July 20, 2020

Poetry as Thoughtcrime


The Poetic Imperative in the Age of Surveillance

In returning to writing from curating, I find the absence of a unified theory of poetry distracting, especially in these dark times. I have “Architecture & Now” (my poem with Maurice Shapero’s architectural drawings) coming out shortly and my hybrid-poetry collection “Dyer & Mahfouz” is rapidly taking shape, but a theoretical framework is missing. Thus, I am preparing just that: “Poetry as Thoughtcrime”. This aims to examine the huge existential problem facing contemporary writing and includes my manifesto for what to do about it. The analysis flows from the curatorial practice developed in the Text Festivals from 2005 to 2014. After that, I was creatively focused on the projects in China, which took my attention away from theoretical and practical next steps that should follow from the Text. In retrospect, this post-Text hiatus gave me a parallax view and distance from which my vision for the future could mature.

The full analysis will be available soon as a publication, but with the request from Synapse for an extract, and the near apocalyptic turn of world events in 2020, it feels imperative to offer some form of the new thinking. The starting point for any analysis of future direction has to acknowledge the backdrop of the crises of Late Capitalism, Brexit, Trump, and of course the big one, climate catastrophe; in this truncated disaster timescape, the hope that the post-virus world will be a brighter future already looks delusional; indeed, though I have referenced capitalism as the evil, there are credible arguments that it has already been replaced by an economic system that is even worse .
When Mark Fisher bleakly observed “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” you sort of optimistically imagine that he meant capitalism being ended with something better. Anyway, increasingly the massive crisis of the pandemic and capitalism’s responsibility and response continues to fit my initial analysis of the dangers we face as humans, and specifically, the challenge for writers isn’t materially changed.

My analysis does have an implicit fatalism – the longer version of this essay investigates the implication of writing in the countdown to extinction.

My project then will be as follows: as with all manifestos, the opening essay (a taster for which this is) is an analysis for the scale of the dangers we face – ‘Poetry as Thoughtcrime’. This is followed by a Manifesto, which posits an imperative direction for writing, and, more specifically, a unified theory for poetry in this age of multiple global crisis. In support of this statement and proposal, there are a series of related essays examining the implications for literary production which include a new vision for internationalism, a recognition of the inadequacy of Conceptual Poetry to meet the challenges, the poetic space within Post-Truth and the distractions/implications of dominant tropes in popular culture.

There are two ‘problems’ writers no longer have. From Albert Camus “A writer writes to a great extent to be read (as for those who say they don’t, let us admire them but not believe them).” And from Derek Beaulieu - “Don’t protect your artwork. Give it away. Trust your audience. Be your own pirate.” We have entered the age when everything is read and you don’t have to give your artwork away, because it is taken at the moment of conception. In fact, more than that, writing will soon be heteronomically manipulated in advance of its creation. In this regard, as the conceptualist writers argue, writers will not be the special category which they have claimed for themselves, as we progress into the end of Personhood.

In the full essay, I expand on the threats to Personhood (“You”) through three dynamic appropriations: commodification of consciousness, addictive attention sequestration and behaviour manipulation. For the sake of brevity here, I will just touch on some of the main sources of analysis. Shoshana Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ articulates the final stage of capitalism where humans themselves are the commodity, humans are ‘farmed’:
“Surveillance capitalism migrated to Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon – and became the default option in most of the tech sector. It now advances across the economy from insurance, to retail, finance, health, education and more, including every “smart” product and “personalised” service.” … “Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data … fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later”. So “Computer-based personality judgements are more accurate than those made by humans” - Facebook knows you better than members of your own family do. “The team found that their software was able to predict a study participant’s personality more accurately than a work colleague by analysing just 10 ‘likes’’; and “Belgian police now say that the Facebook is using ‘likes’ as a way of collecting information about people and deciding how best to advertise to them. As such, it has warned people that they should avoid using the buttons if they want to preserve their privacy” (Andrew Griffin, the Independent). With personal data becoming the world’s most valuable commodity, the best analogy I’ve seen comes from Digital Ethicist Tristan Harris where he likens the digital model of you to a voodoo doll. Every action you take, real or digital, updates a more perfect copy of you which can then be used to predict what you will think, do or consume next, but more than that it can be tested, digital ‘pins’ can be poked into it to see how the real you will react to stimulus, and building on that, can be used to alter you. Algorithms are developing in ways that allow companies to profit from our past, present, and future behaviour – or what Shoshana Zuboff describes as our “behavioural surplus.”

