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A few weeks ago we volunteered to have our house haunted. All in all, they’ve done a good job; in fact, I’ve yet to meet a single cowboy or cowgirl in this particular industry. We’ve watched our skirting boards swell and bow, heard something play the descant on the fins behind the fridge, and our Achilles heels have throbbed with a shared prickle and spook whenever we have sat on the sofa to eat dinner off our laps. Even though it’s over now, and I’m sad at the exorcism, we’ve been very pleased: it was exactly what we wanted.
The world in which it lives, the world which it is, stands at about 400 pixels wide, and I’ve looked everywhere across them, but no matter what I can’t seem to find any genitals. This makes me very uncomfortable; we demand to sex our agents, in ways we wouldn’t demand of our friends or colleagues or pizza delivery drivers.
When we meet for our monthly catch-ups, Bath Spa’s Empathy Research Group resembles a boardroom meeting for the world’s most nervous, and self-deprecating, security firm. Imagine such a thing. Believe me, we know better than any how difficult that is.
I completed two prototypes this week. Compared to previous efforts they were trivial to put together, but they represent a developmental milestone. For the first time my godlets can receive, interpret and process human language, albeit to a primitive degree. As the plural suggests, however, my attempts have bifurcated my project into two separate branches; in parts because of my lackings as a programmer, the restrictions of the engines that I am using, and the narrative metaphor right at the centre of this project.
Each of the two prototypes receives language input from the user in a different way; the first uses voice recognition, provided as a boxed feature by the IDE Construct 2. I have had prior misgivings about Construct, primarily around the paradigms that its ‘no-coding-required’ ontology imposes upon my work, but my reasons for using it have always centred around the ease of eventually implementing voice recognition. As I’ve now found, it can be deployed in minutes, with a brief clicking-through of sub-menus, and because Construct is an HTML5 wrapper it leeches Google’s API for fast, accurate results. Since popping it into my project I’ve received a lot of rumbling, cooed admiration for the results that I do not really deserve; as well as having little understanding of the processing involved, I used Aaron Clifford’s excellent demo-project Speech Commander as a blueprint, or rather as a source of plagiarism. My ignorance of this technology versus my desire to include it is a dynamic that does worry me; I feel that I should understand its functionality before making it so central to the godlet’s functioning.
I will try and include as much of what I covered as I can; but I will not try to write as I spoke, because I speak like a human being, and that’s dull. I’m also not going to abandon the opportunity to include some things that were flung off at the last minute because of timings, or to engorge other things in hindsight. I’ll skip the explanation of my project that the group required; if you want such introductions, you’ll need to make them in the archives.
Let’s begin instead at my research question, as it is still standing.
“How can digital interactive characters, such as those encountered in videogames, better come to embody the same ‘literary’ qualities enjoyed by those found in more traditional works of art, whilst maintaining their unique qualities as dynamic agents within a system?”
When dissected, the nubs of this question lie at the juncture of similarities and differences between characters in traditional media (such as films, books and other artforms that do not rely on digital computation) and new media (such as those that do). The terms traditional and new are to an extent arbitrary, debatable and troublesome, but I won’t be entombing them in brackets, obeli, quotation marks or any other apologetic punctuation. I have arbitrated them precisely for my inquiry; though the lines between them are anything but defined, and I am studiously avoiding the word ‘technology’ for a reason, I must ask you to accept, for the purposes of bearing each other over the next 7,000 words, that the use of the digital computer to make art does something fundamentally isolating to that art.
This very art, which includes many different permutations of code, software-driven simulation, art ‘generators’ and, most visibly and controversially, videogames, presents unique opportunities to experiment with the most basic factors of human expression; opportunities that lie in the qualities of the form. However, such opportunities also couch enormous, sometimes-hideous challenges to those who would make such art, particularly in a world that already often assumes that there exists a cool, stable and distant relationship between art and technology, and the definitions of those words. These challenges, along with the relative youth of the new forms, engender certain deficiencies in new media art today. Some of these are the fault of new media artists, and some of them are the fault of the world. One which remains the fault of both is the deficiency of character.
I’ve just released another prototype of
knole‘s titular landscape god, but there is nothing new for you to see. It still just sits on its own neck and watches, breathing and blinking slowly, and I still question whether or not a god even should breathe. My placeholding art is still holding the place, though hopefully I will soon feel confident enough to show some other concepts; many people to whom I’ve shown it even like the clean lines and demarcated, symbolic biology, and feel that I should keep it that simple and abstract throughout. This would certainly irrigate my theories (cribbed from others) concerning the power of human imaginative abstraction, and significantly lower my workload.
I never saw the beater who brought the pheasants to Cob Cottage and slung them over the wall, like panniers full of cooling lunch. In my mind they are an utter stereotype, one I don’t need to describe to you, one that we can all picture as they disappeared around the keystone of the house wall and up the slope and into the fields. It was some sort of day, weather-wise, warm I think, and the riflers had not needed any excuse; they had sent the beaters rifling through the furze. You often heard the munch of the guns off in the hills, though you never heard the bird’s response. They die in far greater numbers than the riflers would ever want to eat; that is, in greater numbers than zero. Pheasants can be rustic meals, but not many people profess to enjoy cooking them. To get any sort of taste you have to graft onto them the fat of other, less-rigourous animals; the little that the birds possess has the colour of bronchitis. In fact, the whole carcass, once it’s skinned, looks like the cautionary tale of a lung.
In that part of the world, and in this time of the world, such gifts over the garden wall are commonplace. On the shoot days, once the trigonometry had been had, once the long machines had been loosed and exercised, once it had all been worked out to a certain number of decimal places, all of the houses that border the fields and woods are left entire braces of dead birds by the retreating beaters, who swiftly pick their way back home to something tastier.
We had been sunbathing in the small walled garden next to the track that led up around the cottage, up the hill and under the kitchen; we were lain beneath the small, avuncular crab-apple right in the centre of the lawn. It was only a little patch, but the grass had such a tog and was pleated right up to the stones of the wall so that it felt that we were actually bathing in a manger of water, bedded and plugged in motionless algae. The man who owned Cob Cottage, who I already found terrifying and who would later spoil everything and lose himself the house, the importance of love, everything, told me with what might have been expertise (I didn’t know him well, and never came to) that the birds needed to be rested in the fridge for at least an night before we butchered them. The plural there was assumed; the women who I was with in that house were not asked. I didn’t see the pheasants, in particular my pheasant, until the next morning.
The sun was gone the next day, and though it didn’t rain there was a bitter curl of wind coming over the lip of the garden. As I dressed up inside, with everybody who would be staying indoors that day idly and impatiently tugged the lapels of my fleece, lovely hot breath in my ear, telling me that I had nothing to prove to him, that I did not have to humour him and that we might have a nice day ourselves, instead. That he might do all six himself. In that anteroom it felt as if I was preparing for a duel, or an execution; certainly that I might never be seen again if I stepped through the kitchen door, back into the garden that I had loved the day before.
