THIS is the beginning . . . Because somewhere between not knowing . . . and knowing . . . there lies imagination . . . THIS, THAT and THE OTHER . . . Book 1 . . . OUT NOW . . . THIS is the beginning . . . Because somewhere between not knowing . . . and knowing . . . there lies imagination . . . THIS, THAT and THE OTHER . . . Book 1 . . . CLICK HERE . . .

CURRENT : FOLKLORE TALK & STORYTELLING & BOOK SIGNING : Oriel Ty Meirion Gallery : Dyffryn Ardudwy : Now Booking for 21 November 2019
FOLKLORE & FAIRY TALES of NORTH WALES : Mixed Exhibition at Oriel Ty Meirion Gallery, Dyffryn Ardudwy : until 5 January 2020
THIS (parts 1 & 2) : OUT NOW from The Red Sparrow Press : paperback & e-book editions

FUTURE : THIS (Kindle Editions parts 3 & 4 of THIS, THAT & the OTHER Book 1) : Publication Dates TBA
THAT (THIS, THAT & the OTHER Book 2) : Coming 2020

Friday, 31 December 2010

My Top Ten Pieces Of Art

In the latter months of 2010, I have uploaded a countdown of my personal favourite Top Ten Pieces Of Art on my other ‘brother’ blog, I’M HOT GOAT. These are not necessarily the pieces of art that I think are the most important in critical terms, but ones that have made a memorable or important impression upon me. (Some of my all-time favourite artists are not represented in this list, a forthcoming Hot Goat entry, I think…) So, in reverse order:

10: Dalek – the cultural icon designed by Terry Nation and Raymond Cusick

9: Black Circle and Black Square – Suprematist paintings by Kazimir Malevich

8: Stray Dog – photographed by Daido Moryama

7: Blue Velvet – the film directed by David Lynch

6: The Large Glass – hugely important piece of art by Marcel Duchamp

5: Songs Of Innocence And Experience – written and illustrated by William Blake

4: Plight – the installation by Joseph Beuys

3: Stalker – the cinematic masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky

2: Spiral Jetty – large scale earthwork by Robert Smithson

1: 20:50 – the perception altering work by Richard Wilson

Read more at:
... and ALL the very BEST for 2011

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Futuregoth... what the hell is it?

"Art is science in the flesh"

artwork from a 1963 paperback edition of
Thea Von Harbou’s Metropolis.

Call it ‘Technogothic’, ‘Cybergoth’ or ‘Futuregoth’, there is a strong emergent genre making its mark throughout contemporary cultures and media, laced with a strong sense of nostalgia yet tempered with an astute vision of the future and at the same time making valid comments on our present… Sometime in the 1990s (the recent past) I identified several recurring themes within many of my favourite films, TV shows, novels, songs, etc... I intended to 'pin-down' these elements in a new fanzine to be called 'Futuregoth'. As it turned out, this idea distilled into a feature for the literary 'zine, 'Scrawl'.

Now, with the new-look Doctor Who back on Saturday evenings, I was reminded about this take on an emergent genre that already seems to have become a mainstream part of the British psyche... and quite fittingly, as the first 'Gothick scene' originated with Romanticism... a British-based art and literary movement that has had a big international influence to this day. So I revisited the article and present it here, slightly 'tweaked' and revised, for the (post-)modern world.

‘Gothic’ is a word that can evoke a strong reaction, either positive or negative, depending on which set of preconceptions you may hold... One thing that is clear, like it or not, the Gothic genre has been enjoying a renaissance.

Goths were a barbaric Germanic tribe who spread across Europe, establishing kingdoms through France, Spain and Italy during the third, fourth and fifth centuries CE. The term ‘gothic’ was coined by architects of the Renaissance period to describe building styles that they considered to be barbaric, uncouth or out-moded, choosing the classicism of ancient Greece and Rome as their paragon of good taste. The buildings branded gothic by Renaissance sensibilities were the great mediaeval cathedrals and abbeys which tended to be monolithic, with highly decorated exteriors and dark foreboding interiors…

The first Gothic Revival sprang forth in the Victorian era with architects like Pugin and Giles Scott at the vanguard, backed-up by the likes of Walpole and Ruskin. Arts and architecture from this early nineteenth century revival are often referred to as ‘Gothick’ - with a ‘k’ and coincided with a new fashion in literature. The imaginative works of Shelley, Stoker, Byron, Conan Doyle and Poe became hugely popular and spawned a trend for stories containing elements of the supernatural, linking the Romantic sensibilities to the gothic genre. Science, exploration and discovery also took leaps and bounds – the antiquities of ancient Egypt, the cultures of the far east – feeding the imaginations of writers and readers alike. Hence the genre of the Gothic(k) was created.

