and Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner. “I knew I’d done a pretty interesting movie which, in fact, was extremely interesting but was so unusual that the majority of people were taken aback,” Ridley Scott told Wired in 2007. “They simply didn’t get it. Or, I think, better now to say they were enormously distracted by the environment … In Blade Runner, my special effect behind it all would be the world.” William Gibson has said he considered quoting “watch out for worlds behind you” from the Velvet Underground song “Sunday Morning” as an epigraph for Neuromancer.
The punk rockers were creating invisible personal worlds from music, film, art, literature. The Walkman made listening to music something private and portable, as Gutenberg’s printing method had done for reading. I deliberately misread William Gibson’s idea of ‘virtual reality’, a synthetic world conjured within a screen, as ‘distal reality’, the real but geographically far away world you’re in when you connect to the video feed of images from the Mars Rovers or Dr Robert Ballard’s robots finding howlingly ugly tubeworms using chemosynthesis to live at the edge of hydrothermal vents where the earth’s molten crust is constantly moving, or connecting over the internet to the robot arm that’s planting seeds, watering plants and weeding Ken Goldberg’s Telegarden.
THE STREET FINDS ITS OWN USES FOR YOU
William Gibson’s first novel Neuromancer, published in 1984, could have carried his observation “the street finds its own uses for things” as a tagline. In interviews he talked about how the inventors and manufacturers of new technologies can’t control, or even imagine, how they’ll be used. Drug dealers using beepers and pornographers making and distributing their movies on video aren’t the early adopters marketing departments dream of. And Grandmaster Flash creating a new musical form from scratching sequences from vinyl records together isn’t a predictable use for hi-fi equipment. “Other technological artifacts unexpectedly become means of communication, either through opportunity or necessity,” wrote William Gibson in an essay published in Rolling Stone in 1989. “The aerosol can gives birth to the urban graffiti matrix. Soviet rockers press homemade flexi-discs out of used chest x-rays.”
We’re in a post-cyberpunk world now: “In the city-as-platform, the street finds its own uses for you.” Justin Pickard tweeted this wry updating of William Gibson’s aphorism a few days ago. I’ve relied on the Google Maps application on my iPhone for the past two years because I have a chronically poor sense of direction. Now I just follow the pulsating dot down the purple line to my destination. Downloading the Twitter app a couple of days ago made me realise that nearly all of the apps I rely on work because they know where I am. There’s an etiquette. Launch the apps and they ask “may I use your current location?”. And I’m not sure that I can define ‘current location’. I live in Sydney but I’ve constructed an ersatz New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco through Twitter feeds that are equally ‘real’ to me. There’s an application called Museum of the Phantom City that maps ‘otherfutures’ onto Manhattan, with descriptions and drawings of projects imagined by “architects and other visionaries” for particular sites. I launch it and imagine what’s being presented. I can’t access any of the projects because, being in Sydney, I’m considered ‘out of range’ WAY out of range.
The technology in William Gibson’s novels of the twenty first century is what exists around him as he’s writing. “A friend of mine had been sending me links to locative art Web sites and I found it all excessively nerdy and very conceptual,” he said in 2007 while on an author tour for his novel Spook Country. “But I was drawn very strongly to the idea that the entire surface of the planet is literally divided up into a digital grid. I read about geo-caching and geo-hacking, but my needs as a storyteller were not being met. So I came up with something that was like the lowbrow version – locative art that would be on the side of vans or as it would be done by the people whose work is in Juxtapoz Magazine. And that generated [the holographic artist character] Alberto and his art, which I like a lot. The cognitive dissonance comes from the idea that this guy’s using it to make memorials to River Phoenix and Helmut Newton.”
ROBERT FORSTER, ARCHAEOLOGIST
Robert Forster talked about his collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, and played a few songs at the New Theatre in Newtown last week during the Sydney Writer’s Festival. He’s as skilled as an archaeologist at divining whole worlds from a few artifacts. He said that this quality that makes his reviews so vivid began with the attention he paid in childhood to looking deeply into record covers and seeking out interviews with bands to read. “Great artists present a world,” he said. He considers the significance of the photographs and artwork on album covers and reads the liner notes and credits, looking for clues. Bands drop hints he said, everything we need to know is there on the record sleeve. He considers how and where a record is recorded, who produces it, when it’s released, and the affect it might have on its audience.