You’ve already heard this. You know that your data is farmed. You know governments sell citizens’ records to the private sector. You know that facial recognition and location technologies have started following you – you’ve seen it on TV from China, cameras that identify citizens crossing the road wrong, etc. Every time you upload a photo, every time you download an app that makes an comic avatar of you or turns your selfie into a Renaissance style painting, or shows what you’d look like if you were a different gender, etc, you give more of yourself away, and make the software better at recognising everybody else.
Even more extreme Microsoft were, until recently exposed, working with the Israelis on implant technology for children; and under cover of the pandemic the transnational digital passport system ID2020 is actively being promoted, which will be able to restrict movement on the basis of your health status. It’s no coincidence that American police departments are using Covid Tracking Apps to identify Black Lives Matter protestors. “The internet is, in its essence, a machine of surveillance. It divides the flow of data into small, traceable, and reversible operations, thus exposing every user to surveillance”, writes Boris Groys.

Predictive data will tune and herd our behaviour towards the most profitable outcomes. It is not enough to automate information about us; we need to be consumable consumers. As one data scientist observed: “We can engineer the context around a particular behaviour, and force change that way … We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.”  Herbert Marcuse wrote in One Dimensional Man “The music of the soul is also the music of salesmanship. Exchange value, not truth value counts. On it centres the rationality of the status quo, and all alien rationality is bent to it.”
The final step will be AI. One might imagine that AI research is driven by the spirit of philosophic or scientific enquiry, but fundamentally it is business driven: AI, when successful, will be able to work faster, cheaper and beyond the limits of labour laws. With human factory labour already replaced, companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook have the automation of white-collar jobs directly within their sights. “It is no surprise that the idea of creative machines is coterminous with the ascent of platform capitalism. Art is among the last problems for which a human is still the best solution. No ruling class can exist without an appeal to the aesthetic, as almost any page from art history will show. To administer the aesthetic – to control the terms of what counts as an image, or what constitutes art – is to rule both the mind and the body, to influence the whole sensate world of human emotion and expression.” Mike Pepi (Frieze).

The world has become more digital in response to the Covid19 lockdowns, so the dynamics of control and subsummation are magnified. You may think that this is over-egging the threat of Surveillance and even that this is a First World anxiety, but the combination of corporate capitalism, rapidly expanding dictatorships and controlling propensity of neoliberal-fascist government, there are numerous examples of not only the dangerous direction of travel but significant inhuman initiatives. Orwell’s prediction - “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull” will be surpassed very soon when that few centimetres has gone too. 
This is not a luddite rejection of the digital, we can only live in now, the 21st Century. But facing a more voracious form of capitalism: how can artists respond? Artists responses to surveillance hegemony fall into 3 categories (ignoring the blind innocents farmed as human cattle):

Lamentation - “the Internet, completely and unreflectively subject to market processes and dedicated to monopolists, controls gigantic quantities of data used not at all pansophically, for the broader access to information, but on the contrary, serving above all to program the behaviour of users, as we learned after the Cambridge Analytica affair. Instead of hearing the harmony of the world, we have heard a cacophony of sounds, an unbearable static in which we try, in despair, to pick up on some quieter melody, even the weakest beat.” Olga Tokarczuk (Nobel Lecture)
Compromised Embrace - There are writers, certainly within the Uncreative/Conceptual movement who piratically celebrate the ‘creative’ utility of technology, the prospect of AI creativity, the literate viruses etc, etc., but in the context of this consciousness Final Solution, their commitment is reminiscent of  Buddhist Monks willing to self-immolate: they prove their absolute belief; you can be impressed with their rigour and their faith but you have considerable doubt that they will be reborn in their next life. Notwithstanding this zeal and accepting that conceptual literary techniques will have a place in the way forward I will propose, we can also accept that there will be writers and readers who will choose subsummation.
Subversion – There are many technology critical artists mostly reliant on guerrilla or subversive utilisation of digital tools – a good example is Pip Thornton’s ground-breaking critiquing of linguistic capitalism using the system algorithms themselves to question the appropriation of value.

