Friday 27 May 2011

‘Which Way to Techno-Utopia?’ podcast available from Little Atoms

Neil Denny of Little Atoms has just informed me that an edited recording of ‘Which Way to Techno-Utopia?’, a recent panel discussion at the Free Word Centre in which I participated, is available as a podcast. In an extremely lively and wide-ranging exchange, moderated with exuberant delicacy by probing barefoot technologist Becky Hogge, I joined fellow writers Angela Saini, Gia Milinovitch in examining the past, present and future of ‘techno-utopia’ both as concept and potential reality.

Topics covered included Astro Boy and European Romanticism, corrupt government administration and the writings of the Marquis de Sade, Norbert Weiner and the technological future of India, LSD and gated communities. Becky did a fabulous job keeping the things moving in a light but purposeful manner; and I could - and probably should - have listened to Angela and Gia for hours. My favourite moment of the entire evening came when a member of the audience asked us a question about the oppositional relationship between nature and technology in Western thought and then left the room while we answered it. It turned out he was just answering his phone. No wonder Adam and Eve got themselves kicked out of the country club.

You can find ‘Which Way to Techno-Utopia’ either by visiting this link, or you can download the whole thing by simply clicking here. In any case, you are strongly urged to visit the Little Atoms site if you have not done so already, as they have some amazing material featured both in their podcasts and their weekly show on Resonance 104.4 FM.

Pictured above from right to left: KH, Angela Saini, Becky Hogge and Gia Milinovitch, almost live and direct at the Free Word Centre – photograph by Neil Denny (thanks, Neil).

Tuesday 24 May 2011

‘Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe’ published in Super Kritische Berichte

Details concerning the latest edition of Kritische Berichte from Jonas Verlag have just been posted online. This special issue, given the one-off title ‘Super Kritische Berichte’ but is also numbered more prosaically 1.2011, has been edited by Joseph Imorde and Jörg Scheller, who organized the conference on Superheroes, Supermen and Ubermensch at which I gave a talk in Siegen last May. The journal’s contents - predominantly presented in German but with occasional Anglophone outbreaks - reflect developments from and reflections on that memorable exchange – two papers I particularly enjoyed were Henry Keazor’s ‘“Up and Atom!”’ Superheroes in the Simpsons’ (in English) and Roland Meyer’s ‘Im leeren Zentrum der Netze’ (very much in German) on the cycle of Mabuse films.

My own essay ‘Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe’ expands upon my lecture ‘The Purple Death’, first given at ‘Kill Your Timid Notion’ in 2007, connecting Flash and Ming with Ludwig II, Walter Benjamin, John Carter of Mars and Andy Warhol. Anyone whose German is up to it and has a weakness for figuring out what the hell The Joker, Anthrax and the X-Men  are actually about should immediatelty use their Bat Computer and Decoder Ring to order up a copy online – I mean how many back issues of Watchmen can you get for 12 Euros these days?

Note: a recording of my original lecture ‘The Purple Death’ as delivered at ‘Kill Your Timid Notion’ in 2007 can be accessed by clicking here.

Friday 20 May 2011

Simon Fisher Turner and ‘The Great White Silence’

‘Great God! This is an awful place,’ Robert Falcon Scott confided to his diary on January 17 1912, having just reached the South Pole only to discover that a Norwegian expedition, led by Roald Admundsen, had already been there ahead of him. Within weeks of penning that entry Captain Scott and his entire party would be dead. The official record of their journey, which had begun in October 1910 with the Terra Nova setting sail from New Zealand for the Antarctic, was entrusted to photographer and filmmaker Herbert Ponting. First released in 1913, Ponting’s film document of the tragic endeavour, The Great White Silence has been fully restored by the British Film Institute National Archive and features a remarkable new musical score by Simon Fisher Turner. Having created soundtracks for many of Derek Jarman’s later movies, including The Last of England, The Garden and Blue, Turner is the perfect choice to produce the accompaniment to a film that, even in its title, seems to push at the very edge of audiovisual experience.

I had the pleasure of corresponding with Simon Fisher Turner about his new soundtrack for the film over Easter – you can read a more condensed version of our exchanges in the June issue of The Wire. Simon was, as always, very generous with his time, giving me more detailed information than I could possibly fit into the space allotted in the magazine. I am therefore reproducing below – with his permission of course – a complete transcript of my questions and Simon’s answers.