“To release an album in January or early February is, sometimes, to make a statement. There are two blocks of the year when most records come out: March to June, and September to November. July and August are European and American summer holidays, so little is released then. December is a favourite dumping ground, home to many a bad record hoping to be lost in the rush. That leaves January and February as the one time of tranquillity, the time when a light can be shone on something special. People have not been bombarded yet, so a record can slip through and travel on word of mouth, and if it does ‘bite’, the artists have the rest of the year to tour it.
Chan Marshall (Cat Power is the moniker for this one-woman band) and Beth Orton have a few things in common. Both are in their mid-thirties, and emerged in the mid-’90’s with records that made an impact: Marshall with her fourth album, Moonpix, and Orton with her debut, Trailer Park. Since then they have consolidated, but not gone supernova. Both have wandered; both have done good work and bad. Neither is prolific. Now, about ten years into their careers – always seen as a vital point in the arc of a recording artist’s life – they have albums out close to each other, in the early part of the year.
… Focus is not a problem for Beth Orton. She has gone to New York and hired Jim O’Rourke as her producer. O’Rourke is hip; so hip Sonic Youth asked him to join. He made a number of good, influential solo albums in the late ’90’s, filled with hypnotic guitar-figure songs. Since then he has carved out a role as producer, often working with bands with a more mainstream lilt than himself, such as Wilco. It’s a bold choice for Orton, considering the strength of the 14 songs she has written. Big names would have loved this job, but O’Rourke is the inspired choice.
… And yes, there’s something of the Swordfishtrombones, Achtung Baby and Blood on the Tracks about all of this: the artist unexpectedly shedding an old skin, and achieving the breakthrough. As so often, the key is simplicity: the long-sought-after alignment of an artist’s root worth with the means of expressing it.”
Robert Forster reviews Cat Power’s The Greatest & Beth Orton’s Comfort of Strangers
The records made by musicians of the punk rock era have built up a rich fossil record: the conceptual art piece Robert Rauschenberg made of the cover for the Talking Heads album Speaking in Tongues. The powerful, sere graphic identity of the records released by the Factory Label from Manchester. A craze for candy coloured vinyl: Television’s single “Little Johnny Jewel released on red vinyl”. In the American remake of the British television series, Life on Mars, not so much named for but generated out of the David Bowie song, Detective Sam Tyler, who has tumbled back into 1973 from 2008, goes into a record store he visited as a child. “This is where I bought my first Hall and Oates, er … my first Led Zepplin album,” he tells Policewoman Annie Norris. “What you see here, all of this, vinyl albums, they all become obsolete. Replaced with CD’s and digital music you listen to on MP3 players this big” – he holds his thumb and forefinger a couple of centimeters apart – “and the sound is, well, it’s much worse.”
We’ve lost a lot more than rich sound as music moved first to CD and then digital files, we’ve lost a lot of context, the equivalent of the soft tissue that indicates how a creature lived and the organic external features (hair, skin) that shows what it looked like. The size and proportions of CD covers aren’t as appealing as LP’s. And there’s an almost total eradication of context when buying music online: rarely any composer’s credits given for songs, no musicians and producer’s credits, and the year quoted may be when the album was made available on iTunes, not when it was recorded. And maybe the technological platform is about to shift again, from the contained, closed world of iTunes and iPods and iPhones to the cloud, where music will just sit amongst every other kind of data: spreadsheets, games, e-books, e-mail, twitter streams, and be pulled down onto any kind of device, whenever needed. This is the vision Google is sketching: “Cloud based music will represent the psychological with the idea that entertainment is somehow physical,” Farhood Manjo wrote in a post on Slate a couple of days ago. “In the future, not only will you not get a CD when you buy an album, you won’t even get a digital file. All you’ll have is an access flag tied to your account in a database in a server farm in some far off world.”