I contend that these strategies ultimately fail to free human creativity. None of them address the scale of the threat and will be subsumed by it. So where does poetry come in? Without Romanticism or wishful thinking, how is poetry answer to be all-consuming capitalist behemoth? After all, if you look at the canonical moments when poetry is addressed seriously, it doesn’t generally measure up. Everyone’s first thought, of course: Plato bans it from the Republic; and the go-to in times of totalitarian threat, George Orwell is even less enthusiastic: “There can be no doubt that in our civilization poetry is by far the most discredited of the arts, the only art, indeed, in which the average man refuses to discern any value. Arnold Bennett was hardly exaggerating when he said that in the English-speaking countries the word ‘poetry’ would disperse a crowd quicker than a fire-hose.”  Interestingly though, Orwell soften his dismissal of poetry in the context of the totalitarian: “Poetry might survive, in a totalitarian age, and certain arts or half-arts, such as architecture, might even find tyranny beneficial,” and “It follows that the atmosphere of totalitarianism is deadly to any kind of prose writer, though a poet … might possible find it breathable.” Maybe his observation of discredit becomes a utility: “It is not certain whether the effects of totalitarianism upon verse need be so deadly as its effect on prose … To begin with, bureaucrats and other ‘practical’ men usually despise the poet too deeply to be much interested in what he is saying…It is therefore fairly easy for a poet to keep away from dangerous subjects and avoid uttering heresies: and even when he does utter them, they may escape notice”.  It would be a pretty lame revolutionary claim to posit irrelevance and inefficacy as the resistance space against Surveillance Capitalist. However, these ‘weaknesses’ have the strength in the context of the commodification of Personhood of being an agency with intrinsically no value. As Guy Debord observed: “Poetry is becoming more and more clearly the empty space, the antimatter, of consumer society, since it is not consumable”. So, in this historic moment of crisis, where the omniscient god they have created turns to consumption of us, its flock - Poetry is thoughtcrime. But how do you commit that crime? There are already programmes that create artificial poetry. So, poetry as thoughtcrime must take a specific resistance form: I will lay out what that is in the second (Manifesto) essay.

June 22, 2020

Conjugating The Verb ‘To Say Something About Extinction’


This week the Arctic Circle reached the highest temperature ever recorded. We are rapidly approaching, if we haven't already passed, the point where the evidence for climate change is the evidence for extinction. This is my contribution from my forthcoming collection Dyer & Mahfouz.


Conjugating The Verb ‘To Say Something About Extinction’


Clapping for Capitalists with Children. Quasicrystalline mannered 
Between the amorphous poset of the dead and completely dead.
Young birds fly from the nest or fall like discarded beer cans, late 
night pizza boxes, young detritus. Tiny delicate birds decathect
With or without us, profitcunts bijective to deathcunts reboot
exciting joy at new products - a false antecedent and a false 
consequent atmosphere overloaded with the vertical electric 
charge in the planetary boundary layer of aerosol particles. A
picture – foot-stamping won’t help, you can’t swim in your boots.
The extreme separation anxiety of our anomalous atmosphere,
Decaying as ignoble gas; maybe, we weren’t supposed to make it.

Wealth can provide independence of mind. Wealth 
affords one a position of natural leadership and trust. 
Wealth enables one to live more healthfully, with fewer of 
the




January 28, 2020

Brexit Poem

As Brexit is upon us, I think now is a good time for the Brexit poem, extracted from my collection in progress 'Dyer':


Terms & Conditions


Is there no question about my relationship to an auxetic good 
rejected? Lossless compression, intropunitive to distract 
from a lifetime’s facial recognition, as a practical matter
To both appellant cases of a rules-based system,
To storms in the guise of good, contrary to the season’s darkness,
our fugal rebirths past the revenge of deathcunts, the fading light
not far from this maladroit crowd's ignoble strife rehearses
echo bone crepitus.





