Category Archives: Appearances

luma daze / nine notions of the metasystemic

Among the many things on my list of events to speak at in 2020 was Luma Days, which is a kind of annual arts-community-philosophy shindig in Arles, southern France. Of course, the prospect of actually going in person went the way of almost all long distance travel this year—but Maria Finders and her team have made an admirable job of shunting a lot of their output into online channels, and pivoting the theme of the year somewhat; it was already about infrastructural uncertainties, but that ended up with a pandemic twist, just like pretty much everything else has done.

Absent the possibility of travelling and talking in person, the Luma folk had me write and present a short piece (titled “Nine Notions of the Metasystemic”) via Zoom, before Maria picked my brains in an interview about the piece and much more besides. Here’s the summary text from the website:

Throughout this conversation [Paul] offers us his comprehensive view of the neoliberal infrastructure within its own complex geography in the post-Covid world. He questions technological evolution and the connivance of platforms enabling the infrastructure to lock in and perpetuate existing hierarchies, as opposed to protocols. He also addresses the topic of socioeconomic change, and the role of artists and thinkers in this process, as well as their limits.

Sounds like the sort of thing I’d say, doesn’t it? I recall it being a hot afternoon here in Malmö… and I also recall realising that the somewhat synoptic thing I wrote/presented could be taken as a sort of preliminary survey for the work I want to spend the next decade or so doing. Other than that, in truth, I don’t recall a lot. Many pixels have been spilled, by far better writers and thinkers than I, on the topic of the Covidean timewarp… so I’ll spare any extra philosophising on that front, other than to note that late July feels like aeons ago, even as it also feels like I haven’t really gotten much done since. Selah—that feeling would be more uncomfortable were it not so familiar.

Anyway, point being: the video is up. (It may have been up for a while? I know it wasn’t up a month ago.) It’s not embeddable, I’m afraid—inconvenient, perhaps, but Luma is an independent arts organisation trying to do its thing outside of the usual circuits of capitalist exploitation, and so keeping their IP away from the Stacks is an understandable instinct, not least coz it means they actually get some click-through and engagement on their own site. So please do pop on over there and spend an hour in the company of my overheated brain as it was a little more than four months prior to time of writing… and if you want to pop back and tell me whether I made any sense, well, please do.

(I haven’t watched it back myself yet, so I’m kinda gambling against my own tendency to garble, here. I seem to recall they sent me a transcript, so I might look into tidying that up and seeing if they’re OK with me putting it up somewhere.)

cyberpunkish pontifications

Over the weekend I iterated my Extremely Minor Public Intellectual routine once again, at the invitation of Mark Everglade, who interviewed me as part of World Cyberpunk Day (which is, or at least was, apparently A Thing*).

Mark describes me as “a post-doctoral scholar of sociotechnical futures who works with science fiction tools and ideas to render sociological insights”, and sums up with the claim that “we discuss[ed] utopia, dystopia, cyborgs, and the relationship of technology and culture”, which is about right. Perhaps we should also add that, for all my academic advancements, he’s clearly far better at producing a concise abstract than I am!

[ * Interesting to note that cyberpunk is the genre, or at least the aesthetic, that refuses to die, no matter how much its progenitors might have preferred it to; one could easily be sniffy about what seems to be at least in part a network of self-pub authors and creators keeping the generic ball in the air, but the counterpoint would be to argue that’s exactly what cyberpunk’s musical namesake has managed to do so successfully since the late 70s. Sure, there’s dreadful derivative “punk rock” music still being made, but there’s also plenty of work that draws on the energy, the attitude or the style of that heritage and does something new with it. Seismic echoes, innit? Furthermore the scholarship around cyberpunk is undergoing something of a reconstitution, perhaps because it’s easier to understand it as a historically contingent cultural phenomenon with the benefit of ~35 years of political and sociotechnical hindsight… but also because, gratifyingly for me, there’s a growing sense that what was missed in much of the at-the-time scholarship was an analysis of the infrastructural. While the cyberpunk-as-aesthetic thing is easily dismissed—perhaps a little too easily, given its popular endurance—the ontological and epistemological attitudes that it brought to sf are, I would argue, more relevant than ever. The “speculative turn” in the social sciences, for instance, is as much reliant on cyberpunk’s focus on sociotechnical and/or class relations (a legacy of its inheritance from film noir?) as on, say, the critical utopianisms of the New Wave. The widespread discomfort with cyberpunk’s persistence might thus be tied to the way in which it signals that the neoliberalism in which it was forged is still with us now; to argue that it is somehow to blame for propagating or sustaining said neoliberalism is to displace a complicity that we all carry with us to some extent. Mirrors are always discomforting devices. ]

First There is an Island

Later this week I’ll be taking a trip down the country, and also down the years. On Sunday 12th June, I’ll be reading a poem in Sandown on the Isle of Wight.

I started off writing poetry seriously around 2004 or so, as a kind of preliminary to practicing the longer forms of writing that I wanted to do. I still write poems from time to time, but mostly only when they literally mug me on the street and force me to (like this one did). The resulting works may be brief, particularly since I got interested in the liberating constraints of classic forms like the sonnet, but they burn through a lot of creative bandwidth in a short time, like fireworks; my mind has been busy with longer things in recent years, and as such poetry has become something of a back-burner discipline, a skill gone somewhat to rust, like riding a bike down the promenade after years of driving long distances.