We were all being pathetic; the idea of pulling these murdered things into modules was upsetting me even as it was exciting me. At this point in my life I still ate meat, and had for a long time felt like a charlatan; a stuffed breast. I saw this brace of opportunities, slung into our deep self-satisfaction, as a way to be the cyclic creature that I had always wanted to be; a Möbius intestine, keeping my refuse, my usage, my vileness, hermetic in one perfect unimpeachable bracelet of being.
This placed a lot of responsibility with those birds that even then were chilled to their middle, completely foreign, queued for us outside.
I was nearly buckling as I walked out, under the scaffold that the thatcher had put up, and met him on the lawn.
The deckchairs had been tidied off, even though they had not been in the way at all, and the crab-apple looked planed and newly installed; as if it had not been there yesterday. He stood with a plastic margarine tub full of knives and looked immeasurably content. He had already finished four of the birds while he had been waiting for me, and now stood listening to the stream and the bugle of children on the near horizon, flush with his extraordinary life, snugly fitting what he had chosen to do with it.
At the top of the tree were two gnarled joists that I had not noticed before, mortises that twisted away from each other at near-perfect right angles. On each hung a pheasant by its neck, knotted through a length of twine. He had taken the dun, colour-of-the-world female, allowing me to luxuriate, to sightsee, in the roomer male. I thought it inappropriate to couch it in terms of all those comparisons that I could make (its rosemary neck, its yoghurty nibs, its Quetzalcoatl brow) but I could not help it; we are often incapable of seeing these animals as anything other than communications at us that must be answered. The female on the other side of the trunk, a bird that the male had probably never known, failed to respond as nature intended.
We set to work, trying not to look at each other around the ridiculous gibbet he had made, while the women inside occasionally, languidly glanced from the kitchen window, further and further disintegrating into the mist rising from the words they were saying, and the stock they were making. It was so cold inside the bird.
I could now, removed from that day, really ramble about that pheasant, up and down; I could tell you what its grain bladder reminded me of, how its guts moved in my hands, about the colours and the textures and the evacuating smells and the tricks of gravity and the things he said to me that were warm and encouraging; but it would just be something to write. It’s a very easy thing to do, and it is hard to do well. What I think I might focus on, instead, and what is interesting me these days, is the process by which I felt that I understood a small part of that pheasant in parting it from itself, and how that feeling of understanding, if not understanding itself, made me extremely unhappy.
I have been reading about birds recently, but I have also been reading about computers, specifically in the work of Joseph Weizenbaum; Weizenbaum was a computer scientist and co-founder of that discipline, and thus excellently placed for his later jeremiads against the use of easy, lazy metaphors when speaking about computers and their relationships to the greater world. In Computer Power and Human Reason, Weizenbaum delineates the ‘computer metaphor’ which, even by 1976 when the book was written, had in his view begun an uncontrollable, Utopian replication through the populist imagination, cloning itself into every conceivable topic of thought. As we had come to understand how computation worked in the first half of the twentieth century, and began to experiment with ever-more-powerful applications of computers, it became very tempting to see every aspect of the world as a pronounceable system in which individual parts work in unison to produce an output, just like a computer. Such a temptation, Weizenbaum thought, could lead to only a barren justification for acts of unhumanity and inhumanity, both catastrophic and commonplace, and a gross misunderstanding and dilution of the truth of the world. To quote the book’s closing lines, “what could it mean to speak of risk, courage, trust, endurance and overcoming when one speaks of machines?”
Like all metaphors, I think, and as Weizenbaum thinks, the ‘computer metaphor’ is an exercise in abstraction; applying an idea to a disparate context, and then using that idea to deduce a new census, a Solution, to each disagreeable aspect of that context in turn. A mind is like a computer, we still say, so let’s debug it. Society is an algorithm, so let’s re-write it. The result of such systematising, in Weizenbaum’s view, are almost all bellicose and leviathan; wars, massacres, napalm clinging to the jaws of babies. Applying his ideas it is hard to say that we have moved out of this conceptual bind in the last forty years; this metaphor is still applied, irresistibly, to every aspect of our lives, the only difference perhaps being that it is as much the preserve of commercial bodies as academic ones these days. I watched the stream of a panel discussion from a game developer’s summit recently, in which a group of A.I. developers stated that the production of “content” (that is, what is actually in the game, such as character, dialogue, narrative) by human beings is too unpredictable and slow a process, and that by applying the up-and-coming metaphors of A.I. a ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’ might be found; automated systems that generate new stories, new motivations, new characters and plots from sophisticated, seismographic algorithms. A story is, after all, just a program run from initial rules. So, let’s run it.
Such metaphors, whether they are about computers or not, are comforting to anybody wrestling with soft, indistinct problems or trying to understand something enormous, as I was on that day. It was tempting then to frame that process of butchery, of revelation, of biology, in so many different ways. There was, for example, an intimacy I felt as I dressed, or rather undressed, the bird’s body; I had to touch its neck a lot, and felt the hungry veins there; it seemed to shrug off its pelt willingly as I cut into the interdermal membrane that kept it dry inside a heath. I had never been so close to any animal, not even a pet; I had never been permitted. It exposed its dimpled pecs to me, though that implies volition, and I went further in I flicked at the precious glans of its heart, not thinking how that would have felt in life. I also felt and focused on this gradation of insides, me inside clothes inside a garden inside a pheasant inside something else entirely, and there was a sort of sense made there. My hands were so cold by that point that I had to dip my gory fingers into the mug of tea that had materialised beside me. Hanging there, I saw it most as a delicate, interpolated network of things, horripilating in the wind that was getting up. Most of its systems were not working, and I was snicking off the interconnections, making sure that they could never work again. And that is how the computer metaphor got into the small space between me and my pheasant, and I started to see that word ‘system’ again and again. It was easy after that, and just horrific.
The man, who had done far worse things than this, came around from his own bird, once he was satisfied that I had cleaned right the way back to the spine. The last thing to do before decapitating it for the oven was to clip off the feet. They were lax and loose, signal-less, the most immovable things that I had ever seen; covered in mismatched, yellow crazy-paved scales. They looked painful. There was a smile on the man’s face, a normal smile, and he told me that he had just that moment made a decision not to try and trick me. I was happy about that, but confused. He brandished wire-cutters, clamping the bird’s ankle between the blades, and he told me that if he had been feeling cruel he would have told me to hold the foot as he snipped. I didn’t, and I watched what happened next. As the blades sheared through the bone with the sound of a ripped stocking, the claws suddenly curled in of their own accord, all the way tight into a fist. He told me that it was just the tendons spasming and reacting to pressure, and that when he had first done this, with another man, he had been told to hold the foot, and when it held him back he had screamed.
