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Useless

Critical Writing in Art & Design
Royal College of Art, London
143 Machines and Metaphors
Nicol a Churchward
155 A List
Jigna Chauhan
161 An Idler is Resting
Jeanet t e Farrel l
172 Image Credi ts
174 Colophon
176 Codicil
John Dummet t (continued throughout)
4 Introduction
John Dummet t
11 Understanding Repair
Pet er Maxwel l

25 To the Condemned: ‘Of f Wi th Your Head!’
Clo’e Floirat
33 Abridged Preface for Lives of the Critics
by Osith Chich
Jonathan P. Wat ts

46 A User’s Guide to Oxymoronic Machines
El izabeth Gl ickf eld
53 A Luxury of Failure: An Interview with
Bruce McLean
Christ ina Manning Lebek
71 ∃xP(x) ∧ ¬∃x, y(P(x) ∧ P(y) ∧ (x≠y))
David Morris
81 Leaking the Squalls
Nat al i e Ferris
93 Blowing Smoke Up Your Arse
Anna Bat es
107 A Damned Nuisance
Charmi an Grif f in
123 Apousiokoumpounophobia
Dora Ment zel
131 Appropriation of the Defunct
Freire Barnes
5 There are 11 trillion words in the 130 million books
in the world. In this remorselessly expanding volume
of words there are, inevitably, errors. Some will be
accidents of spelling or grammar, some will be falsi-
fcations or deliberate misquotes, but en masse they
fower into strange tumours of thought, and compul-
sive misunderstanding.
This recurring problem of writing has preoc-
cupied keen minds throughout history, as if it were a
sentient object capable of Understanding Repair. But
spelling mistakes and bad grammar are only the tip
of the iceberg. An essential feature of language is its
ability to assert or deny facts, and the printed page
exudes a particular authority and prestige that can
overwrite frst-hand experience or intuitive sense. In
many cases the questionable authority of the text has
limited consequences, but on occasion the printed
page has led to proclamations like To the Condemned:
Off With Your Head! Although tragic for those under
the blade, the effect of non-existing books on suscep-
tible minds is worse. Lives have been squandered in
pursuit of imagined volumes like the ‘Necronomicon’,
the ‘History of the Land Called Uqbar’ or the Abridged
Preface for ‘Lives of the Critics’ by Osith Chich. But this
search for the impossible, for what cannot be, does at
least offer a degree of solace, it gives the patient and
perhaps deluded scholar A Luxury of Failure.
Comparable to the literal black holes of imagined
books is the confusing fog of meaning engendered
by clumsy or deceptive theory. Drawn from the Greek
theoria – ‘contemplation, a looking at’ – theoretical
writing is either endlessly interpretable speculation
or a matter of ∃xP(x) ∧ ¬∃x, y(P(x) ∧ P(y) ∧ (x≠y)).
For the wandering reader, lost somewhere between
logical propositions and unlikely elucidations of
contemporary culture, the experience of reading can
be like an encounter with English weather: dense
Introduction
by John Dummett
4
7 6 been read, decreasing to 10 per cent through the ninth,
tenth and eleventh centuries, and from the twelfth
century it fell below 1 per cent. The gradual decline will
continue, from knowing whole chapters, to paragraphs,
to sentences, to now, when only one word is legible.
Soon, only the frst letter will be readable, then the
frst half-letter, until fnally only a faint spot of ink on
a page will be comprehensible. And it is on this minis-
cule blot that a dizzying array of theory will one day
be constructed.
But enough, now, An Idler is Resting, with a wish
for the future luxuries of uselessness.
theoretical paragraphs Leaking the Squalls of wintry
showers that blow in and out of academia. But not
all theory is Blowing Smoke Up Your Arse: although
many philosophical writers are A Damned Nuisance,
the groaning shelves of the Humanities do some-
times offer something useful to the erudite student.
But what is most desperately needed to navigate the
130 million books piled high and dusty in those rusty
mechanisms (commonly called libraries) is A User’s
Guide to Oxymoronic Machines. Only with this on per-
manent loan can the disciple of knowledge lose their
Apousiokoumpounophobia of contemporary culture
and see the machine of the ‘post-modern’ in its true
light, as a direct Appropriation of the Defunct histories
of radical modernist politics.
Among the cold showers, spelling mistakes,
complex logic and lethal falsifcations muttering and
mumbling in the nooks and crannies of the 130 million,
there are gems that offer the avid reader supreme cog-
nitive Machines and Metaphors for understanding.
But this understanding has always been partial.
In the seventh century A List of all the books in the
world would have numbered 10,000, and it has long
been a practical impossibility for a reader to know the
entirety of the textual universe. If a person starts read-
ing from the age of 15, at a rate of 40,000 words a week,
with an average book length of 85,000 words and 2010’s
global average life expectancy of 67, our undaunted
reader would be able to read 7,000 books during their
lifetime; this is only 0.005 per cent of the books in the
world. Conversely, if all 130 million of them were com-
pressed into a single book, our 0.005 per cent reading
would cover less than two words of that impossibly
condensed volume.
And the ability to read frst hand this hypothetical
volume has, since the seventh century, been declining
rapidly. By the eighth century, 20 per cent of it could have
¤
10
The Roberts n6o6- :n is a throwback to a time when cheap
merely meant not overly expensive. I saved this radio from
the skip because it was, to my mind, a beautiful thing. It
had the sort of assured, mid-century styling that displayed
quality through material and proportion rather than fea-
ture set or complexity. That and also the fact that when you
plugged in, it worked – or after a fashion. It could grab a
signal and push it out through the mono-speaker with lit-
tle (given age and use) appreciable distortion. It had more
trouble holding that signal, however, and would, whether
after a few minutes or hours, decide to detune itself, slowly
rolling the notes of whichever, presumably, distasteful
song was playing into a warm bath of static. This could be
alternately characterful or an annoyance.
I had no real intention of trying to fix the orphaned
Roberts n6o6- :n, though its absent-minded wandering
11
Peter Maxwell
Understanding Repair
by
repair’s relevance to attitudes of consumption and pro-
duction. Did my experience have any value in the wider
discussion of how design addresses its audience? If not,
then what was conspicuous about its absence? My first
thought was to see whether anyone still worked in that
industry – was there still a living to be made out of repair-
ing the things we took into our homes?
The repair shops that used to operate in the high
streets of many towns and cities are now a rarity, most
having given up or diversified to such an extent that repair
now forms only a marginal portion of their business.
I found Michael Maurice in the one place where those
with such rarefied interest could find community – the
specialists online message board. He was keen that I
should visit him at his home and workshop, the base from
which he travels out to assess and if possible, reconsti-
tute the failing technology of those still inclined to keep
rather than replace. Michael deals in ‘brown goods’, that
is, home entertainment – hi-fis, dvd players, televisions
and radios – but his job has become ever harder over the
z6 years that he has been in the trade: the margins are
smaller, the goods cheaper, the technology more compli-
cated and the customer less willing to pay to fix something
that may cost less if bought new. This last would seem to
be the ultimate sticking point, a question of simple eco-
nomics and low consumer expectations.
But, as Michael points out, it is not only demand
side factors that drive this attitude. ‘There are no factories
in electronics that want things repaired – for instance
they’ll price a television at £(oo and if you want to replace
the screen they’ll offer to supply it to you, but for £1ooo’.
Manufacturers also used to provide training programs
for those third parties that wished to fix their products
13
Pet er Maxwel l
12 had recently begun to grate. I held the thing up to get a
better look at it, to allow the light to interrogate its sur-
faces (metal, wood, leather, various brittle plastics) more
closely. The base panel, seemingly fixed, was in fact easily
removed by pulling it sideways and out of the invisible
metal clips that held it in place. Beneath that a battery
housing had the message: ‘wanNiNc – Do not operate on
mains with this unit removed.’ To the side of this, where
it did not reach the full width of the radio’s body, a metal
tab with an up-turned lip invited pressure and, sliding
free from a short plastic spur, allowed the battery housing
to lift out. After decoupling two wires (green, red) this
could be laid to one side, its power supply and transformer
evident. The interior of the main body was now entirely
accessible: fuses, transistors, coils and other less recogniz-
able components. These were all arrayed along one simple
circuit board upon the corner of which a sticker read:
‘wanNiNc – In the event of module failure please return
to Roberts Co. L1b for replacement.’
What I found affecting was the generosity of this
object, its openness. These aren’t abstract or theoretical
terms but the simple relational factors of experience. That
last, buried missive from the manufacturer was an expec-
tation of visitors. It was also a positive sign that this was
a thing that could be cared for and perpetuated. Despite
the warding off, it was telling of past-attitudes that took
purchased products as entirely amenable to the interfer-
ence of the end user, attitudes of ownership that have since
undergone serious transformation. The n6o6- :n made
itself understandable in a way that was unfamiliar to me.
The n6o6- :n was something in which I could be involved.
It was this sensation of ‘involvement’ that I was
keen to explore, and with it, perhaps to take measure of
Underst anding Repair
themselves, but five to ten years ago the last of these were
beginning to shut down. Not only that, but the service
manuals that were once widely available and through
which anyone could learn the functioning of a particular
product are now stored in restricted online databases.
While these negative gestures may only seem to concern
the enthusiast or professional, they are still a telling indi-
cation of an industry’s desire to create a knowledge barrier
between the exterior and interior of the goods it supplies.
As it is, Michael tells me, he will be out of a job in
five or six years. He already charges half of what he rightly
should. He believes people are no longer interested in
the services he offers or the skills base he has spent dec-
ades developing. After that, he says, he had no idea what
he might do – ‘this is all I know’.
Talking to Michael, and hearing his glum prediction
of impending obsolescence, put me in mind of a certain
character, one Bud Calhoun, the prodigious engineer
of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1ç¸z debut, Player Piano. The novel
is symptomatic of the prophesying of mid-century science
fiction writers, those eager to use the hope and horror of
technology’s mixed promise to colour an unknown future.
It deals directly with the consequences of a society that
pursues technological progressivism above all else. His
depiction is an America of extreme social stratification
along meritocratic lines, with those whose skills that are
most easily replicated by mechanical counterparts, blue-
collar workers in factory jobs, the first against the wall.
The mass populace, now feckless and increasingly resent-
ful of the machines that have usurped them, provide a
perfect ground for fermenting the revolution into which
the book eventually erupts. For Vonnegut the fulcrum
of the man-machine debate is simple; it is a question of
15
Pet er Maxwel l
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‘Works. Does a fne job.’ He smiled sheepishly.
‘Does it a whole lot better than Ah did it.’
Like Bud, Michael’s expertise had, paradoxically, made
him increasingly redundant. It is an obtuse situation:
those best able to understand machines are made obso-
lete even as that technology gathers in influence. Aged
1(, Michael had discovered a magazine called Practical
Wireless and soon after, its sister publication, Practical
Television. This last contained a course instructing you
in how to build your own colour set. Despite appeals,
his parents refused to allow him to attempt the challenge,
not only because of the daunting complexity of schemat-
ics and diagrams, but also that the £(oo cost of the com-
ponents was, in 1ç;z, almost as much as a factory made
model. ‘You didn’t get the kudos of being able to say that
you built it yourself, however.’ This was indicative of a
deep desire, a need to know how something worked
that lead Michael into a career in which his skills have
been entirely self-taught through studying manuals and
trial and error.
While the newest machines tend to be designed
in such away that if one component goes, it often has to
be scrapped, ‘old stuff can usually be repaired, there’s very
little of it that can’t’. This is where Michael’s job crosses
over with his passion for returning vintage television
and audio equipment back to full working order. Out the
back, in his workshop, he points to an imposing look-
ing black and white set that he’s been looking forward
to working on. On the other side of the room is a stack of
early portable record players, the type that come interred
in their own thick hardwood cases. Occasionally someone
with a similar fascination but less expertise will contact
17
Pet er Maxwel l
16 understanding. In one passage he describes the process
by which the very first worker was, essentially, rendered
impotent:
Paul unlocked the box containing the tape recording
that controlled them all. The tape was a small loop that
fed continuously between magnetic pickups. On it
were recorded the movements of a master machinist
turning out a shaft for a fractional horsepower motor…
this little loop in the box before Paul, here was Rudy as
Rudy had been to his machine that afternoon – Rudy,
the turner on of power, the setter of speeds, the con-
troller of the cutting tool. This was the essence of Rudy
as far as his machine was concerned…
In Vonnegut’s dystopia men’s movements are transferred to
tape recordings that allow machines to mimic their dexter-
ity and practical knowledge and then apply it with expo-
nentially increased economy. Man completely gives him-
self over to machine, is subsumed within it, and thus makes
himself inadequate, ineffective as anything but one-time
originator. It is a process that allows one party to compre-
hend the other completely but then to refuse reciprocity.
This paradigm is most fully tested in the figure of
Bud. As a gageteer, he is emblematic of American man’s
limitless technological ingenuity – Bud can design and fix
just about anything. Despite this, or even in spite of it,
this ability is also his undoing:
‘Ah haven’t got a job any more’, said Bud. ‘Canned.’
Paul was amazed. ‘Really? What on earth for? Moral
turpitude? What about the gadget you invented for –
‘That’s it,’ said Bud with an eerie mixture of pride
and remorse.
Underst anding Repair
Of course you’re right. It’s just a hell of a time to be
alive, is all – just this goddamn messy business of
people having to get used to new ideas…I wish this
were a hundred years from now, with everybody used
to change.
It is a sentiment that speaks directly to our contemporary
relationship with technology, of generations born beyond
the development of the computer and entirely unimpressed
by its pervasion. It is a position that has largely forgotten
those first abstract fears, but also the wonder and active
desire for machine interaction that gives both Michael
and Bud Calhoun such profound pleasure. Neither, how-
ever, are as atavistic as they had first appeared to me.
Increasingly they represent the role models for those now
rediscovering the joy of taking the mutely packaged items
with which we are all encumbered and fashioning them
into something more expressive. They aren’t technically
repair men or women, nor interested directly in manufac-
ture, but have pulled a term across the digital divide to best
explain their interest – they call themselves hackers.
Hacking as a culture has taken that ethos of the
crusading (or to some, cavalier) digital counterpart, a
creature of codes and keys, and mixed it with the rather
less glamorous world of the do-it-yourself home improve-
ment fads of the ‘8os and ‘ços. Its operatives are the sort
of people who spent their child hood making tin-can-
and-string phones or water pistols out of soda bottles and
bicycle pumps. Now that they have grown up they are
turning their washing machine into a go-kart or rewir-
ing the central heating. They refuse to sit blankly in front
of so many unresponsive boxes and sealed possessions,
instead they are intent to repair and improve. The param-
eters that they work against are also the same as those of
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Pet er Maxwel l
him to resurrect a piece to which they are particular at-
tached, paying far above the odds to see it put back to
right. At the fringes, if only, there is still this occasional
moment of recognition, not just of the worth of an object
repaired, but also the act of reparation itself.
As Player Piano closes out, Vonnegut explores
this same, ineluctable drive. After the uprising, during
which every machine to hand has been violently decom-
missioned and with the authorities circling, the defacto
leaders of the revolution survey the destruction they have
enacted. They happen upon a group of excited citizens
gathered around a vending machine, engrossed by Bud’s
attempts to fix the thing:
The man had been desperately unhappy then. Now
he was proud and smiling because his hands were
busy doing what they liked to do best, Paul supposed –
replacing men like himself with machines.
Vonnegut’s novel thus ends in the exasperation of an unre-
solvable question. While their leaders may have wished
to live out some Luddite fantasy of open-fire cooking and
hand-washed shirts – a therapeutic disavowal of technol-
ogy – the revolutionary mass is satisfied in recombining
those things that they have just torn apart. It is a tentative
suggestion that instead of either rampant progressivism
or wholesale conservatism, what is desired is the mutual
understanding of symbiotic relationship, the back and
forth of a practical discourse.
18
The novel is also incredibly prescient, not in its
representation of an entirely mechanised future, a depic-
tion that is unavoidably rooted in the imagination of its
decade, but in the offhand prediction by the book’s lead
character, Dr Paul Protius:
Underst anding Repair
But beneath these left-field projects runs a funda-
mental interest in re-engaging with an environment many
of us dismiss as incomprehensible. Scott Burnham, a
leading interpreter of the movement explains, ‘the emer-
gence of a hacking culture which is now responding to
the physical rather than the digital is evidence of a public
will to repurpose the objects they own and of a desire
for a new relationship with the objects and systems they
buy and use’. It is an attitude that sees such objects not as
closed but contingent upon the interactions and needs of
both user and good. Hacking is a response to the intense
occlusion and uncommunicative nature of the things with
which we are now surrounded. Its practices are based on
a desire for an intense knowing of our owned objects and
a happy disregard for cultural and technical barriers of
permission.
Looking for further clarity, I asked Burnham
how he might characterise this drive in terms of
‘understanding’:
Understanding is key, as is emotive relationships.
These are important, but another thing I think it is tap-
ping into is the simple human emotion of connection…
we want to open, we want to connect with the things
that surround us. So we repair, we hack, we fnd alter-
nate use – part to understand, part to connect. Both
are vitally important. If you think of the popularity of
“behind the scenes” or “making of” DVD features and
TV shows – we want to understand what is presented
to us. These are effectively opening the source code of
these forms of entertainment.
If hacking is indicative of changes in attitude, it is still
necessarily post-production, with users working against
the intentions of the original author. Michael’s assessment
21
Pet er Maxwel l
their titular predecessors – it’s all a question of access and
permission. Access is simply parsed as the extent to which
the manufacturer or designer might want to keep you out,
and the tricks, blocks and solvent based glues they use
to police your property. Permission is a more nuanced,
if related, concept. Online it would read as the level of
clearance and, thus, agency given to a user. Real world
questions are instead phrased as: How much ‘permission’
do I feel I have to tamper with the goods that I have pur-
chased? From what position is that implication of author-
ity directed? Where does the knowledge exist that would
let me approach this object on equal terms? wiLL i1 voib
:v wannaN1v? As Vonnegut’s lead proposed, most of us
are now simply used to a change that we interpret as per-
mission denied. The hacking culture is such a proposal’s
staunch riposte.
Make Magazine is a print and online publication
that has come to act as a fulcrum for the hacking move-
ment, providing a central community and knowledge
base for disaffected consumers. It could even be described
as a technosavy antecedent of Michael’s own Practical
Television. It voices its dissent with the blithe assertion
that ‘if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.’ This is the sub-
heading to their manifesto, A Maker’s Bill of Rights (and
that they choose the manifesto form gives you an idea of
the communities self-perception), lines of which include:
‘Components, not entire sub-assemblies, shall be replace-
able’, ‘Schematics shall be included and Consumables,
like fuses and filters, shall be easy to access.’ There is a
healthy air of indignation about these declarations, as the
rhetoric of the title forewarns, and if these rights have no
real claim to authority, then the manifesto seeks to propa-
gate the change that will make it so.
20
Underst anding Repair
how much better you feel…there is quite an interesting
forensic problem in understanding products before you
go about repairing them, which from a product designer’s
point of view is hugely useful’. When he was a boy, Grange
said, a weekly job in his grandmother’s house was to
open the back of the radio in order to remove the battery;
this would be taken down to a shop to be swapped out
for a pre-charged replacement. Even that simple job of
‘disconnect[ing] the terminals, that was the beginning of
a relationship between the maker and a repair process’.
It lead, he ventured, to an interest in knowing what other
components might fail and have to be replaced, and from
that the skills needed to work on the thing yourself. Those
shops, the ones in which you might not only buy your
television, radio or white good, but also return to have
any malfunction addressed, provided a vital link. If this
was not quite between the manufacturer and consumer
directly, it was at least with an operative conversant in
the objects proper handling. You knew that even if it was
beyond your own ability, there was someone down the
road that likely had the answer, to whom the machine was
not a mystery. ‘That’s the nub of it. My repair enthusiasm
would attempt to resurrect those kind of places’. Design
that accounts for repair in such a way, from conception
to corruption is a wonderfully magnanimous gesture; it is
an extended hand instead of a firm rebuttal.
Grange stated that, at its core, his enthusiasm
stemmed from a belief that repair is in some way ‘an
honorable pursuit…[even] that it is a moral pursuit’.
At first I felt a little uneasy about these terms, that they
were too grandiose or too onerous – but why not? There
is a lot at stake, not only the obvious issues of sustainabil-
ity and economy but also, to use another onerous term,
23
Pet er Maxwel l
was clear in that it saw manufactures as being complicit
in hastening the withdrawal of any holistic comprehen-
sion of the goods we purchased from them, but were the
designers they employed so recalcitrant? A designer’s first
inclinations could not be so far from those who are gal-
vanised by The Maker’s Bill of Rights, so why was this not
evident at the storefront? One answer remains the omni-
present pressures of cost, margin and profit, but we might
look even earlier in a designers development, before such
restrictions take full force.
The Raspberry Pie, a basic personal computer no
bigger than a credit card and costing less than a couple
of bvbs, was recently launched by a ck based initiative.
While it has impressive specifications, in its unsheltered,
bare circuit board construction it appears as something
you might more likely find protruding from the back of
a broken vcn. It is as honest looking a piece of technology
as you might find. Created in response to one tutor’s frus-
tration that students with an interest in computer science
arrived at university knowing very little about the actual
workings of the machines they had spent years using,
its aim is to offer an affordable and approachable device
on which school children can learn to program. This
reminded me of an article I had read, one that covered
Kenneth Grange’s recent retrospective, and contained
a small paragraph that mentioned a long held fasciation
Grange had with idea of setting up a course in repair, to
bring that idea right in to learning process.
The sense communicated by the article was a little
off, Grange told me – there was to be no course and idea
was rather inchoate – but it was truly a proposition that
fascinated him. He described what he saw as the ‘near-
intellectual reward in pursuing repair, quite apart from
22
Underst anding Repair
Whose idea was it to cross the Adriatic Sea to �eal a
Greek hat for our French alphabet?
Long a controversial issue in the French linguistic
universe, the cincc:rLcx