KH: It must be daunting to create an OST for a film with the word ‘silence’ featured so prominently in the title – were there any specific challenges that you identified and how did you approach them?

SFT: I like the silence, but it’s very difficult to use it when you’ve been commissioned to make music, not silence. To start with the film is a composite of probably three parts, so to start with just working out what was what was a difficult thing. It’s a complicated, layered film: fact, fiction, faked fact, and a nature film too. It took weeks to understand this. I worked initially from a shot list that I found at the BFI. This was crucial, as it explained exactly what I had. It was the script basically, and I used it constantly.

How do you score twenty-two minutes of penguin music, however?

I decided not to go down the sound effect route. I wanted to create something which was related as much as possible to fact and reality. I was lucky in that I recorded the bell from the Terra Nova. I was lucky with Chris Watson giving me the recording from Scott’s hut. I was lucky with a list which Briony at the BFI uncovered, which had the names of at least ten recordings they took with them on the journey. We know they took two gramophones and a piano player with them. So I went online searching the globe for recordings of piano players playing pre-1911 songs. Great fun this research by the way. It was a real privilege to have the time to search all this out. Extraordinary we never found a recording of the man himself. I would have liked that.

KH: It must feel strange to create new music for footage that is now a hundred years old. How did you approach this?

SFT: The age of the footage worried me not. The silence was the worry.

KH: The accompanying BFI notes mention that you drew inspiration from Indian and Japanese silent movie conventions – what are these and how did you use them?

SFT: It’s not so much the inspiration from any particular film; but with some research a few years ago I found out that in early Japanese silent films, the musicians who accompanied them didn’t really take too much notice of the films they were accompanying. They apparently just played, so this in my mind also freed me up to just play and not worry so much about the way the film had to be supported musically.

KH: What kind of sound sources did you use for the creation of your score?

SFT: This film has used up all my best found sounds from over the last three years. Odd things seemed to make sense. For our first iceberg sighting I used a recording of a metal bench I recorded in Berlin. The timbre and quality of sound seemed to make sense. You can hear the rust jump inside the bench as I hit it with my fist. Rust works for me in this context as all the hut and belongings in the hut now remain but are rusty and decaying. This was also put into FORESTER, a beautiful piece of something that Leafcutter John made and invented.

To imitate the sound of the blizzard at the end of the film I used a recording of a huge silk stage-curtain I recorded in Kyoto after a concert by Jyoji Sawada. It was like a safety curtain, and I knew immediately I should record this. I had a Sony Pro cassette machine then and just dragged the mike over the surface of the curtain. Then I put it into Ableton and recorded it straight to picture, re-EQing as I went along.

For the sea journey to the Pole I went online initially and just got seascape sounds, but we dropped these after I went to Porto in December last year and I found myself recording a large sea at the end of a pier jutting out into the Atlantic ocean. The penny dropped, and as soon as I was in the studio again the following week we replaced the temporary sea for my new one. It was a stroke of luck again. My favourite found sounds used in the film are: BENCH, SILK THEATRE CURTAIN, ELECTRIC TOY HAMPSTER ( sound of the penguins) and MUSICAL SAW.

The Great White Silence
from The Wire Magazine on Vimeo.

KH: The archive recordings are particularly effective – especially the Madame Butterfly at the start of the voyage – what drew you to these specific recordings?

SFT: We knew Scott took a recording of this to the pole. Not this exact one but a similar recording. For the historical things I went online and searched for recording before 1911. We know he took banjo music too, hence the one we used in the film too. It’s all out of copyright. There were only ten entries on the list Briony found of records they took to the Pole. Once I knew Butterfly was on, it made a lot of sense since Scott was also leaving behind his wife and baby son.

KH: It was very nice to hear Chris Watson’s voice on the soundtrack – what made you include this?

SFT: He gave me the recording after we met in Newcastle. He casually asked me what I was doing, and I had just been asked the day before to score the film. So I told him, and he kindly said: ‘Well I’ve got exactly what you need.’ This was the very first piece of the jigsaw, and what a kind gesture too from Chris. He got the ball rolling in the most honest and wonderful way. What a way to begin the project. I was so excited I called Jane Giles who commissioned me and I told her. It was a wonderful beginning to an extraordinary journey.