I am trying so hard, and I did try then, to dispel the overlapping solomonic circles of metaphor that surround this bedraggled (though perhaps something needs to be alive before it can be draggled), poor (how?) organic matter that I see as a bird. I am trying not to rely on the easy, elegant translations of sexuality, cookery, cartography, class, fraternity and most of all logic that I could perform upon this article of the environment that I might call a bird. Most of all, in that unifying clench of its foot, in which an input is reacted to, I am trying not to see it as a machine. It’s too reductive and Cartesian, a denial of the bird’s terror, the crime committed against it, the indignities it has suffered; an enormous assumption on my part, and unfortunately an enormous comfort. The feedback loop was too tight; there was too much correlation between the tweak of the wirecutters and the sad reaction of the innards; I had already lain out the
IF->ELSEIF->ELSE patterns that such a toe-curling implied. And even now all this time later it becomes hard to see the life that once imbued this apparatus as anything other than a self-perpetuating circuit or, even worse, a performance of life, with no back to it.
I felt sick by the time I had finished, and the feathers snagged about the lawn for days.
Weizenbaum states that a metaphor is only useful, and not harmful, if it enriches both the contexts which it utilises. I am not sure whether this is the case here; the bird is dead, it has helped me to understand some other thing a little better, and makes me see systems everywhere and wish to replicate them, no matter how incompletely. But even with everything taken apart and itemised, even in seeing the far bus of its lungs, I worry that something is missing from my model; and, even more horrifically, I worry that there is not.
I drove that pheasant halfway across the country to glaze it, wrap it in bacon (I didn’t think this much about the pigs) and eat it. It was too hot, and too dry, and a waste.
I am now just getting on with it and making a start on the actual coding of my virtual godlet. This is something which, historically, has been completely beyond my grasp; I find it usually very difficult to begin making anything until I’ve spied some sort of syzygy happening in my head; until all the spheres of my thinking on a topic are in alignment. Of course, all of you sensible people know that this is a rare event, certainly one which I have yet to witness in my lifetime, and when one is dealing with computer code it is a lost cause. Unlike natural language (in which I might ask you, for example, ‘what’s the smell of parsley?’), it is impossible to predict with any certainty whether what I ask of a computer will be understood in any sense whatsoever. Putting aside the complications of dialect, translation or channel, if we take human beings as, in small part, information processors, we see that they share certain expectations of semantics; a human response to a sentence that contains the words “what” “smell” and “parsley”, in that particular order, will be understood by the asker to some degree, even if it is not the response they were looking for. And once we have that basic understanding parlayed between us, the originator of the sentence can always return to the words at any point and prune, snip, train, trellis, topiary, coiff or shave them as needs must. As long as the inherent meaning of the sentence remains, or a new one is established, the individual parts may as well be the follicles, or foliage, that those verbs signify. They are components to be easily styled, removed, augmented or bouffed without destroying the trunk of the meaning.
This ideal consensus on language, which means that a first draft of most written natural language can stand alone as a parseable piece of work, rarely migrates to the context of computer code. The difference, I think, comes in the nature of the processing of the two different language-modes. When I am writing a natural sentence, the biological computers receiving and transmitting it are close to one and the same, within an acceptable degree of wet, mystic tolerance. My brain (that of the speaker/writer) and your brain (that of the hearer) have subscribed to a communal pattern of interpretation that we can agree upon, and which allows a fuzzy, thick-as-thieves, nod-and-wink as to the inherent meaning of the shared transcript without an exact, binary translation of what I, the speaker/writer, completely meant.
With a digital computer, not the case. We often speak about the problems of having computers recognise natural language, but there is still discrepancy in handing computers instructions written in supposedly-formalised programming languages. A programming language is, to a similar degree, a human construct; the computer must always translate what I am typing into a machine code that can actually be executed on its physical components. No matter how automated the instruction there must always be, as far as I can tell, a clumsy, mucky human defining something somewhere in the chain of proscription. Therefore no matter how precise and elegant that negotiating language, it will always be dictated by an entity entirely alien from the one that must understand it. Even a single line of code can contain errors of typing, syntactical heuristics that humans understand ‘just because’, not to mention assumptions as to the computer’s ability to ‘know what we’re getting at’. With all of these rules-of-thumb and degrees of error, it is always very likely that the code we have written, which we believe is hermetic and executable, will just grind the program to a halt, with no real indication as to why. As I am starting to understand, we cannot assume the computer to be another language-using entity like ourselves; though it has been created by minds like my own, I and it do not share a jot of common sense, lexical generosity or culture. It cannot (as yet) fudge my statements into something that it can understand ‘just because’. It instead operates with a mathematical unambiguity, through a language “clearer and more precise than the spoken languages like English or French” 1 in the words of J.W. Forrester; a statement that I can agree with, even if it glosses over the paralysis of self-expression that such a language presents to the creator.
It’s taken me quite a lot of space here to write through my ideas to the point at which I can say the following; if it has to be this way, and you do have to work with such an unimaginative, taupe correspondent, then it’s best to find out where you are making mistakes and assumptions (the stuff of imaginative discussion) very early on in the process, before your ways of working get too cozy and the relationship starts to sour.
It is the start of the second term of my PhD, and as well as thinking about the above I have become sick of talking about my work without having anything post-verbal with which to illustrate it. I have already begun to fiddle about with Construct 2, a development environment for HTML5 games which has a very sunny, persistent manner in asking me for money. I’m still not its biggest fan; instead of coding scripts directly (as I’d become used to in Gamemaker: Studio) a Construct 2 game consists of ‘event sheets’, lists of conditions and actions chosen from a fractal series of menus that could have been hand-coded in about one-third of the time. It does have its advantages2, but my main reason for using it lies in its native support for Google’s voice recognition API. I have put together a small prototype of
knole‘s titular creature, consisting of some non-committal artwork and some basic looping functions. The voice recognition is already installed; with no work on my part, my deity has its oracle, its psychopomp, a form of priesthood. It can hear the prayers of those that speak them near its (that is, your) microphones.
I haven’t implemented any feedback or reactive behaviour into this prototype. What is important, at this initial stage, is to test my approaches to creating some illusion of life. Without a conscious decision, and apparently ignoring the fact that my character is divine, I have begun by encoding a semblance, a performance, of breathing and blinking. I suppose I settled on these two functions for several reasons:
- These are very low-level behaviours, relatively ‘easy’ to interpret, which can loop with no contingent input from an audience.