^
has become the chief
symbol of the ‘language of Voltaire’. Nevertheless it
periodically comes under threat. Only a few years ago
the cincc:rLcx was the subject of another Franco-
French psychodrama. When it was suggested that the
cincc:rLcx was unnecessary and could therefore
be removed from the French page (‘À quoi sert l’accent
25
To the Condemned:
‘Off With Your Head!’
Clo’e Floirat
of fulfillment, of actually caring about and for your pos-
sessions. That isn’t materialistic and it’s not indulgent.
As Grange reiterated throughout our conversation, it is
a question of honor; repair demands understanding and
respect between people and things, and between produc-
ers and consumers. It is an assertion of kinship that stands
as a mark of conviviality. This, then, is the reason that
I still return to my finicky, petulant Roberts radio, waiting
for it to trip up and then undoing the case to inspect its
array of transistors. Now, however, I return confident that
such curiosity is not misplaced, but an attitude central
to contending with a present articulated by technology.
24
by
Underst anding Repair
As a result (s) remained in front of (t) for the fore� in
its pages. However, swept up in the reforming mood
of the Enlightenment, the Académie repented, perhaps
anticipating the revolution which was to come at the
end of the eighteenth century. The third edition of its
di�ionary featured the cincc:rLcx for forêt and
many other ‘improved’ words.
The cincc:rLcx is an archaeological accent. A pre-
cious trace of lo� letters, of noble etymons for some, it
is a sacrilege to alter or remove it. Attention! Patrimoine!
Ae�hetes of the noble art of fine writing have declared
the cincc:rLcx to be an endangered species. What
was once the pariah of the French alphabet has become,
centuries later, the pinnacle of French linguistic iden-
tity. The essence of the matter lies in the poetic dimen-
sion of a sign that signals another sign that no longer
exists. The cincc:rLcx is a �igma of hi�ory.
Today its legacy is to be found in the propensity – tacit
rather than explicit – in French lettres towards graphical
ennoblement. The cincc:rLcx holds something of
the sacred.
It is a sign of prestige, an instrument of social di�inc-
tion, and even proof of gentility. Is the cincc:rLcx not
ju� a luxurious accessory, when its sibling, the accent
grave, could so easily replace it in order to prevent any
semantic ambiguity? Is it there so that the dip-pen-lover
can �ay the keeper of the language and defender of
the written word? The cincc:rLcx is kept on life sup-
port and this is all the more magnified because it is vain.
The cincc:rLcx is pure décor.
27
Clo’e Floirat
circonflexe?’) a passionate debate flared up in the French
press. Even a new set of rules for the use of this accent
– limited in scope – drawn up by the Immortels of the
Académie Française, has only been patchily observed in
the years since. To know how to use this uncertain sign,
French schoolchildren are taught magic incantations
and surreal poems as mnemonic devices: Le chapeau de
la cime, they chant, est tombé dans l’abîme (the hat of the
mountain has fallen into the abyss).
The cincc:rLcx signals the deletion of a consonant
in a word (usually (s) or (e)), or it marks the former
sound of a long vowel, more often related to oral tradi-
tions than written ones. Hôpital was originally spelled
ho�ital, and forêt was spelled fore� in Old French.
Although inconsistently applied, this sign is a graphic
witness of the hi�ory of French �elling reforms, a
head�one for a lost letter or a memorial to an older
word. In fact, the a�ivi� who argues for the cincc:-
rLcx is a�ually fighting for the graphic memory of a
sound that disappeared … sometimes as many as ten
centuries ago.
During the Middle Ages some French phonemes faded.
The decline of some consonants was accompanied by
the lengthening of the vowel, which preceded them.
Some – particularly typographers and grammarians –
felt the need to note this expansion in the written word
and decided to adopt an accent which served this func-
tion in Greek: the cincc:rLcx. Yet the majority of
Francophones did not ‘hear’ this change so clearly. In
fa� when, in 166(, the Académie Française published its
first French di�ionary, it eschewed this accentuation.
26
To the Condemned: ‘Of f Wi th Your Head!’
on its head, abime (abîme / abyss) would sign away what
cime (cime / top), it is said, has bequeathed it? The voute
(voûte / vault) would be nothing but an arch about to col-
lapse. And the flute ( flûte / flute), marcato-less, would be
sustained to sound mezzo piano, a fermata.
Colossal delicacy, sentimental rhetoric or spelling delir-
ium? It may simply hang around for the beauty of it.
French �elling appears rather archaic – at least in
certain respe�s – when compared to the Darwinism
of communication. A word has two forms, verbal and
written. Both oscillate together. Yet the second delays
the first, not without good reason. The verbal moves
very fa�, whereas the written form has �ood still for too
long. And the gap is widening as �elling reforms floun-
der. Ever since French was weighed down by all these
phantom letters, the �elling war between the support-
ers of ‘visual �elling’ and the poets wanting to capture
the intrinsic sound of the language has made the
cincc:rLcx oscillograph fluctuate wildly. It has gone
up and down over the head of the Francophone and
yet has never been swept up by the wind of revolution,
which would have blown some of the dust off French
�elling. It is a hat that seems adjusted, desperately,
to prote� classic French language from the modern
era. There is no room for variation at the edges, even
though much of our system of �elling is totally
divorced from logic.
The cincc:rLcx has turned out to be more than ju�
a grave marker; it has become a vital disguise, a co�ume
worn to climb a little higher up the social ladder.
29
Clo’e Floirat
The cincc:rLcx draws on a family passion inherited
from an ae�hetic preoccupation with the consonant (s).
The letter (s) placed before the letter (t) was conjoined
into a single glyph, called a ligature,

and it was
nothing more than �ylish. It deserved to be used for no
other reason. The mute (s) was the monadnock, the la�
hurrah against phonic erosion. Developed by medieval
scribes and passed on into Renaissance �elling, the
preconsonantal (s) did not transcribe a sound. It was a
memory and a tribute; its inclusion is a question of aes-
thetics and culture. More than just being a graphic sign,
it was graphic design. In this regard, this sign or ligature
was the basis of French �elling, as was the cincc:-
rLcx that succeeded it. The cincc:rLcx remains an
ornament that reveals the ambiguity of French �elling,
too long �uck between the written and the �oken,
between letters and sounds, between the remembered
and the forgotten. It is a paradoxical alloy of the use-
lessness and cultural legitimacy of the language. The
cincc:rLcx is the venerated icon of an ambiguous
�elling that nothing can justify, but anything can
legitimize.
This winged diacritic has at least had the merit of
�imulating the imagination of generations of readers.
Do you realise that without this air wavelet, without
this swallow on its shoulder, without the pointed hat
28
To the Condemned: ‘Of f Wi th Your Head!’
Qu’on lui coupe la tête!
Qu’on lui coupe la tete!
31
Clo’e Floirat
The concept of hypercorrection, introduced by Wiliam
Labov in Sociolinguistic Patterns, describes an attitude to
language driven by the fear of inferiority and the failure
to conform. An aspiring writer, afraid of making mis-
takes, will try to outdo the upper middle classes in the
use of pre�igious forms and styles.
One would rather risk too many accents than not
enough. In other words, it is a bigger mistake to miss
an accent than to put one or two too many.
The cincc:rLcx, and in fa� the whole family of
accents, con�itutes an un�able and hazardous zone in
French language. These turbulent areas are the primary
sites of inaccuracies. If the cincc:rLcx is the black
sheep of the herd, it is also because most writers do
not understand its raison d’être. Its melodic embellish-
ment has lo� its tune, becoming a decrescendo to silence.
Under�ood in terms of the eighteen cases that prove the
rules, the cincc:rLcx is only read as an etymological
or hi�orical reminder for a deleted hiatus, encouraging
mi�akes and immersing the writer in insecurity.
We have created an imaginary world in which �elling
has become something sacred, the essence of the
motherland. It is the flag; it is Notre-Dame; and it is
La Marseillaise! Spelling has become more important
than the language itself, where purists chase the hyper
corre�ive cincc:rLcx and the language sentinels
hang on to it.
30
To the Condemned: ‘Of f Wi th Your Head!’
32
I am fully aware that most who have written on the sub-
ject firmly and unanimously assert that being a critic is
secondary to being an artist. I also realise that there are
some who attribute the desire to be a critic as the conse-
quence of being a failed artist. A forensic pathologist by
training, Osith Chich squarely admits to having little
feeling for poetry and art. It is this training that no doubt
has prepared her to examine this corpus properly. Lives
of the Critics is written pungently and economically with
masterly delineations of character – an Eisteddfod of vivid
description and anecdote.
Any survey, regardless of subject, must necessarily
be selective or comprehensive. Indeed omissions are their
own rhetoric. To date, the most comprehensive survey of
modern art criticism (by modern I mean 1ç1; – the year of
Viktor Shklovsky’s ground breaking essay Art as Device) is
Jane Francis Chantal’s Comprehensive Survey of Modern Art
33
Jonathan P. Watts
Abridged Preface
for Lives of the Critics
by Osith Chich
There is no cultural document that is not at the same
time a record of barbarism.
Walter Benjamin
Identify; locate; apprehend. I interrogate texts and
lives, inhabiting their sk(e)in.
Osith Chich

Earlier this year I received a commission from
a London publisher to write the preface to their
forthcoming title Lives of the Critics by the British
writer Osith Chich (Trouser Press, to be pub-
lished December 2013). At the time of my writ-
ing, Lives of the Critics was yet to be fnished.
Although the publishers supplied only a partial
manuscript I proceeded with the commission
in good faith. Last month I received news that
Chich had been taken seriously ill with suspected
nicotine poisoning. For the time being Lives of
the Critics is on hold, however after some nego-
tiations with the commissioning publisher has
allowed me to make my preface available in an
abridged form for this publication.


by
35 34 Criticism (Ni1 Press, 1çç(). Chantal’s seventeen volume
pig-skin bound survey follows an encyclopedic format
with pellucid chronologies of its subjects. However it is
with limitations: 1çç¸ marks the terminal date of the sur-
vey. Despite Chantal’s best intentions to update the work
bi-annually – a task made possible by interns, post-doc stu-
dents and revenue from book sales – its publication made
little impact. Without funds CSMAC never went into a
second print run. As her critics pointed out, there had to
be a more cost effective approach to this project – although
nobody was particularly forthcoming with a solution
(‘pigs! think of the pigs!’ one critic deplored). Chich’s
work belongs to a world of radical online publishing pos-
sibilities simply unavailable to Chantal. While, however,
Chich acknowledges the advantages of Wikipedia without
terminal dates, she insists upon the enduring need of an
editor (she abhors the label ‘curator’) to exercise judge-
ment, to act as a signpost or as a filter of quality. In this
book Chich presents her essential selection of voices in
criticism. Her way of bringing them to life in print differs
to Chantal’s. In this respect Chich’s dedication in the epi-
gram is instructive: ‘For David Thomson who made
a dictionary a two-way mirror.’ Thomson, whose monu-
mental book A Biographical Dictionary of Cinema (now
in its fifth edition), was first published in 1ç;¸ and subse-
quently reissued A Biographical Dictionary of Film in 1ç8o,
1çç(, zoo( and zo1o. Thomson’s entries on giants of the
European New Wave to Golden Age Hollywood are vicari-
ous, sometimes prejudiced, indictments of filmmakers and
their works. True, while it is a biographical survey of the
filmmakers, it is also an expression of the biography of the
biographer, each re-issue an accretion of Thomson’s mores.
by
Abridged Pref ace for Lives of the Critics by Osith Chich
1 ‘The police is frst and
foremost an organisation
of ‘bodies‘ based in a
communal distribution of
the sensible, i.e. a system
of coordinates defning
modes of being, doing,
making, and communi-
cating that establishes
borders between the
visible and the invisible,
the audible and the
inaudible, the sayable
and the unsayable…’
Jacques Ranciere,
Politics of Aesthetics
(Continuum, 2007).
‘Works nowadays arrive with built-in critical com-
mentaries,’ wrote Henry James, ‘like opening the door to
a guest to find him accompanied by police.’ James here
is concerned by a diminishing of the altruistic generosity
of exchange between writer and reader. As he sees it, criti-
cism and the critic interfere in this exchange, behaving
as police. Carrying out designs of the state, the police have
the power to control what can and cannot be said, and
what can and cannot be done.
1
Here the critic oppresses the artist and patronises
the reader. Sometimes the critic is characterised by the
artist as being a terrorist. British art critic Peter Suchin
experienced this during his year long spell as ‘Critic
in Residence’ at the University of Northumbria. At a
meeting for a forthcoming group exhibition, for which
Suchin had been asked to write the catalogue essay, he
was introduced to one of the artists as the critic, to which
she replied ‘oh, the enemy’. If we are to believe George
Steiner then the critic is a eunuch:
Who would choose to be a literary critic if he could
get a verse to sing, or compose, out of his own mortal
being, a vital fction, a character that will endure? The
critic lives at second-hand. He writes about… It is not
criticism that makes the language live … the bright
young man, instead of regarding criticism as a defeat,
as a gradual, bleak coming to terms with the ash and
grit of one’s limited talent, thinks of it as a career
of high note. These are simple truths (and the honest
critic says them to himself in the grey of morning).
Published some two hundred years earlier Samuel
Johnson’s parodic essay Dick Minim, the critic resonates
with Steiner’s sentiment. Johnson’s man, an apprentice-
brewer by trade made rich by inheritance, built his new
Jonathan P. Wat ts
2 Writings in Charles
Baudelaire’s The Painter of
Modern Life frst appeared
in 1860 and would be
recognised as the frst
modern art criticism. One
hundred and ffty years
later Jacques Derrida’s
deconstructionist literary
criticism is the mainstay
of Anglo-American
humanities departments.
A statue of Derrida by
British artist L. Leaman
stands near Dalston
Junction in Hackney by
the now defunct CLR
James library.
trade on eavesdropping conversations in coffee houses
by the theatre. ‘Criticism is the means by which men
grow important and formidable at a very small expense,’
Johnson begins his essay. ‘The power of invention,’
he continues:
37
has been conferred by nature upon few, and the labour
of learning those sciences which may by mere labour
be obtained is too great to be willingly endured; but
every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the
works of others; and he whom nature has made weak,
and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his van-
ity by the name of a Critic.
Johnson’s critic is lazy and, like Steiner’s, impotent:
where Johnson’s critic had a small cock, Steiner’s has
none at all. Everywhere the critic is a pariah. In the throes
of death French critic Saint-Beuve is alleged to have
lamented that ‘No one will ever create a statue for a critic.’
But, of course, that was in 186ç.
2
The value of the critic is a changing history of ideas
and while the examples cited here are necessarily selec-
tive, they furnish a fairly consistent transhistorical mise
en scène of bad feeling towards the critic. It is for this very
reason that Chich’s is a noble undertaking. Not only does
she take on the Hazards of Biography, she does so in a field
of such ill-repute.
There is Robert Tatwin whose career developed
in the rich West End gallery scene of the mid-nineties.
He wrote with the brisk bloodless quality of I.A. Richards.
Initially writing catalogue essays Tatwin moved to the
Financial Times and The Art Newspaper as a reviewer. He
soon realised that by writing favourable reviews of exhibi-
tions he would not only receive a fee from the papers,
but often a little thank you letter from the artist and, more
Jonathan P. Wat ts
36
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nothing but the dark side of the lives of the characters
(not their work) she makes it utterly undesirable to
imitate them in anything. At the risk of demoralising the
reader, Chich makes clear her unflinching commitment
to life writing, presenting alcoholic, misogynistic critics
who write, hungover, in a spirit of misanthropic melan-
choly. In doing so Chich wants to question the (predomi-
nantly male) attitude that to be ‘critical’ and ‘objective,’
one must be cynical and miserable.
Nor does she spare us whimsy or the downright
complex situations critics are often forced to negotiate.
Take for example the young and brilliant Henry Finland.
Finland completed postgraduate research with J.L.
Austin at Oxford before leaving for Paris. Here he met key
members of the Tel Quel group, absorbing the lessons of
semiotics. Following a duel with a member of the Maoist
Althusserian group Uniori de la Jeunesse Communiste
(a bullet brushed Finland’s thigh) Finland renounced
his ‘commitment’, returning to the ck to establish an
advertising agency that put into practice all he had learnt
in his years abroad. Long since retired to a big house,
Chich interviews him and learns of his desperate retali-
ations in those initial months back in the ck ‘As a young
man you take these things seriously. It was a personal war,
Clausewitz style, and of course I knew I would be derided,’
he tells Chich. ‘I came up with these absurdist tag-lines
for the company that would poke fun at their high-
minded endeavour. “Advertising – It’s a piece of Peirce”;
“I’m de Man!” or ‘Choose us and be Saussure you’ve got
the best.” Eventually I took advice from a young Saatchi
and decided to drop that aspect of the brand.’
In an important sense criticism is at the root of
the making of any artwork. It is a very particular form of
39
Jonathan P. Wat ts
often than not, the offering of a piece of work. In five years
Tatwin amassed a great collection of artworks and through
his knowledge of the art/gallery nexus, began dealing.
The November ’oç edition of Private Eye depicts Tatwin
as an obese man in a suit being grudgingly passed a dia-
mond studded skull by a homeless man.
Chich has been accused of an illiberal and captious
method and a general haughtiness of manner, indicative
of a feeling of superiority over the subjects of her Lives.
On this point critics of Chich perhaps muddle hubris
with honesty. ‘If nothing but the bright side of characters
should be shown,’ Johnson once remarked to Edmond
Malone, Irish scholar and editor of Shakespeare, ‘we
should sit down in despondency, and think it utterly
impossible to imitate them in any thing.’ This comment
relates to Johnson’s own feat of biographical writing – the
Lives of the Poets which inevitably has been an influence
for the author. Chich takes Johnson at his word, not spar-
ing the darkest sides of these characters. At times Lives of
the Critics makes for an agonising read and, I expect, there
will be those impelled to reconsider their heroes. Behind
this is an ethical question of no small consequence: what
do we lose in historical richness by cleansing the writer’s
biography? She will undoubtedly be met by the rebuffs
of those invested in the legacy of these subjects. Chich
is a risqué writer, an accountable writer. It could also be
said that she is a nihilistic writer. For Johnson showing
only the bright side could create an unbridgeable gap
between the aspiring poet and their impeccable hero,
ending ultimately in despondency. Dimming the bright
side would be generative – a kind of Freudian-Hegelian
negation, motivating the aspiring poet to learn the lessons
of his father, but ultimately slay him. Where Chich shows
38
Abridged Pref ace for Lives of the Critics by Osith Chich
not a few critics in the Lives. Parroting Sol Lewitt, Ben
Biscop (b. Swansea, 1ç¸(, regular contributor to Artscribe)
announced in 1ç;z that ‘The one thing to say about art
criticism is that it is one thing. Art criticism is art crit-
icism-as-art criticism and everything else is everything
else. Art criticism as art criticism is nothing but art criti-
cism. Art criticism is not what is not art criticism.’ More
recently Thomas McEvilly, founder and former chair
of the Department of Art Criticism and Writing at the
School of Visual Arts in New York City has said that ‘Art
criticism is really its own genre of literature.’ For him art
criticism is porous, a mix of the essay, poetry, philosophy
and anthropology. It is cross-disciplinary in the best sense,
drawing its resources most recently from developments in
the humanities. In the round, Lives of Critics provides an
impressionistic sketch of art criticism’s identity. Art criti-
cism is not a fixed discipline, something dramatised as in
several of the characters encountered in this book.
After a brilliant five years of vital, livened criticism
attacking the political Left for what he perceived to be its
phobia of the aesthetic aspect of art, John Ogilvie
3
spent
his subsequent career in persistent defensive actions.
His liberal humanist belief in the transformative power
of artworks meant he was frequently accused of arrogance
and skepticism. His work is characterized by the consist-
ent malapropism of confusing the word ‘generous’ with
‘erogenous’. Byron Suey has called him the ‘aristocracy
of critics’ and praised him for the length of his books.
Towards the end of his life Ogilvie maintained that the
only book he ever read was Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram
Shandy. His last work on Jackson Pollock called Yankee
Doodle was written entirely by the author dressed in
drag as an experiment in writing and passing judgement
41
3 Chich maintains that
Ogilvie is the basis of the
inadequate critic charac-
ter in Martin Amis’s novel
The Information.
Jonathan P. Wat ts
criticism. The extent to which artists perform actions –
conscious or unconscious – about what is to be left in or
removed from the work is a process of self-criticism. By
the mid-seventies there was a sense that the art world was
becoming too bureaucratic, indexically linked to the mar-
ketplace. On Practice by Mel Ramsden, published in New
York in 1ç;o, diagnosed the situation: ‘Consider the fol-
lowing: that the administrators, dealers, critics, pundits,
etc. who once seemed the neutral servants of art are now,
especially in New York, becoming its masters… today
institutions have become autonomous. They constitute a
bureaucratic tyranny which brooks no opposition. They
are in other words logically separate from (our) practice.’
A friend of the curator and critic John Fisher posted this
article from New York. Fisher so loved his relationship as
a critic with artists, but it confirmed a suspicion that he
had felt: that something had come between the artists and
these outlying others. When he heard a shipment of maga-
zines with Ramsden’s essay was coming into Southampton
he, in an act of desperation, he met them at the dock and
tore out the pages of each copy. For Fisher institutional
critique signaled a decisive severance between the artist
and the critic. He is alleged to have died of a broken heart.
The perceptive reader will notice so far I have used
‘criticisms’ and their contexts interchangeably: liter-
ary criticism, general cultural criticism… art criticism.
Each has its own logic of development, its own relation
to the academy and the market place. What, we might
reasonably ask, is art criticism? No one ever studied art
criticism. Only in recent years have we witnessed the
launch of specific postgraduate programmes in criticism
in art and design signaling a broadening and liberalis-
ing of art schools. It is a question that has preoccupied
40
Abridged Pref ace for Lives of the Critics by Osith Chich
deference to the great critic the department instructed
her to leave. Whyte in fact never returned to the univer-
sity, instead traveling in Russia where she worked as the
English correspondent for the organ of the communist
party Pravda before returning back to the ck in 1ç;ç.
She wrote an influential column in the arts section of the
Guardian newspaper until one day six years later she left
to work on the docks in Liverpool.
4
It is a familiar story. At the tail end of a Thatcherite
reality some of our greatest critics left the ck for
American universities, including Janet Woolff, Victor
Burgin, Dick Hebdige, John Tagg, Thomas Lawson,
Hilary Robinson and Gwen Whyte.
If an author such as Clement Greenberg could be
accused of spurious aloofness, at the beginning of the nine-
ties the political-cultural Left could be too. The theologi-
cal judgements passed by the likes of Fry and Bell seemed
no less so than the Left’s. Today spectres of the radical
cultural Left legacy remain. Dick Touche author of F***-
Art Book wants, Chich tells us, to break through the pro-
cess of structuralisation and closure of capitalist society to
implement an enduring moment of opening. In opposition
to a concrete fullness of response to the object he is devel-
oping, what he calls a soft empty concern for his object so
that he might dispossess it. His development as a critic is
noteworthy for its instability of organisation and incoher-
ence of response. His opening is increasingly expanding.
Chich seems to think his criticism pays for the radicality
of its challenge with almost complete vacuousness. Touche
seems to be moving today towards a post-critical relativist
position, ‘return to beauty’ and belle-lettrist sociology that
coincides with his retirement from the academic toil of
teaching undergraduate students in zo1o.
43
4 She also performed
with Gang of Four on
their 1979 Entertainment
tour, but subsequently
denounced the band on
Pitchforkmedia.com when
they allowed their anti-
capital song Natural’s
Not in It to be used by
Microsoft for television
advertising. Allegedly
she is to be heard singing
on Mark Stewart’s 1996
single Dream Kitchen.
Jonathan P. Wat ts
based on nothing other than women’s intuition. Ogilvie
sided with E.P. Thompson in his critique of Althusserian
Marxism. Ogilvie established his own vanity press. His
books were read only by he and his friend Roger, and the
Israeli army who applied his concept of ‘the potent’ in
military strategy.
The impact Roland Barthes’s writing had on
British intellectual life from the late sixties onwards
should not be underestimated. Besides Christopher
Prendergast, an early translator of Barthes’s Sign of the
Times, Stephen Heath can be credited as the first collec-
tor, systematic translator, advocate and populariser of
Barthes in the ck. Barthes, via the masterly translations
of Heath, taught artists and critics alike that they are not
immune from being affected and influenced by the socio-
political value system of the society in which they live.
In the sixties continental Marxism in its various
partisan guises animated a moribund field that was still
heavily influenced by the formalism of Bell, Fry and,
in their American inheritor, Clement Greenberg.
Marxism provided the tools to break out of the straitjacket
of bourgeois values and dismantle the spurious aloof-
ness of British critics of the Bloomsbury heritage.
Ostensibly, at least, Roland Barthes was the ocean towards
which all streams flow. When that ocean froze over – if
indeed it ever did – the structural transformation of crys-
tallized water formed the ice rink across which several
generations would skate.
In the entry for Gwen Whyte, Chich recalls the
young English undergraduate at the University of
Manchester meeting F.R. Leavis in 1ç6;. Leavis was
leading a seminar on the canonisation of Gerard Manley
Hopkins. When Whyte arrived late and did not bow in
42
Abridged Pref ace for Lives of the Critics by Osith Chich
writing of Gottfried Benn, Thomas Bernhard and W.G.
Sebald dovetailed with an exposition of the French film
theorist Christian Metz’s ‘suture theory’ in cinema and
Jannis Kounellis’s 12 Horses of 1ç6ç. His writing on the
donkey (including a donkey made-up to resemble a zebra
in Syria), an allegory of the passive voice in image/text
pieces of English inter-war modernism. Ruffin eventu-
ally defected to :i1 in the States to establish a scientific
theory of reception.
Chich has entered the den and made it a house.
For this undertaking she deserves admiration.
45
Jonathan P. Wat ts
In many ways Chris Ruffin is the strangest most
contradictory character in Lives. Chich begins her chap-
ter on Ruffin by describing three photographs pinned
above the writer’s desk. John Paul Filo’s Untitled (Kent
State: girl screaming over dead body), May (. 1ç;o; Bob
Jackson’s Lee Harvey Oswald Shot, 1ç6¸ where the body
of President John F. Kennedy is lithographed out in grey,
a gift to the critic from the Chilean poet Juan José Lasa
Mardones; and finally a reproduction from Life Magazine
of Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier. In a piece of adroit psy-
chologising, Chich deduces that Ruffin understands his
role as critic in a post-68 world as being to ‘take the bullet
for the public.’ As a young man Ruffin concentrated so
intensely on his critique of the conditions of other peo-
ple’s judgements in his writing on art that he wrote the
artwork out. His copy of a review of James Coleman’s
1ç8¸ exhibition at Dunguaire Castle, Kinvara in Ireland,
never made it to print on account that he made no men-
tion of Coleman at all. In his name Ruffin published Objet
petit a, a, a, and Pathology of Tautological Critique, point-
ing out that hyper-criticality might also be a Significant
Silence. Ruffin then established cwi: (Critical Writers
International Movement) inviting Gwen Whyte to join
who refused on account of his ‘perversely indulging
his own hermeneutic ingenuity at the expense of society
at large’. Ruffin attempted to not only critique the judge-
ments of others but also to attain an incompleteness
of response and to develop a strict irrelevance in devel-
oping his response into commentary. He would abstract
improperly from what was in front of him and make
premature generalisations about that thing in front of him.
His speculative study of gâteau and the Austrians in the
44
Abridged Pref ace for Lives of the Critics by Osith Chich
47 46
The Futurists lauded them, artists at the Bauhaus cre-
ated ballets in their honour and the pioneer of industrial
efficiency, Frederick Winslow Taylor, timed their smooth
operation down to the one-hundredth of a second. Yet for
every engineer or artist who has vaunted the qualities of
precision, calculation, flawlessness, simplicity, speed and
economy as the hallmarks of the machine, there have been
others who have begged to differ.
The present day is no exception. In their attempts
to delineate a new role for themselves by shunning what
they regard as the dubious motivations and effects of
mass-production, many designers are shifting their focus
from the object of production to its mechanics. In their
re-examination of the machine, they are reconsidering
its very nature and investing it with new qualities, giving
us machines which are human, social or even funny. By
46
Elizabeth Glickfeld
A User’s Guide
to Oxymoronic Machines
concentrating on the mechanical workings of things, they
also offer us a timely reminder that we will never be privy
to the dance of electrons which go on inside a microchip.
While fascinating conceptually, the critical effectiveness
of these machines is up for debate. Frequently appear-
ing on the design festival circuit and discussed on design
blogs, often these machines have been created to perform
or to be watched as much as they are there to do or to be
productive. Have their designers retreated from the mass-
production and consumption of goods only to become
complicit in the production and consumption of images?
Interspersed in the pages of this publication, the follow-
ing User’s Guide to Oxymoronic Machines presents this
new economy.
47
El izabeth Gl ickf eld
49 48 48 The Ramshackle Machine
The design critic Reyner Banham anointed the second
decade of the twentieth century as the first Machine Age,
one in which mechanisation infiltrated everyday life
through the widespread availability of cars, telephones,
typewriters and appliances. Enveloping products in the
1ç¸os, the streamline design style quickly followed, for-
malising assemblages of constituent parts into new objects
and becoming a code for speed and modernity. This
marked the beginning of deliberate obsolescence in com-
modity aesthetics. The Ramshackle Machine, by contrast,
such as Christoph Thetard’s r2b2 (zo1o) seeks to make all
mechanical joints, hinges, bolts and screws visible. The
kitchen appliance includes a hand blender, coffee grinder
and food processor that fit onto a wooden unit containing
a pedal-powered drive mechanism. The fly-wheel at
the heart of the machine is left exposed which leaves
no mystery as to its origins and ensures it is no fetish
in the making.
A User's Guide to Oxymoronic Machines
49
51 50 51 The Drawing Machine
A robotic arm hovers as it selects a coloured marker and
then, in a sequence of frenetic movements along both a
vertical and horizontal axis, it makes a line drawing. When
it finishes, if the machine is so disposed, it is capable of
erasing the whole composition. In this way, the affection-
ately titled Rita – along with her two siblings Hektor and
Viktor – have been stupefying audiences on the festival
and gallery circuit for nearly a decade. The three draw-
ing machines, the latter two which run on two motors and
some cable, are the inventions of interactions designer and
software developer Jürg Lehni. They operate in conjunc-
tion with the software he created called Scriptographer.
This is a scripting plug-in for existing drawing applica-
tions which aims to empower the user by enabling him/her
to create tools beyond the usual limits of the application.
With these projects, Lehni tries to operate in the space
between standardisation and human idiosyncrasy.
Closely related to the Writing Machine, Drawing
Machines also have a long history in fine art. They have
often been invented to question the origins of the creative
act and the originality of the artwork. Past proponents of
the Drawing Machine have included Jean Tinguely, whose
mechanical devices were an ironic commentary on the
notion of gestural abstraction as artistic expression. More
recently, artists Damien Hirst and Oliafur Eliasson have
contributed to the canon, the former involving the audi-
ence in his artistic ministrations. Even if they admit the
audience to the spectacle of the drawing process, it must
be said that Drawing Machines cannot make the observer
privy to the embodied or practical knowledge that holding
the pencil itself produces.
El izabeth Gl ickf eld
In 1ç;1 Richard Cork said, ‘Art, it is still felt, should
always reflect the seriousness of its practitioners’ underly-
ing intentions and any attempt to inject it with wit must
surely lead to damaging accusations of frivolity. This is
precisely the kind of criticism which Bruce McLean lays
himself open to and yet he rides it willingly and with
puckish delight.’ McLean has always been more inter-
ested in what art could be, rather than what art should
be. Within the intergenerational dialectic that played
out between artists as well as critics in the 1ç6os and ;os,
McLean’s art practice was uncommon for the way
in which it harnessed humour.
1