The Gothic genre took on the darkness and intricacies of the architecture, the macabre shadows of the human imagination and the inventiveness of science along with all the hopes and fears it presents.

The term became widely used during the 1980s when it was used by the media to label certain elements within the prevalent ‘New Romantic’ pop culture, particularly the fusion of punk-rock and electro-beat along with its accompanying fashions of the ‘Romantic Poet look’ – originally made popular a century earlier by the likes of Byron, who it is believed inspired the popular image of the vampire – dark hair, pale skin, moody manner, and nineteenth century garb…

‘Futuregoth’ is a genre that draws elements from fabulism, horror-fantasy, speculative science fiction and the great gothick tales of the nineteenth century. It is a natural progression and mutation from Cyberpunk and shares many defining features. Perhaps its prominence in current culture is a hangover of ‘millenniumism’ and the human desire it sparks to review and evaluate our past whilst looking forward to the new era. It is indicative of the blurring of boundaries, between past and future, art and science, dream and reality, light and dark, good and evil, and is a strident step toward challenging the dualism that rules much of human thought and history… Sometimes some things are not so clearly defined in terms of one thing or the other. The past informs and certainly influences the future though between the two lies the present. Darkness is a contrast to light, as good is to evil, and without contrast, nothing would be clear, though it is the combination of contrast that creates the overall picture… Of course, reality is what we make of it - and ‘proper’ hard science seems to be proving this a fact, or to further diffuse the issue with a quote from Jean Cocteau, “art is science in the flesh”.

So what exactly is Futuregoth?

The earliest, transmedia manifestation of Futuregoth was long before it ever had a jargon tag to identify it as a genre, yet clearly exhibits all the elements and criteria to qualify - Fritz Lang’s (recently restored) film adaptation of Metropolis is the perfect example…

In 1926, film, as an artform in itself, was new and represented a marriage between technology and art. An alchemical process – involving metal oxides, light and incandescent arcs – the ‘magic lantern’ could be used to ‘realise’ the imagination into a visible, sharable commonality. Since the dawn of human language, society has sought ways to share its dreams. Film is merely the most recent and effective method that has, generally, superseded all other forms of dream-sharing employed by all tribal communities, particularly throughout western culture.

As David Annan observed in his book, Cinema Of Mystery And Fantasy, “Metropolis is the bridge between ancient myth and the machine world of mass man”. Lang’s masterpiece was based upon the novel by Thea Von Harbou, though he drew heavily from Wagnerian themes and his own fascination with folklore and myth – which was to reveal itself throughout the German persona over the following decades. Indeed, Metropolis is a chillingly prophetic reflection of the national social trends of its day, all be it viewed through the artistic lens of speculative science fiction.

The central plot of the film deals with a split in society. There is an underground city of the workers, who maintain the giant machines and feed the furnaces that drive the overground city of the privileged citizens. It is a cautionary tale of mass industrialisation and automation leading to the enslavement of humanity, echoing the sentiments expressed by British poet, William Blake, who had warned at the dawn of the industrial revolution that reliance on mechanisation would lead to the workers and traditional artisans becoming thought of merely as a resource that serves the machines. In effect, reducing the craftspeople and workers to the same level as machine components within “Dark Satanic Mills”.

In the extreme scenario of Metropolis there is nothing but the city, above and below, both equally hellish in their own way. The workers enslaved by machinery, the citizens trapped by empty decadent lifestyles. The result is inevitable revolution which finally re-unites society.