- Breathing and blinking are perhaps two of the initial qualities that we expect, in the absence of any other vitality, from a living being with lungs and eyes. I have decided, independently, that lungs and eyes are a good starting point for getting people to identify with my creature, even if it is divine and has no need for them. Kittens and celebrities and people’s mothers have lungs and eyes. People like things to have lungs and eyes, and for those lungs and eyes to do things, quietly and diligently. Without some sort of diligent, quiet, primitive animation, no amount of interaction would counteract a very atavistic sensation on the part of the audience that there was something ‘wrong’ with my creature. Prothesis of biology is nothing new when gods are concerned; just look at Zeus and his rampant, transcendent teledildonics.
- They were quick to code up, and allowed me to test my architecture for the creature with little fuss.
This ‘architecture’, my chosen way of theoretically constructing and organising the encoded ‘self’ of my creature in programming language, is based very much on the principles of Behaviour-Oriented Design, a method of building believable computer agents developed by Dr. Joanna J. Bryson, now of Princeton and Bath universities, during her PhD.
To over-simplify her work, agents (let’s call them ‘creatures’) in this system have separate modules of ‘behaviour’, self-contained micro-programs that chug along quite happily on their own within a large network of other independent behaviours until called upon by something called a ‘reactive plan’. Such a plan is a series of rules which determines which behaviours ‘run’, influenced by both internal and external factors. In the mammalian metaphor of my creature its behaviour, its goals and its ‘plan’ for acting can be influenced both by stomach-aches and thunderstorms, depression and the sight of dew.
In the argot of BOD, then, my prototype’s breathing and blinking are action patterns influenced by a drive selection. In these foetal stages, my creature’s low-level drive could be said to be ‘stay alive’, ‘collect air’ or even ‘pretend to be a living animal’; however I choose to frame this drive, it leads to the creature prioritising, over all others, its breathing behaviour. In more complex agents, there are many arenas of conflicting drives, all of which jockey for priority throughout the agent’s existence. For now, though, we have only lungs and eyes, and even those only function in the most mechanistic, abstract fashion. There are no other factors to consider in its behaviour; it has no concept of fear, because I have not told it what it must do when it experiences the thing I call its fear; it has no concept of hunger, because I have not told it what food is nor that it should crave it. I might not imbue it with these things at all. But for the moment, with nothing to constrict its throat, it hangs there and breathes; in and out, without, very literally, a care in its world, forever.
If you have a copy of Construct 2 you can download the
.capx file from
knole‘s Github repository and look at how these primitive actions are structured for yourself. Though I am currently using BOD for my theoretical applications, I haven’t encoded that architecture into the prototypes yet; Construct 2’s event sheet architecture doesn’t lend itself to it incredibly well. The creature as yet doesn’t have a concept of ‘staying alive’, which might be the thing which compels it to breathe; or a concept of ‘irritation’, or anything to irritate it in the first, place which might cause it to blink. It does these things because it is told to do them, without causality of any kind.
Looking at the functions themselves, at the moment there are no biological simulacra encoded into the architecture; only logical process. Each drawn component of the creature’s face (its brows, its eyes, the various segments of its nose) are separate objects, all of which move at certain rates, in certain directions and up to certain thresholds, simulating the motor functions of a face. These movements are controlled by separate breathing and blinking event sheets, but the values of all of these rates, thresholds and directions are stored separately as number variables within each object itself. There’s a smidgen, then, of BOD’s modularity, but I’m not quite there yet.
This is how the breathing functions, in pseudo-code:
Start ----> 'breathe in'
If: creature is 'breathe in'
And: face < upper threshold ----> move face up @ preset rate
If: face = upper threshold ----> 'breathe out'
If: 'breathe out'
And: face > lower threshold ----> move face down @ preset rate
If: face = lower threshold ----> 'breathe in'
And so on, in a contented loop. The blinking happens concurrently, shrinking and growing the eyes at a much swifter but randomised rate. While I did not test whether the two behaviours would interfere with each other, they seem to make good subliminal bed-mates. What is most important about this architecture is that it is extremely adaptable; every component’s movement, the threshold of that movement and the rate that it moves can change. Once the god has things that it can react to, whether that input be vocal, tactile or otherwise, these inputs can change those numbers, and so complicate its behaviours. The passing of time could make the creature’s eyes droop and sag with tiredness, or a tender finger run along its jowls might make it hyperventilate.
Though in this prototype I sought to bring my way of thinking, my authorial, human language of ‘creatures’, ‘wants’ and ‘breaths’, around to the precise concepts of the computer, to perform a translation between myself and the machine as an initial lemma, the next and important step is to use this mathematicised abstraction of my godlet to explore the shared vocabulary of the human mind that I share with my audience; that emotive syntax of smelling parsley. Even in these very early stages I am witnessing the tabula rasa that coding a creation presents; how everything, every preconception and grant taken, must be explicitly stated there in the code. I cannot write what I like; the rules of grammar in programming are far more ironclad than in English, and everything must be stated very dully and fully before I can begin to play with them. But it is not dull to do so; I am getting excited at how the creation of every single element of this creature’s internal world assumes my authorship. What reasons will I give the creature for breathing? What will irritate it into blinking? What will I tell it to like, and what will I tell it to hate? It will be interesting to start realising some of the principles of BOD into the work.
Of course, this translation is going through several different exchanges now; from my brain to the computer and back into the brain of you, the ‘reader’ of the creature’s face. But it is in that final process, from the computer language into the language of your imagination, that the most telegraphing effect will take place; a sharing of semantics between myself and you. The computer is no different from any other artistic media; I am using it as a vector for significance, relying on our shared animalisms, our closed-circuit sentience, to provide a system out of which all of the personal peculiarities of you witnessing the creature, as part of your particular life, might arise. There are some things that I can predict about your reaction (that you will see my thresholds and rates as the breathing and blinking of a being, rather than as maths) but there are other things that I cannot. I would be interested to hear your initial reactions to the prototype, but I’m happy to report that most of the people that I have shown it to are very taken with it, even at this simple, allegorical phase.
People’s eyes are drawn to its reassuring, regular, cyclical movement, even its lack of reaction. Though there is as yet no sound to accompany it, when I look at my silent godlet I hear behind my ears a wheezing, sucking snort as it draws the nonexistent air inside. Through the movement of the simple lines that make up its nose, people will into being the three-dimensional chambers and membranes that such a nose must have in real life. My tutor even said that it was ‘hypnotic’ to watch. It’s an odd feeling, using digital, documented architectures to test what is, in the end, an organic sort of computation; a parsing of subtle, inexpressible data, garlanding and enmeshing the code with imagination and inference, like fronds of laurel on bobbed curls.
Unlike a computer, the human brain will always compile something; it will never lock entirely. Even when we give it such an impoverished test as this, it cannot help but engorge it into a plump, living deity, pregnant with pauses, expectant to begin.