THE GOOGLE AURA
So where are the details now that Robert uses to construct the worlds of musicians? How are they presented and gathered? “One of the things I discovered while I was writing Pattern Recognition [published in 2004] is that I now think that any contemporary novel today has a kind of Google novel aura around it, where somebody’s going to google everything in the text,” William Gibson told Amazon.com. Readers can follow his footprints and what he calls a “nebulous extended text” is built up across blogs and discussion boards. He even leaves crumbs out for readers to follow, unexplained pieces of action that read like pages torn from a novel that already exists, but not yet in our time. Warm up exercises for his new novel began appearing on his blog last year. They featured the musician Hollis Henry, who’d become a journalist. She was one of the main characters in Spook Country from 2007.
“Eventually she sighed, asked the Italian girl for a white coffee, a cup rather than a pot. Got out her iPhone and Googled “Gabriel Hounds”.
By the time her coffee arrived, she had determined that The Gabriel Hounds was the title of a novel by Mary Stewart, had been the title of at least one CD, had been or was the name of at least one band.
Everything, she knew, had been the title of a CD, just as everything had been the name of a band. This was why bands, for the past twenty years or so, had had such pointedly unmemorable names. But the original Gabriel Hounds, it appeared, were folklore, antique legend. Hounds heard coursing, high up in the windy night, cousins it seemed of the Wild Hunt. This was Inchmale territory, definitely, and there seemed to be even weirder variants. Some involving hounds with human heads, or hounds with the heads of human infants. This had to do with the belief that the Gabriel Hounds were hunting the souls of children who died unbaptized. Christian tacked over pagan, she guessed. And the hounds seemed to have originally been “ratchets”, an old word for dogs that hunt by scent. Gabriel Ratchets. Sometimes Gabble Ratchets.
Inchmaleian totally; he’d name the right band the Gabble Ratchets instantly.”
From William Gibson’s blog. Material related to Zero History, to be released on the ninth of July.
A post called “The Afterlife of Paper” on the Editions Ballard blog gets thirty or more hits a day. I’m nearly certain it’s an anomaly. All of the hits come from search queries for Blade Runner, BladeRunner, Blade Runner Los Angeles, and Blade Runner City.
A Slipped Cog In The Search Engine
A cog must have slipped in the search engine, and now it’s caught in a groove. Or perhaps it’s search spam and every day thirty or more perfect copies of my post have been scraped onto a sham blog on some outer edge orbit of the internet, earning a shady corporation in a former Russian state microscopic amounts of advertising revenue from Google’s adsense program.
Or it could just be that Blade Runner is an enduring myth. “Although slightly biased, I firmly believe that science fiction is the true literature of the twentieth century,” J G Ballard wrote in a review of Star Wars in Time Out in 1977, “and probably the last literary form to exist before the death of the written word and the domination of the visual image. S-f has been one of the few forms of modern fiction explicitly concerned with change – social, technological and environmental – and certainly the only fiction to invent society’s myths, dreams and utopias.”
An Environmental Cautionary Tale
Blade Runner’s ruined world has always seemed to me exactly right, soberly realistic. “I was always aware that this whole Earth is on overload,” Ridley Scott told Wired Magazine in 2007. “I’ve been like that for 30 years, and people used to think I was a – not exactly a depressive , but always dark about it. And I’d say, ‘It’s not dark, mate. It’s a fact. It’s going to come and hit you in the head.’ It’s where we are right now, where we’re still going, arguing in circles. There’s some politicians who still seriously believe that we haven’t got global warming.”
The environmental cautionary tale was drawn from the 1968 Philip K Dick novel the movie was loosely based on. The novel was excerpted in a compendium of environmental writing that also includes the lyrics for Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology).”
“Philip K Dick was one of the foremost science fiction writers in the transitional era between space opera and the modern genre,” said the blurb above the excerpt of his novel in the compendium. “His novels, of which Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is perhaps the most famous, foreshadow the surprising bleakness that would come to dominate the SF aisle in the age of William Gibson and futuristic cinema, from Blade Runner (1982, based on Androids) to The Matrix (1999). This dystopian bent comes, I think, from the prediction that human scale and human values may not survive their inevitable collision with new technologies – technologies whose demands and dimensions may come to overwhelm our own.”