Perennially committed to equal parts intellectual
inquiry and comedy, McLean’s multi-decade oeuvre spans
diverse media including sculpture, painting, photogra-
phy, film and video projection as well as dance, writing,
53
Failure is not a condemnation! … Failure is an accident:
art has tripped on the rug… In my view, the accident
is positive. Why? Because it reveals something impor-
tant that we would not otherwise be able to perceive.
In this respect, it is a profane miracle.
Paul Virilio, The Accident of Art
A Luxury of Failure:
An Interview
with Bruce McLean
Christina Manning Lebek
1 Cork, R. (2003) Everything
Seemed Possible: Art in
the 1970s, Yale University
Press, pp. 2–34 and 36–38.
52
by
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the luxury of failure. We cannot fail. Most places you have
to behave properly in order to not fail.’ Later in the public
performance/rehearsal, time and again, McLean would
interrupt saying, ‘Can we do this again? … Can we stop
and do this again? … Hang on, that is crap can we do it
again?’ This protean and repetitious ‘rehearsal’ of failure,
in light of forty-plus years of success, caused me to ques-
tion how failure informs McLean’s practice. I went to his
studio and home in February and March zo1z to inter-
view him regarding what he referred to as a ‘luxury.’ His
overarching response was that failure, in all its nuances, is
an artistic necessity. This seems poignant in the context
of a cultural climate where funding for the arts is decreas-
ing and fees for art courses are on the rise. Today, the
potential consequences of failing seem especially acute.
For, after all, failure, as we commonly understand
it, is infused with the inimical. The verb ‘to fail’ comes
from the early French word ‘falir’ – ‘to be lacking, miss,
not succeed’ invoking mental images of humiliation at
the worst and redundancy at the least. The very fear of
failure can be enough to inculcate the desire to avoid any
path that might lead in its direction. Yet artists have long
understood that failure (as impossible to consciously
achieve as success) is useful in taking a project beyond
preconceived ideas. Failure often enlarges the scope of
what is possible, rather than the contrary.
2
It was in this
vein that McLean told me that the possibility to experi-
ment and fail was the best part of the exhibition for
him. While A CUT A SCRATCH A SCORE earned a
four star review in The Times, McLean was not entirely
convinced. He laughed when he said, ‘The thing we were
trying to do wasn’t a success but it wasn’t altogether a
failure either.’ For McLean, failure is more of an artistic
55
2 Recent publications
on this theme include:
Feuvre, L.L. (2010) Failure,
MIT Press and ‘Failure
issue’, Cabinet Magazine,
(7) (2002).
Christ ina Manning Lebek
architecture and performance. From McLean’s first
exhibition in the group show When Attitudes Become Form,
curated by Harald Szeeman at the Kunsthalle Bern, to his
interview antics in 1ç6ç with Gilbert and George at the
Royal College of Art, to forming Nice Style, ‘the world’s
first pose band’ with colleagues Paul Richards, Ron Carr,
Garry Chitty and Robin Fletcher in 1ç;1, McLean has
demonstrated a desire to interrogate the establishment
with his humour. For example, as a young artist in 1ç;z,
when he was offered an exhibition at the Tate Gallery,
London, he chose to do a retrospective. Entitled King
for a Day, it consisted of 1,ooo typed propositions and
catalogue entries for tongue-in-cheek works such as The
Society for Making Art Deadly Serious, piece and There’s no
business like the Art Business piece (sung). True to its name,
the retrospective lasted for one day only.
I met Bruce McLean in November zo11 when
I was writer in residence during the exhibition A CUT
A SCRATCH A SCORE, at the Cooper Gallery, Dundee.
His sense of humour was ubiquitous. Described as
‘a comic opera in three parts,’ A CUT A SCRATCH A
SCORE was a collaboration between McLean, Sam
Belinfante and David Barnett. It also featured the
renowned mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg, performance
artist Adeline Bourret, along with sixty musicians from
three local choirs and the Dundee Drum Academy, as
well as the city at large.
From the beginning, failure was a recurring theme
of the salons that took place every afternoon through-
out the exhibition. On the first day, curator Sophia Hao
announced, ‘Remember Bruce, you have permission to
fail.’ McLean publicly responded the next day at the
second salon, ‘We have been invited here and we have
54
A Luxury of Fai lure: An Int ervi ew wi th Bruce McLean
Growing up, McLean developed a relationship
between productive failure and humour. During his school
years he did not do exams, ‘I wrote ‘sni1’ all over them.
I didn’t fail the exam. I just didn’t do the exam.’ His black
humour seems hereditary, ‘My father was a very strange
man. Big, tall man. When he left the house every day
he used to say, “Goodbye Betty, Good bye Bruce. Oh I
wonder who‘s gonna be second today?” And off he went.
Somebody was going to be second and he thought he was
it! ‘Number one!’ He was kind of joking but he sort of
believed it really. He felt he was a failure, actually, because
there was something he couldn’t do. One, he couldn’t stop
them demolishing the Gorbals in Glasgow. He wanted to
renovate the communities with modern sanitation etc.
rather than see them destroyed but he failed and that really
fucked him. He also failed at not dying. He used to say
the only thing that’s killing me is the thought of dying
and that’s killing me … He couldn’t stand it! So he ‘failed.’
I think he did in his terms but I don’t think he did actually,
personally because I think he was quite funny about it …’
Though now McLean’s attitude is one of light-
hearted risk-taking and experiment, I asked him if he was
frightened by failure, particularly in the beginning of his
career. ‘I suppose I never thought about actually fail-
ing – what would that mean?’ Ironically this seems to be
paramount to his success, which he maintains has never
been his goal. I found that hard to believe, asking him
to elaborate, he said, ‘No! You see, from the age of six I
wanted to be an artist and from the age of nine I wanted to
be a sculptor. And that’s what I am!’ I asked if he thought
he had failed at any point along the way and McLean
answered, ‘I don’t think I’m a failure, I think I got things
wrong! (laughing) and you’re gonna get things wrong!’
57
Christ ina Manning Lebek
process than a lack of achievement. The risk of failure-
as-judgment has been removed and the nuances of fail-
ure’s uncertainty and unknowing have become useful in
themselves. ‘I have to actually do something, in order
to do something. If you asked me what I was doing before
I did it, I could lie to you, but I couldn’t actually tell
you unless I had actually done it. I made a ¸ by ( meter
photograph today. What’s going to happen? I don’t know.
I might throw it away. I’ll see tomorrow. – But it’s not
that I’m just fiddling around. It’s only by a kind of play-
ing, really, that you don’t lose out.’
3
In the past McLean
has said, ‘I continually find that the more you play, mess
around and don’t take things seriously, the more you
end up with something.’
4
Perhaps this strategy accounts for why, as a young artist,
McLean was invited to show in landmark exhibitions
such as Op Losse Schoeven, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
in 1ç6ç and The British Avant Garde, New York Cultural
Center in 1ç;o. At documenta 6 in 1ç;; McLean first
performed a collaborative piece with William Furlong and
Duncan Smith, titled In Terms of An Institutionalised Farce
Sculpture and at documenta 7 in 1ç8z he exhibited a series
of paintings titled Going for God.
56
3 Manning Lebek, C.
Interview with Bruce
McLean, March 2012.
4 Wood, J. (2008) ‘Fallen
Warriors and a sculpture
in my soup: Bruce
McLean on Henry Moore’,
Sculpture Journal, 17(2),
pp. 116–124.
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A Luxury of Fai lure: An Int ervi ew wi th Bruce McLean
people there for a week every night and nobody would be
ashamed if it was great. The Arts Council have helped me
in the past by giving me space, a bit of money, and time to
try some things out, without having any pressure on me
to succeed. It didn’t have to be a blockbuster show or a big
success in commercial terms or even in public terms. And
that is gone, to a large extent. I think it’s very sad for a lot
of younger artists who haven’t got this luxury, because
we had that luxury!’
8
Dance was an area of experimentation for McLean.
He was not interested in narrative, but rather dance as
‘simply body, shape, movement, light, space and form
moving through space.’ An example of this is Un Danse
Contemporaine performed at the Folkwang Museum, Essen
in 1ç8z (first rehearsed at Riverside Studios in 1ç81)
where McLean danced ‘in satire’ around a hat similar to
one that Joseph Beuys would wear.
9
His experience of this
was telling, ‘I used to be a good dancer. Sometimes you
can really do it and you’re like, Jesus! And sometimes it’s
like you’re too drunk, or not drunk enough.’
10
McLean
described his surprise upon discovering that Fred Astaire,
through practice and repetition, eliminated the possibility
59
8 Manning Lebek, C.
Interview with Bruce
McLean, February 2012.
9 Wood, J. (2008) ‘Fallen
warriors and a sculp-
ture in my soup: Bruce
McLean on Henry Moore’,
Sculpture Journal,
17(2), pp. 116–124.
10 Manning Lebek, C.
Interview with Bruce
McLean, February 2012.
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Christ ina Manning Lebek
He tells how a gallerist, when viewing one of his paintings,
exclaimed, ‘“Bloody Hell! You’re onto something here.
You know you ought to do more of these …” and I said,
“You know I can’t just do more of these … it’s not just a case
of doing more of these! Because they came out of some-
thing which happened by mistake.”’ McLean explained,
‘Everything you do, everything I do, that is of any interest,
is caused by an incidental incident which occurs …’
5
Failure can be a form of persistent resistance to
recuperation and commodification. By 1ç6ç McLean had
thrown most of his object-based work away into the River
Thames calling them ‘float-away pieces’ such as Floataway
Sculpture made in 1ç6;.
6
On one occasion, he drew the
attention of the local river police when he flung sections
of hardboard and large cubes of wood into the Thames
from Barnes Bridge. They were cynical, initially, regard-
ing McLean’s artistic alibi.
7

Working in the 1ç;os, artists could expect gov-
ernmental financial support more than they can today
and this was formative for McLean. In the late 1ç;os
and early 8os he developed work at Riverside Studios in
Hammersmith at a time when, according to him, artistic
success and failure were defined less in commercial terms
and more by the creativity expended. ‘Well, I’ve been
around for such a long time … in the past, there were situ-
ations like Riverside Studios in the ;os, which was funded
by the local council and the Arts Council … It was a huge
area where a lot of American, German and Polish dance
and theatre troops, among others, came and performed.
Some things were worked out and some things weren’t,
but there wasn’t the pressure on anybody at this time to
make money from filling the place with people. You could
put on a Shakespearean or a Chekhov play and have 1o–z¸
58
5 Manning Lebek, C.
Interview with Bruce
McLean, February 2012.
6 Wood, J. (2008) ‘Fallen
warriors and a sculp-
ture in my soup: Bruce
McLean on Henry Moore’,
Sculpture Journal,
17(2), pp. 116–124.
7 Gooding, M. (1990) Bruce
McLean, Phaidon, p. 43.
A Luxury of Fai lure: An Int ervi ew wi th Bruce McLean
in performing the sculpture of ‘striking a pose’ and looked
to the style and theatrics of bands like the Bay City Rollers
and T. Rex. They wore tuxedos as part of their attempts to
mimic and mock the celebrity culture both in and out-
side the art world. On other occasions they wore athletic
padding while ‘training’ in gyms and sporting fields,
parodying professional athletic teams. In zo1z, McLean
and fellow band members – Richards, Carr, Chitty and
Fletcher, were the focus of the Institution Exhibition Nice
Style: The World’s First Pose Band at The Henry Moore
Institute, Leeds.
In 1ç;1, Richard Cork said that McLean ‘realises
that his ability to amuse is a very rare asset and since his
energies are all directed towards questioning the priorities
of other contemporary artists, it becomes a tool that suits
his purposes.’
12
In TATE etc., Andrew Wilson reiterated
that argument claiming that McLean’s work ‘satirises the
achievement of New Generation Sculptors’, which would
include McLean’s former tutors Anthony Caro, William
Tucker and Phillip King.
13
Cork argued that McLean
also parodied Henry Moore, their tutor and predecessor,
such as when in 1ç6ç he recreated Henry Moore’s Falling
Warrior, by being photographed while throwing himself
onto a plinth, located on the shore of the River Thames,
titling it Fallen Warrior.
14
Similarly, in zo11, Jo Applin
argued that in the ‘photographically recorded perfor-
mance, Poses for Plinth, in 1ç;1 at Situations, McLean
once again reconceived Moore’s humanist rendering of
the body atop a plinth, this time destabilised and subject
to inevitable failure.’
15
These arguments, particularly in
regard to the New Generation Sculptors, were possibly
fueled by McLean himself who, in 1ç;o, in regard to the
61
14 Cork, R. (2003) Everything
seemed possible: art in
the 1970s, Yale University
Press, p. 3.
15 Applin, J. (2011) ‘There’s
a Sculpture on My
Shoulder: Bruce McLean
and the Anxiety of
Infuence’, Anglo-America
Exchange in Postwar
Sculpture, 1945-1975.
Getty Publications, p. 79.
Christ ina Manning Lebek
of failure in his filmed dance routines: ‘I didn’t realise
this, but he didn’t just go out and do it, he rehearsed
and rehearsed and rehearsed. It was hundreds of takes
in some of these films. I didn’t know that. It had to be
absolutely like this, tailored to the cuff … I find that quite
weird, I thought he’d just went and did it!’
11
Asking McLean if he had any regrets, I was surprised to
discover that he considered his return to painting and
sculpture, after leaving Nice Style, a mistake. ‘I formed a
pose-band, which was kind of a new group outside of art.
Art is a three letter word, jazz is a four letter word … and
Jazz is still outside ‘the thing’ …’ (Nice Style broke up in
1ç;ç) ‘So to answer your question about getting things
wrong, I drifted back into making sculpture and painting
again. I got seduced, you know? … I am always looking
for something which challenges me, challenges what we
think it could be, to make something which I can’t imag-
ine what it is … I think I went wrong when I went back …
I don’t regret it. I can’t regret it. But I think I went wrong.
I don’t know what would have happened had I not, but
I’d be quite curious to find out!’ Nice Style was interested
60
11 Manning Lebek, C.
Interview with Bruce
McLean, February 2012
12 Cork, R. (2003) Everything
seemed possible: art in
the 1970s, Yale University
Press, p. 36.
13 Wilson, A. (2011)
‘Andrew Wilson on Bruce
McLean’s Nice Style’,
Tate Etc, (22), 2, pp. 66–67.
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A Luxury of Fai lure: An Int ervi ew wi th Bruce McLean
interview at St. Martin’s School of Art in 1ç6¸, ‘Frank
Martin and Tony Caro said to me, “We are interested in
Modern sculpture, in what it has been, what it is and what
it can be. That is what this sculpture department is about.
Are you interested in joining us?”’ McLean still remembers
his reply, ‘Yes. You have told me what we will be doing.
I am interested and I am coming!’ And from that point on,
he wanted to ‘explore what was possible in regard to sculp-
ture’.