But you know what they say about riding a bike, right? I dragged myself out of retirement in response to an unexpected commission, one of the weird synchronicities that life throws up every once in a while. See, a few years back I got sent by New Scientist to review an exhibition at the Lowry and interview the artist, one Katie Paterson. I enjoyed the art and our conversation, and wrote it up the only way I knew how, through the lens of science fiction.

It turns out that Katie appreciated that particular perspective, and the resulting review. Around a year ago, she emailed me to ask if I’d write something to accompany one of the stops on the “tour” for an artwork to take place in 2019, titled First There is a Mountain. And of course I accepted, volunteering to take the Isle of Wight gig — because the Island is just across the water from that other island, Portsmouth, where I spent half my life, and where I started to learn to write.

Quite why I decided to write a poem, and why said poem ended up as the thing it is (the commission was almost comically open-ended regarding form and word-count, which was both a blessing and a curse) will have to be a story for another time, I think. But if you should be in the area, you can hear me doing the debut reading of the piece, entitled “The point of the work is the work”, at 11am on Sunday June 12th 2019, somewhere along Yaverland Road in Sandown, as part of the Hullabaloo festival of arts, science and seaside kitsch. I’m looking forward to it, and to seeing some old friends while I’m there.

Gig alert: “Beneath the city streets: urban infrastructure and its invisibility”, Sheffield Hallam, 1 March 2018

Attention, urbanists and infrastructure-heads who are geographically proximate to Sheffield, UK (or who just really like travelling a long way for seminars): Luke “Bunkerology” Bennett is chairing a panel discussion on 1st March 2018 at Sheffield Hallam University under the title “Beneath the city streets: urban infrastructure and its invisibility”. It’s free to attend, but you’ll need to book via Eventbrite. Here’s the promo blurb:

Sewers, cables, roads and myriad other infrastructural networks are the enabling frameworks of modern life, and yet we so rarely notice them. This free, open-to-all, evening event will present a panel of four researchers who are each exploring urban infrastructure with the aim of making it better known. The presenters will each give an account of their practical and/or conceptual explorations and in doing so also offer up thoughts on how their work seeks to render infrastructure’s existence and operation better known. They will also reveal why this unmasking is of concern to them.

This event is jointly organised by the SHU Space & Place Group, a network of academics keen to sustain interdisciplinary conversations about the researching of places and spaces, and C3Ri, SHU’s Cultural, Communicaton and Computing Research Centre.

Chair

  • Dr Luke Bennett, Reader in Space, Place and Law, Department of the Natural and Built Environment, SHU.

Presenters

  • Dr Paul Dobraszczyk, author and Teaching Fellow, The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College, London.

In his recently published book, The Dead City: Urban Ruins and the Spectacle of Decay (IB Taurus, 2017), Paul explores Manchester’s Irk Culvert as a way of excavating lesser known features of that city’s urban history. Paul will present an account of that unmasking and also discuss the way in which he uses urban exploration as a research methodology.

  • Dr Becky Shaw, Reader in Fine Art, C3Ri, SHU

Becky will discuss her participation in the ‘Watershed Plus’ Dynamic Environment lab (http://www.watershedplus.com/) which saw five artists following the City of Calgary’s water supply from its glacial source through rivers, treatment plants, maintenance yards, pipes, meters and households. Her ongoing project, ‘How Deep Is Your Love?’ uses ‘dirty’ pop music to travel through the necessarily inaccessible, hygienic industrial, economic and romantic water infrastructure. The project follows the movement, actions and technologies of Calgary’s leak locators, exploring the role of public art in relationship to the water infrastructure as a material negotiation of publicness.

  • Dr Chris Bailey, Lecturer, Sheffield Institute of Education, SHU

Chris will juxtapose examples from his doctoral study of children’s virtual-world-creation within a Minecraft club with experiences of physical investigation of urban spaces. Within the after-school club children made worlds, and in doing so made assumptions about the layout and provisioning of built forms and of their infrastructural interconnections. Here children, in their play, tested out and reinforced adult assumptions about what is foregrounded in the experience of the built environment and what falls conventionally to be unseen or unexplored.

  • Paul Graham Raven, PhD candidate at Sheffield Water Centre, University of Sheffield

Paul is a science fiction writer, critic and essayist who recently completed his doctoral studies in infrastructure futures and theory at the University of Sheffield. He is also affiliated to the Institute for Atemporal Studies. Paul’s research is rooted in a novel relational model of sociotechnical change, and is aimed at developing and deploying narrative prototyping methodologies for the critical assessment of speculative future infrastructures. In his contribution to this event Paul will explore the illegibility of the hidden city by theorising the metasystemic self-effacement of infrastructure: asking, in other words, how the hidden city came to hide itself.

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It’s quite the honour to be invited, as my interaction with the good Doctor Bennett to date has largely consisted of me asking him a few rambling questions after he spoke at seminars; they must have been interesting questions, I guess? I’ve something of a quibble with the use of the word invisible — infrastructure isn’t invisible so much as it’s illegible, or so my own research would have it — but I suspect it’s exactly those sorts of theoretical semantics we’re going to get into on the day, so I’mma keep my powder dry for now. If you’ve got opinions about cities, infrastructure and urban exploration, and you’re in the area, you should come along.

(Postscript: the whole not-yet-being-an-actual-Doctor thing becomes much more painful when you see yourself on a roster like that. I guess I should be proud I get asked to speak with researchers far more experienced than myself — and I really am! — but it still kinda sucks to be the one person who has yet to officially pass the bar.)