Books & Computational Art in 2018
There was a best-archived segment of my life when I got unhealthily – pathologically – interested in the concept of the ‘quantified self’, after reading Harper Reed‘s interview with The Setup. For somebody like me, it was an unfathomably stupid pursuit: poring over datasets about the statistics of my everyday life, and using those to endlessly tweak, trim and rework the jalopied beach buggy which is my continuing existence. For somebody with OCD, such an approach to self-knowledge is a bit of a petrol fire. However there are some activities around the peripheries of QS, ways to reflect on one’s own habits rather than just self-surveil, that I’ve found interesting and, in some non-specific way, helpful.
One of these was to keep a list of all the books and works of computational art that I encounter for pleasure in a year. To keep it manageable and enjoyable, rather than a chore, I haven’t included films, TV programs, works of visual art, reading for my PhD or my fortnightly issues of the LRB and Private Eye. It can’t, therefore, really be called a ‘media diet’ like Jason Kottke’s annual posts. I’ve never really liked references to consumption, digestion, mastication etc. when talking about art. Even the word ‘media’ makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. We’ve got a glut of access to art in the West, as with food, but I’m not sure the correct response to that is to try and reduce that art to its micro-nutrients. I’ve re-read certain authors this past year purely because they made me feel better, indistinctly, in that moment, rather than because I thought there was still some fibrous goodness that I could still strip from it. Like clean eating, clean reading becomes another form of virtue-signalling which really eclipses the point of reading in the first place. It’s also a metaphor that has little bearing on what ‘consuming’ media is actually like, psychologically. I’m not sure we have a passage in our bodies – or our minds – that can stretch wide enough to accommodate the things we read, and scour them of some commonly-defined ‘good’ that they might do us. It’s far messier – more eruptive – than all of that.
This book, in which a celebrated nature writer responds to his flattening through depression by slipping into the loft of a house on the flatten marches of Norfolk, pulled me back to other, similar retreats in my own life: to small lodgings, to sublet flats, to bed. It certainly helped waft me across the threshold of last year, and is still sitting next to my bed: one of those books that can be read in doses and by the pipette, before sleep, to help me go out soundly.
I felt that I was just about at the right level of competency with computers – at the actual machine layer – to take a crack at this book last year. It explains how a modern computer works from first principles (as in, subatomic principles) using the idea of ‘code’, a method of isomorphic communication, as a framing device. It reminded me of Jospeh Weizenbaum’s explanation of how a Turing Machine works, using coloured beads on strips of paper, in Computer Power and Human Reason. I think that I understood about 60% of it, corresponding to the first 60% of its length; after this, it got extremely technical, and more about applied mechanics than theory. I imagine that a lot of artists working with computers might consider it overkill, or a waste of their limited time, to learn how a computer works on quite such a fundamental level. They might see it as similar to a painter learning the physics of mastics and substrates. To me it’s not a simple technical understanding, too microscopic for consideration, and so easily passed over. If making art with computers involves aestheticising functionality, as well as the appearance, of possible worlds, it seems fairly important to have at least a passing familiarity with the kinds of functionality – and indeed the kinds of worlds – that these increasingly-black boxes are capable of. I used a condensed version of this book’s lessons as part of my RCA class last year, and was surprised at how many young artists on the Digital Direction MA had no idea what ‘computation’ was, in an applicable sense – and how many of them wanted to know.
I can’t decide whether this book is a celebration of the potential of the human imagination (despite itself) or a warning against it. I don’t agree with all of Sagan’s conclusions about religion and superstition, but his warnings about their dangers are written with customary style and precision; whenever I read his prose I unavoidably hear his voice dancing at the edge of my hearing, like a lawnmower in some distant garden on a Sunday morning.