He continued, ‘Of course I went there to question
sculpture but I also went to St. Martin’s because of the peo-
ple who were teaching there, King, Caro, Tucker. If they set
up the situation for you to question, then you have to ques-
tion that … and question them and what they do as well.
That’s not bad … I am very respectful of the people who
have made me an artist – I only became an artist because of
these people … But if you can’t have a bit of a laugh as well
asking why Henry Moore’s Falling Warrior is always falling
on the plinth? It’s a jokey kind of question, but through
the joke – through the humor … sometimes something hap-
pens which moves you onto something else.’
17
McLean recalled another jokey art experiment that
he had, with the late Joseph Beuys. ‘He was a kind of
energy! If he walked in the room you got “something.”’
63
17 Manning Lebek, C.
Interview with Bruce
McLean, March 2012.
Christ ina Manning Lebek
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16 McLean, B. (1981)
‘Not Even a Crimble
Crumble’ Exhibition
Catalogue Kunsthalle
Basel. Whitechapel Art
Gallery and Stedeljik van
Abbemuseum, Eindhoven,
pp. 22–23.
exhibition British Sculpture out of the Sixties, wrote: ‘Why
don’t they take a few chances … smash up the little scenes
they’ve carefully built up like a military operation for
themselves over the last five years and have a go at setting
towards making or doing something worthwhile?’
16

It can be argued then that, in a sense, through his humor-
ous iconoclasm and improvisation of their works, McLean
identified failure in the work of his predecessors.
Perhaps McLean has been misunderstood or perhaps it
is the softening of the years, but when I asked him for his
response to these arguments, he suggests that his ongoing
interrogation of art stems from a commitment he made
at the very beginning of his career during his entrance
62
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A Luxury of Fai lure: An Int ervi ew wi th Bruce McLean
Remembering with laughter, McLean continued, ‘I said
to him once in London, “Will you give us one of your hats
and sign it for an auction for us?” And he said, “Sure. Go
and get one.” The shop was by St. James’s, so I got a taxi
down there and said, “Oh good morning, I have come to
buy a hat for Joseph Beuys.” I said, “He sent me down
with a taxi to have one, he’s waiting for me to come now.”
And because this is the age that it is, they said, “You mean
Professor Joseph Beuys?” So I repeated myself, “Good
Morning, could I buy a hat for Professor Joseph Beuys?”
And a man went into a backroom … disappeared and came
out with a polished wood tray with two brass handles on it
and three hats: a dark grey, a light grey and a middle grey!
So I said, “The middle grey one, please,” and they said,
“The usual tan sir?” and I said, “No, the unusual one!” He
gave me a hat, I paid for it, got in the taxi and I whisked
back out of there. In the meantime he (Beuys) had bought
six packs of butter. He slammed them onto the hat, cut a
bit of the brim off and then gave it to me. I said, “Thank
you very much!” We gave it to the auction and it was sold
for a lot of money. He was a really good bloke! Such a
funny day … Joseph Beuys’s hat …’
18
Having said that, McLean had a bit of fun with
one of Beuys’ famous projects,  Oaks at documenta ,
Kassel in 1ç8z. Beuys was driven by his theory of ‘social
sculpture,’ which claimed that art in general and sculp-
ture in particular could change society in profound and
imminent ways. For the  Oaks project, his (grandiose)
intention was ‘… to go more and more outside, to be among
the problems of nature and problems of human beings in
their working places. This will be a regenerative activity;
it will be a therapy for all of the problems we are standing
before … I wished to go completely outside and to make
64
18 McLean, B. Interview
with Bruce McLean,
February 2012.
A Luxury of Fai lure: An Int ervi ew wi th Bruce McLean
a symbolic start for my enterprise of regenerating the life
of humankind within the body of society and to prepare a
positive future in this context.’
19
Trading upon the envi-
ronmentalist terms he asserted, ‘… that planting these
oaks is necessary not only in biospheric terms, that is to
say, in the context of matter and ecology, but in that it will
raise ecological consciousness – raise it increasingly, in
the course of the years to come, because we shall never stop
planting.’
20
Ever the jester, McLean responds with sardonic
humour, ‘You know, Beuys planted these oak trees in the
summer. Now everybody who knows anything knows
that you don’t plant trees in the summer! (He makes the
sign of the trees wilting to the ground in the summer
heat.) It exposed him as not being completely truthful
about being ecological and all those green things that he
was on about. But it was kind of all right in a way. Maybe
he didn’t have the technology or the knowledge (like he
implied) but the spirit was there. The trees died! – This
meant that the work didn’t fail. If he had just taken sev-
eral trees and planted them at the right time, maybe
we wouldn’t remember it!’ For McLean, failure creates
a space to try things anew and something unexpected
always emerges. The space creates a story and according
to McLean, ‘The story is ‘the thing’. The reason that most
people are artists is so that they can tell a story.’
McLean’s success, like that of Fred Astaire, is a
product of repetitive rehearsals and attempts to perform
again, rehearse again, dance again, paint again and make
sculpture again. Imagined on a map, failure runs along
the lines of latitude, which guarantee a continuum of crea-
tivity. In failed attempts or creative death, there lies the
redemption of an afterlife.
65
21 Scholz, N. (1986)
‘Joseph Beuys – 7000
Oaks in Kassel’, Anthos
(Switzerland), 3, p. 32.
20 Stütgen, J. (1982)
Beschreibung eines
Kunstwerks: Joseph
Beuys, 7000 Eichen:
ein Arbeitspapier der
Free International
University, Düsseldorf:
Free International
University, p. 1.
Christ ina Manning Lebek
67 66
67
66 The Solipsistic Machine
Exhibited at the seminal exhibition on technology
and art curated by Jasia Reichardt at the Institute of
Contemporary Art in London in 1ç68 entitled Cybernetic
Serendipity, Richard Kriesche’s World Model was com-
prised of two industrial robots alternately fulfilling identi-
cal tasks. Each robot performed a series of movements
culminating in the pressing of a button which sent the
second robot into the same routine, and so it continued
ad infinitum.
The purest form of oxymoron, the solipsistic
machine is one which, in a display of egotistic self-absorp-
tion, exists only to perpetuate itself. The idea has its most
extreme incarnation in The Ultimate Machine. Also known
as the Leave Me Alone Box, The Ultimate Machine functions
only to turn itself off. A plain box with a switch on top,
when flipped the lid opens and a hand or lever emerges in
order to push the switch back in the other direction.
Ironically this exercise in the fundamentals of mass
and energy was invented by the man who defined the
third state of matter, that of information. Claude Shannon
invented The Ultimate Machine as a gift for executives
based on an idea of his colleague, Marvin Minsky, while
working at Bell Labs in the csa in 1ç¸z. The transmis-
sion of information is also responsible for The Ultimate
Machine’s recent resurgence in popularity. Do-It-Yourself
instructions for making one are rife on the internet. One
video alone displays (6 different versions of the machine
using everything from Lego, transparent perspex, suit-
cases and cigarboxes.
A User's Guide to Oxymoronic Machines
69 68 69 The Living Machine

For her installation entitled The Immortal, Revital Cohen
has connected a number of life-support machines in order
to mimic a complete biological organism. The circuit
of electronic medical machinery challenges entrenched
oppositions between nature and culture and between the
mechanical and the organic. While conventionally dia-
metrically opposed, humans and machines have been
elaborated in the other’s terms for centuries, the knowl-
edge of one infusing the conception of the other. The
internet, for instance, has often been compared to the
workings of the central nervous system.
Cohen’s installation is also an eerie reminder of the-
orist Paul Virilio’s prediction, made at the end of the last
century, that after humans conquer physical and cosmic
space, they will turn inwards to colonise the body. The
reign of the computer will implode inside us. The emblem
of this tendency is the pacemaker, which can change the
fundamental rhythm of life. ‘Once this happens,’ Virilio
asks, ‘how can we possibly assume that things will remain
in working order?’
1
1 Virilio, P. (1995) The Art
of the Motor, Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota
Press, p. 103.
El izabeth Gl ickf eld
70
It was at a friend’s, a cold early morning, near where
I was born and a long way from home. No one else was
up; I went into the kitchen and examined the discs
and tapes on the hi-fi. After a few false starts I found the
right record, and a song played such that the room just
gathered up and arranged itself into a single line, as
best I can describe it. Three female voices converging,
forgetting their hands hitting sticks and strings, recit-
ing a melody like the vapour trail from a departed jet,
just hanging. Without putting too fine a point on it the
universe aligned on these notes, at least for a little
while, there in the kitchen.
I thought about this. I knew that the chain of events that
produced this record was, at least, complicated. To give
a brief recap: a palmist predicts that a New Hampshire
woman’s future granddaughters will form a pop group;
71
David Morris
∃xP(x) ∧ ¬∃x, y(P(x) ∧
P(y) ∧ (x≠y))
by
73 New Hampshire woman’s son pulls said granddaughters
out of school to fulfil the prediction; granddaughters
press a record; vinyl dealer makes off with the money
and çoo of the 1ooo copies. (And over time, record
finds an unexpected fan base, is rereleased, distributed,
celebrated.)
It’s also a story of family, happiness and otherwise, which
deserves many more words than I give it here. But what
I was thinking about was circulation, and the way this
record came into existence, in a quarantine way, and
initially for an audience of just 1, the father. The original
recorded objects were, almost by definition, a vanity pro-
ject – and this ‘vanity’ is the dad’s, not the girls’ – so then
the fact that the music is also completely astonishing is
maybe just another twist in the tale.
After the theft there were 1oo copies of the record left.
But if your audience is only 1, this is still çç copies too
many. What would be the archetypal edition of 1? Self-
published family histories were suggested to me; the sin-
gular documents of obscure ancestry that turn up second
hand every once in a while. But for an audience of 1, this
is still more copies than strictly necessary. And self-pub-
lishing, of course, is not what this is about – nothing vain
about seizing the means of production – it’s a question
of the limits of circulation, or the perfect meeting of sup-
ply and demand, in a one-to-one ratio.
Much nearer home, on platform 1 of my local railway sta-
tion, is an art space. In its reading room, coincidentally,
they are currently operating a project called Edition of .
Its creator, an artist, has handed generative control over
72
∃xP(x) ∧ ¬∃x, y(P(x) ∧ P(y) ∧ (x≠y))
over a piece of craftsmanship when it would never
reach more than a few people, replied: ‘A few is
enough for me; so is one; and so is none.’
Letter writing parallels Edition of  in this one-to-one
ratio; we could hope that, in future, books and artworks
will be even more like correspondence, and there will
be as many of them as there are people to produce them.
But then the anonymous advice has that punch line;
an audience of none would also be just fine.
1
What of the sounds in the kitchen? The girls singing,
their three voices in 1, like another piece of advice from
Seneca via Democritus, ‘To me, a single man is a crowd,
and a crowd is a single man.’ A crowd is an audience of
1 is a crowd, and intimacy is nothing personal. Seneca
ends his letter – written to a friend in the early years of
the a.b. era – with an ‘I’ and a ‘you’ borrowed from else-
where. He says:
‘I am writing this,’ he says ‘not for the eyes of the many,
but for yours alone: for each of us is audience enough
for the other.’
75
1 There are theories of art,
informed by psychoa-
nalysis, that take this
seriously too: that art is,
at base, a process of self-
understanding, the artist
as their own spectator,
stuck in some kind of
onanist feedback loop.
David Morris
to an online algorithm that composes an on-the-spot,
1-off jpeg artwork on demand, to be printed, if you like,
and taken home. On screen I received a granular
sports team against an expanse of green pitch but the
printer would not cooperate and then my train arrived.
There is a long tradition of artist publications in edi-
tions of 1. A quick look at the ‘Unique Works’ section
of an artists’ book dealer reveals signed napkins, found
paper, cut-off tees, coloured-in colouring books, rewrit-
ten photo albums, self-defacements, diptychs, triptychs,
one-time Xeroxes, lunchboxes, letters, maps, scores, con-
crete poems on plastic apples, drawings, boxes, mirrors,
mountains, prototype multiples, mail art receptacles,
reconstructed burials, performance residues, taxidermy
interventions, receipts, and more.
Already, the category is out of control. What comes across
most strongly from Edition of  is the invitation, given the
availability of mechanisms like this, to be intimate. In a
recent interview conducted inside online virtual world
Second Life, Sergei Murasaki (Chris Marker’s online sL
identity) reflects, ‘To be able to make a whole film …
with my own ten fingers, without any external support or
intervention … and to then go sell the bvbs I’d burned
myself at the Saint-Blaise market … I confess, I felt tri-
umphant.’ Make what you can, make it good, and circu-
late, as intimately as possible. In one of Seneca’s letters
he shares someone else’s advice about this:
… Equally good is the answer given by the person,
whoever it was (his identity is uncertain), who when
asked what was the object of all the trouble he took
74
∃xP(x) ∧ ¬∃x, y(P(x) ∧ P(y) ∧ (x≠y))
77 76
77
76 The Object Machine

In The Human Condition (1ç¸8), post-war philosopher
Hannah Arendt queried the status of the machine as
a means for producing an end. She argued that since we
have come to design products whose shape is primarily
determined by the capacity of the machine, the machine
must henceforth be considered the end to which all
things are adapted.
Object Machines similarly challenge the essence
of their own instrumentality and use by functioning
simultaneously as a means and an end. They are both
a thing and a production process. In zoo6, Atelier NL
created Sleeping Beauty, a lamp that knits its own lamp-
shade when it is turned on. Process and product coincide
as the light generates power for the knitting to occur.
Elsewhere, the back-and-forth movement of a rocking
chair provides the kinetic energy to power an attached
oLcb lamp in designer Rochus Jacob’s Murakami Chair.
A User's Guide to Oxymoronic Machines
79 78 79 The Writing Machine

