17776: Native Internet Art

An appreciation of our planet and what it means for humans to play in it.

At the beginning of this month, the U.S. sports website SBnation.com surprised its readers with an unexpected meditation on the game of (American) football. A piece titled ‘17776: What Football Will Look Like In The Future’ was posted to the site, alongside the usual results and recaps of recent baseball and basketball games. But when curious readers clicked on the headline, they were transported fifteen thousand years into the future, and billions of miles into deep space. Over the following weeks, new chapters to the story drew readers into writer Jon Bois’s appreciation of our planet and what it means for humans to play in it.

The characters in the world are very old, possibly immortal. They use their new-found longevity to play and watch long and complex games, usually based around what we 21st century denizens recognise as gridiron football. Several far-future nationwide football games are described, all with a lineage that can be traced back to those we watch today. But all the games a far more extreme and heightened, having evolved over millennia. Just as, with biological evolution, the essential components of a given animal order, family or genus are revealed as they become more pronounced, so those aspects American football that are at the core of the sport are revealed when the future-humans iterate it to a ridiculous degree.

Football's different things to different people. | see this kind of football, the open-world kind, as its end state. The old grid football, the hundred- yard kind, was basically just training wheels. The game was always all about the field, of course. The ground, the Earth. And it was kind of like,
A monologue by Ten, one of the extra-terrestrials
As well as the idea of play, Bois invites us to revel in the vastness and complexity of our planet, and the unique history of each patch of earth. In one particular sequence, I thought of the art of the Boyle Family, who pick random points on the globe and precisely reproduce the square metre of ground that they find there.
World Series
Two panels from the Boyle Family’s ‘World Series’ depicting studies of The Hague (left) and the Central Australian Desert. Installed at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2003
I wonder if there's a single place in the whole world that's never had a story. I bet not. I just about guarantee you there's no places like that in America. Every little square of it, every place you stomp your foot, that's where something happened. Something wild, maybe something nobody knows about, but something. You can fall out of the sky and right into some forgotten storybook.    -- recognized by
Another of Ten’s monologues
 
The format goes beyond what one might expect from a piece of online writing. It’s a collision of YouTube video animation, chat room text, and Google Earth renderings. One thought I had after reading a couple of chapters was that it should not be surprising that the format is surprising. Modern technology offers countless ways to render a narrative, and all Bois has done is to take a fairly well established format—a chat room script—and illustrate it with animations from a common online tool. It is not particularly radical, but the way we publish online (both the format of digital content, and it’s graphic design) has become so formulaic that even small and obvious departures from the norm suddenly feel innovative. In a Q&A, the author himself puts it very well:

I could go really, really long on this answer. I’ll keep it short: There are countless different ways to write, and things and ideas to write about. And the Internet offers a kaleidoscope of different formats, media, tools, sights, and sounds to tell your stories. And most of us are not even trying to scrape the surface of any of it. We’ve got to start thinking of the Internet as something more than a glow-in-the-dark newspaper.

On Facebook, a friend of mine writes:

it is such a brilliant piece of work, creative and touching and imaginative and smart, and it could only work here, in this medium. Is there anything else like that? I’m not sure.

There are precedents. First, in the Q&A, Bois cites Calvin and Hobbes as an influence on his writing. And there are moments in 17776 that feel exactly like Bill Watterson’s comic strip. In particular, the way in which the three narrators revel in the beauty of (in turn) the Earth, human endeavour and the game of American football, could easily be something Calvin comes out with on one of his meditative sledge rides.

Calvin and Hobbes, 9 November 1987. Bill Watterson

I think a better comparison than Calvin and Hobbes is with the xkcd web comic. If Jon Bois is not a fan of Randall Munroe’s twice-weekly panels, I’d be astonished. xkcd characters often manifest the same geeky wonder at creation that Ten, Juice and finally Nine profess in 17776.

But there is more: xkcd also regularly experiments with form too: 1446: ‘Landing’ and 1190: ‘Time’ are long form animation; while 1110: ‘Click and Drag’ is a 10 gigapixel image. 1416: ‘Pixels’ plays with the idea of fractals in order to sell us a book.

From the stories, I expected the world to be sad...
The first three panels from xkcd ‘Click and Drag’.

When ‘Click and Drag’ was first published, I wrote:

This is art that is native to the internet, and therefore still relatively rare. While most art we see online (photography, film, creative writing) can actually be viewed in other media (on a wall, in a book, on TV), this piece of art only works online. The clicking-and-dragging is inherent to experiencing of the art.

We can call 17776 ‘native’ internet art too, I think. The combination of text, GIFs and video only really work when read in a browser. I suppose it could be translated into a single YouTube video but that would be an act of adaptation, just as the ‘whole world’ images that xkcd fans have created of comic 1110 are an adaptation (and a spoiler) for the online version.