Here’s how the iPhone has become my newspaper. I don’t read the local newspapers any more. Not The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald or the Australian Financial Review. In Sydney every morning over coffee I read RSS feeds of blog entries by:
- the New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson
- the great New York humorous essayist Glenn O’Brien
- Canadian palaeontologist Michael J Ryan
- New York based classical music critic Alex Ross
- a trio of American and English economists who publish “The Baseline Scenario”
- Californian urban design critic Geoff Manaugh’s bldgblog
- novelist William Gibson, who lives in Vancouver
- Steven Johnson, the New York based critic and co-founder of the geotagged local news website, Outside.in
and I get e-mailed updates from
- the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, where Dr Robert Ballard is based
- the Berkeley Centre for New Media
- and the Rubin Museum in New York, which brings Buddhist artworks and culture into contemporary life.
What I know about Australia I absorb at a remove: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s economic plans I read about through Google’s news portal or in the New York Times. I keep up with the plight of the Tasmanian Devil in foreign science journals. Recently I’ve realized the folly of being so disconnected to my surroundings: I learned of the recent bushfires in Victoria from a friend in Los Angeles who called me from Hawaii.
When my neighbourhood in Sydney suffered a blackout for several hours a couple of days ago I was utterly unprepared. My computer and iPhone only had a couple of hours battery life left. I didn’t have a torch, candles or a radio. I’m going to buy a radio.
A month ago I bought an Apple computer that replaced my ailing PC whose systems were slowly shutting down. I couldn’t back up and transfer my iTunes library to my new computer so I’ve been slowly reloading my (predominantly jazz) collection from disc.
I’ve been able to watch movies on DVD again. My previous computer was set on the American format and I couldn’t play Australian DVD’s. I’m strangely cautious about going to the cinema and rarely see movies there: in the last few months I’ve only seen Wall-E, Stephen Sebring’s documentary on Patti Smith, and Frost Nixon.
I was deeply immersed in watching everything from the 1930′s and 1940′s I could find on video when I lived in Los Angeles and missed The Matrix when it was released. I saw it last week, ten years after it’s release. I’m glad I saw it in Sydney, where it was shot. It’s meant to be a neutral everymetropolis -I sensed Los Angeles and Chicago – but it was pleasing to recognize so much of Sydney in it. It’s a peculiar fact that I feel more anchored to a city after seeing it in a movie I like.
I’d been suspicious of The Matris, wondering if it was a sleek, calculated rip-off of William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer. I searched back through his blog and found that he’d been wary of it as well, but had been won over. “I thought it was more like Dick’s work than mine, though more coherent, saner, than I generally take Dick to have been. A Dickian universe with fewer moving parts (for Dick, I suspect, all of the parts were, always moving parts),” he wrote. “…Whatever of my work may be there, it seems to me to have gotten there by exactly the same kind of creative cultural osmosis I’ve always depended on myself.”
I recently browsed through the twentieth anniversary edition of Neuromancer at Borders on Pitt Street. It was a chunky, not handsome or luxe hardcover book published in 2004. The first line is “the sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.” in the preface William Gibson wrote of thinking that no-one could really experience the first line as he did, referring to the static on a particular black-and-white television, but that readers filled in the imaginative gap.
I have some things in common with William Gibson. We both had out-of-time childhoods, caught in the past of our grandparents, his Southern grandmother’s life had the texture of the Civil War era and mine was living a 19th century Victorian English life in rural Australia. We both experienced life without television. And his route into contemporary life was through a transistor radio, as mine had been.
I marvel at the completeness of his visual imagination. A failing of science fiction is it’s sweeping generality, he said. He learned hyper-specificity from the novels of Dashiell Hammett. I don’t think I ever learned anything visual at all. I was drawn to fractally dense worlds that operate on scales way outside everyday human experience: quantum physics, cosmology, palaeontology. As a result I find the human scaled visual world and its artifacts difficult to decode. I suspect I have an unsophisticated appreciation of movies, that on many levels they’re visually incoherent to me.