In ancient times, so sacred was the task of writing the
Bible that scribes were required to say each word whilst
writing it and wash their bodies before materialising
the word of God. The document became invalid if there
were any errors or if two letters touched. In zoo;, German
collective Robotlab delegated the responsibility of writ-
ing the Bible to a robotic arm retired from a car factory.
Mounted with a nib, the Bible-scriber known as the Bios
studiously pours over a roll of paper, methodically repro-
ducing every word of the Bible in a fifteenth-century
typeface. Giving the impression of human embodiment,
it performs for anyone who wants to watch. The history
of the alphabet is one in which the curve of a letter or
angle of a serif contains the residue of a past means of
inscription, whether of a metal plate, a chisel or a calli-
graphic nib. The presence of the tool itself, however,
is usually a guarantee of the human relationship to the
document. This is not the case with the Bios. It merely
simulates the trace of the human hand. In its grip then,
the pen no longer testifies to the presence of a human
being or offers a promise of authenticity.
El izabeth Gl ickf eld
Delirium is the opposite of lucidity. The delirious mind
is said to be ‘disordered…resulting from disturbances
in the functions of the brain…incoherent…frenzied…
restless…maniacal.’ It is not a loss of the mind, a loss
of the ‘functions of the brain,’ but a passing lack of con-
trol, a temporary repositioning of what constitutes the
absurd and the banal. Surely such moments of the
car-nivalesque are inherent to creation? The painter
Jean Dubuffet, the unwitting augur of Red Bull, believed
such madness ‘gives [man] wings and helps him to
attain visions.’ Laudanum addict Thomas De Quincey
vaunts the ‘knotty problems,’ ‘enigmatical entries,’ and
‘sphinxes riddles’ presented by ‘eloquent opium,’ in his
vivid Confessions of an English Opium Eater (18z1). Even
the children’s programme Sesame Street parodies the ‘mad
painter’ amid flights of fancy: heavy-lidded, mute, and
81
Natalie Ferris
Leaking the Squalls
If in these moments I write, useless, it is never more
than a resumé. Still, alas, it is my lucid optimum.
Henri Michaux, Ecuador: A Travel Journal, 10th May, 1928
80
by
as rent from the ether, may be meaningful by default,
but gathers meaning in that departure. Nonsensical
worlds may be constructed in a nonsensical script
of encyclopaedic detail, as in Luigi Serafini’s Codex
Seraphinianus (1ç81); calligraphic lines can bleed and
steep across the page, as in CoBrA founder Christian
Dotremont’s ‘logogrammes’; the sigilizations of chaos
magic will depict the magician’s desired outcomes, as
in Victorian artist Austin Osman Spare’s programmatic
glyphs. Indeed, meaning is infinitely malleable as
marks move with runic significance. Yet, in every case,
nonsense depends on an assumption of sense.
By no means the most exemplary example, but
certainly the most sardonically complex, to unassum-
ingly dislocate the creative and the critical acts, to expose
language as ‘nothing and everything,’ is French poet
and painter Henri Michaux (18çç–1ç8(). He sought to
‘decondition’ himself from language, leaking the squalls
of his frantic pen across multiplying ‘illegible’ tracts.
The first of these idiosyncratic marks were made through-
out the 1çzos, preceding the flowering of French existen-
tialism, as seen in works such as Alphabet and Narration.
Incapable of being read, but decipherable, these marks are
signs, influenced by the Surrealist’s experiments at the
time in automatic writing. Inked curlicues and fuddled
lines recall those found in ancient ideogrammatic parch-
ments or inscribed across tomb walls. This ‘new lan-
guage,’ however, is entirely his own. These taches d’encres
(ink blots) have none of the fluid lyricism of his later
watercolours; they are terse scratches eked across a page
in which he apes the lacquered sweeps of Japanese char-
acters, the figurations of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the
doodlings of psychosis. His ‘signs’ even adhere to all of
83
Nat al i e Ferris
shaggy, he paints and repaints numbers on any surface he
can spatter, from bald heads to clinic walls.
And yet can such delirium ever exhibit criticality?
How may such maniacal meanderings be purposed, tooled
to any kind of aim? Between aesthetic epiphany, drug-
hazed transcendentalism, and the frenzied machinations
of the creative mind, it is one thing to experience delir-
ium, another entirely for it to be represented. It is at this
point, at the observable breakdown in Art of signification
and sense, that mimetic depiction becomes an accusation
of largesse as opposed to a creative anxiety. How to realise
disorder, without seeming false? How to realise disorder,
without seeming deliberate? How to realise disorder, and
be deliberate?
Asemic writing inhabits the peripheries of such schol-
arly concerns. Emanating from Surrealist experiments
in automatic writing in the 1çzos, it is often dispar-
aged as a nebulous phenomenological endeavour, in
its expressive attempt to reflect immediate experience;
the errant tics of disengaged minds. Having no specific
semantic content it adheres to the behaviours of lan-
guage, and yet does not deliver recognisable meaning.
This quite clearly serves, as often observed, as a critique
on language itself as a fallacious system of meaning. As
a mode predisposed to imparting gathered ‘truths,’ what
happens when it falls away slack-jawed and reeling at
the perversity of the utilitarian objective? Something
much more caustic, and much more rigorous. The
American writer, Lynne Tillman, notes with chiastic
exactitude that, ‘Out of nothing comes language and out
of language comes nothing and everything,’ ending her
most recent book Someday This Will be Funny. Language,
82
Leaking the Squal ls
the conventions of language; arranged in lines across the
page, left to right, and interspersed by paragraph breaks.
The signs themselves, however, remain elusive. The
ideogram is a sign expressive of an idea, imagistic rather
than instrumental of the sound of the word it represents.
In this sense, it makes a return to that creationary impulse
to depict, not only maintaining a fidelity to the look, but
also the ‘feel’ of the object in question. In so far as this
collapses mark and lexis, Michaux himself discerned a
distinction in his work between the quality of expression
in drawing and the quality of expression in writing:
The drawings are quite new in me, especially these,
in the very process of being born, in the state of
innocence, of surprise; but the words, the words came
afterwards, afterwards, always afterwards…and so
many others. How could they set me free? On the
contrary, it is through having freed me from words,
those tenacious partners, that the drawings are frisky
and almost joyous, that their movements come buoy-
antly to me even in exasperation. And so I see in them
a new language, spurning the verbal, and so I see
them as liberators.
Mouvements, 1950–1
He envisages a point of ‘relief,’ a ‘disencrustation’ of expres-
sion, in which one will be able to ‘express himself far from
words, words,’ flaking away that gathered roughcast of
‘the words of others.’ Those ‘tenacious partners,’ can only
terrorise in their inert fixity and wail with all prior usage,
whereas the generative ‘innocence’ of the line is born every
moment pen touches paper. In spite of the overblown rhet-
oric of aesthetic communion surrounding Michaux, it does
at his more fluid points seem apt. Where language compro-
mises spontaneous correspondence with feeling, drawing
84
Leaking the Squal ls
for him is comprised of that very possibility. Where lan-
guage is rendered impotent – ‘hygenic’ – in its inevitable
delay, unable to ever truly convey experience, the mark,
the line, the stroke can be performed to the moment.
¤
In this sense, Michaux’s drawings could be considered as
his most critical act. He needs no operative, underpinned
system through which to communicate, as he imagines
an expanded field of meaning composed at the point
between ideogram, hieroglyph, line, and character. Then,
it is also his most delirious act. His drawings are manifes-
tations of this attempt to ‘liberate’ expression; records
of moments of movement in meaning. The unidentifiable
character is invested with intent, put to an esoteric use.
Thus it is not meaning that is left out in Michaux, but
a solid ground of referent.
This reaches its most obvious apotheosis in his now
infamous Mescaline Drawings of the late 1ç¸os. Following
his first experiments with Indian ink, the ‘blots’ of which
he found ‘abhorrent’ and ‘really only blots, which tell me
nothing,’ he needed to push beyond this material quibble
to
show the inner phrase, the wordless phrase, the sinu-
ous strand that unwinds indefnitely and is intimately
present in each inner and outer event. I wanted to draw
the consciousness of existing and the fow of time.
As one takes one’s pulse.
‘Vitesse et Tempo’ Quandrum III, 1957
Drug-use was used as a critical exigent, a self-induced
derangement intended to interrogate the limits of
85
Nat al i e Ferris
molecular abrasions – the universe ground down to its
particles. Michaux even conceives of the drug as a sepa-
rate performative entity: ‘Linked with space and forms,
it [mescaline] draws by repetition and symmetry (symme-
try by symmetry).’
Converse to expectation, mescaline is of greater
purpose when conferred through language: ‘Linked with
words, it writes by enumerating.’ Where the pictures
repeat in bland admonishment, the writing enumerates
– it separates and specifies, refracting the multiplying
visions under the drug. The assumed freedom is reversed.
Therefore, language is not the impotent coda it once
seemed, repeating known clichés, but spools away in
metaphoric brilliance and hysteric clauses. The drawings
may be more visually direct, but the writings of Misérable
Miracle (1ç¸6), L’Infini Turbulent (1ç¸;), Paix dans les
Brisements (1ç¸ç), Connaissance par les gouffres (1ç61) and
Les Grandes Epreuves de L’Esprit (1ç66) are fantastical writ-
ten reflections on his mescaline experiences, achieving
something closer to the explosive hallucinations of colour,
light, and sound. Here, he divines, as opposed to merely
channelling, the drug that:
makes everything different, unrecognisable, insane,
that causes everything to overshoot itself and fash
by, that cannot be followed, that must be followed,
where thoughts and feelings now proceed like pro-
jectiles, where inner images as much accentuated as
accelerated, bore and drill with violent, unbearable
insistence, objects of an inner vision from which it is
no longer possible to detach oneself, luminous like
burning magnesium, agitated by a to-and-fro move-
ment like the slide of a machine tool, infnitesimal,
and which vibrate, shudder and zig-zag, caught up in
an incessant Brownian movement, images where the
87
Nat al i e Ferris
expression. One may speculate endlessly as to what
impels the use of drugs: whether it is to discover untold
‘paradises’ as envisioned by Baudelaire; to mechanise the
‘mental kitchen’ with a ‘labour-saving device’ as related
by Benzedrine-user W.H. Auden; or whether it is sim-
ply to get high, to ‘systematically derange’ the senses, in
Rimbaud’s phrase. All, however, are an age-old phenom-
enal attempt to attain greater knowledge, whether or not
that knowledge may be put to use.
Thus, in a brusque monochrome, these small draw-
ings, produced either under the influence or during
the fading of its effects, try to relate all the uncontrol-
lable tremblings and torrid apparitions of a mescaline
trip, teeming with zig-zags, loops, furrows, pinnacles,
fissures, maniacal lines, and even letters, landscapes, eyes,
and faces. And yet, that is all there is to it. Ironically, in
the effort to expose the untrammelled depths of what he
called ‘l’espace du dedans’ (that Ballardian inner space;
the space within) these drawings in their obsessions
actually betray the nervy hold the drug induces on move-
ment. Where his marks and swathes of ink were seen as
a ‘new language,’ used as ‘liberators,’ they now all follow a
neurotic schema; scratches overlap one another again and
again in agitated lines, waves do not swell and fall but are
tersely scrawled in viral vacillations, frittered cellular pat-
terns follow some tight symmetrical authority. Michaux
was aware of this; ‘Mescaline upsets the composition’ he
states in Misérable Miracle, ‘it develops idiotically, it is
very basic, defective and senile.’ This ‘awful, convulsive
experience’ threw off his ‘tempo’ and whilst the drug pro-
duced visions ‘marked by streaming, sparkling, extreme
seething,’ his hand is stultified by its ‘rapid abstract’ grip.
The drawings do not evoke apparitions, but timorous
86
Leaking the Squal ls
1 ‘To hold a pen is to be
at war.’
2 H.W. Longfellow,
‘The Broken Oar’ (1878)
¤
The beatific reverie, recapitulated throughout the history
of aesthetic theory as the sublime apex of apprehension, is
also one of the most elusive. Hounded by the philosophis-
ing connoisseur, it itself becomes of little use. Although
‘use’ is never the point – the festishized sublimation to
the work assumes an instinctual understanding, beyond
academic doggerel – it is a cliché, which contemporary
art critics have attempted to reinvigorate through various
devices. Historian T. J. Clark’s ‘experiment’ in art criti-
cism, The Sight of Death, records his intensifying daily
observations of the same two paintings; highly literary art
critics, such as Dave Hickey and Peter Schjeldahl, rhap-
sodize in loose-limbed, poetic essays; art-writing journals
affect a ‘magpie politics’ of amassed, but disparate, titbits.
In relinquishing oneself to the onslaught of theory, phi-
losophy, politics, and purpose, ‘disturbances in the func-
tion of the brain’ are inevitable, if not necessary. In the
incapacity for linearity or inevitability, a prismatic ‘out-
sider’ criticism becomes the only enlightened response,
formed by what Michaux was to figure as divided ‘epiphe-
nomena.’ Meaning is elided; fictive devices are used, col-
lage is expected, responses are lyrically disjointed. What
are we left with? All this plumage? Is all critical practice
to a certain extent ‘asemic,’ only understood in all its con-
structive complexities by the author?
‘Qui plume a, guerre a.’
1
François-Marie Arouet
bestowed the pen with a rare militancy. Bemoaned
throughout the history of literature for its both its cogent
might, as in Cervantes’ quill as ‘the tongue of the mind,’ to
its cruel impotency, as in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s
flung ‘useless pen,’
2
Arouet’s immortalisation of the
89
Nat al i e Ferris
straight lines invested with an upward momentum are
naturally
vertical, cathedral lines, that have no upper
limit but go on mounting indefnitely, where the broken
lines in a continual seism crack, divide, crumble and
shred, where the curved lines get lost in extravagant
loops, twists, and twirls, infnitely intricate lacework
patternings, where objects seem set in tiny, dazzling
troughs of boiling iron…
To Draw the Flow of Time, 1957
The critical capacity of language here is stretched, with
all the causal snap of elastic. There is no static repetition,
but a generative anaphora and a violent grammar. As dis-
tanced from the tightening limpid loops of intoxication,
Michaux recalls with urgency. Lacking the hyperbolic
pretensions to immediacy and relating experience proper,
language is able to play in the disconnect, using that
fractious distance from the experience as illustrative of
the fractious experience itself.
And yet, delirium is surely all about the discon-
nects. This is not delirious criticism, it is a critical reflec-
tion on delirium. Such poetic afterthoughts can never
be more than bit-part summaries, as Michaux himself
recognises, a critical ‘resumé’ of an experience. What of
colour? What of sound? The form may be fractured, but
it logically follows function, and comprehensively repre-
sents the surge of trippy turns. The above extract is highly
tooled; Michaux’s furtive wit is deployed in every syntac-
tic and lexical convulsion. He may be ‘frenzied… rest-
less… maniacal’ but he is not ‘incoherent.’ In fact he is at
his most sublimely coherent, and perhaps this is the prob-
lem. Delirium in criticism cannot suppose a directive, can
never suppose a use, it is too bewildered and beleaguered.
It is the ecstatic to which the critic turns.
88
Leaking the Squal ls
entire working life, in painting, prose and poetry, and
were the first figurative and colour-saturated pieces to be
produced after his pared ‘signs’ of the 1çzos. The charac-
ters, usually anonymous, all fall loosely into one of three
categories; the clown, the magician, or the onlooker. All
comment on the twisted reality that surrounds them;
swollen heads loom out of crumbling walls, unknown
fevers produce hellish flotillas of rotting animals, fires
rage yet cannot even burn ‘the strand of a cobweb.’ They,
however, are immobilised. They are capable only of
averting their eyes, the eyes that ‘remain great requisi-
tion blanks of terror.’ It is the figure of Monsieur Plume,
Michaux’s tractable clown, that is the most enigmatic, and
the most horrifying. Forced to participate in nightmares
to which he has little or no connection, the clown is never
fully realised, except as a helpless Charlie Chaplinesque
caricature. He seems to emerge from nothingness into the
horror of blame and blood, to then coolly oblige ‘Bien,
bien’ (‘Alright, alright’) to those who cruelly abuse him.
The Plume tableaux are marked by the sole refrain ‘Plume
s’excusa aussitôt’ (Plume apologised immediately). His
wife is even carved into numerous pieces, a fact he plainly
acknowledges, and turns back to sleep.
The asemic is exhibited in the character. Abstracted
to a dithering dumbrel, Plume makes no meaning of the
world, and contributes no meaning to the world. He is a
daub in a plane of action. But ‘je plongerai’ (‘I dive’). That
enigmatic final motion in Michaux’s poem Clown (1ç¸8)
harks Monsieur Plume’s one decisive moment, in the par-
adox of losing himself ever further. Already ‘Lost in a far-
off place (or perhaps not), without name, without iden-
tity,’ he desires final oblivion. This is a liberating nullity
however; only by being ‘et ras…/ et risable’ (and blank…/
91
Nat al i e Ferris
pen here resonates beyond that quivering nib scratch-
ing out his letter to Marie-Louise Denis, on zznd of
May, 1;¸z. Is this a war waged against or on behalf of the
author? The pen may be a loaded gun, but one must put
it to use. Criticality was born of his pen. As a prominent
Enlightenment polemicist and poet, this wasn’t the only
‘plume’ with which Arouet was to do battle. Better known
by his illustrious nom de plume, or pen-name, Voltaire,
he also fought against his own identity, most frequently
adopting this anagram of his Latinate forebear AROVET
LI, as well as 1;; other assumed names. La plume, particu-
larly in the French intellectual imagination, thus often
takes on a mystical quality. As both sturdy ‘pen’ and deli-
cate ‘feather,’ it is an evasive strategy in nom de plume, as
commonly envisioned in ‘plumes of smoke,’ or puffed-up
as the ornamental ‘plumage’ of the peacock. The phrase
voler dans les plumes à quelq’un literally means ‘to fly at
somebody,’ in the sense of a riotous attack. La Plume was
also a Parisian literary and artistic review, set up in 188ç
by Léon Deschamps, featuring impressionist motions
of Maurice Denis, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Pisarro,
Signac, Seurat and Redon. The plume is seductive – toy-
ing with the capacity for power and play. What issues
can be madness or divinity, passion or reason, tenacity
or tolerance. What may be puff of smoke, may also be an
attack. Thus la plume becomes mercurial; braced between
decision and occlusion.
And it is again Henri Michaux to use the plume
with critical temerity. It is within his poetic work that the
bite of the critiquing character is most achingly realised,
in his ill-at-use figure of Monsieur Plume. By no means
without precedent but doubtless the most acerbically
realised, Michaux’s peculiar fools recur throughout his
90
Leaking the Squal ls
It was easy to revive the dead in the eighteenth century:
just insert a tobacco resuscitator into the rectum and
deliver a quick puff of smoke. The body would be stimu-
lated back to life.
The kit comprised a bellows – originally a pig’s
bladder – a tobacco pipe, a mouthpiece, and a cone for
insertion. The technique gained popularity in 1;(6,
when a drowned woman was resuscitated courtesy of
a rolled piece of paper and a sailor’s pipe; a success story
that saw ‘The Institution for Affording Immediate
Relief to Persons Apparently Dead from Drowning’
install the kits at various points along the Thames, and
build a centre by the Serpentine in Hyde Park to rescue
drowned skaters.
Doubts about the credibility of tobacco-smoke
enemas led to the phrase ‘blowing smoke up your arse’, no
doubt after experiments, including a mass resuscitation
93
Blowing Smoke
Up Your Arse
Anna Bates
and laughable…), may he ‘open’ himself to that ‘new and
unbelievable dew’ of promise. This scrubbed nihilism
plays out again and again; Plume never takes the plunge.
For all its abstraction, this is the most cruelly critical,
but most subtly figured ploy Michaux devises. Plume’s
ambivalence to the horrors he witnesses renders him
both morally culpable and morally absent, as it obscures
both Michaux’s authority and guile. There is delirium
in the device; the ping-pong flatness of this character’s
world stupefies our sympathies. The difficult demands
difficulty. Just as it dawns on Madame Realism, in Lynne
Tillman’s similarly supine tract, Madame Realism: A Fairy
Tale (1ç88), or as it was ‘impressed upon her’; all ‘explana-
tions were as complex as what they are meant to explain.’
And surely that is the difficulty in ambiguity; it is all rela-
tive. Laughable in the dark.
92
by
Leaking the Squal ls
Flick back: ‘And get the detachable extension pole
too. No ladders – no splatters! And wait! We’re so confident
that you’ll like this that we’ll double your pads for free!’
I go onto the Amazon website. Customers gave the prod-
uct a blanket one star, except for a suspicious two who
gave it five.
The tobacco resuscitator was administered in good
faith; both the physician and the patient believed the
product worked. But it is fairly obvious that the EasyTone
shoes are not going to make you thinner, that the Whizz
Mop and Paint Pad Pro are no faster, and no superior,
to average mops and paint-rollers. So why, with the
resources and knowledge available to us, do we continue
to buy them?
Buckminster Fuller asked this question back in
1ç(; when he set up fictional company Obnoxico, to criti-
cise those who make money selling worthless objects. The
outlet was a faux mail order catalogue, and the star prod-
uct was a gold cast of a baby’s last worn nappy; a memento
of the moment a child is toilet trained, in object form.
‘Somehow or other the theoretical Obnoxico concept has
now, twenty-five years later, become a burgeoning real-
ity,’ Fuller reflected in the 1ç;os. ‘As the banking system
pleads for more savings-account deposits (so that they can
loan your money out to others at interest plus costs) the
Obnoxico industry bleeds off an ever greater percentage
of all the perennial savings as they are sentimentally or
jokingly spent for acrylic toilet seats with dollar bills cast
in the transparent plastic material.’
We live in a world filled with Obnoxico products,
accompanied by a marketing industry highly skilled at
mass manipulation. In zoo(, two Czech film students cre-
ated a supermarket, Czech Dream (Ceský Sen), in a Prague
95
Anna Bat es
effort in a Paris morgue, failed. Yet the object was stand-
ard medical practice across Europe and America for over
a century, not just for resuscitation, but for treaing consti-
pation, strangulated hernias and intestinal obstructions.
A surviving example of the tobacco-smoke enema
sits in a display case at London’s Wellcome Collection.
This is the accompanying description: ‘There are no
known accounts that the Tobacco Resuscitator worked.’
The label may be short but it has a subtext that says:
‘Look how foolish they were. We know better.’
But do we? Just down the road from the museum,
British model Kelly Brook’s derrière is the focus point of
a billboard. She is wearing Reebok’s EasyTone trainers,
a type of shoe that supposedly tones the buttocks z8 per
cent more than regular shoes when you walk in them. The
shoes are Reebok’s most successful new product in five
years. Even when the Federal Trade Commission forced
Reebok to rein in its claims, the shoes continued to sell.
This puzzle later plays in my head when I am flick-
ing through 1v channels and land on Pitch 1v. Celebrity
builder Tommy Walsh is demonstrating the Paint Pad
Pro, a painting tool with ‘the speed of a roller and pre-
cision of a brush.’ The paint glides over the patterned
wallpaper, giving instant coverage: ‘It uses less paint than
a brush, with minimum effort!’ I stare at my grubby walls.
Next channel: A woman delicately throws vinegar,
oil, eggs, orange juice and a can of tomatoes onto a tiled
floor. She picks up Whizz Mop, and moves it over the
puddle. ‘Look at that! All gone and no streaks! And what
do we do now?’ The male presenter smiles at the pretty
assistant. ‘Whizz!’ she says, and places the Whizz Mop
into a bucket, pumping a pedal to give the mop-head a
spin dry.
94
Blowing Smoke Up Your Arse
field. They employed a leading marketing agency to
produce TV and radio ads, distribute zoo,ooo pamphlets
and build a website, all boasting products at unbeatable
prices. The project was filmed, and culminated in the
opening of the building. The students, masquerading as
businessmen, cut a ribbon, triggering ¸,ooo people, laden
with shopping baskets, to run towards the hypermarket,
only to reach a canvas façade supported by plinths. Their
faces slowly turn to anguish as they realise they have been
duped. The entire project was a fiction.
96
But marketing is not enough in itself to keep us buy-
ing Obnoxico products. Often, products with a dubious
use-value have another, less obvious function that keeps
them in the market. The useless tobacco resuscitator
became useful for something else: to ritualise – in a rather
unfortunate manner – the end of a life. The process gave
a purpose to the doctor who arrived to pronounce a man
dead, and set the grievers on their path, knowing that
‘we did everything we could.’ For the survivors, the shock
of the events quite possibly caused a psychological and
Blowing Smoke Up Your Arse
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bodily effect that aided recovery. Similarly, people who
buy Reebok’s EasyTone shoes do so because they feel they
are investing in their wellbeing, and this improves their
state of mind. They may notice an improvement to their
derrière even if there isn’t one.
This is called the placebo effect and has been
defined by psychiatrists as ‘any therapy prescribed …
for its therapeutic effect on a symptom or disease, but
which is actually ineffective or not specifically effective
for the symptom or disorder being treated.’ In medicine,
our belief in a pill’s ability to work sends a message to
the pituitary gland to release its own endogenous phar-
maceutics. The effect causes many red faces: when the
pharmaceutical industry’s new wonder drugs are tested
against sugar pills, half fail to beat the placebo. The same
has been found for medical procedures. When physician
Edzard Ernst performed an electrocardiogram diagnos-
tic procedure on one of his elderly patients, the patient
responded: ‘That was great. I feel much better, my chest
pain has completely gone.’ Placebos are so effective,
there’s a regular debate between government parties,
doctors and psychologists as to whether they should be
available on the Nns.
That unquestionable faith we once had in God,
nature and even witchcraft to make us better is today
transferred to science and technology. Functionless
things, pills and procedures can improve our wellbeing
simply through our belief in them. And they can easily
be designed. That thermostat in your office probably
has its wires cut, and is connected to nothing but your
imagination. Turn the dial up and you’ll feel warmer;
Wall Street bosses admitted that this act saved them a for-
tune. The ‘close door’ button in the elevator only works
97
Anna Bat es
The minders had to learn the function of the objects by
living with them, but more often that not, they invented
a function to suit their own means. A man trialling the
GPS Table checked it every night, finding reassurance
from the proof that cis satellites were orbiting as usual
and so all was well with the world. This is the inversion of
what Dunne & Raby call Hollywood blockbuster design;
design that promises us perfect lives and happy endings.
Here, we have design that allows people to be who they
really are: fragile, messy personalities.
Placebos – Latin for ‘I will please’ – work to vari-
ous means; but as often as the intentions of duping us
are good, they can as easily be driven by unsavoury goals.
There is also the placebo’s evil twin to contend with: the
nocebo, meaning ‘I will harm’. Voodoo curses that lead
to death have been explained as extreme nocebo reactions.
99
Anna Bat es
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when the engineer plugs his key in; some say it exists to
give us the illusion of control. Have you noticed how if
you hit it repeatedly it seems to work?
So if the effects are good, is it right to deceive peo-
ple, and wrong to tell people the truth? Perhaps some-
times, but because we don’t always know which things are
and are not placebos, we can’t critique them. They are an
irreversible equation, switching instantly from useful to
useless once we know. We can’t decide at which point we
need to know we are being duped – because then it’s too
late. So should we allow people to orchestrate these elabo-
rate spectacles in our mind?
The complexities of designing placebos are explored
by ‘critical designers’ Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby, in
the duo’s Placebo series. Each of the conceptual products
does something, but that function is extremely nebulous.
Among the range of objects is a table with a cis receiver
embedded in its surface, and a chair enhanced with a pair
of electromagnetic-sensitive vibrating nipples. They
were given to members of the public to take home, with
no instructions for use and no product specification.
98
Blowing Smoke Up Your Arse
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More recently, an autopsy of a man who died of terminal
cancer revealed that his tumour was not large enough to
cause death. Was it, the doctor suggested, the expectation
of death that killed him?
Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, two pio-
neers of Moscow conceptual art, warn of the sinister side
of placebos. They devised Super Products for Super People:
a series of fictional objects presented as if they were in an
American shopping catalogue. The objects guarantee to
provide their user with an enhanced sense of self-impor-
tance. Olo is a tongue ring adorned with a pearl ‘language
ornament.’ The idea is that it helps ensure nothing but
positive words are issued from the mouths of its users,
implying that people in the Soviet Union need to be
careful of what they say. It also pokes fun at the capitalist
marketing system that makes us believe in the power
of these objects, making them seductive to us. Staring
out of the picture with a steady gaze, chin raised and
an air of self-importance, the Olo model makes for an
uncomfortable self-reflection.
101
Anna Bat es
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1
9
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103 102
103
102 The Social Machine
Whether or not automation has been of benefit to the
human race or has made it redundant is still a matter for
debate. Today, a new generation of designers is recon-
sidering the machine’s goal of economy and efficiency.
Austrian duo Mischer-Traxler’s Collective Works (zo11)
is a basket-weaving machine which will only work in
the presence of a human being. Four coloured mark-
ers attached to the corners of the contraption document
the number of people in its company. The machine only
functions when sensors in its frame detect an audience.
When watched, a spool of wood veneer begins to unwind
through glue before coiling back on itself to form a basket.
Progressively darker hues are introduced as additional
onlookers approach so that each basket becomes a colour-
coded record of its own creation. To date, only eight
baskets have been made.
A User's Guide to Oxymoronic Machines
105 104 105 The Destructive Machine
Like the inventor of the atomic bomb, J. Robert
Oppenheimer, Swiss artist Jean Tinguely learned the hard
way that unfettered technological curiosity is not of its
own merit constructive and that the realisation of the best-
made plans are not always within human control. On
March 1;th 1ç6o in the garden of the Museum of Modern
Art, for his Homage to New York, Tinguely orchestrated
his junk assemblage of bicycle wheels, piano keys, a roll of
paper and a weather balloon, which he designed to destroy
itself. Alas, the machine did not self-destruct as it was
intended to. Tinguely misattached a belt, everything went
dangerously wrong and the fire department was called.
Today, physicists and engineers are hard at work
three hundred feet under the outskirts of Geneva on the
particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider.
By accelerating protons to fantastically high speeds,
these scientists hope the resulting collisions will provide
the energy to unearth the origin of mass, crack Einstein’s
famous formula and find a fourth dimension beyond
width, length and depth. The down side is that some
believe they may also produce a black hole, which could
devour Switzerland and the rest of the planet with it.
El izabeth Gl ickf eld
107
1縸, discussion in the House of Commons on
whether or not to introduce commercial television
to Britain formed a lively debate. Athletic at times.
:n. rLc1cncn: Anyone who has had experience
of American television knows that it is almost
impossible to control it, and that it can pollute the
domestic atmosphere of every home, pervert the
minds of the children –
:n. onn-cwiNc: rose –
:n. rLc1cncn: Unless we are very careful com-
mercial television will pervert and reduce the
standards of taste, morality and culture in this
country for a generation.
:n. onn-cwiNc: Nonsense.
A Damned Nuisance
Charmian Griffin
106
by
109 108 that commercial television was an import akin to
‘smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death.’
3

The nation’s viewing should be left, surely, to the
honourable and measured supervision of the nnc.
Still –
the Impotent Television Authority, the Inadequate,
Irrelevant, Impossible Television Authority
4

had its advocates, and, as the hysteria subsided,
wise words were whispered in support of a little
monkey business;
Let us, I beg, prefer the long competitive spoon
with the devil to the milk and water handouts of
this episcopal clinic. […] commercial television is
dangerous. But if you have followed me, is it more
dangerous – can anything be more dangerous – than
the progressive diminishment and elimination of
vitality itself?
5
Quite. A canonical criticism of the English and
their ‘obstinate clinging to everything that is
out of date and a nuisance’ came from George
Orwell some time previous.
6