1. As quoted in Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason, in a less-than-flattering context. <-
2. For example, unlike most programming environments if you change the name of an object or variable it is changed everywhere, which functions a little like a cosmic spellcheck in a universe where an ‘i’ before ‘e’ after ‘c’ can cause total and utter heat death. <-
Now that I am starting to grope into my PhD in great fistfuls, and work out exactly how I might start to build my digital godlet, I think it’s time to focus on specifics. At the moment I don’t have many of those; my notebooks are filled with misty calls to ’empathy’ between the human agent1 and the creature, as well as long, hopeful lists of potential interactions that will, I am sure, prove very difficult to code into being. However, one specific has stood since the beginning of this project, and persists as the mechanic upon which everything else must rely; the ability of the human agent to read the poem, which tells the creature’s story, aloud to the digital creature itself.
Fundamentally, I am talking about natural language processing; the now-banal ability of computers to take the waveform input of a human voice and understand that input as words and sentences, in a computerish sort of way; this is not of course the same as ‘understanding’ in a human sense, but rather involves transcribing those words into parseable text, or ‘strings’, which the computer can use for something else. Most people’s everyday interaction with this technology is limited at best; despite Google’s best advertising efforts, not many of us walk down the street and boss our phone out loud, as if we had a small staff of lice understairing in our fingercreases. If we do use NLP at all, it is in clipped, unbroken phrases; to dictate a text message when we are using our other hand to balance a ziggurat of biscuits, or to ask our phone something provocative in front of all our friends who have not heard its reply. I haven’t yet found much evidence of computers being read anything beyond functional, spare instructions.
Therefore last night, as I am now a Computer Scientist and I do things with a shining, experimental rigour, I lay in bed with some Medjool dates and a cup of oily tea2 and read my phone some poetry.
Though there is a lot of academic writing and positivist chicanery to come in regards to my PhD project, diminutively named
knole, I think that this development log might benefit from something a little woolier.
A few years ago I happened to visit Longleat Park with my family, in my Dad’s Orinoco-green jeep-simulacra with its orrery roof and arse-heaters. Longleat, at its own centre, is a stately home; though its movement through time has been anything but regal. From its owner’s pornographic impastos in the drawing rooms to its transformation into a Middle-English safari park in recent years, I get the sense that the National Trust would wilt around their green-lobed blades if they ever got their hands on it. We were there, along with a parade of other brightly-coloured vehicles, to do something which I to this day find not only absurd but grotesque; we joined the slow queue along the tarmac as it wound past the entrance gates and into the woods, a queue no different in composition from that we had been sitting in an hour before on the A303. It stunk of caramel and onions inside the car, and I could see the snot-glint of grease on every haunch of leather, but of course we could not open the windows. I had one of those apocalyptic, drifting instances when I realised and recognised what everything around me was constructed from, its heredity; from the seatbacks to the diesel in the engine, and the fat girl’s proto-bicep in the car behind us. Luckily, this granularity did not last.
The landscape we were moving through was former huntland, with that posh grass you only seem to get on the posh ranges of grand estates; curated by ewes, thick as a club sandwich, as unbroken as garnet. The woods were sparse and very old, and there was a tiger, predictably, shivering in its colour almost like a fox. The lion’s den was empty for the winter. The macaques had tortured all the squirrels. There may have been a rhino but I may also be dreaming that, now; I see it parked beside a rosehip hedge, as congruous as a battle tank in Wiltshire, with the syrup dripping into its armour.
The whole day was glum and gross, and we hadn’t even reached the shops yet. Longleat is not a circus; the animals looked healthy, and were not badly-conserved. They just looked embarrassed.
We reached a curve in the road; on one side were the woods, and the Park, and on the other an open, massive, slow basket of field, on its opposite side thick with ferns and the chain-link fence, keeping out the greater part of England. As we sat there idling, I caught a large-scale reconfiguration happening in the dogtooth pattern of the ferns. I had been so used to the limited, blaring palette of Longleat’s charges that I could see nothing apart from the fact of movement over there. Eventually, it resolved itself; a small, closeknit herd of deer, wandered through some gap from their territory outside. The main motif of the group was an enormous stag, his antlers a petrified, Celtic diagram. His fawns and does were flush against his coat, and I could barely pick them out in his fallow; could scarcely tell what was eyeball and what was autumn hide.
We had startled them, and they were rammed right up against the boundaries of our experience. Everybody in their cars turned away from the exotic obvious and watched, steering-locked, as the wild family unused to fences negotiated its length, looking for their way back into anonymity. They were the colour of the ferns at that time of year; the colour of the diesel in the engines, and old computers and brown meat around the wishbone and ash and bare branches and every grey sky of England that we had come there to forget. And yet we watched him and them, at the very edge of their freedom, resplendent in their camouflage. The plane on which we all sat shifted, and I (and I will speak for) everybody else on that road experienced a form of moral vertigo, the distinct feeling that humans feel when they see a thing within its nature, unaware, while we crawl along on wheels and eat coconut from the bag. Its an pre-Catholic, primeval sort of guilt; a recognition that past the glare and bombast of what we think we might like, the tropical and the dazzling, there might be a native alternative, a dunner dinner for our eyes, something all the more remarkable for it.
If feels as if
knole, and what I will be attempting with it, might spring in part from that day; that distant clutch of ferns, chevroned like a prison uniform, and the doe’s eyes like a pelt, hiding on the background.
I’ve been given some money by the government to do something which might very well fail.
I am presumptuous about its outcomes already, and even now self-congratulatory about its results. I have yet few of the technical skills necessary to complete it. It will take three years, and I sincerely hope not any more than that. If it succeeds, I may very well have exasperated some intelligent people; I can’t even presume to properly upset them; perhaps even in that I am presumptuous, and it just won’t matter that I’m a charlatan. At the moment, the something is just called
knole; a codename that I decided I required after watching the documentary series about videogame developer Double-Fine. I watched Tim Schafer, their lead designer and writer, weebling and bobbing his way through San Francisco’s Chinatown, pointing up through the blear at the neon signs of bars and clubs which had given his early projects their first, have-to-do names; ‘Lipo’ became Psychonauts, ‘Buddha’ became Brutal Legend, ‘EZ5’ became Happy Action Theatre; a game which I had never heard of before, and whose marketing material seems to involve smelting children.
The placeholding of my projects is not something that has ever occurred to me; whilst ‘working titles’ are certainly a technique that people use across the field into which I have been corralled, they are not nearly as codified as the ‘codename’ in software development, possibly because of the latter’s collaborative processes. Not only is this name designed to give you something monosyllabic and crunchy to talk around in meetings, but it also provides a self-important cant which is meaningless outside the company in which one works. I do not work in a company other than Bonfire Dog, and that makes me lonely; my codename is more of an attempt to feel like a proper developer, surrounded with support, than to obscure anything important from you. Having no work colleagues, I go out drinking far less regularly than the Double-Fine shower (but not as little as the difference between our workforces might suggest), and so it felt disingenuous to name my project after my favourite pubs where I do anything but crawl with my friends. Therefore
knole was named after an ancient deer park near my parent’s house that I sometimes walk through, full of haunted trees and fawns with backs like plasterers’ jeans. Across the undulations where the horses once tailed the dogs, you sometimes catch sight of the grand old house for which the park was named; tea-stained and pensioner-wracked, trusted nationally.