The magician-alchemist, Rotwang (below, left, with his robot creation), is the catalyst for the events that bring about profound change. He represents the past, the city’s forgotten heritage - the craft of magick denied by modern thought. His house is a dark mediaeval building still standing in the heart of the city, dwarfed by the sky-scraping erections of girders and glass. The events that lead to the machines stopping and the underground city being flooded begin in the dark interior of the ‘mad professor’s’ house and, fittingly, reach final culmination on the roof of the great cathedral, which is the only other gothick structure still standing.

The film employs rich gothic imagery throughout… The entrance to the chambers of the great machines resembles a giant Molochian effigy (above, right), devouring its workers at the start of their shift and spitting them out when they are spent. The image of Death is glimpsed fleetingly, playing his dance on a hollow human thigh bone. Ancient symbols empower Rotwang’s environment and the famous android he constructs and animates using a blend of technology and magick echoes many myths, from the Golem to Frankenstein’s monster.

Metropolis also features in my book Evolution of Western Art

A very similar scenario was also examined in the H G Wells cautionary classic, The Time Machine, which presented a future which, on the surface appears utopian, but underneath is distinctly dystopian. The story moves from the Victorian era to a time in the far future where a society resembling that of Metropolis has evolved to an extreme conclusion without the beneficial interruption of revolution. The privileged surface dwellers have become oblivious hedonists who do not question the fact that, periodically, they are culled by the Morlocks - subterranean cannibalistic mutants who have evolved from the ancient working class consigned to maintain and operate great machines for untold centuries.

Wells is generally accepted as the ‘founding father’ of science fiction and certainly planted many seeds in the newly broken ground. He bravely merged religious themes with fantasy in stories like The Apple and A Dream Of Armageddon and went on to be the first writer to tackle the potential horror of contact with a hostile alien foe in The War Of The Worlds. So we have two major themes, time travel and alien invasion, being introduced to creative literature by a single author!

The recurring theme of a society that appears desirable, being built upon the enslavement of a section of humanity was taken to the extreme in the blockbuster, The Matrix, where all humans are the slaves, or rather livestock, of machines and the human society they believe in is merely a fiction implanted by the machines in order to pacify the crop. The masses are happy in their oblivion and even when a few are ‘unplugged’ from the machine-induced fantasy, some choose to return…

The Matrix is a highly intelligent and multi-levelled metaphor. It takes in the concept of virtual reality, examines the worth of human perception – what is real and what is fantasy, and how does one tell? The film considers the different levels of consciousness we all (should) experience – from sleep and dreams, through ‘normal waking life’, to the higher imagination and understanding…

The humans who get ‘unplugged’ (such as Neo, anagram of One, above) wake up into a new mediaevalism, literally a second Dark Ages that, though in the future, echoes the barbaric past. Understanding how to transcend the fabricated reality of the machines’ matrix is the new magick, the machines themselves our new demons.

The whole feel of the film is reminiscent of the 1980s Gothic New Wave – dark environments, pale people, with dark clothes who look ‘kinda cool’, along with a prominent and pumping punk-metal-electro sound track. Like Lang’s Metropolis, the film itself utilizes the breakthrough science and technology of its time – some of which was developed specifically by the film-makers – particularly the opportunities presented by the current digital revolution.

The first film to stimulate the use of terms such as ‘technogothic’ in the mass media was 1997’s Event Horizon, written by Philip Eisner and directed by Paul Anderson. This movie comes close to being the definitive Futuregoth vehicle, and this is no accident. Production designer, Joseph Bennett, intentionally designed sets for the interiors of the Event Horizon space ship to resemble the vaulted catacombs of the Notre Dame Cathedral, with thick pillars that flare upwards to meet with the curve of walls. He reasoned that as the pillars of stone were constructed to withstand the vast stress of supporting such immense weight, so the structure of the space ship would have to withstand the stresses of deep space and the huge strain of passing through dimensional folds. The resulting gothic ‘feel’ pervades the film, with the emergency lighting creating a moody environment swathed with evocative shadows.