There is bathwater, and there are babies, and com-
mercial television’s opponents seemed to be throw-
ing out more than simply one mischievous primate.
3 Lord Reith, House of
Lords Sittings, 240:223–
334, 9 May 1962
Insults respectively from
Mr William Warbey, MP for
Broxtowe, Warbey again,
then Mr. Edward Shackleton,
MP for Preston, South,
and fnally An Hon. Member,
repeated by Shackleton, all
during House of Commons
Debates, 527:203–329,
4 May 1954
‘J. Fred Muggs [the
chimpanzee in question]
isn’t an accident. He is
the fairground inevitable.
He is, of course, you and
me and all of us with our
pants down.’ Grierson, J.
(1954) ‘The B. B. C. and
All That’, The Quarterly of
Film Radio and Television,
9(1), pp. 46–59
Orwell, G. (1968) ‘The Lion
and the Unicorn: Socialism
and the English Genius’,
in: S. Orwell and I. Angus
(eds), The Collected Essays,
Journalism and Letters of
George Orwell. Volume 2:
My Country Right or Left
(1940-1943), London:
Secker & Warburg
4
5
6
Charmi an Grif f in
:n. ca::oNs: The Government adhere to their
policy that the nnc monopoly in television shall no
longer be allowed to continue. Under certain safe-
guards and certain conditions an element of com-
petition by television based on advertising revenue
shall be permitted.
:n. :avncw: Shame.
:n. ca::oNs: All the same I believe that a
little competition would not do the nnc any harm,
any more than competition does harm to any
organisation or to any individual. I hope myself
that the time will not be too far distant when
this new and interesting development of television
will be in operation.
scvcnaL noNocnanLc :c:ncns: rose –
1
Arguments and uprisings continued for and against
the nnc monopoly; freedom of choice; the bene-
fits of competition to the economy. A few months
later, Nnc televised the Coronation of Queen
Elizabeth II. The nnc had previously broadcast the
event live to British viewers with the care of those
walking down a marble corridor the length of a
football pitch – backwards – bowing. The American
commercial channel cut the ceremonious footage
with an interview with a chimp –
a chimp!
What cheek. Proof that a British equivalent would
have our royals depicted as gin-soaked tax squander-
ers, spreading Communism all over the country;
2

House of Commons
Debates, 510:2166–78,
5 February 1953
‘Then in the interval we
might have had somebody
saying, “They have all gone
for refreshment now. They
are only being kept alive until
the end of the performance
by drinking Nicholson’s gin.”’
Mr. Emrys Hughes MP for
South Ayrshire, House
of Commons Debates,
527:2298–436, 20 May 1954
1
2
A Damned Nuisance
111 110 So, once it was certain moneylenders, fortunetellers,
and those associated with anything as vital as pro-
miscuous sex, or death, would not be advertising,
7

the Independent Television Authority scraped
the grade
8

and commenced transmission from a tower on
Beulah Hill.
9
A battle was won, but triumph was tempered. The
Croydon Tower, nowhere near Croydon, survived
six months of transmission before the Crystal
Palace Tower – which really was very near, and
very tall, and Very High Frequency – began to
broadcast the nnc signal previously sent out from
Alexandra Palace.
10

Viewers could continue to tune into the i1a chan-
nel should they please, but the nnc picture played
straight over the top of it.
We now had wonderful pictures on the BBC and
everything else was swamped. We didn’t even need
an aerial; the sets would work on a bit of wet string.
‘The Principles lists some
products and services that
may not be advertised at
all, including moneylend-
ers (as distinguished
from legitimate banking
enterprises), matrimonial
agencies, fortune tellers,
undertakers or others
associated with death and
burial, betting tip services,
unlicensed employment
agencies, contracep-
tives, smoking cures,
and alcoholism cures.’
Paulu, B. (1956) ‘Britain’s
Independent Television
Authority (Part II)’, The
Quarterly of Film Radio and
Television, 11(1), pp. 55–69.
Television Bill: votes 296 in
favour, 269 against, House
of Commons Debates,
525:1553, 25 March 1954
9 The date had appar-
ently been set by the
Conservative party to
coincide with the beginning
of their campaign
for reelection. They had
wanted to use the station
as part of their stance
against Labour. In the
end, election dates were
amended and the Tories
never were able
to use the slogan, ‘Don’t
let them take your other
knob away!’ Described by
Wernick, R. (1955) ‘Jingles
for Britain’, LIFE, 39(14)
10 22nd September 1955–28nd
March 1956. Hill, J. (1996)
Radio! Radio! Devon:
Sunrise Press, p. 185
7
Charmi an Grif f in
8
The BBC TV sound would come through on everything
– hearing aids, car radios, record players and all
our amplifers.
Gerald Wells lived a mile from either tower, still
does, always has. He was tasked firstly in ’¸¸ with
converting his neighbourhood’s television sets
to receive the new i1a transmission, and then,
the year after, with excavating it from beneath
the nnc’s. They were back to haunt him. The
converted and retuned sets were those that had
inspired Gerry’s assistant Graham to coin a new
colloquialism nailing the particular physiological
changes his boss went through when provoked
or anxious. June 1縸, the most important opera-
tion in television thus far, Gerry sold ‘everything
capable of showing a picture’ to ‘half of south east
London.’ The cheap erratic television sets had
been offered with a year’s guarantee and he spent
the big day itself driving around in a van, fixing,
and Coronating.
Rewind a few decades and Gerry’s parents’ home
was being wired for mains electricity just in time
for his birth. Should they have had a televisor, he
could have watched the very first public British
moving image television transmissions.
11

Aged two weeks, he would have seen the president
of the Television Society silently mouth a two-
minute oration,
11 30-line disc mechanical
televisions, or televi-
sors, were frst publicly
exhibited and sold in
the United Kingdom
at Radiolympia 1928
by the Baird Television
Development Company.
For £20 people could buy
Model A, which could
display a picture through
a valve receiver. Model B
could do sound and image
for a more hefty fee of
£90, and Model C, all the
above, a little better, and
encased in mahogany for
£150. The monthly journal
Television issued several
hundred sub-licences to
their readers to construct
their own televisions
under Baird’s patented
directions too. These
were the sets in operation
the following year when
the frst public broad-
casts began, on weekdays
from 11–11:30 am
from 30th September.
Information from Hill, J.
(1996) pp. 60–61.
A Damned Nuisance
113 112
C
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1
115 114 then heard the same speech relayed via the wireless
set afterwards.
Pragmatic from the outset, he waited for the deliv-
ery of synchronised signals before tuning in.
Wired up to the mains when in utero, born twinned
with television, and raised on radio, the young
Mr Wells could almost not help but be utterly
struck with electricity. Of course, love that is not
madness is not love, and things did get a bit crazy.
As soon as I could move around, as soon as I was
mobile, nothing was safe. Light switches, anything.
Pillaging was at first restricted to his home.
Then Chamberlain declared by radio broadcast that
the country was at war with Germany.
Splendid opportunities for acquiring new parts
were presented by the wartime evacuation and
widening landscape of bombed properties; beneath
a trap door in the garden shed there grew a collec-
tion of stolen switches, fuse boxes, wireless sets
and electrical scraps.
I was being a damned nuisance, nicking anything
I could, pulling the light fttings and radios out of
bombed houses and being a pain in the neck.
Radio sets, amongst other possessions, were being
stored in the house next door, for friends who had
lost their homes. Light fingers began to relocate
each one over the fence, until sharp eyes next-
door-but-one spotted the routine, more vaudeville
than villain. Nonetheless, Gerry showed no sign
of relenting and was summoned eventually to
Lambeth Juvenile Court.
Charmi an Grif f in
Next stop, Stamford House Remand Home,
then the psychiatrist’s office,
home on probation,
back in court,
probation,
Gypsy Hill Police Station,
Stamford House again
and then finally, the end of the line,
Liverpool Farm Reformatory School.
As it turns out, Gerry’s experiences there were in
no way reformative. The story is a long one, and
he tells it best. He gets plenty of practice too, for
his home is now The British Vintage Wireless and
A Damned Nuisance
117 116
Television Museum; the collection even includes a
number of the devices Gerry acquired in his delin-
quent days. As for visitors, it is not open to the
public, but people can enquire about appointments,
If they can string a sentence together, then we’ll let
them in. If they’re not going to drive me barmy, we’ll
pull out all the stops. Tea on the hour every hour, bis-
cuits, sweets and whatever you like.
The goods are served in the front room, surrounded
by wall to wall analogue televisions that date to the
dawn of this medium, now in its sunset moment.
Gerry can turn all the televisions on from a single
switch, each delivering a picture and sound in its
own time. Memories jostle for space with radio-
grams, valves and gramophones. This was the
house where Gerry first heard music on the wireless
set, the house from which he watched The Crystal
Palace burn, where he fell in love. It is the place
where, when he was working on wireless sets in the
garden shed,
he heard his mother announcing the impending death
of his father over the PA system.
Charmi an Grif f in
By the time you read this, the nnc will have ended
their analogue 1v transmissions from Crystal
Palace. nnc z will disappear on the (th April zo1z
and the remaining channels on the 18th. The
Croydon Tower lost the war, its television broad-
casts silenced back in the eighties. Gerry will have
outlived all the signals
and squabbles,
his lifetime spanning the breadth of British ana-
logue television history. His sets will be silenced,
and Gerry certainly won’t be tuning into a digital
broadcast. But, luckily, he always preferred radio:
the pictures are better.
12
A Damned Nuisance
12 All quotes and biographi-
cal details: Gerald Wells,
personal interview, 3
February 2012 or Wells, G.
(2002) Obsession: A Life
in Wireless, London:
British Vintage Television
& Wireless Museum
119 118 118 The Erotic Machine
Marcel Duchamp represented the erotic relationship
between men and women using analogies drawn from
physics and engineering in The Bride Stripped Bare by
her Bachelors, Even (1ç1¸–z¸). Executing the work on
two panes of glass with materials such as lead foil and
fuse wire he represented the sexual encounter as a
mechanical process.
In the zo11 music video for Elektrotechnique,
Dutch multimedia artists Lernert and Sander present
a series of animated pastel-coloured tableaus comprised
of domestic objects. Two suitcases support a pedal system
of red stilettos on a mattress; a record player powered
by a kettle is mounted with a stick that protrudes and
rotates through the bottom of a plastic chair; a cham-
pagne bottle strapped to a vibrating exercise machine
suggestively wobbles; and an office chair swivels round
and round wrapping itself with an extension cord
conjuring sado-masochistic associations. As the song
progresses to the pounding of an electric drum beat each
tableau reaches a climax: an umbrella springs open,
an inflated rubber glove bursts, a white box oozes efflu-
vium and a plastic bag deflates.
119
A User's Guide to Oxymoronic Machines
121 120 121 The Chain-Reaction Machine
Also known as the What-Happens-Next Machine or the
Heath Robinson, the Chain-Reaction Machine involves
a series of everyday objects organised in sequence, each
behaving according to their ‘natural’ tendencies. Once
started, each object triggers another, forming a chain of
events. Sometimes chain reaction machines are a convo-
luted means of achieving a simple task; other times they
have no purpose at all. Nevertheless, their recent appear-
ance in popular culture, on YouTube, in television com-
mercials and in contemporary design festivals makes their
appeal worthy of consideration.
The chain reaction turns the machine into an event
or narrative and more often endures in film rather than
in concrete reality. Typified by Peter Fischli and David
Weiss’s seminal 1ç8; film, The Way Things Go, in which
everyday analogue objects such as tyres, chairs, bottles
and ladders fulfil their gravity-dictated destinies, often to
comic effect, in a seamless sequence orchestrated by the
artists, the gesture was imitated in a Honda commercial
of zoo¸ without any sense of its forerunner’s precarity.
Dutch outfit ncv ncv ncv recently created and filmed
their own chain reaction machine called Melvin in a
warehouse on the outskirts of Eindhoven. The ringing of
an alarm clock triggers a chain of events involving bal-
loons, umbrellas, toy-parachutes, a trail of fire and the
spilling of paint. The film ends propelling a video camera
upwards on a seesaw, the view of which is shown as the
final shot of the film, focusing on the camera crew which
has been constructing the illusion of a seamless sequence.
In its harnessing of everyday objects, the Chain-Reaction
Machine can be seen as an existential inquiry gone bur-
lesque. It enacts a sense of destiny counteracted by the
possibility of numerous diversions from it. The forces
of nature although binding, are also not reliable and the
Chain-Reaction Machine presents this existential conun-
drum in the spirit of play.
El izabeth Gl ickf eld
122
Some objects exist in pairs. One thing requires another
like a lock and a key, a plughole and a plug or a screw lid
and a jar. Through the connection of one component with
its matching opposite other, they temporarily become a
whole and functional object. If separated, the function
of at least one element becomes obsolete and while one
might use a jar without its lid, what is to become of a
lock without its key? A similar functional pairing can be
found in a buttonhole and a button, connecting one part
of a garment with another; the ability to separate and
connect. If a garment has a button but no buttonhole,
the former becomes a pure aesthetic detail taken out of its
original, purposeful context. In such a case the presence
of a button no longer hints at the presence of its match-
ing other and in reverse the presence of a buttonhole no
longer suggests the necessity of a button.
123
Dora Mentzel
Apousiokoumpounophobia
by
Interestingly, on and outside of Savile Row, tailors
weave their own interpretations into tales concerned
with the original purpose of a small sartorial detail.
Stories naturally vary and some uses have been forgot-
ten entirely. While heritage is of the highest value, it has
been adapted into a subjective and distinctive execution
that is unique to each tailor’s design.
The ability to industrially mass-produce gar-
ments meant that suits became affordable for the wider
population. Without the time-consuming and expen-
sive measuring and re-measuring of a customer’s body,
the total duration of producing a suit is reduced from
around thirty-three working hours to just under an
hour in the factory. Instead of purchasing a bespoke
suit, which might take a tailor around two months
and the customer several trips to the tailor’s shop,
the ready-to-wear shopper can find a suit in one visit.
Needless to say that both price and quality are abridged
and the bespoke suit remains a covetable item, not least
because of its perfect tailored fit. Because most bod-
ies are not symmetrical and not one body is the same
as another, the industrial production of suits means
that body proportions are standardised and estimated
according to a general mean. As a result, the so-called
pitch of a suit – the natural and unique position of
someone’s arm in relation to the torso and the transla-
tion of that into a jacket sleeve – is aligned to the indi-
vidual and therefore ensures an accurate fit of a suit’s
jacket. The near obsolete buttonhole – after all,
in the rare event of wearing a decorative flower, it
can be pinned to the lapel – ended up being sewn up,
125
Dora Ment zel
One such example is the buttonhole on the left-
hand side of the lapel of a men’s formal jacket. Having
its origin in the buttoned-up military coat, the lapel on
contemporary and traditional men’s suit jacket sprung
into being out of the habit of wearing one’s uniform
half-open, a style appropriated and made widely fashion-
able by the dandy godfather Beau Brummel in the first
decades of the nineteenth century. With both sides of
the top half of the jacket flapping to either side, the way
a men’s coat folds, meant that the left side was show-
ing the buttonhole, while the other covered the button.
The style of wearing one’s jacket in such a manner soon
meant that they were produced with a lapel intended
to show the jacket’s previous inside. The covered button
became obsolete and was removed but the buttonhole
remained. Through the re-functioning of the buttonhole
from its original purpose into an entirely new function,
its purpose morphed into providing a place for securely
holding a decorative flower on a men’s suit jacket.
The stem of the flower could be threaded through the
hole to hide the stem on the underside of the lapel.
Some tailors added another component to the button-
hole; the addition of a flower loop on the underside
of the lapel to ensure the secure position of the flower.
According to Eithen Sweet from Maurice Sedwell at No.
1ç Savile Row some Edwardian suit jackets saw a fur-
ther, additional feature under the flower loop into which
a miniature vase could be placed, thus ensuring that the
flower stayed fresh throughout the entire course of a
lengthy engagement. Two components, tightly related,
have been separated. While one of them became obso-
lete, the other morphed into a new function.
124
Apousiokoumpounophobi a
to trick you into believing that the button, as the most
vulnerable detail of a garment, might have to be replaced
at some point. I would argue that in most cases it is the
spare button, somewhere forgotten in the back of one’s
drawer, that outlives the garment.
127
Dora Ment zel
blinded and muted. The detail remains, if only to
nod to tradition.
Similarly, while the possibility to open the cuffs
of a suit jacket is not essential, ready-to-wear suits
omitted the production of functioning buttons. Those
in favour of high quality bespoke or made-to-measure
suits have taken to leaving the first button on the cuff
open, thus distinguishing themselves from consumers
of fast fashion. Yet sartorial critic Francis Brown noted
this habit of subtle display in public as ‘the height
of vulgarity’ and an ‘abominable practice’. On some
suits only two of the cuff buttons are working while
the others are a sham. Some ready-to-wear labels
have caught on to this display of apparent expensive
taste and now produce suit jackets with working
cuff buttons.
When Bernard Rudofsky asked Are Clothes
Modern in his 1ç(; anthropological critique of clothes,
he illustrated the number of buttons a man would
typically wear from head to toe, from coat to under-
pants. With a total of seventy or more buttons
1

most of them useless – he suggests that formal
dress is archaic.
Buttons are also vulnerable. They break, become
lose, have their thread hanging off, drop to the ground,
get lost, are replaced with an atonal surrogate or
collected.
Fast fashion generously gives out a spare but-
ton with every item of clothing, as if to remind you or
126
1 Drawers: 2, trousers:
16, shirt: 8, vest: 6,
coat: 17, overcoat: 19,
gloves: 2; from Bernard
Rudofsky, Are Clothes
Modern?: An essay on
Contemporary Apparel,
(1947) Chicago: Paul
Theobald, p. 120
Apousiokoumpounophobi a
129 128 128 The Embodied Machine
The conventional narrative of the relationship between
human and machine is that tools like the spoon and spear
were invented to assist the body. Later, machines were
invented to first alleviate and then eliminate labour all
together. The figure of the cyborg appeared in science
fiction to show how mechanical and electronic systems
could be designed to extend human functions. The
reversal of the conventional subject-object relationship
between human and machine is made real with interac-
tions designer, Choy Ka Fai’s Prospectus for a Future Body
(zo11) which involves the use of an external digital appa-
ratus to invest human beings, particularly dancers, with
muscle memory. The implement choreographs the body
rather than vice versa, or so it seems.
Elsewhere, Joong Han Lee’s Haptic Intelligentsia is
a human ¸b printing machine which attempts to reunite
computer design technology with the sense of touch.
An extruding gun attached to a haptic interface nudges
and guides human hands in the making of a pre-designed
object such as a bowl.
129
A User's Guide to Oxymoronic Machines
There is a monument to my childhood at the end of
Kensington High Street. Frequent family excursions
were spent inside the captivating building where I would
be engrossed in the cultures of the Commonwealth
through diverse displays, from Canadian snowmobiles to
131
Freire Barnes
Appropriation
of the
Defunct
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130
by
aim: ‘To create a building of the most modern design,
which is beautiful in itself, in harmony with its woodland
setting and functionally efficient.’
1
Its crowning glory was a warped roof that created
dramatic spatial effects for the visitor. The ceiling presses
down at the entrance and, as the visitor travels up onto
the central platform, the space suddenly explodes
into an open expanse. Clever structural engineering
freed the interior of any need for supports. But for all
133
its architectural verve, critics at the time of the building’s
opening were less than happy. Disappointed by what he
viewed to be shortcuts in the roof ’s structural design, one
critic commented: ‘It has created a lid over the exhibition
space, rather than a more three-dimensional enclosure.’
2