My latest kitten has just learnt (or, perhaps less impressively, just grown) to jump clear from the kitchen floor and into the fridge. I have an irresponsible habit of leaving its cheese-thick door ajar when constructing lunch, and for the past week or so with almost no fail I have heard the corn-grind of his nascent toenails on the lacquered wood, hoiking himself up and into the cavity. At first it was laughable that this compact oik, this tiny hoiker, no longer than an Evian, with a rib-cage like an arm of bangles, should be able to leap eight times his own height. But, of course, on comes life, filling him up, changing his schematic, upgrading him, hardening his bones and his claws. Every day his face grows more and more concave, more SETI-like, though his enormous eyes, the colour of lager, never cease dominating. He pips the pip of the pipistrelle when he is pleased to see me or is hungry, and his tail lashes like a cat. His tongue, when he deigns to display it, is as sweet as a banana chip. He eats like his own tapeworm, and has found the longest stretch of unbroken space in our house, an isosceles from the tip to the tip, and he runs it daily, religiously, back legs pulling forwards and to the right, threatening at every moment to throw him out of control. With all of these disparate likenesses in him, it is becoming no trouble to rally some of them to his cause and pull himself up into odd places, especially if they contain nice smells.
It would be very easy, if a little odd, to begin this piece with some final remarks; certainly far easier than dreaming up some opening words of my own. The done thing is to lead with a quote from somebody else, centred on the page like a cartouche. It’s a reassuring start, to have another person go before you and pharmaceutically compact whatever it is you’re about to spend 3,000 words discussing into something elegant and digestible. However using a person’s last ever words, what they choose or do not choose to say in the final, rattle-to-a-halt moments of their life, has an altogether different effect.
Now, this might be a mite awkward, but I’m desperate to start as I mean to go on; that is, profoundly. And where better to find profundity but in the dying words of some of the finest examples of public humanity from history? Even a very brief prescription from the Internet provides me with no shortage of options.
Hold still, and swallow. They may be big names, but they’ll go down without any trouble.
I shall be going to my own personal sort of Gap, all sycamoreish and lonely. I won’t be available in any format.
In the meantime, there is a short, glacial period in which you can still book your tickets for Crossroads Of Curiosity, the festival of derivation at the British Library of which I’m a part.
Enjoy your weeks.
She might have been a councilwoman; she had a municipal look to her.
It has now been a span of many years, at least several, and I have forgotten everything about her from the head down. I think that she was large, but I have forgotten. I think that she was pale-skinned and mole-filled, but I have forgotten. I have forgotten where I saw her, who she was with, what her hands were doing, and what she wore. Above her all, extending past her actual limits like a gillie, camouflaging whatever there was below her neck, hung her head, to all appearances on top of nothing. I don’t even remember her face or neck or ears all that well, because it was her hair which made me notice her and keep her. It has been a canoptic sort of relationship; I have removed the extraneous material from her, and kept only what is necessary to write about her now, as a fleeting glimpse. I think that if she were to read these statements about herself, she would laugh and be worried.
Whatever else I lay over her and under her when I glanced at her, all those several years ago, her hair was cut into a winged bob, tipped like a sphinx and high-buzzed at the back, and its lower third had been dip-dyed the streaked crimson of fresh muscle or a changed bed, and in seeing that, and coveting it enough to remember it, to annihilate the rest of her, rather than camouflage her, I have used her. Her hair, devoid of the rest, has become a tool hung, ready to have roles ascribed to it, uses and totems and reductions and essences. I am ashamed of myself, and apologise to her here, for finding no use for her for so long that I have forgotten the rest of my Gaze, for keeping her bottled for so long without her knowledge. I apologise to all the others, as well, but she will stand as their symbol, even if in making her so, and in hearing such an apology, she would roll her eyes, vape and go straight back to her spreadsheets.
I will be installing myself, entirely announced, at the British Library’s Crossroads of Curiosity event on Saturday 20th June, in which the Library will descend from the top stair to join the more adult architectures of London in staying up very, very late. Until at least eleven!
The event is to celebrate the launch of David Normal’s lightbox installations, originally exhibited in a place much in need of patterned light: the Nevadan desert, and Burning Man festival. David used thousands of public domain images from the Library’s collections to create his work, and the Library has taken the opportunity to celebrate all those artists, like myself, who have used its collections to inform, inspire and construct their own output. There will be talks, art installations, performances and music by DJ Yoda, a man who I apparently once saw at university and adored.
I’ve already had to write some bumf for the event, so in the spirit of it all allow me a little paste:
As part of our Crossroads Of Curiosity event, one of the Library’s most curious recent denizens will be joining us on the evening of 20th June; Interactive-Writer-in-Residence Rob Sherman.
A writer, musician, multimedia artist, games designer and ‘world-builder’, Rob spent six months creating the beginnings of an intricate, satirical and fantastical ‘alternate history’ for our exhibition about polar exploration, Lines In The Ice. From handbound, hand-aged diaries to reworked traditional shanties, from secret computers to fake artefacts, Rob used many different mediums and technologies to weave together the life of Isaak Scinbank, a forgotten (and entirely fictional) Arctic explorer in a sprawling collection of works called On My Wife’s Back.
Rob will be hosting one of his ‘holistic exhibitions’, first held at the Library during his residency. He will be curating and constructing his own corner of the festival, mixing the artefacts, writings and ephemera of both himself and his characters, with little distinction between the two. Come and visit Rob to ask him questions, peruse Scinbank’s belongings and his own, explore digital maps and objects, and watch Rob at work at his recreated ‘resident’s desk’, as well as submitting your own ideas, suggestions, criticisms and even belongings to the narrative of On My Wife’s Back; Rob promises that everything will be considered.
Rob will also be performing, and contextualising, new, reworked and traditional songs from his residency at scheduled times throughout the evening.
Look for me in the Last Word Cafe in the Piazza, lighting candles, huffing mould, and curating a peaceful little shelter in the midst of all this genius.
On Saturday, there was a peep on the Failbetter Games forums, from the moderator Flyte, to the effect that The Black Crown Project, my rather excessive, microbial, non-epic, cough-em-up, text adventure shenanigan, published by Random House, would be taken offline entirely on 31st October 2014. It has taken me a little bit longer than Flyte to respond to this news, and I can only apologise for that. I suppose my first response is to the initial comment underneath Flyte’s post, by a Failbetter forum user named Rupho Schartenhauer. It reads, “Well, I certainly won’t miss it.”