It is not only the look of Event Horizon that makes it Futuregoth, it is the whole story and its subtext. The plot concerns a rescue/salvage mission sent to investigate the reappearance of the experimental space vessel, Event Horizon. The Event Horizon is a new generation of star ship fitted with a revolutionary drive (above) that harnesses forces similar to those of a black hole in order to fold space, effectively making it possible to travel from one point to another as if faster than light - a theory based on a proven phenomenon known as ‘quantum tunnelling’. When the drive was first used, the ship disappeared and was thought destroyed. What really happened to it is a mystery - it went somewhere and it came back… and as the film plot progresses, it becomes apparent that, instead of opening a tunnel from one point in space to another, it has been to another dimension, the place where ‘demons’ come from…

The story begins with foreshadowing by prophetic dreams and visions visited upon the central characters involving ‘dead’ people, either returning from the ‘afterlife’ or revisiting from the past life of the character. The character portrayed by Sam Neil sees his dead wife in scenes that echo Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 classic Solaris and tackle ideas of romance outliving death, or granting the strength to face death, thereby affirming life (similar to the romantic thread that runs through Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

The technological, ‘cold-but-safe’, environment is inexorably ripped apart and the cutting-edge science opens a doorway to a future dimension which has the potential to be claimed by good or evil, to affirm or deny life. The boundaries between science and religion are smudged. Parallels arise between the theory of quantum metaphysics and the ancient magickal philosophy of astral spheres. The overall plot structure and narrative drive follows a Dante-esque ‘descent into the inferno’ pattern.

On TV we have repeatedly revisited ‘Futuregoth’ themes and elements with the Doctor in the longest running and most inventive of all SF television series, Doctor Who. Most notably under Philip Hinchcliffe’s tenure as Producer in the 1970s, Doctor Who has always enjoyed mixing the past and future and bringing them into the present, liberally borrowing from classic gothick fiction and throwing it in with inventive and original SF twists. Under Hinchcliffe, the key episodes that become almost definitive of ‘Futuregoth’ are The Pyramids Of Mars, The Brain Of Morbius, The Masque Of Mandragora, the Robots Of Death, The Talons Of Weng-Chiang, Image Of the Fendahl, The Stones Of Blood… all with Tom Baker in the title role. Only with the recent Who revival under Russell T Davies, and now Stephen Moffat, have we stories as consistently inventive and openly revelling in gothick-SF fusion: check out The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl In The Fireplace, The Impossible Planet/Satan Pit, Blink, Silence In The Library/Forest Of the Dead, The Beast Below

Oh yes! I am sorely tempted to go into an extensive list of recent ventures into the realm of ‘Futuregoth’ in the wider media of cinema and literature. Perhaps I will. But for now I think you can have fun doing that for yourself. Compare lists with your friends as some sort of drinking game…

So, in conclusion, what can be said to be the elements of Futuregoth? Certainly Romanticism and heroism feature at the forefront, probably pitted against, or dealing with, archaetypes from myth and folklore. Past and future should be seen to influence and inform the present - either our own ‘now’ or the ‘present’ within the virtual reality of the tale… which may well be a possible future, or perhaps another past, or even an alternative present. There should be an alternative/separate/virtual reality or otherworldly influence, perhaps an analogy for the dreamworld or the different levels within our own consciousness. There should be strong SF ingredients, technology revealing something that is transcendent… and no matter the odds, the human spirit should be triumphant – or at least, a way in which it could be, is proposed. The whole atmosphere of any work of Futuregoth should be mythic, dark, spooky… y’know, kinda ‘gothic’.

...the future's not what it used to be...

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Information is Beautiful

"The eyes and minds of beholders..."
I just bought this lovely book by author-designer-thinker, David McCandless, a contributor to Wired magazine and The Guardian newspaper, amongst other things. He uses visual communication and infographics to clarify many complex issues, uncover what have been generally perceived as accepted truths to be, well, clearly not truths at all, and to make some very sharp cultural and political observations via crisp colour-coded diagrams that are more than the sum of their parts...

Much of the graphs and graphics are lovely to behold, regardless of their sometimes very serious and worrying content. Their poetic 'balance' is often reminiscent of minimal art such as the grids of Piet Mondrian, or Suprematism, whilst others look like bauhaus designs or its antithesis, Pop Art... and like Pop Art often reappropriate the symbols of our everyday environment. And these visuals, unlike some minimalist art, convey very clear and easily assimilated meaning.

Anyway, rather than reading my words describing his visuals, why not just take a look at his rather excellent and generous website: Information Is Beautiful. Yes it is.

Friday, 5 February 2010

A Tale Of Two Dogs

"You paw things..."