1 ‘New Commonwealth
Institute Building’,
Ministry of Education
Press Release,
17 June 1959
2 ‘Commonwealth
Institute’, Architect’s
Journal Information
Library, (Nov 14 1962),
pp. 1119–26
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Freire Barnes
Zimbabwean agricultural products. Yet for the last decade,
the former Commonwealth Institute has been an empty,
festering shell. When a building loses a clear purpose,
its existence hangs in the balance. Despite the former
Commonwealth Institute’s Grade II listing – awarded in
1ç88 in recognition of its celebrated hyperbolic paraboloid
roof and unique interior – the wrecking ball has seemed,
for a long time, to be its inevitable fate. Recently, however,
alternative uses have been imagined for this icon of post-
war architecture and the building is set to become the
new home of London’s Design Museum. Constructed
with one purpose in mind, and now about to serve another,
the revival of this building raises questions about
preservation and reuse. Our historic monuments and
redundant industrial structures are often reanimated.
What challenges befall the new residents of this icon of
modernist architecture?
Opened by n: Queen Elizabeth ii in November
1ç6z, the Commonwealth Institute was the first new public
building to be constructed in the capital since the Royal
Festival Hall on the South Bank ten years earlier. The
Ministry of Education selected architects Robert Matthew
Johnson-Marshall (n:¡:) to design a building to house
engaging exhibition displays about the Commonwealth
countries. The architects more than matched the original
132
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Appropri at ion of the Defunct
born from his annoyance with inaccessible museum
layouts. Lord Cunliffe, then just Roger, a recent gradu-
ate of the Architectural Association, recalls Johnson-
Marshall saying: ‘The awful thing about museums is that
if you want to see something in gallery F, you have to
walk through A, B, C, D, E to get there. I want people to
be able to come in and make a direct choice.’
4
The main
exhibition space was divided into three tiers allowing the
exhibits to be viewed and accessed from multiple points.
Despite its open form the design was just not flex-
ible enough to deal with change. As the Commonwealth
of Nations expanded, the physical, aesthetic and ideo-
logical demands on the building made it increasingly
hard to represent the growth of member states that
reached fifty-four by the mid 1çços. With a leaking roof
and outmoded displays, the Commonwealth Institute
lost the affection of its own trustees. In zooz, it closed
its doors for good.
Like its predecessor the Imperial Institute, based
in South Kensington, which was decreed obsolete in 1ç¸6
and bulldozed to pave the way for Imperial College, some
thought the Commonwealth Institute was worth more
as rubble. These enemies made dubious claims that the
building was outdated and beyond saving. One major
factor stood in their way, the Grade ii listing. But even
this was no bar to progress: Culture Minister Tessa Jowell
and Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett backed this
brash proposal and drafted a parliamentary bill to de-list
the building.
Luckily, the public protested, and English Heritage
spoke out reminding ministers of the building’s cultural
significance, and the bill was dropped. Instead a com-
promise was met and the building was sold off to master
135
4 Lord Roger Cunliffe
interview, 7 February 2012
[by telephone]
Freire Barnes
Others attacked the acid colour of the glass façade that
contrasted with its park surroundings outside and the lack
of natural light within. Yet most of these quibbles were
counterbalanced by praise for the interior: ‘All these points
of criticism would hardly need to be discussed in such
detail, were it not for the immense and obvious success of
the main interior.’
3
Designed for a footfall of (¸o school
children a day, Chief Exhibition Designer James Gardner –
famed for his work on the Festival of Britain in 1ç¸1 – put
the dioramas and interactive exhibits at the eye level of
a 1¸-year-old visitor.
134
n:¡: broke with architectural conformity in creating
this non-hierarchical space. One of the team, Stirrat
Johnson-Marshall, the Ministry of Education’s then go-to
architect envisaged a new type of exhibition building
3 ‘Commonwealth
Institute’, Architect’s
Journal Information
Library, (Nov 14 1962),
pp. 1119–26
Appropri at ion of the Defunct
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building the ‘biggest gift’, as Pawson describes the roof,
will come into view, framed by the rectilinear form of
the central staircase. The floor space will be increased to
around 1o,ooo sq metres, providing the Design Museum
with three times as much space.
Pawson ardently explains that one of the highlights
of the space is the view out onto Holland Park, achieved
by adapting the previously opaque façade to give more
transparency. Not only will this enable a visual assimila-
tion between inside and outside, but more dramatically,
it will illuminate the once dark and disorientating space.
Pawson tells me his loss of orientation in the former space
was, ‘quite disconcerting, for me it’s like having a blind-
fold and being spun round.’
Kensington High Street will be the third home
of this peripatetic institution. Founded in 1ç8ç by
Terence Conran, the Design Museum’s roots lie in the
Boilerhouse, a temporary exhibition space in the Victoria
and Albert Museum’s basement where the institution’s
first director, Stephen Bayley tried out his ideas. Today,
the institution is led by Deyan Sudjic, one of Britain’s
prominent architectural critics, and so someone well
placed to manage the move from Shad Thames to
Kensington High Street.
So what should be kept and what should be
changed? How much modification can be achieved in the
restoration? Sudjic ruminates on the difficulties that arise
in transforming a monument to 1ç6os architecture:
Philosophically, the diffculty is that almost all
thinking about conservation comes from William
Morris, and the Society for the Protection of Ancient
Buildings. […] Morris wanted the new to respect the
137
Freire Barnes
developer Stuart Lipton of Chelsfield Partners who
rebranded the building The Parabola. After a few years of
deliberation on its possible future use, with the proposi-
tion of a Casino at one point, a decision was reached that
seemed the best fit.
An emblem of post-war London, the building will
become the new home of the Design Museum in zo1(.
This is an institution which specialises in making its
home in unlikely spaces. Having outgrown its riverside
residence – a former banana factory – at Shad Thames,
the Museum proposes to become ‘the world’s lead-
ing museum of design and architecture’ with ‘a greatly
expanded education and public events programme’
5
in
the former Commonwealth Institute. Fifty years after the
building’s inauguration, architect John Pawson’s designs
for the new museum were recently unveiled. Press reports
of the commission abound with optimism. Pawson can
do for the Design Museum what Herzog & de Meuron did
for Tate Modern and contemporary art.
136
Pawson’s design retains an emphasis on the expansive
interior space and the dynamic roof. Upon entering the
5 ‘£80 M Plans unveiled to
create World’s leading
Design Museum in
London’, Design Museum
Press Release, 24
January 2012
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Rhodesian copper; window frames were made with
Canadian aluminium; and the art gallery’s flooring was
Malaysian rubber. Pawson proposes using his ‘signature’
materials, marble and concrete. Sudjic explains: ‘We felt
Pawson’s aesthetic approach would not compete with
the very strong character of the building, but could gently
bring it back to life.’
139
8 Planning documenta-
tion of PP/11/03333 and
PP/09/00839  [accessed
via www.rbkc.gov.uk]
Freire Barnes
Some parts of the building will be recycled. The marble
flooring on the Commonwealth Institute’s central dais,
a remnant from the Imperial Institute, will now become
a wall decoration in the new Design Museum. In this
way, the Design Museum will be embracing its state as
a renovation. But how sympathetic to the original and
ecologically conscious should we be when repurposing
buildings? The venerable modernist, Cunliffe, highlights
the environmental benefits of rescuing such buildings:
‘I think in these sustainable days, it is better to reuse exist-
ing structures that have a lot of embodied energy than
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old by not pretending to look old. That’s great but it is
not much help for the 1960s, when buildings were made
of wood wool, plastic and glass, not stone.
6
Pawson shrugs off my questions about the restrictions
that come with remodelling an icon of modernism: ‘For
me everything is architecture whether it’s a fork, or a
building. Whether it’s working inside an existing build-
ing or doing a building from scratch, there are always
restrictions, and we always investigate the site and for us
the site happens to be inside the skin of a sixties build-
ing.’
7
Pawson had to work closely with English Heritage,
and adhere to the Royal Borough of Kensington and
Chelsea’s planning requirements, an obligation that didn’t
deter the architect who’s adept at working within envi-
ronments of historic significance. His formidable knowl-
edge embraces the ‘repair and upgrade’ requirements
that, for this building, include: sufficiently securing the
character and historic significance of the main exhibi-
tion building and roof, renovating the façade where the
ancillary building is being removed, and ensuring good
internal light conditions.
8
It is apparent that Pawson is in
his element, focusing his minimalist eye on the smaller
details. The balustrades and handrails, he tells me, have
pleased the powers that be.
If Pawson’s fascination with architecture is any-
thing to go by, n:¡:’s design will be given its due:
‘I am slightly obsessed by wanting to understand why an
architect put up what he did.’ This fascination does not,
however, extend to the original relationship of the build-
ing to its materials. The fabric of the former Institute
symbolised the Commonwealth by utilising gifts from
the inaugural nations: the roof was made from Northern
138
6 Deyan Sudjic interview, 2
March 2012 [via email]
7 John Pawson and Chris
Masson interview, 9
March 2012 [in person]
Appropri at ion of the Defunct
flexible enough to be permanently safe from the wrecking
ball, so future generations can see it house new activities,
if the Design Museum ever leaves.
141
Freire Barnes
to rip it all down, build it with new materials, using up
more energy.’
9
For Sudjic, it is the form of the building
which offers value. Keeping it, he says, ‘presented a better
financial opportunity, but there was also the added ben-
efit of rescuing a building from the 1ç6os of considerable
historic and architectural interest.’
As Cunliffe admits, architects rarely consider
the future use of the buildings they design: ‘The
Commonwealth Institute was designed because we
thought that use would go on forever. It was not designed
as an adaptable building that is why it has been such a
problem.’
10
But should architects involved in renovation
also take the long view? Pawson’s answer to this ques-
tion takes the form of a modernist rationalisation: ‘we
try to provide a rational kind of solution to architecture.’
But should he be interested in what will happen when, at
some future date, the Design Museum outlives this space?
Perhaps this is a premature question today but as Denise
Scott Brown asks:

How ‘functional’ is it to plan for the frst users (for
the client’s program or brief) and not give thought
to how it may adapt to generations of users in the
foreseeable future? We should consider widening
our defnition of function beyond Le Corbusier’s and
Goldfnger’s architectural equivalents of time-and-
motion studies.
11

Through radical approaches, developer and client have
managed to overcome the significant constraints which
marred the building for years, enabling it with a new pur-
pose. They have successfully recycled this piece of mod-
ernist heritage, and given it a function beyond its original
intention. My hope is that this striking building is now
140
9 Lord Roger Cunliffe
interview, 7 February 2012
[by telephone]
10 ibid
11 Denise Scott Brown,
‘The Redefnition of
Functionalism’ in
Architecture as signs
and systems: For a
Mannerist Time, ed.
Robert Venturi and
Denise Scott Brown,
Harvard University
Press, 2004, p. 142
Appropri at ion of the Defunct
1 Nicholas Carr, ‘Is
Google making us
stupid?’, The Atlantic,
July/August 2008,
www.theatlantic.com/
magazine/toc/2008/07
2 Friedrich Kittler in
Nicholas Carr,
‘Is Google making us
stupid?’, The Atlantic,
July/August 2008,
www.theatlantic.com/
magazine/toc/2008/07
Towards the end of his life the philosopher Friedrich
Nietzsche learnt to touch-type, with his eyes closed, on
a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball typewriter. He mastered
this tactical technique in order to alleviate the debilitat-
ing headaches that had begun to strip him of the ability
to write with pen and paper. This triumph of technologi-
cal intervention saw that words could once again, ‘flow
from his mind to the page’
1
– yet with a style, remarked
many, that was noticeably different to his work of previ-
ous years. The switch from pen to machine, as Friedrich
Kittler explained, meant that prose ‘changed from argu-
ments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric
to telegram style.’
2
The staccato click and clack of the
Writing Ball had rallied the senses. As each word punched
its imprint onto the page, it stamped the air with a train of
short, sharp sounds that lingered, like hooks, onto which
deliberation could hang. Letter-by-letter this method of
143
Nicola Churchward
Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip
along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Nicholas Carr
Some may argue that we’re just living another accel-
eration of history, but this is not the car replacing
the carriage … this is about the brain, it’s a cognitive
revolution.
René Berger
Machines and Metaphors
142
by
6 Eli Pariser, ‘Beware
Online Filter Bubbles’,
Ted Talk, posted May 2011
www.ted.com/talks/eli_
pariser_beware_online_
flter_bubbles.html
formulae. Yet the company’s mission, ‘to organize the
world’s information and make it universally accessible
and useful’ is still facilitated through so-called junk-food
algorithms. They work by feeding us what they think we
would like to view, according to our previous, individual
and collective, search activity. As Eli Pariser puts it,
‘the internet has quickly encased us in personalisation
bubbles, where increasingly the only people and ideas
we encounter are the ones we already know.’
6
Instead of
helping us to expand our understanding of the world,
Google is reinforcing existing knowledge and potentially
collapsing possibilities.
Google’s method of searching therefore directs the
path of the jet-skier, so that he or she may zip across the
surface, but in ever-decreasing circles. For the users who
would like to expand their knowledge field and learn
about the periphery of their topic, this algorithm is of lim-
ited value. In terms of our contemplation and modes of
expression mirroring the qualities of an intellectual tool,
this potential collapse of possibility might extend beyond
creating a situation in which there is an inability to reach
information we want or need. It may well lead to a decline
in our ability to appreciate and anticipate breadth and
expanse, in terms of knowledge horizons and scope for
research. Yet the business of examining the sociocultural
repercussions of intellectual technology is something that
can happen only in the wake of its supposed glory. Any
alterations to the way that we think as a result of techno-
tools are regarded as nuances to be dealt with when their
existence is made manifest and declared to be detrimental
to progress, or to health. So what are the prospects for a
culture that regurgitates its knowledge bank to the point
of congealment? Steven Levy, author of In the Plex: How
145
Nicol a Churchward
3 Christian Emden,
Nietzsche on Language,
Consciousness, and the
Body, University of
Illinois Press, 2005, p. 28
4 Nicholas Carr, ‘Is
Google making us
stupid?’, The Atlantic,
July/August 2008,
www.theatlantic.com/
magazine/toc/2008/07
5 ibid.
composition revealed itself to be an integral part of the
process by which Nietzsche arrived at, and articulated
his thoughts. As Christian Emden explains, the phi-
losopher’s ‘interest in rhetoric and his experience of the
typewriter framed his understanding of language in a
highly symbolic way: the traditions of the philosophy of
language versus the scientific and technological condi-
tions of knowledge.’
3
The idea that our contemplation and modes of
expression might reflect the qualities of the tools that
assist us in composing thought is provocative, consider-
ing our increasing reliance on intellectual technologies.
In zoo8, Nicholas Carr, writing for The Atlantic maga-
zine, explained that the externalising and extending of
our mental capabilities has been tinkering with human
cognition for centuries. With recourse to Nietzsche’s
typewriter, the widespread use of the mechanical clock
and the efficient choreographing of factory workers in the
industrial age, he asked the question: Is Google making us
stupid?
4
It has long been asserted that the Internet has the
effect of lowering its users’ concentration spans as they
become increasingly accustomed to the ‘fast-read’. Carr
described his own diminished capability for ‘strolling
through long stretches of prose’
5
, due to a reading man-
ner that seemed to be mimicking the fleeting flashes of
abounding internet articles, available to be sifted through
in their many dozens per day. ‘Technoculture’ is a word
yet to be recognised by spell-check software – yet our reli-
ance on intellectual technology continues to increase and
Carr’s question is more pertinent than ever. Over the past
four years, Google – the great go-to navigator of global
knowledge – has been busy refining its working meth-
ods, making over two hundred additions to its search
144
Machines and Met aphors
and creative language. For example, if we were to enter
the word ‘love’ into this search engine the qualities and
characteristics of love, as expressed in language through-
out the web, would be collated to create a meta-data set.
A search then takes place for constructs with similar
structural attributes to ‘love’, yet that belong to entirely
different domains. ‘Love’ according to YossarianLives! is
a ‘river’ – and it is true that love ebbs and flows, it is ever
changing and has a source, it’s difficult to control. In
being able to detect and read the way that we describe life,
within the information of the web, this search engine has
free reign to make metaphor. It tells us that love is also
sleep, rioting is a new dawn, music is confession, art is
food, art is a funeral, freedom is a goodbye, the end is
a photograph, the end is a wedding, law is a wheel, poise
is reinvestment – the possibilities seem to be endless.
Not only does YossarianLives! recognise the poten-
tial for metaphoricity in language, it has the capability of
seeking out related constructs on a scale that no human
mind could ever attempt. So how and where could this
capability be used? In a pitch to Seed Camp executives
last year, Neeley and Foster-Smith asked their audience
to imagine that a designer, who had been asked to envis-
age the medical emergency department of the future,
was searching the Internet for inspiration. Enter ‘aac’
into Google image and he will receive an informative, yet
patently literal return, full of images that work to rein-
force the idea of aac as it exists today. Enter the same
phrase into YossarianLives! and an aerial photograph of an
F1 pit-crew comes up. This metaphor is currently active in
emergency healthcare and has contributed to a multitude
of innovations in its delivery – an example that illustrates
the real potential for a search engine like this to deliver
147
Nicol a Churchward
Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives, ascribes the
inspiration for Google’s search mechanism to the fact
that Larry Page, Google’s founder and cco, grew up in an
academic environment. The ‘PageRank’ algorithm works
by assigning each web-page a value that indicates how
authoritative it is, based on the number and respective
authoritativeness of the pages to which it links. ‘Rankings
based on citations’, says Levy, ‘aren’t necessarily a mea-
sure of excellence – if they were, we wouldn’t hear so
much about Steven Pinker – but they do reflect where
humans have decided that authority lies.’
7
It is unlikely
that a clear solution to these concerns will be presented
anytime soon – but if we are to continue organising infor-
mation along these lines, are we inadvertently closing
down opportunities for the advancement of our creative
industries? Any salvation will require a complete rethink-
ing of the methods by which we determine and define
authoritative voices. An alternative perspective, however,
is being developed: beginning with the writing of an
algorithm that presents extraordinarily counter-cultural
opportunities for global searching.
Inspired by the paradoxical nature of Google’s
search method, J. Paul Neeley and Daniel Foster-Smith
(both alumni of the Royal College of Art’s Design
Interactions programme) along with Katia Shutova (ihb,
Cambridge University Computer Laboratory) are devel-
oping YossarianLives! – a search engine aptly named
after Captain John Yossarian of Joseph Heller’s novel
Catch-22. Their algorithm has the ability to detect the
structural attributes of a particular idea or object and
return metaphorically related images or words. Such con-
nections produce an excess of meaning and therefore the
opportunity for new interpretation within research topics,
146
7 Steven Levy, In the Plex:
How Google Thinks,
Works and Shapes Our
Lives Simon & Schuster,
2011, p. 45
Machines and Met aphors
we do when standing in front of an artwork, saying that,
‘we are making connections, based on our own experience,
fully aware that there is an underlying, pre-configured
language of affinities at play within what stands before
us.’ The fact that one must flex some cognitive muscle
in order to understand the results that are presented by
YossarianLives! goes some way towards protecting the
concept against critics of communication technology,
such as Susan Greenfield. She claims that allowing cogni-
tive engagement with technologies that usurp our natural
modes of communication, could lead to an actual degen-
eration of brain material. Whether or not Greenfield is
onto something, and most neurologists have refuted her
claims, it is true that the creation of metaphor is a wholly
holistic and uniquely human process – one that can
involve our every awareness, from bodily sense to the
conception of physical realities and abstract notions, to
an intuitive and nuanced understanding of experience
and situation.
Cognitive linguist George Lakoff explains that
the fundamental nature of metaphoricity in lived experi-
ence is to be found in the fact of our embodiment.
9
It is
our upright position in the world, coupled with the fact
that we move through space in a closed system (or con-
tainer) called a body, that provides us with the impetus
and perspective from which to generate metaphor in
the process of communication. Metaphorical notions
such as getting there with our ideas, which might other-
wise fall at the first hurdle, keeping our thoughts locked
away so that we might begin to boil-up in anger, are all
innate to our physical existence. Phenomenological
metaphorical understanding therefore begins from birth
and we do not need to be taught how to conceive of,
149
9 Christopher Tilley,
‘Metaphor in Language,
Thought and Culture’,
Metaphor and Material
Culture, Wiley-Blackwell,
Oxford, 1999, pp. 18–19
Nicol a Churchward
societal, cultural and economic value. But what about
those realms regarded as metaphor’s principle home? The
author and poet Thomas Lynch, when asked if he could
imagine turning to this new method of searching for inspi-
ration said,
The best one [metaphor machine] I know is Seamus
Heaney who seems always to be in metaphor
mode.  My own sense of it is that a poet does best
when he has some ownership of his imaginative capi-
tal – metaphors chief among same.
8
This comment brings the tension between claiming own-
ership of one’s imaginative capital, and taking advantage
of technologically generated insights to the fore. Is the
user of YossarianLives! still a creator? Or does he become
the ‘developer’ of novel, computer-generated concepts,
ideas and expression? The notion that our cognition
might reflect the action of our intellectual tools begs the
question: would users be likely to exhibit a new sensitiv-
ity to inspired metaphor, and therefore a greater ability
to engage in interpretative contemplation, or would they
become lazy in their natural ability for making such con-
nections without prompt? In short, like the calculator
removed a certain need for learning the finer points of
long division, could YossarianLives! diminish our ability
to be creative? When asked the same question, Neeley
explains: rather than revealing the two sets of correlating
metadata in a search, it is left up to the user to determine
the relationship between two constructs. He likens
this deciphering to the game, ‘six degrees of separation’,
saying that, ‘you know there is a connection, you just
don’t know what it is, until you begin to think’. One
test-user described her experience as akin to the work
148
8 Thomas Lynch, email
interview with Nicola
Churchward 1st March
2012.
Machines and Met aphors
Perhaps the desire for ownership of imaginative
capital in the face of technology – that not only inspires
creativity, but which makes the kind of connections that
we recognise as being creative – will one day influence a
divide between and within the fields of art and science.
Does a scientist have less concern with appropriating a
technologically generated concept than a poet or author?
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary metaphorical links
to be investigated in recent biomedical engineering can be
found in the current research into diabetes. The natural
production of stripes on the coats of both tiger cubs and
young angelfish has inspired the mathematical formulae
responsible for a better understanding of how to artifi-
cially maintain optimum glucose regulation in the human
body.
12
YossarianLives!, still in its early stages, may not be
able to recognise the relationship between the patterning
on a tiger cub’s coat and the functioning of the human
pancreas, but the relationship is there and is potentially
lifesaving. It is clear therefore, that the value of under-
standing and detecting metaphorically connected con-
structs, throughout life in its entirety, is crucial to provid-
ing meaning and making progress in both art and science.
When presented with the idea of the ultimate metaphor
machine, Dr. Dylan J. Banks – currently leading research
into biologically inspired technology at Imperial College,
London – commented that, ‘Any resource that improves
accessibility to information and which makes connections
between ideas, concepts and facts is of significant value
for all those engaged in creative technical development.’
13

An excerpt from Swiss writer, philosopher and
historian of art René Berger’s book Technocivilisation
considers the effect that technology has on the balance
of power in society,
151
12 Dr D.J. Banks, Soapbox
Lecture, Imperial College,
February 10th 2012
13 Dr. D. J. Banks, interview
March 1st 2012
Nicol a Churchward
or how to decipher it. As such, metaphor governs
rather than facilitates reasoning. It constitutes under-
standing and provides the basis for an interpretive
conception of the world. Without it, there would only
be literal description of sensory experience and human
communication would be fundamentally impossible.
In his essay, ‘Fact, Explanation and Expertise’ philoso-
pher Alasdair Macintyre considers the state of a world
devoid of interpretation – one in which the stars would
be nothing more than patches of light in the night
sky. A world of, ‘textures, shapes, smells, sensations,
sounds and nothing more’
10
would be a world that
‘invites no questions and gives no grounds for furnish-
ing any answers.’
11
Neeley explains that a key to his search engine’s
potential for widespread use lies in the possibility
for selecting particular conceptual distances between
the two constructs of a search. If the distance is too
short, the return will be obvious: so enter ‘cat’ and you
could get ‘kitten’ back. If the distance is too long, the
results, though conceptually related, may appear to
be random. There is a space somewhere in the middle
where there exists the potentiality for legible metaphor
and in which users may ask for a range of connections
to be made, from the very simple to the extremely imagi-
native. As well as informing design practice and creative
writing, YossarianLives! could be valuable as a tool in
specialist education. Metaphoric expression has been
instrumental in understanding the thoughts and feel-
ings of young people with severe dyslexia. Is there
an opportunity for this new algorithm to provide aid
for working with those who find it difficult to express
themselves with descriptive language?
150
10 Alasdair Macintyre,
‘Fact, Explanation and
Expertise’, After Virtue,
Gerald Duckworth & Co
Ltd; 3rd Revised edition,
2007, pp. 79–88
11 ibid.
Machines and Met aphors
This passion for elegance has ensured that mathematical
equations, considered to be clunky and without simplic-
ity, are in a sense regarded as being somehow wrong and
in need of refinement. Moreover, it is the subjective posi-
tioning of metaphor in the world – as well as its function
– that wields its power, even if it doesn’t rely on an under-
standing of emotional experience or visceral sense.
Although YossarianLives! is essentially the work-
ings of scientific algorithms, artistic serendipity and
one’s own subjectivity still remain an integral part of the
search process. It is impossible to predict which manner
of invention or design might be generated by this tech-
nologically facilitated linking of subjective and objec-
tive experience. What is clear is that this construct is an
example of unprecedented and expansive searching, and
is sure to create what German philosopher Hans-Georg
Gadamer termed as metaphor’s ‘fresh fusion of horizons’
16