I read this after reading Harari’s Sapiens on Christmas Day, immediately after my Dad unwrapped it; I have this tendency to buy people books and then try to finishing reading them myself before the event that prompted the gift is over. It’s not a good tendency. I feel that Sapiens was a far superior book: tighter, more anecdote and sound evidence, less repetitious. Homo Deus is more pontification than exploration, and a lot of the material is more or less cribbed directly from the earlier book. His predictions for the future of humanity, while as rigorous as speculation gets, don’t offer much to advance current futurist thought, aside from the admittedly-interesting idea that human-originated ‘data’ will become confluent with ‘information’ at the level of matter, as the boundaries between biological and electro-digital computation continue to blur.
Contains the equivalent of about 600 words of worthwhile information in the entire book: but they were 600 words which, at that time of year and in that particular place, I dearly needed to read.
I find Annie Proulx consistently a bit devastating: though I love her writing, I’ve had to parcel her out across my adulthood (Postcards, then the collection with Brokeback Mountain in it, and I still haven’t touched The Shipping News) because in every bloody piece of work she creates sentences (in a way that reminds me of John Cheever or Vonnegut) that back her characters into some kind of yawning void, just by doing something as simple as looking at a coffee cup or kicking up dust. With this collection, I find that nothing has changed: I’m just as afraid to read the next sentence, unsure of how many years will pass within its syntax, and how totally a character’s entire life will be folded into it; like a bookmark, or the crooks of an accordion.
This was the second time that I had played The Beginner’s Guide, and I came back to it because of the easy, confident pleasure with which it enacts its storytelling. Unlike The Stanley Parable, Wreden’s first work (which I liked for different reasons), the Guide is a much more passive experience, something which asks little of me other than to traverse space in order to reveal its rhetoric, and uses voiceover to overcome some of the narrative issues that other highly-linear interactive works bump into on a regular basis. As Robert Yang points out, it is also a love letter to a certain set of technologies and tools; popular for a window of five years or so, 2004-2009 perhaps, which coincided with my mid-to-late teens, and which I remember mostly through the skein of one of their interfaces. Even though it is (most likely) fictional, I really would like to see its documentarian approach applied to something journalistic.
The Happy Countryman, H.E. Bates
Down By The River, H.E. Bates
Oh! To Be In England, H.E. Bates
When The Green Woods Laugh, H.E. Bates
I ended up reading (and watching) a lot of H.E. Bates by accident this past year; he just kept popping up in Oxfam, or on my partner’s Audible account, or winking out from our dwindling stack of DVDs. I’m resisting the temptation to comparing these appearance to a Green Man peering out from his leaves, or Puck or Pan materialising from the roots of trees. It’s too easy to make Bates bucolic, or Dionysian: every time I go back to him, I am reminded that beneath this sylvan reputation he is, by any age’s standards, a very dirty old bastard.
The BBC dramatisation of The Darling Buds of May, where I first discovered the Larkin family, actually takes off a lot of the books’ (and Bates’) sharper edges: the scene in When The Green Woods Laugh where Mrs. Jerebohm nearly falls out of the boat on the lake has a much darker-green streak running through it in the book than on the television; much of the predatory detail of Mr. Larkin’s actions that day are excised, and David Jason plays the innocent, bacchanal, oakwood Commoner in the mahogany courtroom with far more conviction than the character deserves. I always get the impression from the books, and the television programs, that Bates is desperate for the Larkin’s pocket dimension, their Laputa-Kent, to remain sacrosanct no matter which elements of the real world intrude. It goes beyond escapism into a sort of aggressive isolationism. I think it’s because even Bates knows that the world that he creates can only ever be mythic. It cannot be accidental that Pop has a touch of the Bombadils about him, a sort of avuncular omnipotence over all living things when within the borders of Home Farm that, itself, borders of the godlike. Anybody who comes and proposes, or even represents, some lifestyle different from that of the Larkins’, is changed irrevocably to fit the laws of this private world: and if they cannot change, they are banished. This doesn’t stop me loving Bates’ work, or envying the Larkin’s lives, or wishing that world, fervently, subconsciously, into being every time I go back to it. They have a similar effect on me to Miyazaki’s films: for a day or two after I encounter them, these stories make me stand up straighter, eat with more gusto, try and see the bluebells in the woods a little more presently. That sense always fades, however, and the cracks in the laws of Bates’ reality – the realities of jealousy, income tax, globalisation, women – become wider and wider. In comparison, Bates’ works of natural history stand simply, as beautiful prose about the landscapes that a thoughtful man loves – with no farmer’s daughters, or compliant spinsters, to distract him.