[ The last entry made me think about this little parable concerning, age, experience, effort, achievement... This is just 'paws for thought', I do not expect this to become a 'dog-blog'... Not that I'd mind. ]

There is a house.
In the house there lives a family and their two dogs.
Their house is a home.
One dog is young and energetic.
The other one is old, experienced and seasoned.
The young dog loves to bark and play and chase things, like squirrels and its own tail.
The older dog prefers to lay near to the hearth at the feet of his master or mistress.
The children love the young dog because he is noisy and funny and always seems to be doing something…. and visitors all notice the young dog as it plays tuggy-rope, or chases its tail or starts after squirrels and barks at birds.
One dog spends its energy going round-and-round in circles or chasing after something that it cannot catch… popular and entertaining, perhaps, but actually achieving very little.
The other is reliable and, in turn, relies on experience and knows how things work around the home – he has the experience and strength to do what is really important to everyone in the house.
The master and mistress know which dog can be trusted to see off a rat or an intruder and to look out for their children when they are not there to do so.
(…and, they also know that one dog will learn from the other…)

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Praise Dog!

"homo canis sapiens"

We have had plenty of snow this winter. It came much earlier than usual in what I heard has been the coldest December for 30 years. Here in Snowdonia, it is more likely to be snowing in February-March rather than December-January, but there has been snow on the ground for more than three weeks and in our mountains it lays an even 10 cm on level ground with drifts of up to a metre. Roads and schools have been closed. So, we have been putting food out for the birds and our garden has been visited by a good variety of the feathered folk… the expected Yuletide robins, blackbirds, thrush, tits, finches, jackdaws and the pheasant that became a regular last winter.

When we had a dog, visits to the garden punctuated the day, now, it is the empty bird feeders that coax us out into the cold (or the occasional urge to have snowball battles… or build a snow creature). So, missing Watson-the-dog whilst filling the feeders, I was thinking about the Horizon TV programme last week, which was investigating how closely and naturally we interact with domestic dogs. It was an interesting documentary that was, mainly, scientists confirming what was already deep, instinctual knowledge to dog lovers. They can read us. They are attuned to our moods. They are ‘in-sync’, empathic almost to the point of telepathic.

The gist of the programme was that dogs are the only species apart from ourselves that are fully tuned in to human emotions. The higher apes are not capable of understanding our emotional cues, not even chimps, who are almost genetically related to us. Certainly cats are not. There have been series of experiments to support this, conducted by universities and research centres that looked like great places to work…

The observations from some of these experiments led my mind to Eugene Delacroix and a fuller understanding of something that I have been teaching my art history class for about a decade concerning the ‘left of centre resting gaze’...

Delacroix was neither an ape nor a feline, but was a revolutionary French Romantic painter and a primary influence upon the French Impressionists of the late C19th. He is credited as introducing the use of ‘structural colour’ as a method to govern the way the eye of the viewer moves over the picture plain. He used the distribution of colour within some of his major works as a way to direct how we actually look at his paintings and read the narrative they contain. The two examples I use to illustrate this are his famous 'Liberty Leading The People', and 'The Death of Sardanapalus' (1827).

I already knew that the place that the average human viewer wants to rest their gaze within a composition is slightly left of centre. Delacroix also knew this. I knew this fact without knowing why it was so. (I had my own theory that the act of art appreciation would be an activity dominated by the right-hemisphere of the brain, therefore giving a slight bias to look left.) If you divide these works in half horizontally and then in half vertically, you find the centre of the composition…. and slightly to its left, we find... nothing of interest. There is no reward, nothing to hold our interest, so the eyes look for something more satisfying. In Liberty we are attracted either to the yellow of the dress, or the red section of the flag. This keys us into those colours and then our eyes pick out the flashes of reds and yellows scattered around the composition. This is what gives the painting its sense of movement. Our eyes do not rest easy but are dragged from one key colour detail to the next. This movement of our eyes lends movement to the figures that are actually painted in a very posed manner, static as statues – which, in turn, gives the scene its sense of grandeur and historic import.

He used the same technique with Sardanapalus: slightly left of centre, our eyes find nothing to ‘hold on to’, so it is the red swathe that thrusts diagonally up through the composition, or the ivory white of the sultan’s robes that attract our attention, and then our eyes find the scattered rhythm of these two colours throughout the rest of the canvas. This gives the arrangement of quite static figure studies the atmosphere of a decadent orgy.