I initially wanted to just have ‘the silence’ he recorded, but without Chris’s explanation as to what we were listening to, it would have made no sense whatsoever. I like the fact that he tells us where he is and what he’s recording. It’s a key moment for me.

The other silent part of the film we have is when the team reach the pole and realize they’ve been beaten. There’s a sad picture of them looking into camera, demoralized and beaten. For this silence I recorded the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month from the Cenotaph! This made sense to me too and it is like our own private honour for these explorers.

KH: The footage of Scott and his team ‘snuggling down’ in their sleeping bags is especially moving – was it particularly challenging to create music for that moment?

SFT: A difficult scene: long. It uses drifts I’ve processed from one of my favourite instruments which is ‘Leviathan’ from the reactor family. Also piano and four separate bass parts. The piano I made up in the studio. Very improvised to picture initially, then it’s eyes closed for emotion. For the second half of the film once they left camp for the final push into ‘the great white silence’ I started to record very long takes and re-EQ all the time to keep textures moving constantly.

KH: Are there any plans for a separate CD release of the soundtrack?

SFT: There’s a CD release on Soleilmoon in June. A double disc limited-edition with beautiful artwork made with care by Charles Powne.

KH: Simon Fisher Turner, thank you.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

‘Which Way to Techno-Utopia?’

On Monday May 23 I am taking part in a panel discussion at the Free Word Centre in London. Presented under the auspices of Little Atoms,‘Which Way to Techno-Utopia?’ promises to be a really quite an occasion. It’s chaired by genial Hollingsville contributor Becky Hogge so should be nothing if not lively. Tickets cost £5 (£3 concessions) and you’d be well advised to book in advance via the Free Word intelligent tickets service. Hope to see you there. In the meantime, the following Little Atoms release should give you all the information you need:
Over the last century technology has evolved exponentially and has changed our lives in ways that are too numerous to count. But what effect does technology have on wider society? How has it changed the ways we interact and communicate? Does technology have the capacity to change fundamentally who we are as human beings? Has technology freed us, or have we become its slaves? And what of the future? Will technology save or harm the planet?

Joining us to discuss these questions and more are

Gia Milinovitch

Gia Milinovich is a presenter, writer and blogger, specializing mainly in new media and film. She has an acute knowledge of computers, technology, the Internet and science. She has worked in a technical capacity on major blockbusters including The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and 28 Weeks Later, and created the ‘behind the scenes’ website for the critically-acclaimed sci-fi film Sunshine. She advised on and appeared in the 2009 BBC programme Electric Dreams.

Angela Saini

Angela Saini is an independent science journalist based in London, she has written for New Scientist, Wired, The Economist and leading scientific journals in the UK and the US. Her first television science documentary aired in November 2008, and she can be regularly heard reporting on technology issues for the BBC World Service radio show ‘Digital Planet’. She was named European Young Science Writer of the Year in 2009. bilingual English and Hindi speaker, she previously worked in India for The Hindu newspaper group. Angela is the author of Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World.

Ken Hollings
Ken Hollings is a writer based in London. His work draws freely upon trash culture, weird science, political intrigue and strange connections to reconfigure reality and demolish common assumptions. His work appears in a wide range of journals and publications, including The Wire, Sight and Sound and Strange Attractor. He has written and presented critically acclaimed programmes for BBC Radio 3, Radio 4, Resonance FM, NPS in Holland and ABC Australia. He is the author of Welcome to Mars: Science and the American Century 1947-1959 and Destroy All Monsters. Ken’s most recent project for Radio 3 was Requiem for The Network, a series of essays on the history, power and revolutionary change of information networks.

Chair: Becky Hogge

Little Atoms

Little Atoms is a radio show about ideas and culture with an emphasis on ideas of the Enlightenment. We actively promote science, freedom of expression, scepticism and secular humanism. Little Atoms is broadcast every Friday evening at 7pm on Resonance 104.4fm, and is subsequently available as a podcast via iTunes. Find out more at and follow us on Twitter at @littleatoms.
Free Word Centre
60 Farringdon Road

020 7324 2570

Pictured above: ‘Et In Utopia Sum’, courtesy of roving shutterbug Kitty Keen

Monday 16 May 2011

‘Invading Present Time’ available now on Vimeo

Séminaire 2011 : Ken Hollings from erg on Vimeo.