The worlds I’d tuned in through my transistor radio became worlds carried around with me on my Sony Walkman. I bought one as soon as I was able to after it was released in 1979.
“The very first time I picked up a Sony Walkman, I knew it was a killer thing, that the world was changing right then and there,” William Gibson said in 2007. “A year later, no-one could imagine what it was like when you couldn’t move around surrounded by a cloud of stereophonic music of your own choosing. That was huge. That was as big as the iPhone.”
I don’t completely enter the worlds of movies. I feel as if I’m walking through them wearing a Walkman loaded with other realities. Assemblages make most sense to me: the strung together vaudeville routines of Marx Brothers movies, the dreamy episodes of Sofia Coppola’s movies, which I can break back down into books she’s read, music she ‘s heard and art she’s seen, and the world of Blade Runner, which is bigger than it’s story.
Blade Runner, William Gibson’s novels and Nick Cave’s songs ring true to me because they’re encrusted environments, old technologies, behaviour, the spiritual communications system of myths are carried forward and re-wired and welded into current experience. The Matrix illustrated William Gibson’s observation that”the street finds it’s own uses for things – uses their manufacturers never imagined.” “Once perfected, communication technologies rarely die out entirely, rather, they shrink to fit particular niches in the global info-structure, ” he wrote. Thing exist in this way in The Matrix, patched, employed to novel needs: Bakelite phones and analogue voice carrying systems serving as the getaway vehicles between simulated realities.
What disappointed me with The Matrix was the music. I found it too one-note perfect and obvious, a conventional orchestral score interlaced with popular music that fitted a marketing niche: industrial clubs playing industrial music, the grandmotherly Cuban oracle playing 1930′s jazz, Django Reinhardt and Duke Ellington.
It would have been thrilling to have a completely unheard form of music playing in the clubs frequented by the renegade programmers. Something encrusted, quoted, sampled, stretched, manipulated to sound as if it belonged to now, conveying the idea of realities continually churning and emerging from interlinked, contradictory thought patterns.
I have an entirely different soundtrack for The Matrix: psychedelic – the Jefferson Airplane’s “Go Ask Alice”, Jimi Hendrix, Gil Evan’s orchestrations of Jimi Hendrix’s music; jazz funk – Stanley Clarke, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock; and Roberto Foneca’s melding of sweet Cuban music with hard bop piano. Then it occurred to me that this is the music I’ve been listening to on my iPhone as I walk through the parts of Sydney’s CBD where The Matrix was filmed.
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.
William Gibson’s blog
Dock Boggs. From Wikipedia.
When William Gibson released his first novel, Neuromancer, in 1984, he considered opening it with a line from a Velvet Underground song, “Watch out for worlds behind you,” from “Sunday Morning”. In an interview in 1986 he talked about how limiting he found the questions journalists were asking him. They asked only about books that had inspired him, and even more particularly, just science fiction books.
“The trouble with ‘influence’ questions is that they’re usually framed to encourage you to talk about your writing as if you grew up in a world circumscribed by books,” he told Larry McCaffrey. “I’ve been influenced by Lou Reed, for instance, as much as I’ve been by any ‘fiction’ writer.”
William Gibson and Nick Cave have been the two poles of my compass ever since I began reading and hearing their works, from Nick’s first record and Gibson’s first book. What they share is a vision with a level of detail that William Gibson described as ‘superspecificity’ and that he learned from Dashiell Hammett.
“I remember being very excited about how he had pushed all of this ordinary stuff until it was different,” he told Larry McCaffrey. “Like American naturalism but cranked up, very intense, almost surreal. You can see this at the beginning of The Maltese Falcon (1930) where he describes all the things in Spade’s office. Hammett may have been the guy who turned me on to the idea of superspecificity, which is largely lacking in most SF description, SF authors tend to use generics.”