Right, back to the dog documentary (or dogumentary). It is a fact that the right side of our face more clearly and honestly expresses our emotions. This is supported by reams of evidence, and is common knowledge to profilers, psychologists, CIA operatives, councillors, etc… and dogs. All of us, except for... well very rare exceptions, are subconsciously aware of this. The right side of the face displays our actual emotions, whilst the expression on the left side displays the modified expression, when we ‘put on a brave face’, or try to give the socially appropriate response. When we look at another human face, we first look at it centrally, to recognise the features of the individual, then a fraction of a second later, we scan the right side of their face to read their emotions. To do this, our gaze finds centre, then shifts slightly left-of-centre – the same pattern as when we engage with a work of art. The key point about dogs is this: they also look at the human face with exactly the same pattern. They do not do this with other dogs, animals, or inanimate objects, they only respond in this subtle way to the human face… recognition of features, then reading of emotion through specifically selecting the right side of the face. There is no other animal that does this. Dogs are uniquely tuned into our true emotions.

The documentary also pointed out that we, as two species, communicate on a number of levels. Dogs recognise and respond to many complex verbal cues and commands and we can understand their limited vocabulary of barks, whines and growls. We both use facial expressions to communicate moods. We both rely on posture and body-language to convey a lot of information in addition to, and sometimes in contradiction of, vocal communication. Dogs can very quickly understand gestures such as pointing and other methods of indicating objects and direction. Again, chimps were shown to have major problems with understanding simple gestures and only a very few individual, female chimps have ever been trained to communicate with signing.

So why is it that dogs are unique in this way? Well, obviously, humans and dogs have been working closely together for a long time, possibly tens of thousands of years. During those millennia, we have been selecting and deselecting dog traits through breeding over countless generations. We have created the domestic dog out of the original wolf packs that began to hunt alongside prehistoric humans and shelter in the same caves during the last Ice age. The survival of our species may well be directly linked to this ongoing partnership with the canine clans. I believe this to be so.

The scientists on the Horizon documentary theorised that we began working closely together because we both used similar hunting methods, were both social carnivores, and through necessity both developed some sort of language - in order to coordinate the hunt and to maintain a social structure of some kind. Wolves that cooperated more readily and effectively with humans would have benefited from more successful hunts, scraps and bones, warm dry caves… Of course, this is a two way deal and humans who worked with wolves would stand a better chance of survival, more effective hunts, advanced warning of danger, defence against other predatory animals, additional warmth in the cave… And so the long, slow, but sure process of domestication began and the wolf eventually became the dog.

Back to the birds and another train of (perhaps whimsical) thought… When I go out to replace the seeds, nuts and fat-balls, the birds no longer take flight and disappear, they simply retreat to the hedge, or the higher branches of trees, watching until the food is re-stocked. They return as soon as I reach the back door. Birds also have a social structure, literally a ‘pecking order’, they have basic language, they have songs that mean safety, and alarm calls that warn of danger. By feeding the birds in our gardens, we are helping to select birds that do not fear us, and feel comfortable within an artificial environment. Are we beginning on that long, slow, but sure process of domestication? There are already ‘bird fanciers’ who have created loads of new varieties. Charles Darwin was fascinated by the pigeon breeders who create fancy varieties by selecting traits and emphasising them to create new dominant features in only a few generations. Not to mention chickens, eh?

Pigeons have been trained as missile guidance systems and also used in reconnaissance. So, in a few millennia, will we be co-dependent with birds? Each of us wearing specially accommodating head gear for our mini-flock to perch upon. With a few whistles and clicks (like a sheepdog handler) sending our birds off to let us know what’s over that hedge or round the next corner. Taking simple messages from one person to another in a noisy room or field. Locating the car keys. Finding a particular person in a crowd… Whistling our dogs over the hills and far away, singing the sky news.

It could happen… a little bird told me.

[For more about Delacroix and to see bigger images of 'Liberty' and 'Sardanapalus' go to Mark Harden's invaluable online Artchive... and I also discuss these works in Evolution of Western Art... ]