Hurt Me Plenty, Robert Yang
Stick Shift, Robert Yang
Succulent, Robert Yang
No Stars, Only Constellations, Robert Yang
I think one of the things that I find most interesting about Robert Yang’s works is how he belies the old indie myth that technological prowess is inversely proportional to artistic vision. In his work, and as an artist, Yang grapples with some fairly esoteric topics, even within the avant-garde of the form: sex, consent, gay social history. Yet reading his blog you encounter a man who is entranced by graphical fidelity, the gubbins of the IDEs that he uses, and who is as likely to write paeans to raycasting and the Source engine as he is to the continuing injustices of homophobic oppression in the United States. The two sides of his work are not irreconcilable, and in fact each informs the other. Technology is not something heartless, or soulless, to be obscured in the artistic process – it is the product of human intent and care, suffused with its own meaning, and that meaning becomes part of the stories that Yang tells – stories of faithfully-rendered chest hair, mesh deformation on curled lips, the normal maps of sweat and spit.
A systematic deconstruction of the riper, curling edges of late-era capitalism by British psychologist Oliver James. It’s interesting to note how much work like James’ has informed my early adulthood thinking, purely because of how obvious, bordering on trite, some of his advice was; which is not to bash it, objectively. While it hasn’t cured the casserole of hyperactivity, utopianism and fear that accompanies my Amazon shopping, it has certainly made me feel worse about it.
I would recommend that anybody trying to read this book, rather than read about this book, not attempt it in one go. Greer’s prose is even denser than mine, and the ideas that she is espousing are complex, historically-contextual and sometimes difficult to follow for more than a chapter at a time. The Female Eunuch stands as a reminder that Greer has never been embraced by mainstream feminism: her ideas lead to too many uncomfortable places, and her conception of the sisterhood never quite fits (for some). This book, with its complete deconstruction of the institution of marriage, and the nuclear family, illustrates how difficult it is to squeeze Greer into some of the more well-known progressive narratives. At the same time, the foundational ideas that she helped to promote are there in full view, and depressingly no less necessary to hear.
I wonder if one of the main grievances that people have with games that are light on choice, systemics, and mechanics – works like the minimally-interactive Kentucky Route Zero – is that they don’t quite know how to sit. Helen Katz has this concept of lean forward and lean back media, which is really a theory of interactivity and explicit engagement. Zeroslow cinema. Perhaps in its detractors there’s something physiological going on: some restlessness in the body as it is asked to move back and forth between watching and doing at unpredictable intervals, never quite ‘at rest’ or ‘at play’. Maybe it’s like the night shift operator at a nuclear power plant, where most of the plant’s functionality is automated, but there are still a few switches and dials that need a human touch: unpredictable enough that the shift can’t just be slept away. I felt a little bit of this, and not just with Zero: perhaps if I played it on the settee, rather than bolt upright in a chair on my laptop, my brain might stop fidgeting quite so much, and thinking that it was required to act all the time.
I read this in the heat of Southern Spain in August, which is much a dryer heat that India: but the setting certainly helped me to get into the spirit of this utterly extraordinary book. There’s a lot of mornings in A Passage To India, and evenings, perhaps because they are the only time of day when the plot can be bothered to move. Subsequently, and unconsciously, I mainly read this before breakfast and after dinner; very particular times, where the honeysuckle smells a very particular smell, and the birds move more urgently, and everything seems both exhausted and ready to go. Like Proulx, Forster has these methods of splicing in something transformative with the minute, undimmed descriptions of mosques, hill stations, shimmering cups of tea, and cool caves.
A re-read, taking an afternoon and an hour, precisely because it was on the bookshelf of the house in Spain in which we were staying; and because Bryson is quick to read, and this book is one of his best. Katz was a little too close for comfort, and reminded me of my own early attempts at long-distance walking, when my thighs rubbed so consistently together I could have let the matches and firesteel at home.