Although Gibson is credited with the invention of what we now recognise as the computer era, because he described it so well, and Nick is generally assumed to be inventing scenarios around Old Testament parables, what draws me to their perspectives is how vividly they describe worlds that that are real, that they see because they’re paying attention. Their artistry comes from combining the observations they’ve made about in unusual ways. Their works resemble nothing we’ve ever seen before, in that way, so it’s assumed they must be inventing comic book futures or transcribing fever dreams.
“I suppose I strive for an argot that seems real, but I don’t invent most of what seems exotic or strange in the dialogue,” William Gibson told Larry McCaffrey, “that’s just more collage. There are so many cultures or subcultures today that if you’re willing to listen, you can pick up different phrases, inflections and metaphors everywhere. I use a lot of phrases that seem exotic to everyone but the people who use them.”
My own interests can be cross-faded with Nick’s and William Gibson’s. I’ve always comprehended that their works lay down on paper (or in music, alive in a stretch of time) the soul’s eternal struggle with itself. It’s the sadness at the heart of what they both create that I’m most drawn to: the sorrow that makes it possible to measure happiness. “We each have a need to create and sorrow is a creative act,” Nick said in a lecture about love songs. “The love song is a sad song, it is the sound of sorrow itself. We all experience within us what the Portugese call Suadade, which translates as an inexplicable sense of longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the Love song is the light of God, deep down, blasting through our wounds.”
Today a list of William Gibson’s ten favourite songs is published on the New York Times book blog. He mentions a song from The Boatman’s Call among his favourites. On his blog, at the time he published Pattern Recognition he expressed admiration for Nick, saying that he’d like to write a novel as good as The Boatman’s Call. Gibson’s description of a song by Dock Boggs, an early twentieth century Appalachian white bluesman, is exactly the feeling I gained from reading William Faulkner’s novels, after they’d been recommended to me by Nick.
“On finally learning to hear this music, you literally become some different, more primal manner of flesh,” writes Gibson. “There is simply nothing else like it. It is an Ur-thing, sere and terrible, yet capable of profound and paradoxical rescue in the very darkest hour. Dock Boggs lived in Wise County, Virginia, not far from where I grew up. I am haunted by the possibility that someone could have listened to this recording in Paris, in 1927, the year it was released.”
U2 at the screening of their 3D movie at Sundance. Photo by MyBono at Flickr.
U23D is William Gibson’s vision of virtual reality completely realised: a layer of synthetic experience that naturally melds with your material existence. The 3D movie was shot on the South American leg of U2′s Vertigo tour. William Gibson wrote about the Seattle and Vancouver concerts of that tour in Wired.
“My wife and I stand in Seattle’s Key Arena, noses level with the lower swoop of what U2 calls the Ellipse, the elevated stage loop the band traverses in performance. We’re here because U2 is the early 21st century’s biggest – and arguably most technologically innovative – touring group, the one that continues to define and redefine the spectacle that is arena rock. For more than a decade, they’ve been driving both the technology and the form of the megatour while providing huge audiences with a powerful yet intricately managed sense of intimacy.”
William Gibson. U2′s City of Blinding Lights: 12,000 daisy-chained LEDs. Spycams controlled bya PlayStation. The Vertigo tour is a monster concert machine – and the ultimate rock-and-roll R&D lab.
The band’s conceptual mastery of the technology and the movie’s polish made the 3D effect seem natural and inevitable.
Gibson asked The Edge about the technological artworks displayed during the concerts and the band’s collaboration with artists. “It’s a co-op,” replied The Edge.
“It’s finding like-minded people who have something to contribute. Ever since ZooTV, we’ve found people who’ve got stuff, and we go delving through their collection of images. But in the end, all of the imagery is there to underscore what the music is already saying. It’s a way to shed light from another angle.”
One form of light they deal with is spiritual, and the Christian symbols in Bono’s lyrics are given a context, in 3D, that makes it apparent that the songs are animated with the same kind of urge to ponder the human relationship with God that underpins religious art.
In the same week I saw excerpts from the video imagery that Bill Viola created for the staging ofWagner’Tristan and Isolde by the L.A. Philharmonic, and I heard him speak at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
He talked about developing as an artist while video technology was also developing, that he studied engineering alongside art in order to have a hand in creating the tools he needed to realize his vision. With high definition video he said he now feels that he has a full palette of tools. He showed an excerpt from his new work, Ocean Without a Shore.