for all who use it. Unlocking the power of metaphor
can only enrich that fundamental aspect of the fabric
of our existence. How and where it will constitute itself
in terms of cultural development is yet to be seen, and
depends greatly on the algorithm and its behaviour when
unleashed into the virtual world for all to use. With this
in mind, perhaps it is worth listening to expert of the
algoworld Kevin Slavin, who describes a certain kind of
autonomy exhibited by these mathematical formulae
as they go about their business. He says ‘the landscape
was always made by this sort of weird uneasy collabora-
tion between nature and man, but now there’s a third
kind of co-evolutionary force… algorithms – and we will
have to learn to understand them as nature… and in
a way, they are.’
17
153
16 Hans-Georg Gadamer
in Christopher Tilley,
Metaphor and Material
Culture. ‘Metaphor in
Language, Thought and
Culture’, p. 8
17 Kevin Slavin, How algo-
rithms shape our world,
TED talk posted July 2011
www.ted.com/talks/
kevin_slavin_how_algo-
rithms_shape_our_world.
html?quote=1005
Nicol a Churchward
All technological innovation has two sides, not, as is
commonly thought, according to the good or bad use
that one makes of it, but according to the change that
it makes in the distribution and exercise of power.
It takes power from some and gives it to others, by
changing the reality for everyone.
14
152
14 René Berger,
Technocivilisation,
Presses Polytechniques
et Universitaires
Romandes, 2010, p. 25
15 Paul Dirac in John
Polkinghorne, Belief
in God in an Age of
Science, New Haven and
London: Yale University
Press, Yale, p. 2
The shift in distribution of power as a result of Google’s
rise to eminence is well documented. If YossarianLives!
were to become as ubiquitous as the Google search box
– and why not, considering the ubiquity of metaphor in
our lives – would there be an effect on the distribution
of power in the creative industries? Could we see a shift
across cultural or professional categories as a result of
technologically inspired metaphor? The differing views
of the poet and scientist here serve to provide insight into
the attitude and sentiment towards creativity within,
what many people regard as, discrete realms of interest.
Their mutual reliance on metaphor as a means of inter-
pretation, however, illuminates a common ground from
which they both operate. Perhaps it is to be expected that
a poet might prefer to take inspiration from his peers,
rather than a machine, and that the scientist has no
qualms about accepting technological assistance in the
formulation of ideas. However, the most abstract of scien-
tific metaphors are not without recourse to human sensi-
bilities. Paul Dirac, who made vital contributions to the
field of quantum mechanics, stated his most fundamental
belief to be that, ‘the laws of nature should be expressed
in beautiful equations.’
15
These metaphors for life itself,
he insisted, were to reflect the beauty and simplicity of
the natural world to the highest possible degree; senti-
ments that have influenced the way many mathematicians
subsequently think about the writing of formulae.
Machines and Met aphors
As entries, strike-throughs, spelling mistakes, re-entries,
question marks, lists within lists, bullet-points, dashes,
personalised bullet-points, squares, asterisks, circled
entries, bold entries, ambitious entries and already-done
entries are scattered across the page, the mind moves
quicker than the pen to create this masterpiece in its ini-
tial form. Margins, the bottom of the list or the space in
between the lines are an opportunity to add information
that could not keep up with the mind or that were simply
forgotten. At times, these secondary entries will appear
in a different colour where an alternative writing tool has
had to be used.
The creator of a list has no intention to design their
thoughts but merely to order them visually in tangible
form. The back of a card, an old envelope, some scrap
paper, a notebook, a smart phone, a saved email draft,
155
Jigna Chauhan
A List
154
by
a train ticket or a post-it note provide the canvas for this
mind montage to be drawn out.
The activity of list-making is both common to all yet
entirely individualistic. There is a sense of urgency
attached to something that is created on-the-go or in
between activities, and maybe it is the extent of this pres-
sure that, when making a list, normal writing conven-
tions are ignored. Baselines are misused, words are writ-
ten across them rather than on them; the ascenders on
letters become muted; the descenders have added flam-
boyancy and the margins are no longer a no-go area for
words but a place to fill with words, additional thoughts,
numbers, sketches and question marks.
In a moment’s pause, a second thought is given to put-
ting these thoughts into better order or form, perhaps
in order of priority or alphabetically. This can be done
at a later date. Sometimes, a complete re-draft of the list
might be necessary. If it is a list of that type it can be
prepared to make sense to others. It is at this point that
a design element might be added: colour coding, font
selection, margin widths and line lengths.
There is an unspoken hierarchy to the various forms
of lists that surround us in our daily lives. Train times,
shopping lists, gift lists, hate lists, wish lists, to-do lists,
today’s food specials, contents pages, registers, stock
lists, missing lists, menus and guest lists. The different
forms of lists are matched and paired with a tried and
tested format. Registers are done alphabetically; shop-
ping lists by memory, train times chronologically etc.
157
Jigna Chauhan
156
a bookmark, a coaster or a space to sketch; it is embel-
lished with important things, mustn’t forgets and mental
notes. It ages well. Every mark on this creation is part
of its existence. Folds in the page create creases across
the unused printed lines; they battle with the thoughts
sprawled across them. A new dimension is added to the
form where the author has rolled the corners back and
forth between their fingers.
At the height of its usability, the list holds authority over
its creator; unchecked items glare at you and make you
feel guilty for the things you have not yet accomplished.
A mutual resistance grows and other lists arise. Before
the list has peaked it finds itself at the bottom of a bag,
on a supermarket floor, wedged in a shopping basket,
slotted in the corner of a sofa stuck to some crumbs, at
the end of a book that was being read, in the shredder, at
the back of another list, propping up a table, underneath
a doodle, fallen on the pavement or sitting helplessly in
the recycling bin, sitting next to the envelope that wasn’t
chosen and another list that has efficient strikes through
most entries.
On the off chance that a list may be revisited or found
again by its creator, they might experience the sense of
satisfaction that comes with being able to cross off multi-
ple items from the list. The single action of drawing
a line or the flicking of a tick enhances the achievement
of completion.
159
Jigna Chauhan
When a list finds itself in the hands of someone other
than its author, different aspects of it might be scruti-
nised. The graphologist looks at the space between the
lines and the curves or flicks of the letters, the size of
the capital letters, the margins around the texts and the
slant of the handwriting. The artist dreams up the story
that precedes the list and what might follow. The curious
looks around to find its owner. And others disregard it.
When an individual has shown extraordinary qualities
or talents, the contents of a list they have made might
become valuable to others. The lives of great scientists,
musicians, actors, writers or designers are retraced and
dissected by making their diaries or notebooks public.
Whilst the content of their home is on show so is the
content of their minds. Private information, messily
scrawled across the page with changes and errors, sup-
posedly give insight into a frame of mind. A laundry
list suddenly reveals secrets of their lifestyle, an unseen
side to their character.
This information, analysis, format, or story is irrelevant
to the author; the content is what is of interest to them.
Their document is plagued with encryptions of coding,
different methods of ‘crossing off ’, ticks, strike-throughs
and circles around ticks. Only some entries have num-
bers, where clearly an attempt at prioritising has been
made. Some have dates next to them, for deadlines and
finales, giving an added importance, a ticking reminder.
These juxtapositions need not make sense to others.
Having been created, a list triumphantly sits at the top
of important papers. It is versatile and can be used as
158
A List
161
Tom Hodgkinson of the Idler Academy is napping.
Somewhere beneath this beguiling bookshop-meets-
coffee-house is a boudoir where the idly brilliant rest their
weary heads and gather their thoughts for the burden
of doing-not-very-much later this evening. It is a curious
task, this idleness, one which must be faced with a bra-
zen gusto that seems to defy all logic, but in the interests
of being productively useless, it is best to run with it.
And so I do. I run with it with an energy and a frivolous
delight that conquers all contradictions, all bemused head
scratching. I run so fast that I am almost, but not entirely
blinkered to the pretty lie that lurks in this anachronis-
tic shelter of old school bohemia, because to challenge it
is to admit defeat at every point of argument. The Idler
Academy is a dodo and peacock hybrid: it is actually
extinct, but is so brilliant and weird and cocky that you
can’t help but look at it.
Jeanette Farrell
An Idler is Resting
160
by
163 162 edited by Hodgkinson, a publication that paid homage
to Samuel Johnson’s series of essays of the same name.
Tucked within its pages lay the oeuvre of the perfect
idler. Ribald boozehounds like Jeffery Bernard and Bruce
Robinson were well attended to, while Damien Hirst,
sermonising about the incomparable sense of freedom
gained by getting someone else to do your work, offers
this nugget of wisdom ‘the answer of how to live is to stop
thinking about it and to just live’. Drivel. The idler of old
was a charming rogue, devoid of the shackles of respon-
sibility, rich enough to buy confidence in a life without
money and restricted only by the geographical boundaries
of turn-of-the-century Soho.
The Academy however is an altogether more
sophisticated affair.
The Idler Academy is housed in a beautiful build-
ing. As Hodgkinson will later attest, ‘It’s got a garden
which we thought was amazing; it’s a really gorgeous
building. It’s been absolutely brilliant. You’ve got com-
plete freedom, you can do whatever you want here, in
terms of events and courses and lectures, it’s just been
non-stop fantastic events. We’ve got Latin going on
upstairs, we had a ukelele class going on last night’. True
to the establishment’s motto libertas per cultum a roundta-
ble discussion is taking place in the middle of the room,
on the highest-highs and the lowest-lows of Latin gram-
mar. Local hero Mr Gwynn leads a group of enthusiasts
in a chant broken only by sighs and grumblings, as a
group of five pencil-wielding pupils delve deep into the
ancient world in the hope of transporting themselves
from the laborious toil of this one.
Jeanet t e Farrel l
It is advised, when approaching Tom Hodgkinson,
to make an appointment in advance. He resides on
Exmoor, most of the time – thinking, breathing, think-
ing – but in Notting Hill every-so-often, one must pounce
and then knock softly to wake him from his afternoon
slumber. An email confirmed that I should call by at 4pm
but my punctuality, the product of living in a city shack-
led to a ticking clock, is not rewarded and by early even-
ing the idler is still not awake. I should wait and absorb a
Latin class that is taking place amongst the books, among
the tomes that advise on how to live. I should wait amid
the argy-bargy that informs the character of the place; the
finger pointing, the head-shaking and the rage. I should
wait amongst my favourite, the invitation to talk aloud to
yourself, to abuse the world fiercely and directly into the
ether. If play, as opposed to work, is ‘the suspension
of consequence’, it has found a merry home on the corner
of Westbourne Park Road.
An Idler’s Abode
The Idler Academy was opened in March zo1o at the
back-end of Notting Hill. Notting Hill is comprised of
approximately two million heart-breakingly louche and
carefree bankers; the vein-popping surge of delight expe-
rienced in The City 6 am to midnight, Monday to Friday
is shock-absorbed at the weekends into the fabric of the
birthplace of ska in the 6os and of genteel bohemia in the
;os. This creates an odd mix and an air of panic in the
palpable determination to out-lounge each other, and so
in many ways Hodgkinson has found his target audience.
The Academy was born in the name of the Idler magazine
An Idl er is Rest ing
165 164 extraordinary?’. This, of course, is not an easy question to
answer: placed on the spot, trying to keep your head down
among the disorder of a bookshop that attempts to stretch
the boundaries of the modern encounter.
Well, that was our plan when we started it. If you
go to your Starbucks you’re not going to bump into
anybody; so we wanted to have somewhere where
you would actually start talking to somebody, and
talk to strangers, and that really does happen. And
if you come in and you’re browsing at the shelves
and then you turn around and suddenly you’re having
a kind of philosophical chat, and you can chip in and
say something. But I think some people fnd it quite
intimidating for that reason, which I hadn’t antici-
pated. We’ve heard this comment quite a lot, that
people like the idea of it, they’d like to come, but peo-
ple aren’t really used to that thing, that open convi-
vial thing.
It is indeed intimidating, but it is also lovely. This com-
bination makes it quite the controversial spot. It is as
out-moded as the desire to reintroduce the ukulele as
an everyday feature of modern life and a casual sense of
elitism is more present than an elephant in the room. For
whom is this idle time for, this pause for play and imagi-
nation? It certainly seems particular to a demographic:
A shop actually is genuinely open. Anybody can
walk in all day long. That’s one of the things I thought
was really nice about us right from the beginning;
it is genuinely democratic. Yes you have to pay for
the lessons because we have our overheads and
we want to pay the teachers properly. There are
things like the Free School Movement and Occupy
St Paul’s which I have done talks at; so there are
people out there doing that as well. That’s brilliant.
I have friends who are involved in the Free School.
Jeanet t e Farrel l
An Idler is Vocal
He is rested. The nod has been given to descend the
staircase into an office comprised of a chaise-longue,
antique desks and an oriental screen to divide the sleep-
ing from the awake. A Samuel Johnson epigram, comes
to mind, ‘They who sleep every night until they can no
longer sleep, and rise only that exercise may enable them
to sleep again.’ Perhaps this is its zo1z manifestation.
Tom Hodgkinson is everything the Daily Mail and others
offended by the seeming origins of the Idler on a great pile
of stately cash hope he is; he has an incredibly posh voice,
he is drinking Rooibos tea and he is quoting Aristotle.
He has had, as he will admit himself, the ‘best education
you could possibly get’ and this will come back in
a circular fashion over the course of our interview; the
posh voice versus the system.
I tell the idler about my encounter with a group of
Latin enthusiasts upstairs, and how, in a way, this was eve-
rything I thought the academy would be. He is delighted.
‘We had a lovely print of the eighteenth-century coffee
house. There was something like one coffee house for
every zoo people. And these coffee houses, they had dif-
ferent themes: there was one where you were only allowed
to talk in Latin. There’s one picture where someone
is throwing a cup of coffee in someone’s face; a heated
debate about a point of Latin grammar or something.’
This is a wonderful image and it is writ large in the ethos
of the place. The first time I encountered Hodgkinson
he was standing to the side of the bookshop as I had a cup
of tea. He was flicking through a book he had picked
up and was reading aloud excerpts from The Life of Evelyn
Waugh, asking anyone who caught his eye, ‘Isn’t that
An Idl er is Rest ing
167 166 When the Idler was established, back in the early ços,
the idea was, true to Johnson himself, that it would
posit an argument against the work ethic, against
the reduction of a life to working hours. It was a lei-
surely, strong and eloquent argument but it always
incorporated strange variety of argument Alex James
whom many claimed was the most useless member
of Blur wrote for it and spawned a whole new genera-
tion in his image, the Notting Hill of zo1z. Has this
politics dissipated over the years? What happened to
anarchy-née-what-is-this-anarchy-in-the-first-place?
Well, I wasn’t self-consciously an anarchist, but when
we started the Idler which is against slave labour,
and against the 9 to 5, against drudgery and work, an
anarchist distributor picked it up very quickly and said
this is great. And then I got sent these books, and
there’s a famous book called Why Work?: it’s a collec-
tion of anarchist essays, including one from William
Morris about what should work be, could work be
more creative? The Industrial Revolution came along
and people became automatons in factories. And the
history of the trades union is to try to just gradually
improve the conditions and pay, but they’re still in the
factories. Should you own the factories, like Marx said,
workers need to seize the means of production. Well
that in a sense is what we’re trying to do, in having our
own shop and magazine and, you know, do it yourself,
start your own fanzine, start your own band; so that’s
what it’s about for me: it’s about taking responsibility
for your own life, not blaming other people, which is
diffcult. Voluntary organisations function better than
organisations that operate on coercion. An example
of an anarchist organisation might be the Women’s
Institute. It’s not funded by corporations or estates. It
wasn’t invented by a politician. It was a kind of genuine
up-swell, a system of mutual aid, mutual help. That’s
Jeanet t e Farrel l
It is very temporary to run a free school from a squat.
They tend to be ideologically burdened, so that you
get to a situation where people will refuse to teach
because that’s some kind of assumption of superior-
ity on their behalf. In any case, those Occupy or
Free Schools are incredibly intimidating. The punk
squat is one of the most intimidating places in
the world, so although I recognise that sometimes
people do fnd us intimidating, we try to make it as
friendly as we can.
The gentle but fierce presence of Joe Strummer remains
potent around these parts. Mythologies of The Clash and
of West London squats, a brilliant and vibrant time are
still just about audible through the revving of scv engines
and the territorial barking of posh puppies. An anomaly,
a privately schooled and privileged white boy who tried
to subvert ideas of race and class, seems latent in our con-
versation here although in reality it seems quieted year
on year
When I went to university, this is where I wanted to
come. That was my dream to have a fat on Portobello
Road and get a job in Rough Trade and to actually do
that, and we had a lovely house that we shared, and
I just loved the vibe. For me it The Clash. It was punk
and West London squats, the Portobello Road reg-
gae scene, Carnival and that kind of thing. We used
to buy our black hash on the corner when we were
14, so it always had an edge and of course it lost that
later. But Portobello Road, I walk up and down it now
and it’s exactly the same as before. And quite a lot of
these people are still around. The beatnik poet Michael
Horowitz comes in and there was a guy Jean-Michel
who died, who was a hero of ours, a sort of Notting Hill
mystic. He was into crop circles and that kind of thing.
We have Jean-Michel society meetings here. It is that
oldie sort of bohemian thing.
An Idl er is Rest ing
169 168 anarchic heroes mingle with that of twenty-first-century
commerce. Perhaps best served with a pinch of salt and
good humour – the most difficult parts of Hodgkinson’s
ideology are protected by the obstacle of his immense
charm, and charm is never, ever idle. It might be Joe
Strummer speaking with the voice of Alex James – there
are good points to be made that are endearing and chal-
lenging but all most people will hear is an incessant
rant about cheese. Time waits for no man and Tom
Hodgkinson, tired from reminiscing, is eager to get back
to work. I wish I could say that as I left the world of the
Idler Academy I bowed out with a salute of ego vobis vod-
edico to a group of Latin loving pensioners who strummed
‘Police and Thieves’ on the ukulele in response, but it was
not to be. An afternoon at the Academy, however, is assur-
ance that if this does happen it will be the most gentle,
strange and idle of anarchic uprisings.
Jeanet t e Farrel l
sort of anarchy in action, something like that. So it’s
where people come together, a village hall committee.
It is spontaneous creation.
The idea of the Women’s Institute as an anarchist organi-
sation is such a lovely one, that behind the poise of the
well-kept woman lies a seething political statement. I love
this gentle anarchy, misty-eyed, fetishised, kind. Where
did it come from, this strange anarchic impulse? How did
he find it in the class warfare that accompanies his accent?
What’s appealing about anarchy and bohemianism is
that people from more backgrounds end up there. You
know, so it could be your fallen aristocrats, criminals.
The place we used to hang around in Clerkenwell
was a real bohemian den and that didn’t really matter
where you came from, it was people united by a search
for freedom and a desire to create a life outside of the
conventional one.
Some people rise above the resentment through
bohemia, and one example is Graham Burnett who I
met at the Crass household, who are these anarchist
punks, before they did Crass the anarchist punk band
they did all of these sort of weird underground musi-
cal experiments and were involved in the Stonehenge
Free Festival, and they were a mix of posh and working
class people, who live together on a vegetable growing
retreat commune situation. And they put their record
out, and what my friend Graham did –he comes from
a sort of working class background – is they introduce
this middle class idea about politics and anarchy and
freedom to a working class audience, who then became
sort of liberated through this, and were able to create
their own lives and not feel that they were just treading
water, in somebody else’s idea of how they should live.
The Idler Academy is at a great remove from the punk
squat. Within its solid and elegant walls the spirit of
An Idl er is Rest ing
¤
172 103
Mischer Traxler © Mischer Traxler
104
Maximilien Brice © 2005 CERN
112
Crystal Palace Tower, 19 April 2012
Photo by William Shilling

115, 116
Gerald Wells, British Vintage
Television & Wireless Museum,
31 March 2012. Photo by
William Shilling
119
Elektrotechnique is distributed
by the Netherlands Media
Art Institute, Amsterdam
© Lernert and Sander
120
HeyHeyHey © HeyHeyHey
129
Ka Fai Choy © Ka Fai Choy
131
Image by Luke Hayes
132
© 2010 Roger Cunliffe
134
Architectural Press Archive /
RIBA Library Photographs
Collection
138, 141
John Pawson Ltd, Image by
Alex Morris Visualisation
173 page 49
Christoph Thetard
© Christoph Thetard
50
Jürg Lehni © Jürg Lehni
52, 56
© Bruce McLean & Cooper Gallery,
DJCAD, Photo by Ross McLean
59, 60, 62
© Bruce McLean
63
© Bruce McLean,
Photo by Dirk Buwalda
67
Tom Juby ©Tom Juby
68
Revital Cohen © Revital Cohen
77
Paul Scala © Atelier NL
78
Robotlab © Robotlab
96
Ceský Sen, 2004, directed by
Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda.
Photo by Jan Zátorský
98
Dunne and Raby, Nipple Chair, 2001
99
Dunne and Raby, GPS Table, 2001

100
Komar & Melamid
Olo from A Catalogue of
Superobjects: Super Comfort
For Superpeople, 1976.
Portfolio of 36 color photo-
graphs, 8" × 10" each.
Courtesy Ronald Feldman
Fine Arts, New York
Image Credits
174 This publication was produced
by the the frst students to
graduate from the Critical
Writing in Art and Design
MA programme at the Royal
College of Art.
www.rca.ac.uk
criticalwriting.rca.ac.uk
All efforts have been made
to contact the rightful owners
with regards to copyright and
permissions. All other content
© Royal College of Art, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-907342-52-3
Editors:
Clo’e Floirat, David Morris,
Jonathan P. Wat ts
Editor-at-large:
John Dummet t
Production:
Charmi an Grif f in, Pet er
Maxwel l, Jigna Chauhan
Editing:
Jeanet t e Farrel l, Anna
Bat es, Nicol a Churchward,
Christ ina Manning Lebek,
Nat al i e Ferris
Events:
El izabeth Gl ickf eld, Dora
Ment zel, Freire Barnes
Designed by Pedro Cid Proença
A version of this publication
was produced in a run of 800
copies, printed by Lecturis and
bound by Binderij Hexspoor
in The Netherlands. It is available
for purchase through the
Department's website and an
international network of quality
bookshops (£7.50).
Many thanks to David Crowley,
Ayisha de Lanerolle, Jeremy
Millar, Brian Dillon, Nina Power,
Critical Writing frst year
students, Rik van Leeuwen at
Lecturis and Fabienne Hess.
Special thanks to Will Wiles who
helped to develop these articles.
175 Colophon
176 Uselessness is diffcult and unstable; it is not an idea or condi-
tion that can be counted upon. Uselessness has no defnitive-
ness. It comes and goes, like boredom, but can have a surpris-
ing suddenness. Between one breath and the next this genius
loci of broken things can possess objects, people and places,
cover a lens with scratches and put a hole in a bucket.
It is a quality latent in all things and all people.
Uselessness is also a form of knowledge; it is a
response, an acknowledgment that something has dropped
out of the circuit of usefulness and chosen instead a path
to abandonment. To understand what is or isn’t useless is itself
a useless activity. To know what is useless would require a
wealth of information, an intensive interrogation of someone’s
life history, their likes and dislikes, mental habits and habitual
tendencies. It would be an incredibly intimate and invasive body
of ticks and crosses. And it would be unstable, ebbing and
fowing as time unfolds and the temperament of the subject
alters and changes. In this situation a defnition of uselessness
would be fragile and shy and any discussion would lapse into
a tired exchange of opinions; a tedious succession of agree-
ments or disagreements or ‘whatevers’.
Or perhaps the determination of uselessness could be
systematised through the establishment of mutually agreed
ground rules; perhaps a uselessness probability algorithm
could be worked upon? This could be an app on a smart phone:
scan an object, person or situation and get a handy numerical
rating of said thing’s uselessness factor. But would you scan
yourself? Knowledge of your own uselessness would be useful;
employers, shops, government departments would no doubt
delight in this and scan everyone continually. We would all be
tracked by our own unique uselessness factor.
But then of course this already happens. What are credit
agencies doing, if not assessing our usefulness to loan specu-
lators? What is a CV if not a guide to probable usefulness?
But each of these examples operate in relation to usefulness,
the uselessness is left unstated. Uselessness exists here in a
silence, in a denial of access; in a grammar of rejection.
A useful argument about uselessness is, then, not about
what is or isn’t useless, but would instead be a matter of under-
standing the nature of uselessness itself, its ontology. But to
begin this argument it is necessary to ask one question: what
if uselessness is actually the natural order of things and it is
only the chattering minds of humans and animals that brought,
tragically, usefulness into the world?
Codici l