I know that some people like Lewis’ heavily narrative, human-driven takes on the complexities of the business world. It was certainly refreshing to have an account on the Greek debt crisis begin in the dark cells of an Orthodox monastery. Sometimes, however, I think Lewis gets a bit too enamoured with the personalities and processes on which he is reporting. This means that sometimes important details are dashed over with a sort of gonzo zeal, and at other times excruciating attention is paid to something esoteric which belies Lewis’ evident belief that the crux of these events are the people that are embroiled in them.
Another example of my bad habit: a birthday present for my partner, that I knew I could snaffle in the space of a week before she wanted to dive in. Unfortunately I’m a fairly… handsy reader, and At Home is a long book. I first read it on my Mum’s Kindle, and by the time I had finished reading this edition it was curling up at the edges like an old sandwich, and it was a real struggle not to deface it with my marginalia. It would have been a step too far: the codical equivalent of weeing on the toilet seat.
In late September I had a friend to visit, and we hiked up the bracken-hairy back of the Beacons plateau; to Corm Du, to Pen y Fan, across limestone pavement punched with rain; and then we ate macaroni cheese, and drank whiskey quicker than it could evaporate, and played this on his iPad while we killed time until he had to catch his train back to London. It’s got the ruins fetish thing going on that has always been a part of the grammar of games, but its silence, its simple, haptic pleasures and its abstractions were extremely relaxing to spend some time with.
I was at that point in the year where I wanted to read something that wasn’t self-improving, that wasn’t exploratory; that drove itself forward, on rails preferably, and just let me look at the scenery. This little ghost train of a book provided that. I only ever remember reading this in bed, and it was all over in a matter of days. I haven’t read The Bone Clocks, to which this is a slim companion; I haven’t broached Cloud Atlas or any other of Mitchell’s books. I knew that this contained references to other characters, timelines, and novels of his, as do all his books, but it didn’t seem to matter. As with so many of these sorts of horror works (whether film, book or other) the best part was the Golden First Third: those hundred pages where all the unsettling little promises are made, the mysteries opened, and their resolution seems very far away indeed. As things progress, and certain threads start to be resolved, however, it unravels slightly: the characters pass by too quickly, either Mary Sues or so flawed as to be practically in two pieces; the patterns of the chapters, year on year, start to become a little jarring; the mysteries resolve themselves into more mysteries which somehow also feel overly familiar. I might try The Bone Clocks this year, and see if I get on better with it.
I had been meaning to read Cain’s book for some time, and ended up listening to an audiobook version; I listened to it while cooking, and occasionally while settling down to sleep. This meant that I often went roughshod over sections of a book, missing them entirely. Given how often I fell asleep while listening to this, or clattered hot pans over the top of it, a new type of fugue emerged, and I’ve no idea how much of Cain’s slow and patient voice I missed. Her central message, however, about the extent of introversion in Western society and its relative lack of regard, was one which I had been expecting, though elements of it surprised me. Cain’s case studies of introverts, and dissection of their qualities, made me realise that I was much less introverted than I had always imagined myself to be.
I find Gladwell’s prose… not exactly heavy-going, but rather close to its opposite. It’s so smoothed of anything controversial, lexically, that I find it hard to imbibe his main points; especially when, as in the case of the Tipping Point, they are so abstract as to be difficult to grasp at all. This is despite his rather extensive reliance on storytelling as a way to introduce lay readers to his thinking, even if a lot of people find that his points border on the reductive, often relying on a single, or a handful, of ‘hero stories’ (from crime epidemics to Biblical parables) to make grand, sweeping statements about the human condition. This may all be to do with the fact that I listened to the audiobook, and my latent, reactive xenophobia towards certain US accents reared its backward head. If Carl Sagan sounds like a Sunday morning lawnmower, Gladwell tells his stories, ranging across millenia and continents, with all the verve of an inkjet printer battling its way through and across a low-resolution copy of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.