A black and white surveillance video camera from the 1970′s filmed people walking towards an invisible wall of water. As the actors broke through the wall (a laminar flow that takes three days to calibrate) they became ultra-real, shot in the kind of high-definition digital colour video cameras that George Lucas shoots movies with. The work ponders the way that the dead, or how they remain spiritually with us, ebbs and flows.
Bill Viola said of the exquisite, lifelike detail in Northern European Renaissance painting, “that’s HD.”
We can now take technology for granted and see the common spirit in works created in different media, in different ages, and we can concentrate on the experience of the works. Bill Viola’s parents have died in the last few years and he recalled being at a gallery and standing in front of a Renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary and beginning to weep. He wasn’t an artist considering the technique and materials and concept of an artwork but a human being taking his cares and troubles to Mother Mary, he said. U2 are unavoidable but I’ve never really paid close attention to them, and in the few days since I’ve seen the movie I’ve looked up videos of their songs on YouTube. Bono has performed new lyrics he’s written for Ave Maria, alongside Luciano Pavarotti singing the traditional, ancient hymn-version. Bono takes his cares and troubles to Mother Mary. “Where is the justice in this world,” he asks her. “The wicked make so much noise, Mother. The righteous stay oddly still. With no wisdom all the riches in the world leave us poor tonight.”
It’s taken all of these 3D techniques to see U2 at human scale.
Recorded music has always had a dual identity, singles and albums played on radio and music videos are simultaneously artworks and advertisements for the artworks. In William Gibson’s twenty-first century novels, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, the prime villain is Hubertus Bigend, the Belgian owner of a global advertising agency. He creates an ethically dubious form of viral marketing by having people in bars covertly recommend products during the course of normal conversations. And he tries to find a marketing advantage in he way that most inventive applications of new technologies are created by either artists or the military.
On the ZOO TV tour U2 played in front of television footage pulled in from satellite dishes they brought to the arenas with them.
“We’ve spent a crazy time dissecting TV and adverts to make a parody of the chaos they cause,” Bono said at the time. “The irony is that ZOO TV has now been taken over by the advertising world and at the moment there are three or four international campaigns inspired by what we did.”
U2 seem sincere, close-up in 3D, in a way that minimizes the marketing aspect. They can seem bombastic and cartoonishly oversize in the regular world, but within the infinite vista and scalelessness of the digital realm, in 3D, are just life size. “Saint” Bono’s concerns, that can seem self-aggrandizing and overwrought in their global scope, within the digital world, with its natural tendency to create links and form clusters is heartfelt, inclusive and far-sighted.
The larger than life symbol in the concert is the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. In 2004 King’s widow Coretta Scott King, acknowledged Bono’s humanitarian work.
At the event, Bono became emotional as he discussed the impact Dr. King had on him growing up in Ireland during that country’s civil war, according to the Associated Press.
He said, “We despaired for the lack of vision of the kind Dr. King gave to people in the South,” and added that he wrote the 1984 hit “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” based on King’s teachings. Bono also said, “When Dr. King spoke about having a dream, he wasn’t just talking about an American dream. It can be an African dream, an Irish dream. That’s why I’m excited to be here.”
U2 performs “Pride” in Brazil, on the Vertigo tour.
US Senator Barack Obama, campaigning to become President, uses U2′s song “City of Blinding Lights” in his appearances. It’s not a stirring anthem but a quiet musing about the alienating quality of contemporary urban life. It presents uncertainty. He made a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony for a memorial to Dr King in 2006 that dwelt on triumphing over uncertainty and flaws.
By his own accounts, he was a man frequently racked with doubt, a man not without flaws, a man who, like Moses before him, more than once questioned why he had been chosen for so arduous a task – the task of leading a people to freedom, the task of healing the festering wounds of a nation’s original sin.
And yet lead a nation he did. Through words he gave voice to the voiceless. Through deeds he gave courage to the faint of heart.
