Monday, 22 February 2021
Saturday, 9 January 2021
On 25 January 1921, at the National Theatre in Prague, the first performance of Rossum’s Universal Robots, or RUR, by the Bohemian playwright Carel Capek took place. In terms of pure theatre, his ‘comedy of science’, as he liked to call it, is fairly unremarkable – it had none of Meyerhold’s biomechanics, the abstract dynamism of Futurist sintesi or the geometric reduction of human form or motion found in Bauhaus theatre and theatre. But it did give the world a new word: ‘robot’.
Ever since I first wrote about RUR in my essay ‘Robot Power, Robot Pride’ for Strange Attractor Journal Two and in my book The Bright Labyrinth, I have wanted to do something more detailed on Capek’s play. The Samuel French edition of RUR published in 1923 described RUR as a ‘fantastic melodrama’ but it would be a struggle to call it science fiction. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers are still a long way in the future. However, its impact upon the cultural imagination of the time was so deep that the word ‘robot’ continues to have a deep resonance today.
The Robots Are Us is my attempt to explore why a word that barely existed in Czech at the time when Capek wrote RUR managed to capture the fears and desires of its times the way it did. Capek’s robots were made of flesh and blood in giant factories – robots today are mostly silicone, plastic and metal alloys – some only exist as strings of code. Our collective anxieties over a possible robot rebellion remain, however. I was lucky to have people like Caroline Edwards, Roger Luckhurst, Danielle Picard and Dustin Abnet to discuss the play with me. I was even more fortunate to have Mark Burman as my producer. He and I have worked together many times before, most notably on last year’s essay series celebrating 2019 as The Year of Blade Runner .
The programme goes out on Sunday at 18.45 GMT on BBC Radio 3 but will remain online afterwards. You can find the details and a link here.
‘Looks like metal…feels like flesh… Looks like flesh…feels like metal.’
Pictured above: an early Czech production of RUR and Eric, Britain’s homemade answer to RUR as reconstructed for the Science Museum’s Robots show in 2017
Friday, 10 July 2020
I wrote some sleeve notes for Clear Your Screens that were an attempt to explore the differences and continuities between then and now – what has changed and what remains the same. Listening to Clear Your Screens today it feels like we were writing material and creating ideas for our future selves – an active form of communication across time. Quite what our former selves would make of our more recent efforts, I will leave to them to express – if they ever get around to it.
You rarely get the chance to haunt yourself – to discover that you are slowly becoming a ghost from your own past. In 2003 the original Biting Tongues line-up came together for a one-off performance at the ICA in London – it was the first time we had played together in almost twenty years. Further opportunities presented themselves in the years that followed. More out of curiosity than anything else, we stuck with past material: tracks written and performed all those years ago. I welcomed the chance to return to it after so much time, experience and hindsight. The playing felt more assured than before – almost as if our performances had grown into each of these pieces, making them what they were meant to be. The live stage had always been our true recording studio, so far as I’m concerned – it was the laboratory where the best experiments happened. We left a lot of space for chance and the unexpected to move in and take over. At every performance there would be tapes running unattended in the background: interjecting voices from late-night TV and radio, scraps of news items and cheap sci-fi movies, field recordings, overheard conversations and shortwave signals. We just kept on playing.‘They may sound like an unorganized racket to some people,’ Graham Massey once remarked about these performances, ‘but they are very formal pieces. This formality provided a framework for all the random inputs in our work to take effect, making a drama out of the unintended. It was simply a matter of accepting the results. I’m glad they have been so carefully preserved. The live recordings we made between 2003 and 2009 are a reminder that the date and venue might vary but the stage remains the same. It’s a constant presence scattered across time and location, influencing the way you think and feel.The barbed tangles of sounds, the clusters of voices and rhythms – each of them establishes a connection with the past. Graham’s outstanding technical skills as producer may have brought them firmly into the present, but their origins will always lie elsewhere – most of the tapes heard running through these performances are digital copies of fragile 1980s originals. As for the person who initially composed the cut-up and heavily processed texts I found myself channeling onstage in the early years of twenty-first century: I’m not entirely sure where and when that individual slipped away. I had simply become an older mouthpiece for a much younger version of myself: just another ghost haunting my own body.
Mastered by Stephan Mathieu at Schwebung Mastering
Buy it here.
Monday, 17 February 2020
‘Trash has always served me well—over the years it has become the outer form and material expression of my dreams: of tomorrow, of life in space, of the blissful alienation from this world that I have always craved…’
What in Inferno is likely to surprise first-time explorers of trash?
Rat Fink or Mickey Mouse; who’d win in a fight, and why?
Which three items of literature, music or film would you recommend to accompany Inferno?
How does the book tie into or evolve from your other works of critical theory?
Monday, 3 February 2020
Sunday, 5 May 2019
Tuesday, 11 December 2018
Astronomy is another form of cinema. Time is fragmented and extended. Matter becomes light in motion. The camera remains fixed, looking outwards into the darkness, while the earth moves beneath our feet.’
The Space Oracle reinvents the history of astronomy as a new kind of astrological calendar. This radical retelling of our relationship with the cosmos reaches back to places and times when astronomers were treated as artists or priests, to when popes took part in astral rites and the common people feared eclipses and comets as portents of disaster. Panoramic and encyclopaedic in its scope, the book brings astronauts and spies, engineers and soldiers, goddesses and satellites into alignment with speculative insights and everyday observations. The universe, Hollings argues, is a work in progress – enjoy it.
As astronomers have peered ever further out into the cosmos their discoveries have always refused to remain confined within observatory walls. The Space Oracleshows what happens when astronomy escapes into the wider human world, and finds purposes beyond the scientific. As Ken Hollings points out, ‘the further into space we go, the more we learn about ourselves’ – Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer, Royal Observatory Greenwich
‘Continuing the trajectory set in Welcome To Mars and Bright Labyrinth, A Space Oracle revolts magnificently against the fault-lines of contemporary learning. Within the courtly form of a Renaissance almanac, and in a voice that echoes the recursive wanderings of a comet, Hollings gives us a vision of humanity endlessly making sense of the heavens. As he goes he shows us how the stars appear from Tycho Brahe’s Uraniborg and Wernher von Braun’s Peenemünde, from the branches of Yggdrasil and the helter-skelter at Luna Park. I loved it, but then I would say that; I’m a Plutonian’ – Richard Barnett, author of The Sick Rose
‘Reading Ken Hollings is the intellectual equivalent of being fired from the space-module for a non-stop EVA’ – Tom McCarthy, author ofMen in Spaceand Satin Island
The Space Oracle