That’s a shame, Rupho Schartenhauer. I will.
Now, I’m doing my usual trick of burying the actual semes of what I am saying within a lot of asemes, so I’ll put the gist of this post out on its own, with slightly more pointed lettering, if you are only here for the grave information.
The Black Crown Project will be taken offline entirely on 31st October 2014.
This decision was one that I, Random House and Failbetter Games had to make, after a not-insignificant amount of time, concerning the project’s future. Though I am saddened, in ways that I will always find difficult to articulate, that The Black Crown Project will no longer be playable in any meaningful form, it is a decision which I was made fully part of, consulted upon, and endorse. I will miss it (Rupho), but I understand why it is disappearing below some ground.
Despite all appearance to the contrary, text adventures like Black Crown are not free to run. The hosting costs are, for a company like Random House, minimal, and would never have been a problem had we built the game on a platform which Random House owned and had developed themselves. But, as was very public, this was not the case. We partnered with Failbetter Games, and Popleaf Games, to devivsect an original story in an original corpus: facilitated, edited and promoted with Random House’s skill and experience, enlivened with Popleaf Game’s visceral flair, and skinned with Failbetter Games’ Storynexus platform, a platform which had been developed and iterated upon many times already to become an excellent tool for making branching text narratives.
However, to state that Failbetter Games was merely a ‘skinner’ would be highly insulting, and a little disgusting. I consider all of the people working at that company to be my friends and teachers. In particular, Alexis, Paul, Henry and Liam listened to my ideas with patience, interpreted them by pen, code and design and with clarity, speed and always their own deviations.
Most importantly, along with Dan Franklin, Harriet Horobin-Worley and many others at Random House, as well Berbank and Jon at Popleaf, these people taught me how to make The Black Crown Project. This is an important point, and easily overlooked. I was never entirely sure how I would actually create this thing that I had so smugly proposed and wheedled into the shockingly receptive halls of Random House. As will never not be the way with fiction, the form and process of the thing became entirely apparent by the end, with the help of everybody else. Failbetter Games rebuilt their engine to make Black Crown look and function the way it has now for a year, and will continue to for another month. They provided endless stress-testing, and links into their API for the content outside of Storynexus such as the Miasma objects. They, and everybody else, offered Skype connectivity, English words, walks, warm liquid, large windows in their offices out of which to stare, and always, always their support.
The Black Crown Project was my first professional piece, and I’ve admitted to many people that it was a difficult one to finish. For a variety of reasons, including my own weaknesses, it made me undyingly ill, both physically and mentally, and pushed my personal relationships to the brink of something unspeakable. I asked too much of myself, and everybody around me. But everybody around me helped to make something which, despite its flaws, its shudderings and hedgerow transparency, seems to have given a lot of you joy, sadness and an experience which, I now feel comfortable saying, is still completely unique.
Unfortunately, despite the endless charity which was given to me, none of the companies involved are charities themselves. Failbetter Games is a company who are expanding in all the ways which they have worked for and deserve, and maintaining Black Crown, with its ring-fenced code, unique features and separate, demanding bug queue, is not something which they have time or money to do. It is the same with the others. No more money can be spent on something which refuses to produce much in return.
It is no great shame or secret that Black Crown was not a successful project financially. The amount of speculation, trust and liberalism that went into its production unearthed a distinct optimism in me. I have been shamed by everybody’s behaviour and professionalism, and continue to be today. My Great Thanks stands as a headstone to this. But taking all such things into account, it remains a simple fact that Black Crown was an experiment in creativity and commerce, in which I believe I delivered on the former but not the latter. In its current incarnation, Black Crown will not make any of us any more money. It is not a populist piece, and the economics do not stand up. I stand by the decision made, and will defend it.
However, this does not mean that I am not bereft, and upset for those of you who still play the game. I have been constantly touched, in the manner of a stingray in an open pool, by the magnaminity, individual creativity and vociferousness of every fan. There have been songs written, art made, light-lighting slash fiction released. There have been long discussions on the nature of my work which, rather than superciliously detaching myself from, I have engaged with as a fan of my own work. Every single ___clerk___ inside The Black Crown Project no longer has to wonder about designations. All of you may curl your fingers (and no thumbs) in and over the pain; you have reached the ____highest rank____.
Now that I have been nice to everybody who deserves it, some business regarding things to come.
One of the prerequisites of taking Black Crown offline was that the entire archive of assets, from qualities to storylets to artwork, was backed up and maintained in a readable format by Random House. The actual logistics of this are still being decided, but rest assured that everything will still exist, de-articulated. The way to put them back together might rely entirely on what winters inside my own skull, but have some faith. I once drove to Devon with a concussion. It will be safe.
As to what happens with the Project afterwards, and in the coming whatevers, this remains to be seen. As many of you have been promised by email, I was not finished with the work by half; there was more artwork to come, more of the Eremite’s ephemera, hundreds of tweaks, clarifications and new storylines, as well as the digitised diaries of one Mr. Oscar Parlay, master of the Suite. I have not forgotten about these promises, but I cannot tell you how they will be realised.
Random House is still very interested in the IP, to use the lingo and never again, as am I. More importantly, I am interested in seeing the work in its current iteration, with my poetry and prose and song and artwork and weaknesses and failings, released anew so that people can continue to play it if they so wish. I have been toying with the idea of converting the entire project into a Twine game, a free, open-source software with which I have been gaining literacy through my work with the charity Shelter UK. Many of the original features of The Black Crown Project, if not all of them, can be replicated within the Twine code. Porpentine has helped me with this, inadvertently. However, this conversion would be a fairly daunting undertaking, one which I cannot personally afford at the moment without some form of reimbursement. There are other options, perhaps, but before anything is decided pens need to be twirled, windows need to be looked out of, lunches need to be eaten, and talks need to be had.
For the moment, I am working on several new projects, only one of which has been announced. Until Feburary I am the British Library’s Interactive-Fiction-Writer-In-Residence, which is extremely unwieldy but also exciting, like a bastard sword tanged with Aurora Borealis. I will be attached to the Lines in the Ice exhibition, which details the Victorian quests to snap through the Northwest Passage over Canada, and the resultant heroism, pathetic nonsense, cannibalism, love and hideousness that this all entailed. I’ll be creating original artworks inspired by my reading and research at the library, and what I have planned has a lot, perhaps too much, in common with The Black Crown Project. However, it might interest some of those that are reading this send-off. I will be physically at the Library for many drop-in sessions and events, and so do follow my progress on the official research blog.