By dint of vision, and determination, and most of all faith in the redeeming power of love, he endured the humiliation of arrest, the loneliness of a prison cell, the constant threats to his life, until he finally inspired a nation to transform itself, and begin to live up to the meaning of its creed.
Like Moses before him, he would never live to see the Promised Land. But from the mountain top, he pointed the way for us – a land no longer torn asunder with racial hatred and ethnic strife, a land that measured itself by how it treats the least of these, a land in which strength is defined not simply by the capacity to wage war but by the determination to forge peace – a land in which all of God’s children might come together in a spirit of brotherhood.
We have not yet arrived at this longed for place. For all the progress we have made, there are times when the land of our dreams recedes from us – when we are lost, wandering spirits, content with our suspicions and our angers, our long-held grudges and petty disputes, our frantic diversions and tribal allegiances.
Filming the movie at concerts in Buenos Aires, Santiago, Mexico City and Sao Paulo emphasized the connection U2 feels to those who are struggling, worldwide. The South American countries have fiery and exuberant, warm cultures, Bono said, that he identifies with. And, like Ireland, these countries have experienced the furious passion of religious conflicts, terrorism, war and poverty.
Karen Armstrong describes religions as “spiritual technologies” in The Great Transformation, a study of the age in which the compassionate responses of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism developed in a savage and violent world.
But in William Gibson’s science fiction novels of the twentieth century, those who pursue the magical new technologies in hope of attaining power, immortality and riches seem limited and lacking in character, while the seemingly less fortunate characters have an inner dimension, unquestioningly linking up older spiritual systems with new technologies.
Christian motifs already intermingled with Cuban voodoo, co-exist with synthetic realities. In Buddhism all is illusory. The wholly digital Japanese Idoru evokes the practical mysticism of Tibetan Buddhists, seeing nothing contradictory in believing in seemingly arcane magic but willingly adapting and giving up beliefs if science proves them untenable. The Latin cultures already have a form of virtual reality that requires no digital equipment, in the magical realism of their literature. In an interview Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that the realism in his novels isn’t “magical” but that all of the fantastic events in One Hundred Years of Solitude are absolutely real.
“It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination….[The tone] was based on the way my Grandmother used to tell her stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness. “
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Paris Review.
Towards the end of the movie the digital effects appear to be suffering from vertigo, slogans, then individual words, then just letters, in English and Spanish, rushing then subsiding until the band is alone onstage.
When I came out of the cinema Keanu Reeves was arriving for the premiere of his new James Ellroy police drama, Street Kings, in the same cinema complex. The actual, flesh-and-blood Keanu Reeves seemed less real than the digital Bono. People pushed and shoved behind the barricade of a shabby red carpet, to take photos of him with their mobile phones. It was a diminished and tacky approximation of the old-fashioned heady glamour that the ritual of a premiere is supposed to invoke. The closeness and warmth of 3D redefines intimacy. We no longer need to parade the actual human beings in front of the film in order to feel a genuine connection to them.
As Neo in The Matrix Keanu Reeves questioned the nature of reality and human life experience. In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik wrote that The Matrix “spoke to an old nightmare. The basic conceit of The Matrix – the notion that the material world is a malevolent delusion, designed by the forces of evil with the purpose of keeping people in a state of slavery, has a history.
It is most famous as the belief for which the medieval Christian sect known as the Cathars fought and died, and in great numbers too. The Cathars were sure that the material world was a phantasm created by Satan, and that Jesus of Nazareth – their Neo – had shown mankind a way beyond that matrix by standing outside it and seeing through it. The Cathars were fighting a losing battle, but the interesting thing was that they were fighting at all. It is not unusual to take up a sword and die for a belief. It is unusual to take up a sword to die for the belief that swords do not exist.”
Lights go down, it’s dark
The jungle in your head
A feeling is so much stronger than a thought
Your eyes are wide
And though your soul
It can’t be bought
Your mind can wander
I’m at a place called Vertigo
It’s everything I wish I didn’t know
Except you give me something I can feel, feel
The night is full of holes
As bullets rip the sky
Of ink with gold
They twinkle as the
Boys play rock and roll