As if to prove my point that visitors to this blog are regularly among the last to know about the online documentation of my talks, events and readings, footage of my ERG lecture ‘Invading Present Time’ has been available from Vimeo for the past three months – only nobody involved with the posting thought to inform me about it.I mention this not as a complaint but to illustrate a point: one of the biggest challenges facing us today is how to make best use of the vast amounts of data storage made available to us, either on the drives in our recording devices or online platforms. It is now incredibly rare for any event in which I participate not to be recorded in some form or other – if any of this material becomes available at all it is often mislabelled, tagged incorrectly, or those doing the documentation neglect to inform me of its presence online. All information is now a location – coordinates are required.

That said, this is a pretty good film. Presented here under the French title ‘Politiques de la Simulation’, ‘Invading Present Time’ looks at Jean Cocteau, William Burroughs, early sound recordings, zombies and videogame design; some of the broader lines of its argument will be found in the appropriate chapter of The Bright Labyrinth – this at least offers you a live rough draft and a feel for the event itself. The filming is also tight; they used a two-camera set up throughout, and the editing is fairly smooth and fluid. I also love the booming stadium sound system required to fill the large industrial space where the Corps/Machine conference took place – and who can resist a handheld mike? My thanks to everyone involved in the event and in the presentation of this video. Just remember to tell me where I am in future.

See also:
Dead Fingers Talking
‘Invading Present Time’ – A Lecture at ERG in Brussels
Invading Present Time – The Politics of Simulation

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Spacemen of the Free World

Roving shutterbug Kitty Keen was recovered sufficiently from her recent encounter with a UFO in the Cotswolds to capture these images of my recent lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. ‘Living In Space’ was part of Strange Attractor Salon, a series of talks organized to accompany Nathaniel Mellors’ Ourhouse exhibition which managed successfully to weather the recent royal wedding celebrations, despite the ICA’s close proximity to Buck House. Tickets for the talk were completely sold out; and it was an absolute pleasure to address such an enthusiastic and responsive audience. Even better was the last-minute addition of Leila Sayal to the line-up, magically transforming The Asterism into electro-bohemian pop duo Indigo Octagon, making its first ever public appearance.

Those familiar with the opening and closing themes which Indigo Octagon created for Hollingsville last year will recall how beautifully Leila’s Theremin playing blended in with Mark Pilkington’s freeform analogue shimmer. The background ambience they created for my lecture was pretty much worth the price of admission alone. I could have read out the label from a can of dolphin-friendly tuna to what they were playing, and it would still have sounded classy. A recording was made of the event, and no doubt something will surface in due course. Readers of my blog will, of course, be among the last to know. In the meantime, Life magazine has posted some revealing pictures of Alan Shephard’s space hop, which was partially the inspiration for this talk.

Pictured above: Mark grapples with Misty; Leila at the Theremin; the full effect; KH on the outer fringes of  space – courtesy of the talented Miss Keen

Friday 6 May 2011

Catching Up With The Baunton UFO

The distinguishing feature of Unidentified Flying Objects is that they are – for better or worse – unidentified. An identified object tends to be one that can be easily categorized as something else: in other words in becoming identified it is transformed into a specific object, entity of phenomenon. A chair is, therefore, not an identified object – it’s a chair. The picture reproduced above was taken by roving shutterbug Kitty Keen, a regular photographic contributor to this blog, around 3.30 in the afternoon of April 20, 2011. She was walking in a field somewhere between Baunton and Cirencester in the Cotswolds and had actually stopped to capture a distant view of Cirencester Parish Church, whose square tower is a local landmark, which can be seen in the middle of the horizon on this picture. Quite what the spinning, vibrating object in the sky to its left might be is anybody’s guess. Miss Keen didn’t even notice it until we examined the picture together later that day. According to Mark ‘Mirage Men’ Pilkington, the object corresponds to a vintage type included in the 1952 NORAD UFO spotting chart: either a ‘winged cigar shape’ or ‘winged cylinder-shaped’, which narrows it down a bit. Those already familiar with Mark’s excellent book will appreciate that, as always, there is more to this than meets the eye. In the meantime Miss Keen would like to point out that she does not work for any government agency.

Note: this entry is being labelled as part of my occasional series of posts on architecture as objects and in the sky and church towers always tend to do strange things to the landscape.