Well, that’s it, really. I’m devastated but determined that the two years of work, entirely unequatable, is not lost entirely. You now have about 25 days to play as much of the game as you might like, and save any artwork, screenshots or copied text to your hard drive before the earth goes over it, and it sinks into a form which is not retrievable. I will potter about it, for as long as I can, and answer any further questions you have via email, but please do keep them brief. I’ve gravetending to be doing.
I used to sign off my Black Crown blog posts, and forum posts, with a twattish, capitalised Yorkshire shepherding pidgin which was the voice of the Hogherd, my semi-divine administrator character within the game. I always felt that I was insulting somebody, inadvertently, when I did it, and I’m not really sure if it was as haunting as it was meant to sound.
HYAAAA HYAAAAAAAAAAAAA HYYAAAA COOM BY COOOM BY
My residency at the British Library, attached as a tug to the upcoming exhibition on the Franklin expedition and the search for the Northwest Passage, now has a title, which is helping to rein in all my calving thoughts.
It will be called On My Wife’s Back, and I hope that you will follow my progress over the coming months as I try to pull something Shermanish from all the fervent, hushly white mythology that surrounds the Franklin and Arctic exploration in general.
Above is its logo, of sorts, in the original Greek sense. This title, this logo and its themes, will encompass what is looking to be a pretty bastard variety of new work, from writing to art to music to essay to video to hardware, and from now all news to do with the residency, including all of the material that I will release, will be found on my research Tumblog. There’s nothing much there at the moment, but I’m sure something will bob up soon.
In the meantime, I do hope that you’ll come to the Library and see me, gloaming through the Rare Books Reading Room, before the exhibition itself, ‘Lines In The Ice’, starts in November.
A tiny party of you might have been looking over my blog and website for the past few months a little worriedly, wondering where I’ve got to. Of course, things are happening, behind the sub-domains. There’s a sort of rumbling, huffing squawk that you’ll sometimes hear, and occasional gouts of hot breath that you can see rising into the air More than anything, you might have seen a certain aesthetic emerging. White on white, with little dashes of red. The pattern of snow, on every stylesheet, forming a sort of Arctic hoarding while I get on behind the skeines, carving this website into some sort of order.
I don’t even like snow very much. It’s a folksy sort of acid, charming the feet off your ankles, making pressings of all your nerves, and causes great, cheery delays on the trains running into London, which struggle at the best of times with the maelstrom of slight damp, fallen foliage and teenagers pushing each other off the platforms.
However, I’ve chosen it as my new digital camouflage because it has a nice obliteration to it. It’s the colour of the internet, anyway, and I thought that, rather than get all clever with my hex codes and background images, that I would just choose something for my blog that represented the medium in which I’m choosing to write. The web, hungry for anything, ready to obliterate at the slightest mistake in one’s syntax. It’s a lot like snow, isn’t it? So inviting, but so horribly judgemental.
It’s appropriate, also, for my next piece of art, the funding for which I have just found out, this week, is migrating over to me for the winter. For the past five months, as well as fannying with HTML and doing some sort of job in the daytime, I’ve been making applications. Overusing words such as ‘institution’, ‘pedagogic’, ‘democracy’ and ‘Philip’, drawing up Gannt charts, paring down to word limits (you must know how that hurts me). I was hunting for money, for support, for funding, but all of this pairing and peeling and stitching of words and chart-making put me in mind of preparing for a sea voyage. Admittedly, I’ve never taken a sea voyage, not outside a ferry, and I suspect that I’d find it horrible, but I’m still enough of a quivering, genteel mast of glycerine to enjoy the metaphor.
And, it appears, that my funding application was watertight. We have our money. Our voyage is going ahead.
For the next five months I will be Writer-In-Residence at the British Library. Despite my lack of experience or sea legs, and my obvious weakness to scurvy, I will, after all, be the official artist to a sort of naval expedition, one that tacks back into the past, looking for long-lost sailors. In the Folio gallery, a meandering knock-hole underneath the escalators in the Library’s foyer, an exhibition is being put together. It will contain the Library’s collection of documents, personal effects and paraphernalia relating to the lost Arctic expedition of John Franklin in 1845. Franklin was one of those longitudinally impossible men of 150 years ago who managed to be both Governor of Tasmania and a north polar explorer in his lifetime, though the latter was only by dint of all the other candidates being either too chilly-willy, too married or too Irish by half.
With two ships, the Erebus and the Terror (arrogant, tiny little ships, named for primordial horrors) Franklin set off with his crew and the blessings of the Admiralty to find the Northwest Passage, the mythic, ice-free trading route over Canada and down into the Pacific.
I don’t like to link to Wikipedia and be done with it, but in Franklin’s case it’s the only sensible thing to do.
Franklin was a much braver man than I am, but I do see parallels in our work. As an attaché to this exhibit, producing original artwork and writings relating to the Franklin voyage, and the subsequent attempts to find his vanished crew, I feel as scared as if I was about to take to the ocean. Throughout my applications for this position, I have been getting tongue-tied between the words ‘exhibition’ and ‘expedition’, and the gap between them has certainly shortened. Looking at the body of work in front of me, the amount of time and research that has gone into the Lines In The Ice exhibit, as it will be called, perhaps the practices are not so different, after all. As I sail through the Library’s archives, seeking the stories of Franklin’s adventures, the odds he and his crew faced, and how a great trooping line of subsequent explorers, down the years, have uncovered the sad tale of what happened to those several hundred men, their elderly commander, and their two malaprop vessels, I feel more and more like an icebreaker myself. My research will uncover documents forgotten for many years, and as my crew I will have the resident curators, bookbinders, scholars and excellent cooks that make up the Library’s staff. With them, I will discover terrific vistas, great pains, and create something entirely new to sit alongside these old, old log books and ship’s diaries, something which the public can enjoy until March, when winter is getting woolly, and the exhibition ends.
I am still working out what it is I want to do with my time at the library, but rest assured of the following:
– I will have my own cabinet in the exhibition, to fill with whatever I like;
– There were plenty of ideas that did not make it into The Black Crown Project, my last piece, which are due a stiff pint of sea breeze;
– I’ve stockpiled an awful lot of ship’s Twine for the task;
– You do not have to be with me aboard the British Library to participate, but I have been told that I make a charming mate in person.
There will be more details here and elsewhere when the charts have been finalised, the hull caulked, and we are ready to set sail. Once all this is in place, we’ll be heading out from Port St. Pancras, north and west, following the stars until the bend in the earth sunders them. We’ll be seeing what we can find in the lines in the ice. The British Library is an odd vessel to charter, shaped more like two steamer ships pulling perpendicular, and it has particular dearth of masts. Still, if you are interested, do come and join my crew.. The galley does a cracking doorstep sandwich.
And if you won’t be coming to join me, don’t cry, don’t send out search parties, and put the kettle on. I’ll only be months.