Projects like 17776 remind us that while the game of football may be old, the Internet is still a very new medium. It’s a delight to live in this moment of innovation, and to watch artists experiment within it.

I regret not being more experimental myself.

Mass Murder LOLs

Dressing up as a génocidaire is totally fine.

One striking aspect of the Star Wars behemoth is how the bad guys have become hip1.  The triangles and chevrons of the Darth Vader and Stormtrooper mask have become iconic in their way, and adorn T-shirts, rucksacks, pin-badges, and even baby clothes.

It therefore seems natural that one can buy Darth Vader and Stormtrooper outfits for your kids. Continue reading “Mass Murder LOLs”

Rhodes, Political Correctness and the Censorship of History

Is this censorship or merely curation?

You’re all aware of the controversy surrounding the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford University, right?

To recap: Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) was the colonialist, businessman and white supremacist whose career in Southern Africa had huge impact on the continent.  The celebrated Rhodes Scholarship programme at Oxford University was established by his estate. As such, there is a statue of him at Oriel College at Oxford.  Some current students are campaigning to have the statue removed on the grounds that Rhodes was a racist and not someone who should be glorified in stone.

This campaign is happening in a milieu of renewed debates about freedom of expression and decency at universities.  I am against ‘no platform’ policies,  and against the abuse of useful innovations such as Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings as a way to shut down offensive speech. Continue reading “Rhodes, Political Correctness and the Censorship of History”

Cinefilm Footage of the 2003 anti-war protests

I have just uploaded some digitised super 8mm cinefilm footage I took in 2003, of the anti-war demonstrations in London.

I sent the original reels to the producers of the We Are Many documentary. They have crowd-sourced footage of the biggest mobilisation of people in history. Sadly, my footage did not make it into the final cut (too much panning, maybe!?) but they provided me with the digitised footage anyway. I am making it available online under a Creative Commons Licence.

Watching the footage a decade after I took it, I am amused by how the vintage cinefilm adds an extra sheen of history to the images. Its also serendipitous that I received this footage back just as Instagram launched its video service. The quick cuts and grainy film in my clips are mirrored in the new content being produced today by social media enthusiasts. I was using Instagram Video before it was cool!

I am also reminded of these wonderful lines from Karo Kilfeather in her essay ‘The Art of Narcissism‘:

The impulse to create art is as powerful as any other thing that drives us because art connects us to experiences and to one another. Good is besides the point when the need behind it is to create something honest and true to the way we see the world. It’s not about realism. The vintage-tinted Instagram filters are derided for adding a nostalgic cast to the mundane, but what they do is allow users to share their world in the same emotional shades they see. The photo becomes not just a document of a moment, but a story told from a point of view.

This speaks to why I chose to document the protest with Super 8mm cine-film in the first place. The political mobilisation of early 2003 felt historic, and I wanted to convey that in my personal record of the day.

Papercuts and Curses

Last year I uploaded a collection of Victorian portrait photographs to a set entitled ‘Harriet Bennett’s Photo Album’. Swollen with the sharing spirit of the Internet, I gave the images a permissive Creative Commons Licience. My hope was that they might act as a prompt or support for other people’s creative projects.

Last year I uploaded a collection of Victorian portrait photographs to a set entitled ‘Harriet Bennett’s Photo Album‘.  Swollen with the sharing spirit of the Internet, I gave the images a permissive Creative Commons Licience.  My hope was that they might act as a prompt or support for other people’s creative projects.

The first instance of this hope being realised is ‘Papercuts and Curses‘ by Sam Meekings. It uses my scanned image of a young and now anonymous aquaintance of Harriet Bennett to illustrate a story about a young adventurer.  Sam begins his story with a liberating broadside against an old writing cliche:

The standard advice to those thinking of becoming writers is to write what you know. The fact that this is clearly the most ridiculous and restrictive piece of advice imaginable does not seem to put people off from repeating it again and again. Edward Gregory Charles was determined to follow it to the letter: with the pragmatism typical of the late nineteenth century, he made it his mission to fill up his mind with experiences.

Read the entire piece on Medium (Twitter founder Evan Williams‘ new project).

I would be delighted if other authors (on Medium or elsewhere) wrote stories based on other images in the Harriet Bennett collection.

The World of An Insignificant Woman

The World of an Insignificant Woman seemed like the perfect source material upon which to base a publishing project.

Over the past year, I’ve been working on a creative publishing challenge I set myself. It’s time to blog about it here and draw a line under the project.

A few years ago, my parents showed me a faded typed manuscript of a memoir, The World of an Insignificant Woman. It was written in the mid 1980’s by my grandfather’s sister, Catherine Thackray, about their parents and family. It is based in a large part on the handwritten memoirs and letters of my great-grandmother, Hilda Marjory Sharp (born 1882).