October 04, 2019

Leaving Bury

Is there a certain symmetry in the coincidence that my first module of study at Loughborough Art College (back in 1980) was the History of Architecture and the last exhibition I curated in Bury was ‘Architecture Now’? Probably not. Although not widely shared, my health, especially last year, was not so good and so I have decided that now is the time to move on from Bury after 26 years. I will finish at Christmas, but I have no more shows or commissions in the curatorial pipeline, so there you have it, Architecture was my last Bury show. Thanks to Sarah Hardacre and Maurice Shapero for making the last show a pleasure to curate.
I think I can leave Bury satisfied with my achievements. 
Although I came up with the proposal for the Irwell Sculpture Trail in 1993, 

I conceived it in its full form when I arrived in Bury and proceeded to bid for £2.4 million from the National Lottery - at the time the biggest lottery award in the UK. In 25+ years I have worked on more public art commissions than I can remember. The first commission Logarythms (now long gone), by Pauline Holmes and the last was Graham Ibbeson's memorial statue to Victoria Wood unveiled in May this year. In between there have been commissions by Ulrich Rückriem, Lawrence Weiner and Maurizio Nannucci


Ed Allington’s titled vase was threatened with an oppositional 500 signature petition before it was even installed in 1997 and this year, as I leave, the local campaign has been for it to be restored as a much-loved Ramsbottom landmark.

I commissioned Ron Silliman's first (and as far as I know only) public artwork in 2011.
 


The 2016 installation of Auke de Vries' magnificent space-capturing sculpture at Burrs Country Park is last commission about which I am personally very proud to have facilitated into the world.

 
I’ve lost count of how many exhibitions I’ve curated. Before ‘Architecture Now’ I curated ‘Foreigners’ of which I was mighty proud. I was also responsible for the first ever exhibition of the Moomins in Britain. I led the refurbishment of Bury Museum, the creation of the Bury creative studios and the creation of the Sculpture Centre in 2014.  
 In 2012, I conceived a different way to organise international exhibition touring and subsequently led a 6-venue ground-breaking tour of the History of British Art across China. Until my health started playing up this visionary stuff and expertise developed in China led to regular presentations on the global conference circuit, getting me speaking gigs around the world from Taipei to Tokyo, Dusseldorf to Beijing, Siena to Chengdu, Seoul to Banya Luka.

I never tired of the commentary from Art Monthly about my other great achievement, the Text Festival: “According to Foucault, the singularities that serve to rupture and renew normative discourse always emerge from the interstices – in other words, where nobody is looking. Almost certainly nobody was looking in the direction of Bury for the emergence of this significant project…”. I originated, programmed and curated Text Festivals in 2005, 2009, 2011, and 2014.
 Through these ground-breaking moments, I have curated more than 30 exhibitions, commissioned numerous new works, gallery based and public art, publications and performances. It was important too for me that I facilitated creative collaborations and friendships connecting vispo, conceptual, sound, digital, sculptural, literary practitioners across the world and I think those relationships may be the long-term legacy of all the work. Funnily enough as the curator, I have rarely been in a position to participate as an artist in the dialogues beyond the Text, so I look forward to the opportunity of being free from my institutional position. The Text Festival also leaves a legacy of the Text Archive, including text works from all over the world, with the subset of one of the biggest collections of works by Bob Grenier. 