In recent years I’ve taken a particular interest in new forms of publishing. I drink in the columns of Cory Doctorow and the experiments of James Bridle (two London-based thinkers I have had the pleasure of meeting a few times, through English PEN and Free Word Centre activities). The potential of print-on-demand and eBook publishing is huge, and I had begun to think seriously about getting in on the micro-publishing action.

Continue reading “The World of An Insignificant Woman”

Technological Time Travellers

I’ve just started reading The Information by James Gleick (Fourth Estate). It is about the history of information, writing, and IT, and it won the English PEN Hessel-Tiltman Prize this year.

I was struck by a passage in the book, discussing ‘African Talking Drums’:

Before long, there were people for whom the path of communication technology had lept directly from the talking drum to the mobile phone, skipping over the intermediate stages.

This rang a few bells.  First, this nugget from Alain de Botton:

If technology is developing well, what was normal when you were a child should by now seem ridiculous.

Which seems to me to be a variation on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous suggestion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.  What’s interesting with regard to the African Talking Drums is that they are seen as a kind of primitive technology, even thought (as The Information explains) the language is so complex it appeared to be a form of magic to the white slavers, colonialists and anthropologists who heard them.

These technological leaps are interesting, I think, because so much of our culture is tied up in technological advancement.  It dictates what kind of jobs are necessary and profitable, of course, but also influences design.

I am reminded of Jason Kottke’s posts on Timeline Twins (for example, watching Back to the Future today is like watching Bridge on the River Kwai in 1985, because the gap is 27 years in both cases), and also Human Wormholes and The Great Span (for example, this old man who witnessed the Lincoln Assassination).

It also makes me think of my great-grandfather, who (along with everyone else of his particular generation, I suppose) was alive to hear the news of the Wright Brothers achieving powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and also to watch the Apollo landings on the moon from 1969-72.

Think finally of the uncontacted tribes of Puapa New Guinea and the Amazon, who must consider the aeroplanes that fly overhead to be magic.

Feminism Enabled Gay Marriage

Feminism enabled gay marriage, and that’s a good thing.

Last week we heard the Catholic bishops parroting the tired old line about marriage being “between a man and a woman”, and that the secular government was somehow redefining the concept for the rest of us. This argument sounds more and more pathetic every time I hear it.

Marriage has often been redefined! In the Old Testament we had polygamy, a practice that continues in many parts of the world to this day. When that fell out of favour, the bond of marriage was still very much a transaction in which the girl had no input. This practice, of a father arranging a marriage on his daughter’s behalf, is still very popular in many parts of the world and many British citizens still submit to it. The idea of romantic love leading to marriage is also a new innovation (at least, new when compared to the idea of marriage itself). Literature, from Tristan & Isolde, to Romeo & Juliet, to the Jane Austen œvre, is full of stories of romantic love colliding with the more traditional view of marriage as a financial arrangement.

Continue reading “Feminism Enabled Gay Marriage”

Lost Tribes and Human Nature

These uncontacted tribes are the nearest thing we habe to a tabula rasa, a mind unpolluted by the sensibilities and preconceptions of our infinitely connected world. And, untrained and unprepared for the moment, they win it.

I found this video, of an uncontacted tribe meeting a white man for the first time, utterly compelling.

I admit that the Enigma style sound-track (actually Yeha-Noha by Sacred Spirit, a new feature on YouTube helpfully reveals) helps churn the emotions.

But there is a beauty in the images, in the actions of the startled men and women on film. Initially, they are clearly shit-fucking scared. Although they are armed, and could have let loose an arrow into the explorer’s gullet at any moment, they do not give in to their fear. Curiosity is the more powerful emotion. They dare to touch the hand of the explorer and his cameraman. And crucially, they trust him enough to shake his hand, taste the salt, and take him to their village. For his part, the white explorer (film-maker Jean-Pierre Dutilleux) appears honest and sensitive, and the moment early on where he reaches out his hand is just sublime.

Its an imperfect experiment, but these uncontacted tribes are the nearest thing we habe to a tabula rasa, a mind unpolluted by the sensibilities and preconceptions of our infinitely connected world. And, untrained and unprepared for the moment, they win it. Its a blow to the idea that humankind is essentially destructive and violent, and that politics must essentially be about protecting ourselves from others, in the pursuit of self-interest.

The video is actually from 1978, but these tribes-people are totally outside of time and only Dutilleux’s short-shorts date the piece. But I came upon it because of a more contemporary campaign to help preserve uncontacted tribes in the Amazon Rainforests. There is a lot more fascinating imagery, and a petition to sign, at UncontactedTribes.org.