Although I've curated loads of festivals across artforms, my main regrets are that I didn't get to create the contemporary music/sound art festival I really wanted to; and I was just about to launch a new concept called 'The Radical Museum', but that coincided with my health packing in. I guess someone could still invite me to develop this somewhere, but the museum world is notoriously timorous so that won't happen. It feels like I've done a lot and I can leave proud of what I achieved; I thought I’d feel more let down about all the other projects I proposed but that were blocked, such as the John Pawson designed Ulrich Rückriem marketmuseum proposal in Radcliffe or a visionary globe-shifting approach to culture opening up of the UK-China Silk Road, but now I’m leaving, it doesn’t matter so much now.
Parallel to all this art malarkey, I wrote 5 books of poetry, Vertigo, 50 Heads (pdf available here), Reykjavik, The Soldier Who Died for Perspective and The End of Poetry. I’ve also exhibited my text works in various galleries from Reykjavik to Melbourne. So, retirement from Bury means an excited return to my personal projects. In the first instance, I will be writing a new theory of Poetics, finish my first poetry collection (Dyer) since 2010; and publish a collaboration with Maurice Shapero investigating poetic and architectural space/form/ideas. There’s also a couple of novels knocking around which won’t write themselves.


February 24, 2019

Architecture Now

Due to illness, it's two years since I curated a show. So it's quite exciting to work on the forthcoming 'Architecture Now' show, opening at 2pm on Saturday 9th March at Bury Sculpture Centre. Originally, I started working on this as a response to the appallingly poor quality of new 'architecture' in Manchester (about which I will write in another blog after the show opens). But I quickly rejected the idea of a polemic show in favour of something more about architectural thinking as art. So the show blurb reads: 
'Throughout history, architecture has been the creative form most closely entwined with symbols of power. In a society where building is mostly profit driven, architects create our living environment and work to accommodate this imperative. Faced with challenges of climate change to failing public housing, the tension between good architecture and bad building has never been starker. Globally there is new energy emerging in community place making and creative green solutions, can architecture respond to the challenge?'
‘Architecture Now’ features installations by Manchester architect Maurice Shapero and feminist printmaker Sarah Hardacre noted for her work investigating class and women’s experience of the built environment.

Exhibition runs 9th March to 29th June.

July 06, 2018

On returning home

Family issues have required me to return to the Isle of Man, where I lived from 1966-1979. It has changed a lot but still has a geography of memory and poetry....

Ersatz Memphis

Your old school only with extensions, of stiff joints, 
Smeared and running down, draining, creaking gulls, salt grime 
sticky, blown dry, of corrosion to that pretender syndrome. 
Newness equals something quintessential like the early eighties - 
ersatz Memphis 
Of a bad idea bankrupt in poor locations, dregs. Sacrificing First 
Nation hate sanded & mouldering to resentment that corporal 
arrogance aspires only to commissioner syndrome. But linger
Nice skies and fresh air and concrete of pebbles and small stones 
cracking and damp 
With salt
Memories 
   like the Latin for ‘flying buttress’ 
   Normal distribution is to American churches as vinyl
   over slate and stone is to Old haunts – 
there and gone with scaffolding in beautiful geometry with only
Spring further on.
 

April 01, 2018

Gaza

It's not much in the horrific circumstances of 16 Palestinians killed and more than 1400 injured yesterday, but I thought I'd republish my 2005 poem 'Israel': 


0. homotopy equates to autoimmune disorder:
to transform every figure into a Compendious Book on Guernica
by incidence and effects enshrine pernicious anemia around anthropic argument:
verb sensitive to assumption reports exogenous acts of God – operations
run their inquisition. All the texts submitted and accumulate authority
to help run their Inquisition moving a negative quantity
from one side of the equation to the other side
with changing its commutation all the same. These so irretrievable.
The overstaid fraction, so irretrievable, overstaid, auxetic, coloured by pungent ahistoricism; unsettling sonorities webbed over the other ideas report adverse events
and deterred from becoming expert witnesses no human conjecture is involved,
a physical transportation, curfewed to prove its own consistency
to a basic telomere assumption, without realising inverse geometry penetrates both ways, blood poisoning on statistics, with fanatical odds,
analogy admonition against misinterpretation, restoration and uncompensation.
With significant outside support apostasy equals the pun of impenetrability
according to looking at this dead baby.
The underachiever anomaly applies even with the Name change
where it is the last word in law: 1